Virginia's larger problem is not just theirs alone

Gene Blair

Barely into 2019, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia found himself wading into two sticky controversies. One was his medical school yearbook with racially-charged photos. After his fumbling explanation, both political parties are calling for his resignation – and others. Lost in the racial dustup is the other immediate prior problem, the governor’s commentary on pending legislation in the Virginia House.

This legislation would relax restrictions on abortion to allow the fetus to be aborted right up until the time of delivery. Yet unbelievably the governor’s response during an interview seemed to extend the abortion process even after birth, as he spoke of doctor and parents conferring while the new baby was kept “comfortable.” Once the baby is born, abortion is irrelevant. Action to end an infant’s life after birth is called infanticide. No politician before had addressed this “third rail” of the abortion discussion.

The bill did not pass; however, things are indeed changing. The New York General Assembly passed the Reproductive Health Act which allows abortion under certain circumstances in the third trimester, when the fetus becomes viable outside the womb. Inexplicably, the bill’s passage was touted by New York’s governor to the loud applause of legislators, and the World Trade Center was lit up in pink. Something to celebrate?

During the Kavanaugh hearings, senators from one party went to great lengths to exclude a pro-life Catholic justice from the high court, their actions apparently born of pathological fear that Roe v. Wade might someday be overturned by his vote.

Increasingly, it’s becoming a liability to possess a belief system that informs one’s decision-making, as it was with this Catholic candidate for the Supreme Court. Elsewhere, Senators Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris, questioning District Court judge nominee Brian Buescher, challenged his suitability for the bench due to membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable group.  He was asked, “If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?” Resign from a charity, really?

Senator Dianne Feinstein commented at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider Notre Dame (and Catholic) law professor Amy Coney Barrett, nominee to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals:

Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that's of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.

And Jack Kennedy thought he had settled the Catholic issue. In the minds of several of his party’s senators today, people of faith who advocate for the right to life of the unborn are unable to make sound legal and policy decisions, incapacitated by their own religious beliefs. That would include quite a few folks.

Contrariwise, if one is untethered to “religious beliefs,” almost any view of human life is possible. Elimination of questionable life was not only suggested but efficiently implemented by the Nazis in Germany, as they targeted for extinction Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the physically handicapped – not “real people.” Infanticide was practiced by the civilized culture of the ancient Romans, who allowed unwanted infants to die of exposure. But that was then. Infanticide is unthinkable nowadays. Or is it?

Princeton professor and ethicist Peter Singer in 1993 suggested that no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth, and that the attending physician should kill some disabled babies on the spot. Years earlier he had written “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons,” therefore “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

Singer espoused “functionalism,” which says that what defines human persons is what they can and cannot do, i.e., are they useful? American University Professor Jeffrey Reiman asserts that infants are not persons with a right to life and that “there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants.”

Key questions such as “when does life begin” and “when a is life viable outside the womb” are normally determinants of appropriate acts concerning the unborn. However, these questions seem irrelevant once we blur the line between abortion and infanticide. It has been suggested that in instances where life “might” exist, it’s simply best to err on the side of caution.

Is the next logical step child euthanasia? Impossible, you say. In 2014 Belgium amended its euthanasia law to allow doctors to legally end the life of a terminally ill child, however young, who makes the request. This is not just letting nature take its course, but active intervention resulting in death.

Where does that leave us in this country? Divided, obviously. Some view abortion as homicide, the taking of a human life. They note that a heartbeat is detectable in four weeks, and all organs in place in eight weeks. Some allow for exceptions, such as rape, incest, or the health of the mother (i.e., justifiable homicide). Others say no exceptions are valid, since in no case is the child responsible for the circumstances of his/her own conception – an indisputable fact. Both pro-life factions value life inside the womb as the equivalent of life after birth.

Still others view giving birth as the sole prerogative of the mother; she can say yes or no and her word is final. The possibility of life existing or ceasing to exist as a result of her decision is secondary to her right to choose to abort or not to. So, there is a vast gulf between opposing viewpoints, with no likely middle ground.

There seems to have been a progression in the argument against the rights of the fetus. Contraception (introduced long ago) moved to early term abortion, on to rare instances of later term abortion, then to abortion on demand up to birth, now to entertaining infanticide and child euthanasia, as we follow this proverbial slippery slope. Wouldn’t the better course be to err on the cautious side when a life or even a possible life is involved, and halt this progression?

Increasingly, faith-based arguments against abortion are attributed to uninformed dogmatic non-mainstream religious fanatics. The messenger is attacked along with the pro-life message, both deemed irrelevant to today’s cultural worldview. Illustrative of this perspective are more frequent organized attempts to keep individuals who admit to a faith-based philosophy out of office or their organizations tied up in court.

Interestingly, one can find people of faith on all sides of this issue. Perhaps faith informs different people in different ways. Perhaps it’s another case of stereotyping and ostracizing whole groups of people (as were the Jews) while disregarding the characteristics that make them and us the unique human beings we are.

In order to appreciate the things that make us unique, we must exist. To exist we must first be born. There are those who value life, and accord the rights of the living to the yet unborn. For those who do not, or are not sure, couldn’t we just agree to err on the side of caution?

Gene G. Blair has been a resident of Huntsville for 39 years. He is retired from the Criminal Justice Center at SHSU, and is also retired from the U.S. Army. He is a member of the Executive Board of CASA of Walker, San Jacinto, and Trinity counties.