I’m totally cool with Joe Biden’s personal belief that life begins at conception. It’s a view that makes sense, morally and scientifically, to a lot of people. I personally think it’s more accurate to say that fertilization is a pivotal moment in the long arc of the biological development of any individual human being – at least for the fertilized eggs that will eventually develop into people, which are the minority – but "conception" is as good a starting point as any.
But here’s the problem: The fact that a collection of cells starts to develop when that sperm hits the egg doesn’t make that collection of cells a person, or the moral equivalent of a born human being. I think most people would agree – an acorn is not a tree, a seed is not a plant, and a zygote is not a person, even if a seed is a necessary precursor to a plant and a zygote is a necessary precursor to a person. The fact that about half of fertilized eggs don’t implant – ending the potential development of those early "lives" – coupled with the fact that there is no "pro-life" concern for all those billions of fertilized egg-deaths belies the idea that pro-lifers really believe a zygote is the moral equivalent of a born human being. The anti-choice view has always been more about controlling women and controlling sex than saving lives.
Which is why it’s very disconcerting to hear the Democratic vice presidential nominee adopting right-wing talking points about abortion. We shouldn’t have to care where Joe Biden or any other politician believes life begins, because that belief shouldn’t influence policy (luckily, Joe Biden agrees, and won’t be letting his religious views influence what’s best for a pluralistic society – h/t to Alex in the comments).
But too often politicians’ religious beliefs do influence policy – much more so on the right than on the left, but interviewers nevertheless focus on religion because it’s somehow widely accepted that an individual’s faith should guide decisions that impact a religiously diverse nation (how well has that worked out for us?). So you don’t just get Joe Biden asked about when life begins – on Meet the Press – but you get Barack Obama being interviewed by Rev. Rick Warren at Saddleback Church. And then you get follow-up questions on ABC.
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Obama’s answer wasn’t bad, although I do wish he had mentioned that Democrats try to prevent unwanted pregnant before it happens, as opposed to Republicans who oppose even basic birth control:
"What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue," Mr. Obama continued, "that it’s one that families struggle with all the time, and that in wrestling with those issues, I don’t think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions. I think the better answer – and this was reflected in the Democratic platform – is to figure out, how do we make sure that young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that’s unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child."
But I’m glad he highlighted the fact that Dems try to make it easier for women to choose to have children if they want them. That’s what the conversation should be about: What policies are politicians going to promote? What kinds of political solutions are being proposed by both parties?
Instead, we’re stuck talking about when Joe Biden thinks life begins. And he’s making the mistake of trying to appease the moderate and anti-choice vote by talking about conception and faith, instead of standing up for the very good and very moral position of the Democratic party: Give people the tools to determine for themselves the number and spacing of their children. Decrease the abortion rate through contraception and education. Give women a full range of choices by making childbirth and parenthood realistic possibilities. And leave it up to women to decide whether or not they carry a pregnancy to term.
That is a solution that appeals to moderates and self-identified pro-lifers a whole lot more than "Tell people not to have sex. Don’t give them education or contraception. Make abortion a crime," which is basically the Republican platform. And yet we’re still adopting their frame when talking about this issue.
If the Obama/Biden ticket is serious about change, this is a pretty good place to start.