Source: DonkeyHotey on Flickr
Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices
deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope,
by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
– Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)
In Thursday nights vice presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan were asked the following question by moderator Martha Raddatz: “I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.” Raddatz’s insistence that Biden and Ryan reflect on the issue from a religious perspective may have been misplaced, but both candidates quickly got to the heart of the issue.
After briefly stating that “I believe that life begins at conception,” Ryan reoriented himself, and delivered the following response to Raddatz’s question: “Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.” Ryan’s response represented a marked shift from his previous positions on abortion, and reflected the fact that, after being selected as the vice-presidential nominee, Ryan was required to quell his voting record and obscure his personal beliefs to bring his position more in line with the Romney campaign.
Ryan’s personal views on abortion, however, flank Mitt Romney’s position to the Right. Based on his congressional voting record, Paul Ryan is the most conservative Congressional Republican to be the vice-presidential nominee since 1900. DW-Nominate, for example, evaluates Ryan as being roughly as conservative as Michele Bachmann. Consistent with this evaluation, Ryan has developed a staunch anti-abortion record in Congress that has earned him 100% ratings from anti-abortion groups and 0% ratings from abortion-rights organizations. Ryan has repeatedly stated that he does not support abortion rights in the case of rape and incest (only to save the life of the mother), and has supported a national “personhood” bill that would confer legal rights to the fetus (and thus potentially ban all abortions). “You’re never going to have a truce,” Ryan told the conservative Weekly Standard in September 2010, “I’m never going to not vote pro-life.”
Joe Biden, in his answer to Raddatz’s question, noted that he accepted the Catholic churches teaching that life begins at conception, but was adamant that it was not the federal government’s responsibility to “impose that [ideology] on others.” Biden further noted that he “do[es] not believe that we have a right to tell . . . women they can’t control their body.”The question Raddatz asked of the candidates was directed at the issue of abortion rights. But the candidates responses cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. Ryan’s personal views on abortion, and the Romney/Ryan ticket’s insistence that Roe v. Wade be overturned, has broader implications for women’s health care rights (e.g., access to contraception). Just as important, however, is the potentially devastating affect such a stance will have on scientific research. In particular, such a stance could eliminate federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).
This is not idle political banter. In order to isolate embryonic stem cells in culture, scientists must disrupt the associate between the inner cell mass and the trophoblast of a fertilized egg, and because of this procedure, the remaining embryonic stem cells cannot develop into an embryo. This, opponents of hESC research argue, is akin to murder and render the process immoral – a position that closely tracks the traditional arguments in opposition to abortion.
By seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, and by promoting “personhood” for embryos, a Romney/Ryan administration could therefore spell the end of federal funding for hESC research. Indeed, even though Mitt Romney supported federal embryonic stem cell research as Governor of Massachusetts, he now condemns it on his campaign website: “American cannot condone or participate in the creation of human life when the sole purpose of its creation is its sure destruction.” In addition, the official 2012 Republican party platform flatly condemns hESC research: “We urge a ban on human cloning and the creation of or experimentation on human embryos.”
In stark contrast, the Obama administration made a decision early into Obama’s presidency to support ethically responsible hESC research. This decision represented an attempt to economize moral disagreement while at the same time supporting important scientific research. If their rhetoric, and the Republican party’s history on the issue, means anything, such would not be the approach of a Romney/Ryan administration.
There are significant technical hurdles to hESC research, and serious ethical concerns that go beyond the status of the human embryo. But none of these issues justify an outright prohibition of hESC research. American governmental policy, therefore, must continue to stake the middle ground. (This will be a topic of a future post).
When you hear Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan speak of abortion, never forget that there are deeper issues at play, and ask yourself which type of government you prefer. One that imposes a rigid, narrow ideology on an increasingly diverse populace. Or one that seeks to find reasonable compromise amidst competing values.