Watching Barack Obama and John McCain handle pastor Rick Warren's questions about abortion, you could see the whole presidential race in miniature taking shape before our eyes. The clear answer beats the clever one any time ... unless you worry about the chaos that clarity can bring.
Before a friendly but still skeptical Evangelical crowd at Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., on Saturday night, McCain won a roar of approval when Warren asked him at what point a human being gets human rights: "At the moment of conception," McCain replied. The answer was clear, unequivocal and a great relief to restless Republicans who had endured a week of indigestion on the issue. Murmurs that McCain was flirting with a pro-choice running mate like former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman had Rush Limbaugh and his army in full stampede. "The fur is going to fly on this one," Limbaugh warned about the prospect of McCain taking social conservatives for granted.
McCain's straightforward answer, along with his assertion that he would not have nominated any of the Supreme Court's four liberal judges (notwithstanding that he voted to confirm all but John Paul Stevens, who was named before McCain was in the Senate), had social conservatives breathing sighs of relief. "I will be a pro-life president, and this presidency will have pro-life policies," McCain said to cheers from the audience. "O.K.," Warren said, laughing. "We don't have to go longer on that one."
Meanwhile, Obama offered an artful dodge to the question of when a human deserves rights. "Whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade," he said. Like many of his responses that night, it was a long, careful, nuanced plowing of middle ground. He did not suggest that the only rights that matter are a woman's over her body. He also affirmed his moral dimensions of the issue: he noted his willingness to limit late-term abortions, provided there is an exception if a woman's health is at risk; and he talked about finding the resources to help women who choose to keep their baby, and about trying to reduce the need for abortions in the first place. It reflected the careful effort Obama has made to reach out to the ambivalent middle, which is reflected in a Democratic Party platform that unequivocally defends the right to legal abortion but also calls for better access to contraception and comprehensive sex education. This is classic "common ground" language designed to break with past orthodoxy and reach out to independents who don't much like abortion but who don't want doctors and patients being carted off to jail for performing or having them.
Which is why McCain's much cleaner answer may come back to haunt him. It's not just that a majority of Americans favor at least limited access to legal abortion. (I've seen polls suggesting that a substantial minority of Americans thinks McCain himself is pro-choice, which is a natural mistake given his maverick image. Will independents like him less when they learn more?) McCain's construction that life begins "at the moment of conception" opens a whole new set of questions. There is a world of mystery in what transpires between the moment when egg meets sperm and the point of implantation, when that fertilized egg nestles into the uterus and begins to grow.
McCain's position has the great virtue of simplicity: a unique set of chromosomes, having been assembled, has the potential to grow into a unique human being, assuming circumstances permit. As many as half of fertilized eggs naturally miscarry, usually before the prospective mother even knows she was pregnant. But there is a roiling debate over what factors might also affect implantation, with implications for everything from fertility treatment and contraception to criminal law and human rights. I wonder if McCain knows how deeply into troubled waters he has waded.
Consider the obvious implications if rights attain the moment the egg and sperm meet: all kinds of embryo research become questionable, starting with the stem-cell research McCain says he favors. Couples who undergo in vitro fertilization and then choose not to implant all the embryos are surely violating the rights of those that are discarded or frozen. Some forms of contraception, such as IUDs and the morning-after pill, would presumably be illegal if they affect the ability of an egg to implant. Abortion opponents contend that the birth control pill itself, while designed to prevent ovulation so no egg is fertilized in the first place, may also have the effect of blocking implantation of any egg that sneaks through. Suddenly, a whole range of reproductive choices comes into question.
The eternal battle over when life, and rights, begin has been playing out this summer on the blog of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who sought comments on a proposed regulation to refuse federal funds to any hospital or clinic that didn't respect the "conscience" of its workers. This refers to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others who refuse to perform abortions or prescribe drugs like Plan B, which they view as equivalent to abortion. By defining abortion so broadly, as "any of the various procedures including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action that results in the termination of life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation," the regulation set off a firestorm from reproductive rights groups and members of Congress. Slate's William Saletan brilliantly toured the implications in a "letter" to Leavitt, noting that by the same logic, the government should be outlawing breast-feeding (which by affecting a woman's hormones interferes with ovulation and, in theory, implantation), not to mention drinking coffee (can increase the chance of miscarriage), riding horseback (same) or exercising in general.
Four years ago, President George W. Bush was able largely to avoid trudging through this treacherous ground because he had the confidence of his base (this despite a grandfather who served as a Planned Parenthood treasurer and a wife who told Katie Couric she didn't think Roe should be overturned). He talked about promoting a "culture of life" but didn't get down in the weeds about when exactly that life started. McCain enjoys no such benefit of the doubt, and so he had to offer blunt reassurance. But his construction of human rights beginning "at the moment of conception," while theoretically clean, is a practical mess. It throws the entire weight of argument onto one side of the scale; a woman, whose womb and RNA are essential to the development of a fertilized egg, would be obliged to do nothing that could even inadvertently interfere with the progression from zygote to newborn. This would have, among other effects, such immense impact on access to contraception that it would all but guarantee an increase in unwanted pregnancies and the abortions that McCain opposes. I suppose this counts as definitive leadership; I just wonder if McCain's definition takes him in the direction he really wants to go.