FORT WORTH, Texas – During the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the moderator asked a very interesting question. Basing her question on the fact that both Biden and Ryan are Catholic, Martha Raddatz asked the candidates to explain how their faith impacts their politics, especially related to the issue of abortion. The answers were perhaps surprisingly similar in their foundation but vastly different in their application.
Congressman Ryan stated that he believes life begins at conception, which is in keeping with Catholic doctrine. He declared that he cannot separate his faith from his politics on the issue of abortion. Therefore, Ryan concluded that the policies of a Romney-Ryan administration would oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother’s life. It should be noted, however, that Ryan had stated previously his personal beliefs even oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Vice President Biden offered a very similar response regarding the beginning of life. He acknowledged agreement that life begins at conception as a de fide doctrine of the Catholic Church. However, he went on to declare that he cannot force his morality on someone else and that a woman has the right to do as she wishes with her own body.
I doubt many people were shocked by the answers that Biden and Ryan offered. Some may have been surprised that Vice President Biden believes life begins at conception, and others may have been intrigued that Ryan did not espouse his personal views on abortion in cases of rape and incest. However, the general tenor of the answers held to firmly established party platforms for each candidate.
In the midst of this debate, I find it interesting that little evaluation has been offered of the inconsistency of Mr. Biden’s argument. There are two key elements of his answer that contradict many of his other political goals – absolute autonomy and the refusal to impose his own morality.
The argument for autonomy is common in the abortion debate. It generally takes the following form: A woman has the right to do with her body as she pleases. Her right to privacy and free choice trumps any other right. No one can tell her what she can and cannot do. Thus, a woman should have the right to have an abortion for any reason. This is the effect of the collective Supreme Court rulings of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973.
There is logical and political inconsistency in this position, however, for Mr. Biden. This argument is libertarian in nature and raises the question of complete autonomy in every aspect of life. For example, Mr. Biden (and pro-choice advocates in general) desire to see abortion on demand with no questions asked of the woman involved. She should be completely free to choose abortion for herself. Yet, there are a number of “choices” limited by government restrictions that contradict the logic of this argument. In most states, a young woman under the age of 18 cannot get a tattoo. Even if she has parental consent, states like California, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Washington make the tattooing of a minor a crime. In these states, parental consent cannot even trump the law to allow a minor to receive a tattoo.
By contrast, New York City is piloting a program in 13 of their public schools to make Plan B, the “morning-after pill,” available to young women without parental consent. Therefore, a 15-year-old girl cannot get a tattoo, but she can get an abortion-inducing drug. I ask the question: Is she completely autonomous? Is the government telling her that she cannot do with her body as she chooses? Why does it apply to tattoos but not abortion?
This libertarian argument can be extended to several other areas that are restricted or outlawed by the government. You cannot buy a non-diet soda larger than 16 ounces in New York City. A host of drugs are illegal, not only to buy or sell but even to possess. Marriage laws forbid a person from marrying his/her siblings and first cousins. Government even restricts the number of people one can marry. In each of these cases, government has said that you are not free to do with your body as you wish. If Mr. Biden and other abortion rights advocates want to be consistent, they must disavow laws like these as well. However, I imagine that government officials could make a reasonable case for such laws to be on the books. Thus, their inconsistency is exposed.
The other part of Mr. Biden’s response relates to the idea that he is unwilling to impose his morality on someone else. This is egregiously inconsistent for anyone involved in government. The role of laws established by government is the imposition of morality on others. Laws that prohibit murder, theft, fraud and slander impose someone’s morality on the rest of society. In fact, all laws impose morality. For the argument of abortion rights advocates to be consistent, one has to accept moral anarchy. Everyone should be able to do what is right in his own eyes.
Abortion rights advocates claim they do not want morality imposed on them, but they are willing to accept the imposition of their own morality on others. The recent birth control mandate added to the health care law imposes abortion rights morality on everyone by requiring that insurance companies supply birth control to all individuals covered at no charge to the patient. This mandate includes abortion-inducing drugs, such as Plan B and ella. If abortion rights advocates are so opposed to the imposition of morality on others, they should oppose this mandate as well.
As seen in the examples above, the logic of abortion rights advocates is inconsistent. Without even considering the merit of their arguments, one can see that they are unable to apply their logic universally.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Evan Lenow is assistant professor of ethics and director of the Riley Center at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This column first was posted at www.TheologicalMatters.com, a Southwestern Seminary website.)