Conceiving Conception at Messiah

Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 22, is the big day: the crucial Pennsylvania Primary. It happens here, in my home state, at polling places in big cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, medium-sized cities like Erie and Harrisburg, and small towns like mine, Grove City, where we bitter folk cling to our God and guns.

Speaking of God, and the Pennsylvania Primary, last night CNN re-aired its “Compassion Forum,” a discussion of faith and politics with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, held at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College on Sunday evening, April 13.

It is striking how many people missed the original broadcast of the Messiah event. Perhaps it got so little notice because it involved Democrats talking faith—a matter that creates little stir among the secular media, in contrast to the 24-7 hysterics anytime a Republican presidential candidate cites Jesus. Quite the contrary, when the two Democratic frontrunners in 2008 wanted to talk about how Jesus affected their lives and policies, the media not only refrained from its usual apoplexy but offered a primetime forum courtesy of CNN—at no less than a Christian college, by the name Messiah, on the Lord’s Day, and broadcast twice. Yes, the double standard is breathtaking.

Equally notable was the banality of what the two candidates offered at Messiah. I say this not to be mean but objectively as someone who writes on the faith of political figures, particularly Mrs. Clinton. The transcript is checkered with a lot of “you know’s” and “I don’t know’s.”

One of the most frustrating exchanges in the forum related to the question of conception—when human life begins. This is a significant question for these two candidates, given there is not much difference in their extremism on abortion. It is also significant that it was raised at a Christian college in Pennsylvania. The Christian aspect is obvious; as for Pennsylvania—outsiders should know that this is a pro-life state, where pro-life Democrats not only commonly exist but often get elected.

On this literal life-death issue, credit goes to Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, who co-hosted the forum, and did his homework. Meacham must have known that Mrs. Clinton has always carefully avoided this question. She understands the stakes of conceding that life begins at conception. As noted by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason, if the object in the womb is not a life begun at conception, then whatever one chooses to do with it is no concern. But once one acknowledges the object is human life, moral considerations completely change.

In my research on Mrs. Clinton, my closest lead into her thinking was this assertion by her husband in his 2004 memoirs: “Everyone knows life begins biologically at conception,” wrote Bill Clinton, the man with whom Hillary Clinton has had more discussions on more subjects than anyone else, including abortion. One would think “everyone” includes Senator Clinton. But then, Bill added a classic Clinton qualification: “Most people who are pro-choice understand that abortions terminate potential life.”

Note the words potential life. Alas, this was precisely Mrs. Clinton’s response at Messiah. “I believe that the potential for life begins at conception,” she explained, and then plunged into a defense of abortion. “But for me, it is also not only about a potential life…. And, therefore, I have concluded, after great, you know, concern and searching my own mind and heart over many years, that our task should be, in this pluralistic, diverse life of ours in this nation, that individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision…. I think abortion should remain legal.”

Clearly, Mrs. Clinton’s view of “pluralistic, diverse life” has limits.

Obama’s answer was even more ambiguous: “This is something that I have not, I think, come to a firm resolution on. I think it’s very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? So, I don’t presume to know the answer to that question. What I know, as I’ve said before, is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we’re having these debates.”

Basically, Obama concluded that in considering these questions during these debates, we should consider these questions during these debates—and that potential life is “extraordinarily powerful.” In response, the Messiah faithful erupted into applause, indubitably impressed.

In essence, neither of these would-be presidents professes any idea when life begins. In actuality, of course, both almost certainly believe life begins at conception. No doubt, any scientist at Harvard could have clued in Obama on this simple biological reality. And Hillary Clinton must have heard this somewhere at Yale.

The truth is that both candidates will not state the obvious on conception because of their positions on abortion. If they utter the self-evident truth, they undermine the “compassion” of their stance on abortion.

That reticence is likewise troubling. It is extremely difficult to be president of the United States. We hope our leaders can at least get right the simplest basics—like when human life begins—and then have the courage to speak honestly.

And as for Pennsylvania’s pro-life Democrats, they yet again have no voice to tomorrow.