WHEN DURING THE VICE-PRESIDENTIAL debate Martha Raddatz asked Paul Ryan what role his religion has played in his own personal views on abortion, Ryan was quick to explain not only the central role of religion in his life, but his family’s and his political party’s:
I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life. […] Now, you want to ask basically why I'm pro-life? It's not simply because of my Catholic faith. That's a factor, of course. But it's also because of reason and science […] I believe that life begins at conception.
The “vulnerable” in Ryan’s charge, the “people” in need of a chance in life, were not women, but blastocyst embryos. Ryan was appealing to parens patriae (literally, “father of the people”), a doctrine which state courts have often used in the past to, among other things, compel medical treatment of in utero fetuses. This would not have been lost on the ticket’s radical ‘pro-life’ supporters, even if it was lost on the public at large. It was a high-five to a radical agenda that is pro-life when it comes to zygotes, but not to women involved in their conception.
Under parens patriae, the state has the power, and even the duty, to protect individuals not otherwise able or willing to protect themselves. If Roe v. Wade were overturned during a Romney presidency — an eventuality that Romney himself has made clear is his goal — abortion would be remanded to the states, exactly the way it had been before the 1973 Supreme Court ruling.
States could not only pass zygote personhood legislation without constitutional challenge (either by amending a state’s constitution or by making it a law), but, under parens patriae, could intervene in all sorts of medical and scientific cases, such as stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. There would be no limit.
In the debate, Raddatz followed up Ryan’s life-at-conception declaration by asking if those who support pro-choice should be worried under a Romney administration. Ryan looked at the camera, frowned, paused for two seconds, and took a deep breath.
The pause and accompanying body language seemed to indicate a deep moral crisis for the Wisconsin congressman. But, if the earnest expression — more of a boy screwing up the courage to explain why his baseball shattered the neighbor’s window than of an ambitious politician — convinced you of his sheepish sincerity, you’re underestimating him. Ryan has been called “the Republican Party’s intellectual leader” and is seen by the party as the future of the GOP. The wide-eyes with which he has been trying to answer the abortion question since Romney selected him are those of a driven zealot.
Six weeks before the debate with Raddatz, Ryan tried to sidestep the question of whether abortion should be banned even in cases of rape by deferring to Romney. “The method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life,” he told one reporter, and then quickly followed up the hauntingly robotic syllogism with:
Let’s remember, I’m joining the Romney ticket and the president makes policy and the president, in this case, the future president, Mitt Romney, has exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother, which is a vast improvement to where we are right now.
In those last weeks of August before the Republican Convention, Ryan, arms akimbo, worked gymnastically around the rape issue, supporting Romney’s exception for it, but, at the same time, insisting that he is proud of his pro-life record. He also repeated — as Romney has — that life begins at conception — a more anodyne statement than his rape position.
Most important to Ryan and to the rest of the Republican party, Ryan needed to extricate himself from the dreaded Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman and pro-life pontificator whose flatulence on abortion — specifically, about “forcible” and therefore “legitimate” rape (woman held at knifepoint) versus the non-forcible, illegitimate variety where abortion should not be available (a thirteen year old girl “consensually” impregnated by a twenty-five year old man; a college woman pregnant from a drunken date rape, etc.) was affecting the Republican party very badly.
On the eve of the Republican Convention, Ryan, Romney and the entire GOP national political apparatus “launched a swift and ruthless crusade against Akin,” as the Washington Post put it, pulling funds from Akin’s campaign for the senate seat in Missouri and urging him to step down. Akin, probably not appreciating the knife in his back, especially from Ryan, his ant-abortion, zygote-as-legal-person bill co-sponsor, refused.
Ryan and Akin co-sponsored 16 anti-abortion bills together, including the Sanctity of Human Life Bill, in which the term “forcible rape” originated; this federal “personhood” bill also included language that endowed a fertilized egg the same legal rights as a human being. But, with Akin going public about the controversial belief, shared, in fact, by other fringe extremists in the movement like Ryan, that women’s bodies actually shut down to stop pregnancies in cases of rape (the trauma setting in motion biological blocks so a woman cannot conceive), Ryan was quick to throw him under the bus. Romney was trailing Obama by 10-22 points among women and Akin’s comments looked sure to steer the Republican Convention narrative away from the economy — a topic that was meant to unify the party and attract swing female votes. Republican strategists, publicly and privately, knew that Akin’s theory of a biological shut down was bogus and knew that any suggestion that forcing a woman to bear a child resulting from a rape was just too appalling for the majority of Americans. Akin was noticeably absent from the Convention.
By the time Ryan was debating Joe Biden with Raddatz on October 11, the Republicans had successfully kept abortion (Akin’s comments about rape and all) off the table for much of September, attention focused instead on Romney dissing 47 percent of the country. Without any mention of abortion in the first presidential debate, all Ryan needed was one more deflection. So, after his pregnant pause, he said:
We don't think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.
The lack of any affirmative declaration to overturn Roe v. Wade might’ve lulled viewers, eager to hear about taxes and gas prices, into thinking that all Ryan wanted was the abortion issue to be decided democratically. But, what Ryan was revealing was his deep-seated belief that any involvement of the courts at all has always been illegitimate and always will be. This is the very far fringe of the anti-choice movement, the same fringe that supports the pseudo-science of female biological blocks and has been working around Roe v. Wade on the state level by passing legislation that has effectively shut down abortion clinics in states like Mississippi. From Ryan’s perspective, because the Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention any right to privacy, the Constitution has no place protecting pregnant women. The Constitution doesn’t define a “person” either, and it was noted by the Court in Roe that there is no real indication that the concept has any pre-natal application: another reason Ryan and other extremists would rather the pesky Constitution be set aside.
Putting the issue of a rape exception in this context is useful because it makes clear that it is a red herring in this election. The main issue is personhood, which both Romney and Ryan enthusiastically support. There has been little in-depth consideration about what the candidates mean when they say that life begins at conception, now uttered so frequently that it has become part of the white noise of the stump. Discussions in the press have been scarce. One newspaper even confused the GOP ticket’s position by stating that it supports rights for the unborn fetus. To be clear, Roe v. Wade already acknowledges that the state’s interest in potential human life can be compelling enough to override a woman’s constitutional right. No one, Republican or Democrat, is publically contesting that. It is only the extent to which such a right is qualified that is at issue.
Dangling over the dustbin, Roe has been maligned and mischaracterized with such fervor it’s useful to remember why it is so valuable. Roe not only upheld the right to privacy, but defined its “contours,” recognizing that the right is not absolute. The Court balanced it against the state’s interest according to the fetus’s “viability” — the point at which a fetus is able to live outside the womb. It acknowledged a state’s legitimate interest to intervene to protect potential life (yielding only to the woman’s right to protect her own life and health), and that this can be “compelling” enough to override the woman’s right. Though subsequent Supreme Court decisions eliminated Roe’s trimester framework, permitting states to regulate abortion prior to viability so long as the regulations do not impose an “undue burden,” for over 30 years Roe has weathered religiously motivated attacks and protected the fundamental right of individual liberty from government encroachment, firmly placing personal and moral choices with the individual.
What Ryan and Romney are after with “personhood” is to undo Roe v. Wade entirely. Personhood USA, the largest anti-abortion organization, counts Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum as signatories to their Republican presidential candidate pledge, which reads in relevant part:
If elected President, I will . . . to the best of my knowledge . . . only appoint federal judges and relevant officials who will uphold and enforce state and federal laws recognizing that all human beings at every stage of development are persons with the unalienable right to life.
It is a pro-life referendum machine that uses the tag line “protecting the pre-born by love and by law.” Their primary mission is to “serve Jesus by being an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves” — the zygotes. Personhood USA spokesperson Rebecca Kiessling explained:
As someone who really cares about rape victims, I want to protect them from the rapist, and from the abortion, but not the baby. A baby is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim — an abortion is.
Back in August, when Ryan and Romney publicly condemned Akin, Personhood USA condemned Ryan and Romney for allowing a rape exception, giving the ticket the moderate public image it so sorely needed. Setting the rape exception aside, however, Romney and Ryan’s personhood position are in lock step with both Akin and Personhood USA, as is the GOP platform — despite the fact that half of America does not share their religious views. Religions have varying views on when life begins. The Talmud states that life begins at birth, while Buddhists, Baptists and Muslims see life starting anywhere from fertilization to 40 days from conception. Unlike the Catholic or Mormon Churches, none of these groups prohibit abortions outright.
Ryan may insist that his view is based on “reason and science,” but there is no consensus about when human life begins among scientists, philosophers, ethicists, or sociologists. Embryonic development is a process. There is no scientific consensus on what marker should be used — is it when the soul arises? Consciousness, brain function? Some biologists argue that life begins at fertilization, some at gastrulation, some at birth. The medical community is also split on the issue. If fertilization is the start of life, then are all objects, such as hydatidiform moles, created by the union of sperm and egg also life? Michael Gazzaniga, a biopsychologist who served on George Bush’s bioethics council in 2006 has stated:
A fertilized embryo is not a human – it needs a uterus, and at least six months of gestation and development, growth and neuron formation, and cell duplication to become human. To give an embryo created for biomedical research the same status even as one created for in vitro fertilization (IVF), let alone one created naturally, is patently absurd. When a Home Depot burns down, the headline in the paper is not “30 Houses Burn Down.” It is “Home Depot Burned Down.”
With nearly one week left before Election Day, it’s unlikely that undecided voters will delve very deep to explore what’s radical about the Romney-Ryan ticket, or what makes their religious views so dangerous to the country. Both men are adept enough at hiding their allegiance to the extreme fringe of their party and its fervent desire to dictate people’s moral choices, emphasizing instead their love of small government, and mischaracterizing their most partisan efforts as shining examples of cooperation. When Ryan is asked about the Sanctity of Life Bill he is so proud of, he describes it as a bi-partisan effort, even though the bill was passed with 235 Republican and only 16 Democratic votes — the latter given only on condition that language about forcible rape be removed. As the GOP spends its final millions of dollars on TV ads they will continue to steer voters away from this issue. Let’s hope they recall that pause and the look in Ryan’s eyes.