John McCain has received plaudits from conservatives for his forthright answer to pastor Rick Warren’s question about human life at last Saturday’s forum at Saddleback Church. When asked at what point a human being acquires rights, McCain said without hesitation, "At conception." Barack Obama half-dodged the same question, arguing that such an answer was "above my pay grade," suggesting that politicians should leave philosophy to the philosophers but also abdicating his responsibility to think through difficult issues. The early, and nearly unanimous, verdict has been that McCain’s answer not only helped re-assure a part of his base, but his "straight talk" contrasted favorably with Obama’s artful dodger routine.
But, not so fast. John McCain supports embryonic stem cell research. So, if he truly believes that human beings acquire rights at conception, he is evidently willing to overlook the rights of some unborn children on behalf of research to assist other already born adults. And, let us be clear here. The right he is overlooking is the right to life which he purports to be championing.
Obama’s answer was equally, if differently, confused. The fact that there is a difference between the presidential chair and a faculty chair (to say nothing of the chair of Peter!) does not absolve any citizen from wrestling with such a fundamental question. For Obama, who was a constitutional law professor, the correct answer to Warren’s question might have been: "Rick, the Constitution is clear that citizens, whose rights are at issue here, are born citizens or naturalized citizens." This would not get to the deeper issue, and one that certainly a sympathetic Democrat should understand, that constitutional rights are particular instances of human rights, and not only for Guantanamo detainees but for America’s unborn children as well. But, it would have been a better dodge.
Warren did not follow up on this, or other, questions in his friendly interviews. But, before we in the media reward the laurels of victory to John McCain, he should be pressed to explain the manifest absurdity of what he said. Just because he said it quickly does not mean he was talking straight. Obama was not the only artful dodger last week.
Michael Sean Winters