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"Above my Pay Grade - Commentary by Joseph C. Phillips"

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During Barack Obama’s underwhelming performance last week at the saddleback forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren, the presidential hopeful managed to fill the shoes of another son of Illinois – not Abraham Lincoln, but Stephen A. Douglas.

To the question: “at what point does a baby receive human rights.” Obama responded that the answer was above his pay grade. For a man that proposes to lead the free world, it was a sorry answer indeed. Obama supports the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion and voted against the ban on partial birth abortion. More importantly, Obama has the unique distinction of being the only elected official to vote against giving life saving medical care to babies born alive after a failed abortion. Apparently, he felt sufficiently pay graded to legislate policy that hinges on the very question he dodged. As president, he would also presumably nominate judges that would decide law based on the answer to the question. Clearly, his failure to answer was not because he doesn’t have an opinion. Instead, his response is an attempt to remake a moral question into a legal one just as Douglas attempted to do 150 years ago.

In 1854, the great moral question was slavery and whether or not the south’s “peculiar institution” should be allowed into the new territories. In a bid to ensure that he would be the next Democratic nominee for president, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which effectively repealed the Missouri compromise, which had prohibited the expanse of slavery into the territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36°30'. Douglas introduced the concept of popular sovereignty arguing that the citizens of Nebraska and Kansas should be allowed choice as to whether or not they wanted slavery in their states.

During debates on the measure in the House of Representatives, New York representative James Tallmadge asked the question “can the people of a territory constitutionally exclude slavery from their limits?” The response was that this was a question above their pay grade and the issue should be decided by the Supreme Court. Just three years later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney would write in his majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Standford that a black man had no rights a white man was bound to respect. What more could Douglas ask for than that Taney decide the moral issue of slavery’s expanse?

Obama’s response to the question of rights for babies is also an attempt to pass the moral buck to the Supreme Court – a court he hopes to pack with Taneys.

One of Douglas’s most vocal critics was another Illinois icon, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln observed that the idea that the sacred right of people to self government is “the sheet anchor of American Republicanism.” However, “There can be no moral right in connection with one man making a slave of another.” If “negroes” are men, Lincoln argued, the concept of popular sovereignty is turned upside down.

The question of choice is likewise turned on its head if “choice” is not protected for all people. How can one person say they have power over what happens to their own body while destroying the body of another?

Obama is keenly aware that just as the moral question of slavery depended on whether blacks were in fact men (as in hu-man), the moral question of abortion hinges upon the question of whether or not a woman’s womb holds life. If not, then any woman has the right to govern herself and her body. If however, it is life then it is an obliteration of the concept of choice to say a woman by virtue of her biology holds the keys to life or death for the child growing in her womb.

Obama’s dodge of the question does not change the settled scientific fact that life begins at conception or the moral truth that that same life is not only heir to God given rights to life, liberty and private property, but is equally due the legal protection of the government. Nor does a Supreme Court ruling shed the repugnance of abortion any more than Taney’s decision washed clean the hands of slave owners and their supporters. Obama’s performance at Saddleback simply demonstrated that he is willing to place politics above morality and content to share the company of Douglas rather than soar in the more rarified air of Abraham Lincoln.

Joseph C. Phillips is the author of “He Talk Like A White Boy” available wherever books are sold.

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