The profound intellectual and moral vacuity of Kirsten Gillibrand
On the hustings in Iowa in search of the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently gave an interview with the Des Moines Register in which she held forth on the Progressive Left's position on abortion. Headlines in the blogosphere say Gillibrand compared being pro-life with being racist. While that kind of analogy can be found in what Gillibrand said, there was something else in what she was driving at that tells us much about the intellectual vacuity of the modern Left.
Gillibrand has taken the position that as president, she would require a pro-abortion litmus test for her selections of federal judges. When asked about this, she replied:
I think there's some issues that have such moral clarity that we have as a society decided that the other side (of the issue) is not acceptable. Imagine saying that it's okay to appoint a judge who's racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic[.]
For one thing, moral clarity does not exist in issues as such; it exists in the human mind, but putting that aside, what Gillibrand is trying to say here is that some issues come before the public that have such moral clarity that they are so manifestly lucid in their presentation to the human mind, that one can intuitively grasp the right side and wrong side. According to Gillibrand, "abortion rights" is such an issue. Its defense should be the instinctive, default position of state and citizen alike.
But notice what Gillibrand is actually doing. She has set the old liberal position on abortion on its head. In the old days, say, just a few years ago, a liberal might argue that the issue of abortion is so complex that persons of goodwill, thinking rationally and honestly, may arrive at opposite conclusions. This outlook, wrong as it is, is nonetheless mindful of an opposing view. However, Gillibrand's new formulation is, the issue of abortion is so morally clear that persons of goodwill, thinking rationally and honestly, can but arrive at only one conclusion — hers. The middle ground has disappeared.
Gillibrand went on to say "the conservative right is turning religious anti-abortion rhetoric into law." Now the Left succeeds in pressing its agenda because it is quick to grab the upper hand in defining the situation and in shaping the political vocabulary around it. Thus, the Left has long maintained that anyone who opposes abortion does so from the perspective of a religious belief. This is a leftist lie, told endlessly and widely believed.
In truth, the opposition of abortion rests on two pillars, neither of which has anything to do with religion: the latest advances in embryology and the application of logic to the first. That's it. This means that any person of goodwill, reasoning rationally from empirical observation, can arrive at the pro-life position. The moral dimension of abortion comes forward and reveals itself because science and observation — not religion — tells us someone human is inside his mother's womb. If the act of abortion had the same moral import as the extraction of a bad tooth, would the Catholic bishops have an opinion about it? The pro-life position is not something deduced from a "religious teaching" as such. It's the other way around. Church teaching on abortion is something deduced from science and observation. Those observations are available to theist and atheist alike.
Gillibrand's argument — that defending "abortion rights" is manifestly the right thing to do and that they are under threat from the "religious right" — is common on the Progressive Left. Her position shows an excess of self-confidence and a lack of awareness of her own intellectual and moral limitations. Gillibrand and other leftists tend to think that whatever argument pops into their heads has value, as long as it advances the Progressive cause.
But if one were to call attention to the beam in Gillibrand's eye, let us also say that pro-life forces similarly have their own intellectual limitations. This is seen in allowing the Left to shape the country's political vocabulary and the premises of the abortion debate. If conservatives want to counter-attack, they must turn this around. Conservative groups must answer religion rap thrown against them with solid science. They must give more prominence to the medical and scientific basis for the pro-life position — especially among young target audiences.
James Soriano is a retired foreign service officer. He has previously written at AT on monetary policy and the Federal Reserve Bank.
Photo credit: AFGE.