Extremists Say: Life Begins at Conception

There has been a host of Catholic and pro-life coverage of the recent statement by Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Shultz’s pro-choice ideology is well-known and was made evident in a recent interview. However, the quote that garnered the most attention was when she stated:

“For the vast majority of Americans including people on both sides of the abortion issue, this [amendment that says human life begins at conception] is an extreme and radical step.”

In response to this, the pro-life and Catholic headlines nearly universally read: “Debbie Wasserman Shultz: Saying life begins at conception is ‘extreme and radical.’”

Do these quotes have the same meaning? Or to put it another way, does Schultz’s statement necessarily entail that she is personally denying the basic embryological fact that life begins at the moment of fertilization/conception, as the headlines claimed?

I suggest the answer is clear: There is a significant difference in meaning between the two statements. Shultz may very well deny the science of when life begins, but her statement does not amount to such a denial.

Let there be no question here – Shultz is an avid supporter of contraception and abortion on demand and has devoted much of her life to the promotion of such “reproductive health.” We must oppose her on these and her many positions that are contrary to the dignity of the person. Nonetheless, I have some concerns with the way this statement was covered.

If she had said the headline quoted above, she would be telling us something about her beliefs and we would be right to condemn her lack of basic scientific knowledge. But her actual quote tells us something about what she perceives to be the belief of “the vast majority of Americans.” And, frankly, given the way the personhood amendments have been received at the polls, she may even be right about that.

A careful reading of her statement shows no denial or ignorance of science. She does not claim that the conclusions of embryology are “extreme and radical.” She actually says that passing personhood amendments are an ”extreme and radical step.” There is a clear difference between these two claims. One would make her ignorant. The other makes her opposed to personhood amendments. The language she chose gives her plausible deniability of the charge the pro-life movement has levied at her.

Now I am not suggesting we be naïve and trust her assessment of the American people, or that we overestimate her openness to reason and dialogue about embryology. However, recognizing that she probably personally believes that embryonic human beings should not enjoy the protection of the State, a reporter who has the opportunity might ask her to qualify her statement with the following line of questions.

“Do you believe the personhood amendments are an extreme and radical step?”

And if so, “Do you believe they are extreme and radical because you believe that embryologists do not claim life begins at conception? Or do you believe personhood amendments ignore and deny science?”

If she says “yes” to either question, she’s ignorant of the facts, and an informed reporter could bring in the scientific evidence to show her where she’s wrong.

If she says “no,” you have her cornered on many levels. A few follow-up questions concerning the rights of all human beings under the law and the protection the State owes all of its citizens and you have, most likely, quite a story. She would have to completely dodge the question time and again or commit publicly to the statement that the rights of some human beings should not be protected by the State.

I am suggesting that her statement might publicly commit her to something worse – something far more damaging politically – than just ignorance of science: The denial of fundamental rights for those she knows and admits to be human.

In the end I believe the pro-life movement would be better served by responding to those with whom we disagree based upon what they actually said, not on recreations of what they said that make it easier for us to bash them.

In discussing this situation with a colleague, I was told that we are entering into a presidential campaign season and that these rhetorical games, the back and forth propaganda, are just what you have to do. I respectfully disagree: when things are so overheated, it becomes that much more important for us to respond in charity and truth, in a timely way, and not to further muddy things by demonizing or misrepresenting others, even if they do exactly that to us. (Nancy Pelosi’s recent and baseless claim that congressmen who support legal protection of conscience rights “will be voting” for women to “die on the floor” comes to mind.) Not only does charity in truth demand this, but I believe such an approach will help us to gain more traction.

If we remain prayerful and vigilant, opportunities will come to set the record straight. Our efforts will be more fruitful if we take that extra moment to clarify positions and language, and to respond carefully, truthfully, and with as much charity as we can muster.

Arland K. Nichols is the National Director of HLI America. He writes for the Truth and Charity Forum.

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