The Magazine

Staying Alive

A very modest proposal for a pro-life president.

Jan 21, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 18 • By HADLEY ARKES
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In one stroke, Sensenbrenner disrupted years of work in putting together a coalition for the bill, for without the findings the bill might indeed lose its point. Yet even without the findings, as Rick Santorum remarked, the bill would still make a difference if it were to become law: It would establish a firmer ground for the Congress to pass again a bill on partial-birth abortion. For it would establish that even a child marked for abortion is a real entity, who comes under the protection of the law. Nonetheless, the Born-Alive measure languishes.

In the meantime, Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, perhaps reading the political moment, has fired nurse Jill Stanek. And so, in the haze of bipartisanship that has followed September 11, a measure to protect living, newborn children has been put to the side, and the main casualty, apart from the bill itself, is the woman who risked her career in exposing this killing of the innocent. It is hardly an advertisement for a political party that it does nothing to protect the people who have run risks on its behalf. An administration that is pro-life would also have a stake in showing that its adherents do not become hostages: If the administration cannot protect a Jill Stanek, it could at least honor her and try to redeem the sacrifice she made. It could do that by making a move to pass the bill in behalf of which she testified and risked her career. This would not seem to require herculean amounts of political courage, with the Democrats afraid to vote against the bill.

THE PRESIDENT'S PERFORMANCE the past few months has been, on all counts, admirable. His administration has been marked by a commendable moral fervor and indignation over the killing of innocent Americans in New York and Washington. But even as domestic politics begins to command the president's attention once more, the administration has yet to call for passing this simplest of all bills, which could forestall the killing of innocent beings marked for death. There are not a lot of live-birth abortions, but each one is unforgivable. These lives are within the power of the administration to protect, and, in protecting them, to teach a notable lesson.

We have, coming up on January 22, the annual March for Life, timed to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The president would not appear to be going out of his way to be provocative if he took the occasion to remind the country of the importance of protecting innocent life. If we really think the human person bears an intrinsic dignity, which we are therefore obliged to respect, then that dignity does not rise in proportion to height or weight or age. A one-hour old, prematurely born infant with Down Syndrome possesses the same dignity as any of us. Surely, she cannot be destroyed or used as a means to our projects low and high, or thrown away when she fails to serve our interests.

To enact the Born-Alive act would require only the slightest effort: The hearings have already been held, twice, in the House, and the bill containing the Born-Alive act has already been passed unanimously in the Senate. The passing of the bill in the House, in September 2000, took only 45 minutes. The president might simply pose the question: Would Senate Democrats be willing to take 45 minutes to enact, finally, a bill to protect children born alive; a bill that commands wide support among both parties in Congress? Why, after all, should there be a problem--unless most Democrats really are opposed to the bill? If they are, let's find out.

This can be a win-win situation for the president, with little political cost. For he could take the Democrats at their word, and suggest, in the spirit of bipartisanship, that both parties could agree on this: that whatever else a right to abortion means, there cannot be a right to kill a child already born merely because she had once been marked for termination. Like every other right under the sun, even the right to abortion must have its limits.

In coming to this agreement, the parties would make it possible for Congress to pass the first legislation since Roe v. Wade that actually recognizes a limit on abortion. In that way, even this most modest of all bills would establish something momentous. But if the Democrats cannot brook that kind of step, they would have to proclaim in public that abortion, for them, finds no limits; that they will not accept a single restriction on the 1.3 million abortions performed every year in this country.