Last week, in a televised town hall with Donald Trump, MSNBC's news anchor Chris Matthews stumped Donald Trump with a line of questioning about punishment for abortion. It was the first time I have ever seen Trump at a loss, having been drawn into territory that required him to think on the spot, instead of spouting boasts and sound bites.
It was not a pretty picture. But, unlike most of the backlash to Trump finally admitting that there would have to be some punishment for the woman, which most people treated as a major Trump gaffe, Matthews' thoughtful, probing question exposed the whole hypocrisy of the conservative position on abortion.
A few very conservative politicians say abortion should be banned, without exceptions. The next level up is to allow for exceptions to save the life of the mother. Get a little more lax, or compassionate, depending on how you view it, and you can add exceptions to allow abortion in cases of incest or rape.
But let's stop for a moment and think about why you would allow those exceptions and why that is a slippery slope.
1. Yes, it is rational to allow abortion to save the life of the mother, if in fact the fetus is too young to survive outside a womb. The fetus is going to die either way, so why not allow the mother to be saved? But you'd have to be firm in not extending beyond that very narrow window, as some do, to include "life or health" of the mother. The only purist category has to be, if the fetus cannot survive if the mother doesn't. With today's advanced technology, fetal survival is pretty good beyond 20 weeks gestation.
2. Then we come to rape and incest. I understand the compassionate wish not to force a mother to carry a child conceived in such circumstances. But strictly speaking, the conservative position on abortion is about the life of the innocent fetus, isn't it? That life is totally unrelated to how it was conceived. So to allow those exceptions is to admit that there are instances when they favor putting the mother's well being ahead of the fetus's. Right?
Once you've crossed that line, where are the limits to drawing any line at all?
In this live television drama between Chris Matthews and Donald Trump, we had an outspoken newsman, who is also a practicing Catholic, asking the questions. Trump tried to turn it into a quiz of Matthews' differences with Catholic teachings. Matthews was very clear. He accepts the church's moral teachings for his own life. But when it comes to the law and public policy, he opposes forcing those teachings on others. He thinks the law should allow the choice to be made by the woman. He is both pro-life (personally) and pro-choice (for our society).
Matthews also posed this other very important question: How do you ban abortion? How can you make a ban work unless you have some sanction, some punishment, for violating it? If you make it a criminal act -- a murder, as some would have it -- then how do you not punish it.
And, if you punish, whom do you punish? The woman who has the abortion? The doctor and others who provide the abortion? Clearly, the conservative position (save a few extremists) say it should be the provider, not the woman.
This exchange exposed the hypocrisy in the conservative, ban-abortion stance. Both sides -- pro-choice and anit-abortion -- were indignant at Trump's fumbled admission that there should be some punishment for the woman, a position he quickly retracted.
But isn't that the only logical, reasoned answer -- if you think abortion is the murder of an innocent life?
It was obvious that Donald Trump had not thought through this. He didn't have a sound bite ready. He tried to wing it -- and wound up spilling the beans of what the pro-life folks would rather not deal with: the logical end of their position.
Now, let me be very clear. I am pro-choice. I base that position on a belief that the "life of a human being" does not coincide with conception. A life develops over time. Of course, there is the biological moment when a spermatozoon enters an ovum and creates a zygote, which over time may develop into a fetus, then into a baby, and eventually -- with much nurturing, both physical and psychological -- becomes a person.
I honestly don't know at what point I would say that a human being, a person, has been created. Not because I haven't thought about it, a lot. . . but because it is more of a philosophical, conceptual question. Different people may come up with different answers that I can respect as valid, within some limits.
That's very different from "abortion on demand," or as a casual form of birth control. I agree with the position famously espoused by Bill Clinton: "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare." And I stand with Chris Matthews in separating one's own personal moral choice from public policy and the law.
* * *". . . . [T]he GOP primary electorate voted overwhelmingly for anti-establishment candidates. . . . How does it go over [at the convention] if Trump gets denied, Cruz gets denied . . . . It is hard to imagine any scenario in which the substantive, expressed will of the GOP primary electorate was more thoroughly rejected at the convention [that was] meant to ratify it.
"Under normal circumstances, I think any political professional, any close observer of politics would say that a candidate chosen in such a way is simply doomed. I see no reason to believe it's any different this year. . . .
"The [idea of] freedom of the convention to do anything it wants inside the convention hall seems to blind people to the fact that it has no such freedom or inherent ability to make that work outside the convention hall. The same core divisions remain. They're just easier to paper over. . . .