Fr. Frank Pavone: “Above My Pay Grade”
We were recently treated to the remark by Barack Obama that the question of when a baby receives human rights was beyond his pay grade. At the public forum at Saddleback Church, he said: “… whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity … is above my pay grade.”
That, of course, is exactly what the Supreme Court said in Roe vs. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in American throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Faced with a question it found too uncomfortable, the majority said the following:
“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer” [410 U.S. 113, 159].
So what are we to think of those who speak this way? Is it vice or virtue? Do they display a careful effort not to play God, or a cowardly unwillingness to assert the rights of their fellow human beings?
Some say that the government should not be involved in the personal, private decision of abortion. They don’t know how right they are. The government got “too involved” in the abortion decision when it legalized it. Despite its profession of ignorance about whether what is aborted is in fact a human life that has already begun, the Court nevertheless declared, “the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn” [410 U.S. 113, 158]. What part of the pay grade of government is the right to define the boundaries of human rights or the limits of protection for the human family? Since when does the government get involved in deciding who qualifies for human rights?
Claiming ignorance about who has human rights is a frightening abandonment of responsibility. Some may think it’s an effort not to “play God,” but it is actually just the opposite: the claim to be God. We may claim not to decide, but in practice, we cannot escape deciding: either every human being will be protected, or we will start deciding whom to exclude.
This gives rise to two thoughts, one from common sense and one from Scripture. Common sense tells us that if someone is hunting and doesn’t know whether what’s moving behind the bush is a bear or a man, he should refrain from shooting until he is sure. Doubt, in other words, leads to an abundance of caution, not an abandonment of it.
Scripture, moreover, tells us that the man who committed the first murder claimed ignorance about the one he had killed. “Where is your brother?” God asked Cain. “I don’t know” was his answer. It was a lie, and it doesn’t allow either Cain or the Supreme Court or anyone else to escape their responsibility to protect their vulnerable brothers and sisters.