Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Founder on Abortion

...and another, more
modern politician as well
by Tom Van Dyke


James Wilson was one of the most influential Founders---a Framer and Signer of the Constitution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and who also served as a congressman and as a Supreme Court Justice.

From Of the Natural Rights of Individuals, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 2 :


I shall certainly be excused from adducing any formal arguments to evince, that life, and whatever is necessary for the safety of life, are the natural rights of man. Some things are so difficult; others are so plain, that they cannot be proved. It will be more to our purpose to show the anxiety, with which some legal systems spare and preserve human life; the levity and the cruelty which others discover in destroying or sporting with it; and the inconsistency, with which, in others, it is, at some times, wantonly sacrificed, and, at other times, religiously guarded.

In Sparta, nothing was deemed so precious as the life of a citizen. And yet in Sparta, if an infant, newly born, appeared, to those who were appointed to examine him, ill formed or unhealthy, he was, without any further ceremony, thrown into a gulph near Mount Taygetus...

At Athens, the parent was empowered, when a child was born, to pronounce on its life or its death. At his feet it was laid: if he took it in his arms, this was received as the gracious signal for its preservation: if he deigned not a look of compassion on the fruit of his loins, it was removed and exposed. Over almost all the rest of Greece, this barbarity was permitted or authorized.

In China, the practice of exposing new born children is said to have prevailed immemorially, and to prevail still. As the institutions of that empire are never changed, its situation is never improved.

Tacitus records it to the honour of the Germans, that, among them, to kill infants newly born was deemed a most flagitious crime. Over them, adds he, good manners have more power, than good laws have over other nations. This shows, that, in his time, the restraints of law began to be imposed on this unnatural practice; but that its inveteracy had rendered them still inefficacious.

Under the Roman commonwealth, no citizen of Rome was liable to suffer a capital punishment by the sentence of the law. But at Rome, the son held his life by the tenure of his father’s pleasure. In the forum, the senate, or the camp, the adult son of a Roman citizen enjoyed the publick and private rights of a person: in his father’s house, he was a mere thing; confounded, by the laws, with the cattle, whom the capricious master might alienate or destroy, without being responsible to any tribunal on earth.

The gentle Hindoo is laudably averse to the shedding of blood; but he carries his worn out friend or benefactor to perish on the banks of the Ganges.

With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and, in some cases, from every degree of danger.

And in 1971, a US Senator wrote in reply to an inquiry:

Dear Mr. Donnelly:

I appreciate your letter containing your views on abortion. There are many moral and legal aspects arising from this complex issue which is gaining the acceptance of large numbers of women faced with unwanted pregnancies, while disturbing the consciences of a great many other Americans.

Opponents maintain that abortion is wrong from every theological, moral and medical aspect. Proponents are firmly convinced that the woman, alone, has the right to decide.

While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized -- the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.

On the question of the individual's freedom of choice there are easily available birth control methods and information which women may employ to prevent or postpone pregnancy. But once life has begun, no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire.

I share the confidence of those who feel that America is willing to care for its unwanted as well as wanted children, protecting particularly those who cannot protect themselves. I also share the opinions of those who do not accept abortion as a response to our society's problems -- an inadequate welfare system, unsatisfactory job training programs, and insufficient financial support for all its citizens.

When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.

Sincerely,
Edward M. Kennedy


Via Rod Dreher.

3 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Those who are "anti-abortion" or "pro-life" value "family values". This is the conservative "Christian" position.

But, valuing the individual child goes against "family values" when the "family values" abuse the child, such with the case of the Ohio teen who escaped her Muslim family after becoming a Christian. She was protected by a pastor family in Florida, and "won" a court hearing. The judge did not release her back to her family. She feared an "honor killing".

So, while the conservative believes in the child's right to life, judgment must be made when it comes to "family law". We cannot legislate family law, without giving "rights" to cultures that do not adhere to the child's individuality.

The U.N. has made allowances for Islam's family law. And Europe is facing similiar "conflicts" in their courts.

The question is not about "life", but "whose" and in "what circumstances". And that question leads to the difficulty with universalizing healthcare.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As far as I understand, common law held that life began, not at conception but at "quickening." Is that what Wilson is stating here?

That might protect the right to first trimester abortions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As far as I understand, common law held that life began, not at conception but at "quickening." Is that what Wilson is stating here?

That might protect the right to first trimester abortions.


It could. That was the point where the civil law became concerned anyway. This may be of help:

http://law.jrank.org/pages/445/Abortion-Abortion-in-English-law.html

I haven't done much work on this, since many folks in 2009 care only about their own feelings and pontifications, and regard our moral and legal foundations as irrelevant.

Mostly, I find it ironic that Ted Kennedy's position as recently as 1971 would be called "extremist" by such folks today. And of course, ironic how he turned his back on it.