Surprisingly, the “Most Concerning Statement Award” of the seven GOP candidates to participate in the August 6 Fox News undercard debate did not go to Rick Perry.
Former New York Governor George Pataki won that distinction in a round of answers initiated by this prompt from moderator Bill Hemmer, first directed at former Pennsylvania Governor Rick Santorum:
Next question on the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s been 42 years, Senator Santorum, since Roe v. Wade, and many consider, in this country, to be a case of settled law [sic].
By the time the moderators got to Pataki, the question had evolved:
Governor Pataki, you’re the only pro-choice candidate running. A Republican holding that position has not won a single primary in 35 years. With the recent Planned Parenthood videos that we have all seen, shedding new light on abortion practices . . . has this story changed your heart when it comes to abortion?
Pataki’s fatal answer:
My heart has not changed, because I’ve always been appalled by abortion. I’m a Catholic, I believe life begins at conception. But as Bill said earlier, Roe v. Wade, it’s has been the law for 42 years, and I don’t think we should continue to try to change it.
Let pro-lifers cry out. But beyond the issue of abortion, Pataki’s statement raises grave concerns about broader matters of law and policy making. The mash of legal philosophy, squeamish religion, and circular reasoning that Pataki just rolled out exposes a vacuum of legal and moral theory that voters should note well in Pataki and watch out for in other candidates.
Pataki’s Terrible Justification for a Law’s Continuance
Pataki’s appeal to the age of Roe v. Wade as justification for leaving it on the books should terrify any amateur student of American history. In particular it should scare minority classes, as well as sympathizers with people who have suffered under unjust laws codified for well over half a century.
The Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling established the constitutionality of “separate but equal accommodations” for black and white citizens for 58 years until the Warren Court upended it in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Slavery had been the law of the land for 76 years before the Thirteenth Amendment ended its worst (but by no means final) phase in 1865.
Women waited 131 years before voting in the United States after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.
As governor in 1995, Pataki himself fulfilled a campaign promise by signing a law reinstating the death penalty (by lethal injection), although his state of New York had not executed anyone since 1963, a gap of 32 years.
Besides lacking a foundation in reason, an appeal to precedent to support the continuation of a ruling that Pataki implicitly acknowledges as wrong belongs to the same category of two-step as Jefferson holding forth on the equality of the black and white races while continuing to own and exploit slaves.
Pataki’s answer reveals his prevailing principle to be the definition of establishmentarianism, which first of all disposes of “right” and “wrong” in trade for “favorable” and “unfavorable,” and secondly defaults to preserving whatever power-grabbing policies were instituted by predecessors.
This is not to say that Pataki is himself power-hungry, but that he is governed by a philosophy of law that predisposes him to seize and maintain power and the status quo rather than downsize government or effect meaningful reform–no matter how emphatically he states, and even believes, his intentions are to reduce government overreach.
Pataki’s Drunken History of Anti-Roe Straw Men
Also disconcerting about Pataki’s statement: his claim that Americans ought not “continue to try to change” Roe v. Wade, while stating a moment later, “I would pass legislation outlawing abortion after 20 weeks.”
While such a promise encourages every pro-lifer, it makes one wonder what Pataki thinks qualifies as “continu[ing] to try to change” the law, if Pataki’s own proposed 20-week legislation does not.
Is Pataki referring to Americans who try to persuade the Supreme Court to overrule Roe? That would be odd, since the Court grants certiorari for (agrees to review) only 1 percent of the 10,000 cases submitted to it, and grassroots groundswells and political pressure do not typically factor as decision criteria. Did he mean that Americans should stop trying to stack the Court with potential Roe overturners? Again, that doesn’t really happen. Does he mean America should cease its efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning abortion? Again, not happening. In fact the only serious effort that most pro-life Americans exert to “change” Roe v. Wade is through legislation, primarily at the state level, to limit abortions as far as possible within the infamous Court ruling–exactly as Pataki promises to do.
The real red flag here, however, is not that Pataki seems to be appealing to some drunken history of a gnostic underground attempting to influence the Court to overturn Roe, but that he has issued a nothing statement–a straw-man meaning literally nothing–a phrase with which no one can disagree, not because it is correct but because it is pure cant, to make the pro-choice/pro-life candidate appear so sensible and dexterous standing on the mat that voters forget he has not climbed onto the beam.
God the Lord of Life, Science the Lord of Policy?
Where exactly does Pataki get off in believing that human life begins at conception, but that abortions should be legal for the first 20 weeks (4.5 months) of pregnancy? Frustrated that Hillary Clinton and others accuse Republicans of ignoring science, Pataki said,
Doctors say that at 20 weeks that is a viable life inside the womb. And at that point, it’s a life that we have the right to protect, and I think we should protect.
Indeed we should. But if we are playing the game of degrees of viability, why confine it to lives in utero? A baby girl born five months ago is completely viable, so long as her mother, father, or guardian is present to attend constantly to her every need. Left alone, the baby will die–the same as a 12-week-old life in utero will die without its mother’s continuous provision. Should we protect the life of the 5-month-old? (Of course Pataki would say yes–but that part is easy; the hard part is discovering what consistent logic, or immutable principles, if any, would guide Pataki to say yes.)
Pataki’s ambivalence does indeed reflect his reliance on science, which would be commendable if it did not open him to contradictions that a holistic, rational, fact-based and faith-based position on protecting life would not. Instead his ambivalence suggests a queasiness about making policy decisions, including and especially moral ones, based on timeless truths and principles (such as define his Catholic faith, whether or not he embraces them).
Somehow Pataki feels that his (theoretically) deepest beliefs are disqualified from influencing policies he would make as commander-in-chief, even a policy protecting human life.
First ‘Last Words’ on George Pataki for President
For an allegedly pro-choice Republican candidate, Pataki’s stripes are interesting at best, and at worst confusing. On one hand he believes that life begins at conception, yet if he had his druthers, abortions would be legal well after persons in utero have heartbeats, brainwaves, fingers, and toes. He derives his moral convictions on abortion from his Catholic faith, yet subjugates these convictions to the latest scientific research. He would defund Planned Parenthood and prevent tax dollars from funding abortions, a sign that he does sometimes allow his moral convictions to permeate the realm of policy–so the questions remain: when, where, and why?
Finally, in the apparent absence of answers to those questions, Pataki retreats to precedent, establishmentarianism, and vagueness when confronted with the hypothetical option to reform an area of federal law that he asserts was wrong 42 years ago and which is wrong today, just not as wrong as repealing it would be.
Abort mission, Pataki. This isn’t going to work.
Michael T. Hamilton is the lead writer for Good Comma Editing and a regular contributor to PJ Media Parenting and the Philos Project. His writing appears at The Federalist, Washington Free Beacon, and Canon & Culture.
AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt