Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Holy Joe

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

September 8, 2008 - In an interview with “Meet the Press,” Vice Presidential hopeful Senator Joe Biden was asked how he would advise on the question, “When does life begin?” Biden responded as follows:

“I'd say, ‘Look, I know when it begins for me.’ It's a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths--Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others--who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They're intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life--I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, "Well, what about fascism?" Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism's all right? Fascism isn't a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.”

Biden is to be commended for his recognition that there are some issues (e.g., matters of religious belief and practice) about which the state ought to adopt procedural neutrality when it comes to legislative practice. Such safeguards are essential in preventing both the state’s “establishment of religion” and its curtailing the free exercise thereof. However, Biden is seriously mistaken in his judgment that questions about the nature of human life are fundamentally religious; hence, “personal and private.”

The 14th amendment to the United States constitution declares, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

If Biden is right, then there is no non-religious answer to the question “When does someone become a human person?” And if there is no non-religious answer to the question of human personhood, then there is no principled way to apply the safeguards of the 14th amendment. For the 14th amendment presupposes that the state has a meaningful, public answer to the question “Who counts as a citizen (a person) in the United States?”

According to Biden, for the government to legislate on the basis of a presumed answer to the foregoing question is “inappropriate in a pluralistic society.” That is why his response to what, in effect, is the “Who counts as a citizen?” question is unhelpfully (but expediently, politically speaking) non-existent. One wonders, however, just how elastic Biden’s pluralism is. [For example, do infants, who have been born alive after a botched abortion, qualify for protection under the 14th amendment?]

Biden’s comment about fascism offers some clue. Legislation against pluralism (e.g., political pluralists who extol the virtues of fascism) is apparently acceptable when “decency” is at stake. And when decency (not religious conviction) is in view, one would have thought that the wanton destruction of human life at any stage of development is, like fascism, not a good idea. Apparently, whether killing is indecent is a function of whether one’s religious convictions entail that the human being one is killing is, from one’s personal viewpoint, human.