The screwball nature of modern times was on full display last week when 1) Donald Trump couldn't find a coherent way of asserting the need to protect unborn life and 2) Hillary Clinton got in trouble for insinuating that "life" was an issue at all when a woman wanted an abortion.
Trump waded from one end to another of the deep waters he got into by suggesting, in an interview, "punishment" was appropriate for women who undergo abortions. Later that day, he explained that women were in fact the victims, like their unborn children; any punishment should fall on the medical abortionists. It was then Clinton's turn to muddy the moral waters, declaring on "Meet the Press" that the "unborn person doesn't have constitutional rights," in spite of the obligation society incurred in such cases to "make sure the child will be healthy."
"Person"? "Child"? These terms are not in the lexicon of the pro-choice movement she believes she has in her pantsuit pocket (and she probably does). A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman took umbrage at Clinton's word choices. "Fetus" is the preferred word for "unborn child," the latter term implying a humanity the government finds itself obliged to defend, were that humanity to attain the recognition Clinton is evidently expected to deny it. The Washington Times notes Planned Parenthood's strong preference for "embryo," "fetus," and "the pregnancy."
Which you can understand. "Fetus" has a nice abstract quality to it. Most people have never met one. You might as conveniently talk to them about an atrioventricular valve. No show of emotion is to be expected.
It has become necessary to talk this way in our screwball age. Our screwball age admits no moral complications in the way it views the essentials of human life. Human life, in the screwball view of our philosophers, is a straightforward proposition. We each have a life. What each does with that life is his or her affair -- except where the government indicates otherwise.
There was a time -- long, long ago -- when an "unborn person," to borrow Clinton's useful terminology, was viewed as a not-quite-yet-but-soon-to-be member of the human community, with all manner of prospects, potentialities and needs. The first of those needs, logically, was to get born: to move from womb to the world outside, for care, attention and training. The community of this new life provided benefits and protections. Life was a right: a human life. One couldn't unjustly deprive one of that right, irrespective of age.
That is, until the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, decided otherwise. It was suddenly OK, in the opinion of seven justices, for an individual to decide that life wasn't, after all, a human right. For such a pronouncement the nation and the culture were unprepared -- remaining so in large measure today, rights and wrongs still unsorted through. Yet with large numbers persuaded that the "fetus" -- as Planned Parenthood likes to call it -- is really, as Hillary Clinton put it, "a human person," with or without the constitutional rights Clinton implies the high court took away from it, transferring them to the mother.
The fact that confusion endures even in the minds of candidates for the presidency shows how unfinished a business the abortion matter remains. We need to give Clinton, a grandmother, some credit. Consciously or unconsciously, she portrayed the confusion that lingers, 43 years after Roe v. Wade, over how seven men of the bar could rewrite Western civilization's obligations to future citizens.
The musings of Donald Trump and the vocabulary choices of Hillary Clinton dispose of nothing in terms of the essentials. They remind us, nevertheless, that no election in our whacked-out times can take care of all our concerns, all our fears and grievances. Moral content -- right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsehood -- has to be pumped into every debate, every discussion that seems to be about trade or entitlements or Benghazi. With regard to abortion, we're getting there accidentally, sideways, half an inch at a time.