Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Miss Miers on religion and law: the 1993 speech

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
--Ignatius of Loyola (CCC 2478)

Late last night the news broke of a story in the Washington Post: in 1993, Harriet Miers had given a speech in which she apparently repudiated the pro-life views that she had endorsed in 1989. Whereas then she had told Texans for Life that she favored a Constitutional amendment banning abortion except where the life of the mother was at stake, now she apparently thought that abortion was a matter of "self-determination."

The Washington Post article as of late last night did not give the full speech, only snippets with no sense of context. I thought it the better part of wisdom to wait to make sense of the brief quotations until the full speech was available. Today the full speech is available, and I seek here to give it some reasonably full assessment.

Harriet Miers: her history on abortion
There is every reason to think that through much of her adult life Harriet Miers would have been classified as pro-choice. As late as 1987, Miers was a member of Girls Inc., a group that explicitly affirms Roe v. Wade. Although it is possible that Miers was either unaware or unsupportive of the position of Girls Inc, it is more likely that this reflected Miers' position as well. In 1988 she contributed to the campaign of Al Gore, who had then shifted from pro-life to pro-choice as part of his presidential campaign. (She seems, however, to have been dissatisfied with Michael Dukakis; she did not contribute to his fall presidential campaign, but gave money instead to the DNC.)

According to Texas Justice Nathan Hecht, toward the end of the 1980s Miers changed her position on abortion. After seeing a film on abortion at church, Miers for the first time believed that life began at conception. Although Hecht does not specify the content of the film, it appears to have included the scientific evidence for why life begins at conception.

In 1989, she ran for Dallas City Council. Long time feminist friend Louise Raggio reported that Miers now opposed Roe v. Wade, although Raggio was unclear as to whether Miers thought Roe should be reversed. Miers also sought the endorsement of Texans for Life, and endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, but only for the life of the mother. She agreed further to oppose the appointment of pro-choice officials in Dallas government, to support pro-life meetings and events, and to decline the endorsement of any pro-choice organization. Indeed, she refused even to meet with pro-choice Dallas groups. Once on Dallas City Council, she dismissed critics of Operation Rescue protests with the words: "Well, I'm sorry, it's murder and that's that."

Her pro-life conversion appears sharply in the public record. From 1992-93, she served as head of the Texas bar, and in that capacity she fought the new ABA rules supporting abortion--an apparent reflection of her new pro-life stance. Her political contributions also underwent a sharp shift from pro-choice to pro-life. Her 13 recorded political contributions after 1990 went only candidates with 100% pro-life ratings from either Texas or National Right to Life groups. The most striking was her contribution in 2000 to the Nebraska attorney general who defended the ban on partial birth abortion before the Supreme Court. When she moved Washington to work in the White House, she was identified by co-worker (and Harriet Miers' critic) David Frum as "pro-life".

The 1993 speech
In 1993 Miers gave a speech to the Executive Women of Dallas. The first ten pages or so of the 14 page speech focus to some degree on the issue of judicial activism. Without defending judicial activism, Miss Miers points out that in some cases the legislatures have deliberately provoked judicial action; that is, legislators, fearful of making controversial decisions, have sometimes deliberately not acted so that the responsiblity for controversial decisions could be borne instead by the courts. In such cases, Miss Miers indicates, the real responsibility for judicial activism lies more with the legislatures than with the courts.

The controversial aspects of the speech come in two paragraphs:

Where else do we hear a lot today about the Courts. The law and religion. A preacher in Dallas is challenged by suits charging that he is ripping off the helpless and defrauding them with prayer cloths, etc. Abortion clinic protestors have become synonymous with terrorists and the courts have been the refuge for the besieged. The Branch Davidian compound became a sight for speculation about legal responsibilities and legal rights. The ongoing debate continues surrounding the attempt to once again criminalize abortions or to once and for all guarantee the freedom of the individual women's right to decide for herself whether she will have an abortion. Questions about what can be taught or done in public places or public schools are presented frequently to the courts.

The law and religion make for interesting mixture but the mixture tends to evoke the strongest of emotions. The underlying theme in most of these cases is the insistence of more self-determination. And the more I think about these issues, the more self-determination makes the most sense. Legislating religion or morality we gave up on a long time ago. Remembering that fact appears to offer the most effective solutions to these problems once the easier cases are disposed of. For example, if a preacher is committing a fraud and it can be shown, even if he is a preacher, he should be stopped. But if we just think people are ignorant or stupid for giving their money for a blessing, that is different matter. No one should not be able to oppressively require a student to participate in religious activities against their will, but if a student on his or her own chooses to express himself or herself in religious terms, that should not be prohibited. Where science determines the facts, the law can effectively govern. However, when science cannot determine the facts and decisions vary based upon religious belief, then government should not act. I do not mean to make very complex, emotional issues too simplistic. But some of these issues do not need to be as complicated as they have become if people deal with each other with respect and even reverence.
[Typos are reproduced from the original].

What does Miss Miers mean here about "self-determination"? And what light does it shed on her views about Roe?

A few observations.

1. The first paragraph and the second paragraph are asymmetrical: she deals with issues in the first paragraph that she does not address in the second, and vice versa.

2. She does not here address something that she personally took a strong stand on: namely, the defense of Operation Rescue. Abortion clinic protestors have become synonymous with terrorists and the courts have been the refuge for the besieged. If we only had this sentence from Miss Miers, we would never be able to guess that she strongly defended Operation Rescue while on Dallas City Council. Indeed, the terminology might reasonably suggest that she supports here the pro-choice side. Yet she does not do so. Rather, she limits herself to describing the conflict in terms that pro-choicers would identify with; and she moves on to other issues.

3. Although the possible reference to abortion has drawn much attention, Miss Miers is also apparently concerned with the teaching of scientific creationism in the public schools--a major in issue in Texas: Questions about what can be taught or done in public places or public schools are presented frequently to the courts.

4. Miss Miers writes: Where science determines the facts, the law can effectively govern. However, when science cannot determine the facts and decisions vary based upon religious belief, then government should not act. This has been assumed to be a discussion of the abortion issue. But it may well be a reference to the scientific creationism debate, and she may be encouraging the government not to mandate one scientific approach to the issue. This would be consistent with her focus on what can be done or taught in the schools in the immediately preceding sentences.

5. If Miss Miers does have the abortion controversy in mind, does this indicate that she thinks that the principle of "self-determination" coupled with the scientific evidence legitimizes legal abortion? a) This is certainly possible since this was exactly the logic of Roe v. Wade. "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." Miss Miers' answer can reasonably be taken as an explicit avowal of the logic of Roe v. Wade. b) But it is also possible that Miss Miers thinks that the scientific evidence supports the proposition that life begins at conception. This was Ronald Reagan's basis for opposing abortion, and it may well be Miss Miers' position. If Miss Miers thinks that the scientific evidence supports the pro-life position, then she may well be arguing that state governments can legally act to ban abortion. This would agree with her 1989 response to Texans for Life, as well as what might be inferred about how she came to hold pro-life views. This would also be in keeping with the view of Edith Jones in her famous opinion in McCorvey v Hill: "Hard and social science will of course progress even though the Supreme Court averts its eyes.... One may fervently hope that the Court will someday acknowledge such developments [in science] and reevaluate Roe...accordingly. That the Court's constitutional decisionmaking leaves our nation in a position of willful blindness to evolving knowledge should trouble any dispassionate observer not only about the abortion decisions, but about a number of other areas in which the Court unhesitatingly steps into the realm of social policy under the guise of constitutional adjudication."
c) There are some other possible interpretations of this paragraph, but the view expressed in a) would be the best interpretation of the passage as written, for this is the one most obviously in keeping with the emphasis on self-determination earlier in the paragraph. But a) is not a certain interpretation, since from the standpoint of a pro-lifer, abortion ends the unborn baby's right to self-determination.

7. We return then to the quotation from the beginning of this post: the need to listen patiently to the text and try to understand exactly what the writer meant. The most reasonable interpretation of the text is that it is an affirmation of the logic of Roe v. Wade--but it is possible that it has no bearing on abortion at all, or that it reflects the view that the scientific evidence requires the reversal of Roe v. Wade. This question cannot be decided with certainty from the text alone--it can only be decided by questioning the nominee.

Questions for Miss Miers
The president was elected on a promise to millions of Americans about our courts: to choose justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas--both sharp critics of Roe v. Wade. For this reason, it is absolutely unacceptable for the president to nominate or the Senate to confirm a nominee whose speeches can reasonably be held to uphold Roe v. Wade. In the light of the 1993 speech, Miss Miers needs to explain her views on Roe and the history of those views. There has been a tendency of recent nominees to keep silent on Roe. But those who have written or spoken on these questions cannot claim a right to reticence appropriate for those who have not spoken on abortion. It is appropriate to ask Miss Miers questions, and these questions should include:

1. Did you support Roe v. Wade in 1987 when you were a member of Girls Inc? If not, why were you a member of group explicitly committed to Roe?
2. Is Louis Raggio correct when she says that in 1989 you rejected Roe v. Wade as part of your Dallas city council campaign? If she is wrong, then why did you seek the endorsement of Texans for Life, an anti-Roe organization?
3. At the time of your 1993 speech did you agree or disagree with Roe v. Wade? What was your 1993 reference to "self-determination" intended to indicate if not agreement with Roe v. Wade?
4. As of 2005, do you agree or disagree with Roe v. Wade? Have you had any other shifts in views on Roe v. Wade that are not currently a part of public record?

The virtue and the weakness of the internet is speed: a few bloggers have immediately assumed on the basis of the 1993 speech that Miss Miers is a stealth supporter of Roe, now on a glide path toward the Supreme Court. It would be better, and more in keeping with the views of charity expressed by St Ignatius of Loyola, to question Miss Miers specifically as to what her 1993 speech meant. And it would be constructive for future nominees to give us upfront their views on that case.

Postscript: many of us will remember the 1976 flap over Jimmy Carter's "ethnic purity" remark. Carter ran as a Southern progressive who said that the Civil Rights Act had been the best thing to happen to the South in his lifetime. His "ethnic purity" comments were seized upon by the press as proof that he was a closet racist, and only the staunch support of Daddy King bailed Carter out of his difficulties. As Carter's subsequent career showed, he was no racist of any kind, and his real problem was an excessive liberalism. The flap over Miss Miers' speech may well prove to be dispute of the "ethnic purity" type; a quick misreading both of a speech and of a woman's character.

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Catechism of the Catholic Church: Offenses against the Truth
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
--Ignatius of Loyola (CCC 2478)

For key links, see:
http://powerlineblog.com/archives/012062.php
http://bench.nationalreview.com/archives/080767.asp

http://www.nationalreview.com/whelan/whelan200510261633.asp
http://corner.nationalreview.com/05_10_23_corner-archive.asp#080785

2 Comments:

At Wednesday, 26 October, 2005, Anonymous mrp said...

Excellent post.

The first observation that I'll make is to place the speech in the context of the intended audience.

Harriet Miers gave that speech to an association of Dallas female business executives. The speech itself was a ramble through various state and local legal issues of the time. It was not a serious address on the matter of abortion rights.

I'll guess the following: Harriet Miers probably knew 3/4 or more of the participants by name. I'll bet that more than a few were clients or were married to clients of her law firm. Further, one might speculate on the percentage of the ladies present who were pro-choice. Established executive working women - would one say 70% were pro-choice? 80%? 90?

I'll also speculate that everyone in the audience that knew Harriet Miers knew of her pro-life position on abortion. It doesn't appear to have been a secret in Dallas at the time.

Paul at Powerline bristled at the line "Abortion clinic protestors have become synonymous with terrorists and the courts have been the refuge for the besieged." I noticed that the first clause is in the passive voice. Others made "Abortion clinic protestors" synonymous with terrorists, not Harriet Miers.

My guess is that she addressed the matter of abortion briefly with some fudge inserted so that those on either side of the debate would not draw offense.

 
At Thursday, 27 October, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Thanks for your positive comments. It's a shame that we'll probably never know now what her real position was. I wouldn't be surprised if we find out later that she was a sure-fire anti-Roe vote, and that her critics jumped to conclusions.

 

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