Sleight of Hand
Prestidigitation. It’s not one of our everyday words, but if shortened it’s meaning becomes clear. Presto! And while nothing probably just appeared or disappeared right before your very eyes, a practiced entertainer can make the word work magic.
Prestidigitation delights us because of a magician’s special skill: sleight of hand. The word “sleight” refers to the use of dexterity or cunning to deceive the watcher. Now you see it, now you don’t. But why don’t we see it when we’re actually looking for it? There’s a reason, or more precisely, two reasons — the two ways we pay attention. The first is “top-down” attention, in which we focus on a particular object, event, or task. The second is “bottom-up” attention, in which our minds quickly shift focus to an unexpected event, something like a sharp sound. The two are produced by different parts of the brain, but the brain is not all that powerful. It runs on only 12 watts of electricity, about a third of what powers a refrigerator bulb. Contrary to popular belief, the brain can’t multi-task; it merely shifts focus. So a skilled magician succeeds by occupying both forms of attention. Distracted, we get fooled. Nice trick.
We get fooled by lots of things because we can’t focus on what we need to see. When we get enticed by lower priced goods, we usually fail to see the corresponding lack of quality. And when the lack of quality is combined with smooth talk, we really get distracted. Over the years lots of people have bought the Brooklyn Bridge, or thought they did. Savvy politicians understand this principle all too well.
Hillary Clinton is a savvy politician. Very savvy. And nothing demonstrates it more than her choice of running mate: Virginia politician Tim Kaine. He’s been Virginia’s governor and is currently its junior U.S. Senator, a real plus in a battleground state for the presidency. Kaine’s faith means much to him, and throughout his life he has worked to help the poor and underprivileged. He’s personally opposed to abortion, but he supports abortion rights. And here’s the biggie: he’s Catholic. With the choice of Kaine, Clinton hopes to draw the attention of Catholics to his faith rather than to his support of legal abortion. At very least, she hopes to give Catholics comfort that they can be both Catholic and pro-abortion. Nice trick, if it works.
It mustn’t. To understand Clinton’s sleight of hand, it’s important to analyze Kaine’s views. Kaine states that he has a “traditional Catholic personal position” on abortion, but is “very strongly supportive that women should make these decisions and government shouldn’t intrude.” In other words, Kaine believes that life begins at conception, but he opposes laws that will end or restrict legal abortion. Kaine argues that killing an unborn baby is a personal decision best left to a woman, free from governmental interference.
There are many sleights in Kaine’s position, the first being that the issue of when human life begins is not a matter of belief or faith. It is a matter of proven scientific fact: life begins at conception. That has been true for all of human history — perhaps 200,000 years. The Church is only 2000 years old. Its moral position, one taken long before science proved the facts, is based on the truth that a human has dignity from conception, not just when a baby reaches a particular stage of development. This is separate consideration from the question of when life begins. So Kaine is entitled to his beliefs. He is free to believe that the sun rises in the north. But if he wants to see the sunrise, he should look east — where physical science tells him to look.
Kaine’s next sleight is his claim that he is personally opposed to abortion. If a person would not own a slave but supports another’s right to do so, is that person truly opposed to slavery? If Kaine opposed rape but felt that rape is a personal decision best left to a man, he can hardly be said to oppose rape. Kaine’s “personal” opposition to abortion is not opposition at all. It is his statement of preference. He has no problem with giving any woman the right to kill an unborn baby regardless of his belief. That he would not do it himself is no consolation to the mountain of dead babies left in the wake of his preference.
Kaine’s position on legal abortion reveals yet another sleight. Kaine says as a legislator, he shouldn’t impose his faith into the determination of whether to prohibit legal abortion. But protecting the unborn, the most vulnerable of all humans, is not inappropriate governmental interference. The very purpose of law is to protect the common good. We enact laws prohibiting murder, rape, theft, fraud, lewd conduct, the sale of drugs and alcohol to minors, and all sorts of other wrongs. Those laws don’t unjustifiably interfere with personal decision-making. Instead, they rightly protect the vulnerable from the strong. The Catholic Church supports all of those laws because they best protect the common good of all people, believers and non-believers alike. So although Kaine’s Catholic faith may matter to him, he has missed the point of Catholic social teaching: faith without action is no faith at all.
Besides, Kaine’s record on abortion shows that his claim about opposing government interference is just another trick up his sleeve. As does Clinton herself, Kaine supports the repeal of the bi-partisan Hyde Amendment, which since the late 1970s has prohibited direct taxpayer funding of abortions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld it. But Kaine wants the government to force all taxpayers, regardless of their firmly held beliefs, to pay for the killing of the unborn. A repeal is like to result in over 33,000 more abortions annually, paid for by people who object to it. Isn’t that government interference with personal decision-making? And for a man whose faith moves him, Kaine does not support the religious liberty of others. In the Senate, he voted against an attempt to protect religious groups from providing insurance covering birth control and abortion-inducing drugs. Based on his record, Kaine is more than willing to interfere.
Sleight of hand can be lots of fun. But it’s deadly serious when life is on the line. Don’t be fooled by his nomination. A baby in a womb is not a rabbit in a hat.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.