Last year, in a span of less than six months, President Clinton vetoed the congressional ban on partial-birth abortion, thereby positioning himself, based on public-opinion surveys of the procedure, as an abortion extremist; and spoke publicly, more than once, about his desire, now or in the future, to adopt a child. (His current position on partial-birth abortion remains unchanged: another ban without sufficient loopholes to render it meaningless, another veto.) Through all of this, the mainstream media, sensing no moral contradiction or philosophical dissonance, treated the President’s veto and his adoption longings as entirely unrelated events—which, in fact, is exactly how the President treated them.
President Clinton, of course, is entitled to both his executive powers and his personal opinions. Likewise, the rest of us are entitled to demand an explanation when the President’s exercise of his authority clashes with his voluntarily stated personal views. We are entitled to this because he is President: he wanted the job. It is a job that grants powers of life and death but does not require public revelation of the heart’s desires. So this is how I see it: to use the authority that you and you alone possess in order to allow, under what we now know are false pretenses, the killing of a nearly born baby by means that can only be described as barbaric; and to follow that action with the implication that you could, under other circumstances (i.e., were the baby not killed), become that baby’s father—well, this is a combination of deed and words that demands moral clarification, even in this age of media obtuseness and presidential self-regard.
I will take President Clinton at his word when he says he has thought seriously about adoption. Perhaps he already sees himself as a prospective adoptive father. If so, he should not mind a few questions from an adoptive mother. Does the President realize that, just like happy couples awaiting the birth of their infants, prospective adoptive parents see their children in their imaginations, know them in their hearts, and pray for God’s protection as their children not only arrive in the world but find their way home? Does he understand that every adoptive parent is the beneficiary of a woman’s “choice,” and that as an adoptive father his connection to this woman—whose name he might not even know—and his gratitude for her courage will be too profound for words? Has it occurred to him that his own consideration of adoption—not to mention the list of two million couples waiting to adopt—is evidence in some sense that the elective death of every viable fetus is the death of someone else’s child, perhaps even the child who would become his own?
I do not believe that abortion views should be a litmus test for adoption. I know adoptive parents who, after real struggle with the issue, somehow manage to remain supportive of abortion rights. At the same time, these parents, like all adoptive parents, feel nearly weak with gratitude that their children—unique, distinct, utterly irreplaceable—were allowed to live. Whatever their politics, adoptive parents understand that adoption is an affirmation. One reason the zealots among the pro-choice ranks avoid discussion of adoption is that they share, albeit from opposite ends of the universe, a basic understanding with adoptive parents: adoption happens because abortion doesn’t.
Adoption is not only an affirmation of life, it is an acceptance of the infinite mysteries of the human heart. Past the conceits of biology and the artificial boundaries of race, with the laws stacked against them and by routes unpredictable, strangers become families simply by choosing to do so. This fact is as humbling as it is thrilling.
Is President Clinton humble before the profundities of adoption? Only he can say. What I know for sure is that ideas have consequences, choices reflect values, deeds are of a piece with words, and not even a President—least of all a President—should be allowed to ignore, through moral carelessness, political calculation, personal arrogance, or simple ignorance the inextricable connection between the miracle of adoption and what some call “the right to life.”
To follow to its logical moral conclusion the combination of what President Clinton has said about adoption and done about abortion is to arrive here: Bill Clinton is prepared to look into the eyes of my adopted daughter—or millions of other adoptees—and say this: “Yes, up to and including the moment of your birth, I would have allowed your biological mother to have you killed. And yes, I am fit in every sense to be your father.” The degree to which the President might feel inhibited by that prospect is the precise degree to which he should either reconsider his political position on abortion or shut up in public about his personal affinity for adoption.