Deciding who is human

November 29, 1995|By David R. Boldt

PHILADELPHIA -- If Americans do little else during the coming presidential campaign season, they ought to listen at least once to Republican Alan Keyes, notwithstanding the fact that there is little chance he will be elected to anything, ever.

A Keyes speech on the moral erosion of America is one of those transcendent experiences where you just have to be there. It's hard to explain how he touches the soul of an audience, and saying that he's ''silver-tongued'' (as everyone does) only tarnishes the picture by inadequacy.

To be sure, his technique in mixing speeds and tones, even injecting an apparently awkward moment of hesitation to build a climactic effect, is marvelous.

But it is the coruscating brilliance and moral energy with which he weaves the abortion issue into a comprehensive critique of American society that sets him apart. The result is a test by rhetorical fire for people who, like me, have attempted to fashion a facile truce with themselves on the issue of abortion.

Preaching to the choir

Probably very few in a recent Philadelphia audience felt any ambivalence on the subject of abortion. This was the annual Stand Up For Life dinner of the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Mr. Keyes was preaching to the choir. But having heard him in two briefer speeches before, I wanted to experience the full treatment.

He puts you on the point of his sword, and does not let you slide off. You must confront his seemingly seamless analysis, which connects the abortion question all the way back to the Declaration of Independence.

''We hold these truths to be self-evident,'' he recites, ''that all men are created equal -- and that they are endowed . . . ''

Here he pauses, before unleashing a torrent: ''Endowed not by the Constitution, and not by the Bill of Rights, and not by the Supreme Court, and not by the president, and not by the choice of some man, and not by the choice of any woman over her child in the womb. . . . We are endowed with our humanity and our inalienable rights by Almighty God.''

Those words lift the audience to their feet in an explosion of applause, but he does not intend for the point to stand alone. He argues that if a woman can decide on her own whether her unborn child is humanity or not, then similar decisions can be made by others on their own.

In his only direct reference to being an African American, he notes that ''the last time Americans were given the right to read some human beings out of the human race for the purpose of depriving them of their life and liberty, it was my people who were on the wrong side of the line. . . . The principle of abortion is the principle of slavery.''

The concept that a person can decide what constitutes humanity, he continues, is the ultimate expression of a licentious freedom that kills the kind of love that holds families -- and societies -- together.

Mr. Keyes feels this realization is spreading; he says he now hears everywhere the ''guilty pangs of conscience as people look at this society in the throes of self-destruction, and recognize that it is the consequence of moral decay.''

I, too, am hearing those ''guilty pangs,'' both in myself and in others. By the purest of coincidences, the afternoon before Mr. Keyes' speech I was reading an extraordinary article in a recent New Republic by feminist author Naomi (''The Beauty Myth'') Wolf headlined ''Our Bodies, Our Souls.''

Ms. Wolf has not switched sides on the abortion question by any means, but she acknowledges that ''the pro-choice movement has relinquished the moral frame around the issue of abortion,'' and has to get it back. She wasn't all that clear, however, on how this was to be done. Perhaps she and Alan Keyes should talk.

David Boldt is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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