According to David Barton, in his recent three-part series, the “limited government” enshrined in the Constitution protects basic rights given by God and is precluded from doing anything else by both the Bible and the Constitution. It also, according to Barton, prohibits abortion.
Yes. That’s right. Barton says that, according to the founders, the first example of God-given inalienable rights, is the right to life. And in fact, in Barton’s view, this first of rights is a bellwether for a number of other issues that are at the top of the religious right’s agenda.
I recently wrote about Barton’s view of the Constitution and inalienable rights here.
An inalienable right is, in Barton’s view, “a right to which we are entitled by our all-wise and all-beneficent creator; a right that God gave you, not government. And nothing less than God can take that from you.”
But back to the abortion issue. Barton claims that when the founders invoked the God-given right to life they intended to prohibit abortion. In part this is because, he says, “the scriptures say there is nothing new under the sun.”
But he also argues that this is part of the intended meaning of the right to life because “abortion was a discussed item in the founding era.” As evidence of this he says, “as a matter of fact we have books in our library of original documents—observations on abortion back in 1808.” He says that “early legislatures in the 1790s were dealing with legislation on the right to life on the abortion issue.” But gives no examples and provides no references to any evidence.
Then after this slippery claim he goes on at length with quotes from founders on the right to life, none of which mention abortion. “They understood back then that abortion was a bad deal and that your first guaranteed inalienable right is a right to life. Consider how many other founding fathers talked about the right to life….”
In another example of this same slipperiness, he cites James Wilson:
“Human life from its commencement to its close is protected by the common law. In the contemplations of law life begins when the infant is fist able to stir in the womb by the law is protected.”
But realizing that this won’t do the work of banning abortion from conception, he redefines it moving the focus from the development of the fetus to what the mother “knows”:
“Very simply, he (Wilson) says as soon as you know you’re pregnant [actually, no he didn’t], as soon as you know there’s life in the womb, that life is protected by law. That’s where the technology difference is, we can know that there’s life in the womb much earlier today than what they knew back then. But the point is the same there: as soon as you know there’s a life there its protected….”
Well, the point isn’t the same and even if it were (which it’s not) finding a quote you can partly agree with doesn’t demonstrate that the founders held this view at all.
But Barton’s argument gets even worse as he proceeds to show how the “founders’ intentions” on the role of government that are evident in the protection of the “right to life,” connect a variety of issues in ways most of would not see.
If, he says, someone is “wrong” on the “life issues,” they’re likely to be wrong on the right to self defense (his version of the right to own guns), the sanctity of the home (his interpretation of what it means to not have soldiers in your house), private property (his reading of the rights of the accused culminating in the protection against eminent domain), “the traditional marriage issue” (for which he makes no connection to the founders and/or the Constitution).
Okay, so I can see how he thinks banning guns is an act by government beyond the limits of the Constitution (I’m not saying I agree, just that I can see it). But I don’t know what he means by the “sanctity of the home” found in the Third Amendment.
Certainly there are disagreements over recent uses of eminent domain discussed in the Fifth Amendment, but you have to think he means something bigger by “private property.” There seems no way to construe the government sanctioning marriage or deciding who can get married as anything but an expansion of the power of government beyond that envisioned by the founders.
Barton’s interpretation doesn’t even resemble a close reading of the text with an eye toward the founders’ intentions—or any coherent application of the value of limited government.