Kamala Harris and the politics of ‘believing in science’

During this week’s Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, there was one moment in particular stuck that has stuck with me. It occurred when Senator Harris attacked the Vice President by asserting that, “We’ve seen a pattern from this administration—and that’s [that] they don’t believe in science”.

While the word “science” can be loaded, especially when it comes to politics, Senator Harris simply has no ground to stand on to portray her ticket as one which accepts scientific consensus no matter the political consequences. That is because when it comes to the question of when life begins, it is no “cosmic” question as her friend former mayor Pete Buttigieg would like you to believe. We know when human life begins. Science tells us when human life begins. Embryologists of all stripes and the textbooks they write tell the same story clearly: human life begins at conception, or as Dr. Maureen Condic precisely describes it, the moment of “sperm-egg fusion”. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is engaged in politics, not science. And it’s a particularly deadly form of politics that attempts to co-opt the prestige and objectivity of science to devalue and dehumanize.

I cannot stress this clearly enough: there is no scientific debate about when a new, wholly distinct human life comes into existence. There is only a political debate about if and when human beings deserve basic human rights. Whether to nurture or harm, whether to respect or hold in contempt, and whether to respond with a spirit of love and hospitality or in a spirit of violence and self-harm—these are the political and philosophical questions, not scientific questions. Science cannot force us to be wise, prudent, or good, but science can inform us of certain objective truths that can guide us as we engage issues of law and policy. And it is a fact that we know precisely when human life begins. Vice President Mike Pence knows it. Senator Kamala Harris knows it. Even former Vice President Joe Biden knows it. 

If a politician believes that some members of the human family do not deserve human rights, let them work up the courage to speak frankly and make their tragic case. But the science of human life is settled, and should powerfully illuminate the path toward full human rights for any politician of good will.