“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” So said Solomon close to three thousand years ago. A just principle, declared well and at the proper moment, he argued, is of exquisite beauty, of surpassing worth. It is so because such a word speaks truth, justice, and mercy to us in our own circumstances.
In the midst of the slavery debate, President Lincoln found such an apple: the principle of “liberty for all,” as displayed in the Declaration of Independence. This principle, he asserted, “clears the path for all — gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.” It provided the fundamental argument against the system of human bondage then infecting our country; all human beings, by virtue of their humanity, equally possessed the right to freedom, regardless of immaterial distinctions of skin-tone. The Constitution, he continued, was the frame of silver, meant ultimately to display and enhance this principle.
So has the Declaration spoken a word fitly to us now. That apple of gold is found in its assertion “that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life.” This word, this principle speaks to the debate raging in the states—and soon in the courts—regarding the legal status of abortion. In this calendar year, five states have banned abortion at the detection of a fetal heartbeat. One—Alabama—effectively prohibited it from conception.
In passing these statutes, states have not ignored the Declaration’s fitness for this moment. Of those six, four appealed to the Declaration in defending their effort. Missouri’s law, for example, states that it acts “[i]n recognition that Almighty God is the author of life, that all men and women are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life.’” Kentucky’s statute similarly articulates that “the Declaration of Independence recognizes the fundamental truth that all people have been endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, these states have sought new silver frames to adorn and to enhance the Declaration’s golden apple of the equal right to life.
In each instance, the laws convey a Lincolnian insight. In each instance, they connect the Declaration to the correction of inequality between humans, one based in the failure to recognize some as human.
This use of the Declaration of Independence stands in stark relief to that document’s use—really usurpation—in the recent Kansas Supreme Court case on abortion. That decision provided the most expansive protection for abortion rights in American history. It, too, did so by appealing to the Declaration of Independence, to that document’s guarantee of the inalienable right to liberty. It saw the apple of gold as liberty for all women to terminate their pregnancies. It sought to be a frame of silver to adorn that principle.
Alabama’s law correctly combats this vision, pointing out that “Abortion advocates speak to women's rights, but they ignore the unborn child.” Kansas’ highest court, too, failed by this stark omission. For it ignored the most fundamental question in defining the woman’s or anyone’s liberty—whether its exercise itself violated another’s inalienable rights. All persons have the unanlienable right to control of their own bodies. They don’t have such a right to control another’s very existence. Such is not liberty over oneself but tyranny over another—another at the earliest and most vulnerable stages of exercising his or her right to life. Far from an apple of gold or frame of silver, these constituted their antithesis—a morally rotted fruit within a splintered legal casing.
Thus, these heartbeat bills force us to confront the heart of the matter. We in them address the fundamental questions of what is life and our obligation to that life—regardless of their age, form, and political power. In this needed project, the Declaration again serves as our apple of gold. These laws now stand, hopefully will ever stand, as another fitting frame.