I was planning to post on the topic of abortion in connection with the presidential election. Benjamin has now beaten me to it.
I would still like to weigh in and attempt to reframe the debate. People’s thinking on this topic has been regrettably unsophisticated to date.
Barack Obama has been criticized for adopting an extreme position on abortion. In his defence, I’d like to point out that legislation often is cunningly worded to trap Senators in a no-win position. They can’t support the legislation, as worded; but if they vote against it, they will suffer political damage.
(It’s akin to the trap set for Jesus when someone asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” As this blogger points out, “The leaders believe that they have given Jesus a difficult question because he is likely to offend at least one group of people no matter how he answers.”)
Here’s Obama’s defence of his supposedly extreme position:
On an issue like partial birth abortion, I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. [emphasis added] All I’ve said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother, and many of the bills that came before me didn’t have that.
Part of the reason they didn’t have it was purposeful, because those who are opposed to abortion … were trying … to polarize the debate.
Obama wants to escape this willful polarization of the abortion debate. He is seeking out middle ground where it is notoriously difficult to locate.
There are two interesting data points in this post by Amy Sullivan at Swampland.
First, Sullivan notes that the debate is now shifting away from the irreconcilable pro-life / pro-choice dichotomy:
There’s been growing momentum over the past few years behind an alternative approach to the abortion issue, an effort some people refer to as “abortion reduction.” The idea is that whether they’re pro-choice or pro-life, most people agree that it would be a good thing if the abortion rate could be lowered — whether through preventing unplanned pregnancies or by providing economic and social supports for women who would like to carry their pregnancies to term.
The effort got a big boost this year when Barack Obama plugged it in his acceptance speech. And it seems to resonate with Americans who are tired of the shouting matches that usually occur whenever abortion comes up — when Obama mentioned it again in the third presidential debate, focus groups dials soared.
This morning, a religious coalition is going up on the air with a radio ad calling for support for abortion reduction policies. The ad is running on Christian radio stations in 10 swing states.
As long as the debate is bogged down on questions like, “Is a fetus a human being? Is abortion murder?”, we’re faced with a binary Yes / No impasse. But Sullivan is right: we may be able to achieve a broad consensus in support of an alternative thesis, “The incidence of abortion in America (and other Western countries) is too high, and government should take measures to reduce it.”
Second, Sullivan cites a Roman Catholic organization that promotes a broader definition of the term “pro-life”:
A progressive Catholic organization — Catholics United — is sending a direct mail piece to 50,000 households in Ohio and Pennsylvania, asking Catholic voters to consider ways to deal with abortion apart from trying to overturn Roe. And it argues for an expanded definition of “pro-life” that includes opposition to torture, support for universal health care, and alleviating poverty.
Both of these developments are very promising, in my opinion, particularly insofar as they are occurring within the Christian community.
I lean to the pro-life end of the spectrum on abortion, although I think Sarah Palin’s position — i.e., support for the criminalization of abortion even in cases of incest or rape — is extreme and morally repugnant.
Though I incline to a pro-life position, I must remind my fellow believers that we are called to be as wise as serpents. It’s time we engaged in a little realpolitik-ing on this issue.
To stop 100% of abortions is not an achievable objective, in my view. But if Christians could reduce abortions by, say, 10%, there would be approximately 85,000 fewer abortions per year in the USA. If we could save 85,000 lives per year, wouldn’t that be a significant victory? (In Canada, 10% would be approximately 10,000 fewer abortions per year.)
As for broadening the meaning of pro-life — that’s a position I have maintained for years. By my reckoning, neither Republicans nor Democrats are consistently pro-life. Democrats aren’t because of their position on abortion; Republicans aren’t because they are pro-war, pro-guns, and lately pro-torture.
For example: according to one study, 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a consequence of the American invasion. Add to this the deaths of more than 4,000 American soldiers. Moreover, deaths are not the sole consideration: we must also take into account the tens of thousands of people (Iraqi civilians and American soldiers) who have lost limbs, for example, or who will be psychologically scarred for life as a consequence of terrible experiences.
All that for a war that, in Barack Obama’s words, “should never have been authorized and should never have been waged.” How then can Republicans be deemed “pro-life”?
The upshot is this: it is absurd for Christians to focus narrowly on abortion and vote Republican in lockstep. It’s time that people became more sophisticated in their thinking. A specific Democrat (like Obama) may be preferable to a specific Republican (like McCain), all things considered.