Middle ground on abortion?

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.


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Silk
    Nov 01, 2008 @ 20:59:21

    My comment has long been, “It’s wrong to kill a fetus. You have to wait until it’s 18 and you can put a uniform on it. Then it’s ok to kill it.” Oddly enough, most Conservatives don’t get it.


  2. Bridgett
    Nov 01, 2008 @ 21:41:54

    Well done. I have nothing to add.

    No, I do, but it’s a small point. 10% in Canada would be 10,000. 10% in the US would be 85,000. This seemed stunning to me at first, until I looked up our population comparisons.


  3. juggling mother
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 06:24:55

    I’m all in favour of reducing abortions. In fact, i’m all in favour of reducing pregnancies in general:)

    But that stance will not go down well with many Christians – Catholics spring to mind, but I am sure there are plenty of others who have the same opinion….


  4. Stephen
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 07:26:23

    • Silk:
    Thanks for the comment. It illustrates my point very pithily.

    • Bridgett:
    Since the U.S. population is approximately ten times the Canadian population, it seems that the per capita rate of abortion is actually higher in Canada. And I think there has already been some “abortion reduction” in the U.S.A., because I’m pretty sure that the abortion rate was over a million per year in the U.S.A. back in the 80s.

    Meanwhile, we haven’t made similar headway here in Canada. I remember the abortion rate surpassing the 100,000 mark in the 1990s. And it seems to be stuck there. Shame on us. I suspect we’re too complacent (from a pro-life perspective) in Canada.

    • Juggling Mother:
    Thanks for expressing your support for the abortion reduction concept. It illustrates the point nicely: you and I are coming from opposite points of view on abortion, but we can both support reduction as a goal.

    Re Roman Catholics: there are always two perspectives to bear in mind. There’s the official position of the church, dictated by the Pope. That, of course, is extremely conservative on abortion (and other sexual issues).

    And then there are Catholic laypeople, who quietly disagree with the church’s position on birth control, female priests, homosexuality, abortion, and other issues. At least, a great many Catholics do.

    Sullivan’s post encourages me because she specifically refers to a progressive Catholic organization which is advocating abortion reduction as an alternative to the usual strategy of overturning Roe v. Wade. So some Catholics get it.


  5. JewishAtheist
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 10:41:19

    Abortion reduction was kind of Bill Clinton’s idea. “Safe, legal, and rare” was his mantra.

    Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to abortion before a certain point in the pregnancy and I think the idea that a days-old fetus is morally a human being is as ludicrous as the idea that contraception is immoral.


  6. juggling mother
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 11:52:03

    I have no objection whatsoever to abortion before a certain point from the embryo’s point of view. Its not something i advocate as great for the woman tho. Even ignoring any psychological issues (cos a large number of women really don’t have any!), it’s not the ideal physical solution.

    Even the “morning after pill” suitable up to 3 days or so causes a violent physical reaction – indeed, that is precisely how it works – and is not recommended more than a few times in a womans life.

    Later abortions (ie a few weeks) are also fairly traumatic physically – and usually inovlve an intrusive medical procedure (not always, but often).

    It’s always preferabe to prevent rather than cure. Preventing unwanted pregnancies* happening in the first place seems eminently more sensible (and for those of us with an NHS – cheaper) than sorting out what to do after the event!

    *and here you and agree again stephen -pregnancies may be unwanted due to lack of education (I didn’t know hat I would get pregnant) or lack of financial assistance (I’d love another baby but can not afford to take the time off work).


  7. juggling mother
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 11:56:00

    I STILL find it shocking that this seems to be a bigger issue than say, education, social care, or – dare I say it – health in the USA. In a country where children still die due to a dental abcess (and yes, i know it’s not typical – but it was possible!), it seems pretty unecessary to electioneer on the worry about the welfare of a hypothetical unborn foetus


  8. Stephen
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 14:48:26

    I understand why Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians regard abortion as the pre-eminent social issue of our times. But I would argue that there’s a certain romanticizing of the fetus involved, too.

    What I mean is this: some Christians care passionately about unborn babies; at the same time, they do very little to assist adult human beings (and their kids) when they find themselves in crisis. The great Republican mantra is “lower taxes”! But the problem with lower taxes is it means the government can’t give people a hand up when they most need it.

    So you have thousand of people losing their homes, and government did not act until it spilled over to impact on the banks and the big corporations. And you have people declaring bankruptcy because of health care expenses. And people who have to keep working into their seventies because their pensions are inadequate for them to retire. And socially disadvantaged groups (e.g. African-Americans) getting a poorer education than relatively affluent groups, which perpetuates their poverty.

    Meanwhile, the McCain camp makes a big stink because Obama dared to speak of “spreading the wealth”. And the Republican base eats up that McCain stuff, even though the base is predominantly evangelical Christians.

    In sum, those folks only care about unborn people. Grown-ups in crisis are on their own: let them eat cake, or pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or something.

    Which suggests a certain romanticizing of unborn babies, coupled with a demonizing of poor people (or middle class people with a health crisis or a mortgage crisis). Grown-ups are somehow deemed to be responsible for their circumstances.

    That’s my roundabout way of saying that Juggling Mother is right to call our attention back to education, social services and health care.


  9. Bridgett
    Nov 02, 2008 @ 20:15:28

    Romanticizing of the fetus: not to share too much about myself, but I was very much against abortion at any stage in pregnancy until I miscarried my first pregnancy at 10 weeks. That’s still pretty early in the process, I’ll admit–someone without proper education might not be completely convinced of her pregnancy at that stage, for instance. But I knew I was pregnant and when I miscarried, yes, it was traumatic and sad and filled me with lots of worries for the future (it was my first pregnancy). And it was physically traumatic; I wound up losing a lot of blood and was nearly hospitalized.

    I mourned the loss of this pregnancy. I wondered why it happened, what I’d done wrong (nothing–all the pathology tests pointed towards severe chromosomal anomalies). But I never felt as though I’d lost a child. My current pregnancy is my fourth pregnancy, but it’s my 3rd child. Maybe it’s a psychological defense mechanism, but I think it’s because the pregnancy was so early on and everything that early is so tenuous. My subsequent pregnancies never felt like more than just potential situations until after week 12.

    So it’s not that I think “go hog wild and abort all the babies you want until week 12.” It’s just that that miscarriage made me doubt everything I’d been indoctrinated with at my Catholic high school (where my senior year theology course was a course in NFP and a guerrilla-style training in how to stop abortion). I kind of look at it from both sides now, I suppose. Maybe this makes no sense. But it did give me a sense of compassion towards mothers who make this decision and then are demonized as baby killers in the press. Baby killers? I just have a hard time with that.

    I am completely in favor of the reduction in number of abortions. Especially abortions where the mother might have made another decision if she had the means, education, support, etc.


  10. Stephen
    Nov 03, 2008 @ 06:13:49

    Thanks for sharing such a personal story, Bridgett.

    Women have a whole other level of insight into this issue, because they experience it with a directness that a man can merely imagine. I still think men have a legitimate voice in the public policy debate, but sometimes it behooves us to remain silent.

    I continue to believe that human life begins at conception. At the same time, it’s clearly a fact that the fetus exists along a developmental continuum from the moment of conception through a complete 40-week gestation period.

    I don’t know how you hold to both of those truths simultaneously, and then apply that information to the abortion debate. But it does make me suspicious of people who are full of compassion for 10-week-old unborn babies, and show so little compassion for adults in crisis.

    Frankly, I think we should be primarily concerned with the adults, who have adult responsibilities, and who live in the centre of a network of interdependent relationships. When a tragedy happens to an adult, it impacts on a community of people. Whereas an unborn baby exists in splendid isolation from everyone except the woman who is carrying it.


  11. aaron
    Nov 03, 2008 @ 09:32:57

    Stephen, Reducing the number of abortions while ensuring that women have ready access to safe and legal abortion if they choose to have abortions is completely consistent with the pro-choice position. I honestly have trouble imagining a single pro-choice individual who feels otherwise.

    In other words, the “compromise” that you’re describing is really something that needs to come from the pro-life side of the aisle, where at least in the United States, the focus is on eliminating legal abortions altogether. In the U.S., it is they who promote abstinence-only sex education in schools, and it is they who promote and legislate various roadblocks to make it more difficult to have abortions (including South Dakota’s proposed law — http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/judicial/2008-10-30-supremecourt_N.htm). It is also they who harass abortion providers (and their patients) to the point that many of them have closed shop (and I’m not talking about those who commit violence — that’s a different issue entirely), so that certain to get an abortion in certain states requires someone to drive several hours. If the pro-life movement were to remove the rhetoric, stop its attempts to restrict abortion, and work toward the goals your post promotes, it would be a very welcome development.


  12. aaron
    Nov 03, 2008 @ 09:34:11

    Oops — my first sentence should start out — Working toward reducing…


  13. Trackback: The Scoop On Abortion « NeWs FlAsH By The ramble master… (with occasional rambles and pointless talks)
  14. Trackback: The 2008 Top (5) Posts! « The Voice Of The People… The mastermind of all teenage psychology.

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