Monday, November 03, 2008

On Abortion and Voting

A lot has been made about abortion in this election, and I know that that issue is central for many when considering for whom to cast their vote. I respect the zeal of the pro-life movement and their deeply held convictions. I cannot possibly address every article and argument out there on this issue, but let me offer some thoughts that reflect how my thinking on this issue has changed over time (but not from pro-life to pro-choice). I apologize for the length, but this issue is important and complex and requires some significant attention.

Let me begin with a few disclaimers. 1) I know this whole email will feel very pragmatic. It is true that I don’t choose to touch on the foundational moral and theological arguments both sides use in this issue, precisely because those are moral and theological, not legal or political. In my mind, this issue will continue on as a stalemate into the indefinite future if the goal is to convince one side or the other to change their fundamental moral and theological beliefs. That is certainly an approach some people can take, but if the last 35 years are any indication, neither side will have a 2/3 or ¾ majority anytime soon. 2) I don’t claim to think that my thoughts are unassailable. I have changed my mind many times on many issues, and I’m open to changing again on this issue. This simply represents some collected thoughts I have at this moment in time on the eve of an important election. 3) I will sometimes use the “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” labels for convenience, but I don’t like them. They divide rather than unite and are not fully accurate because they assume that pro-choice people don’t value life or are pro-abortion. I see myself as both pro-life and pro-choice, the former because I believe every abortion is a tragedy and the latter because I don’t believe criminalizing abortion is the best solution. I think the real issue is not whether one is for or against life, but whether or not one thinks the abortion decision should be outlawed/criminalized or allowed to remain legal in some way, shape, or form.

On to my thoughts for folks to consider:

  1. The GOP has failed to deliver. Each election, GOP politicians pocket millions of votes, including an overwhelming proportion of conservative Christians, by simply saying two words: “I’m pro-life.” But where is the proof? Republicans have controlled the White House 20 of the last 28 years, appointed 9 of the last 11 Supreme Court justices, and held sway over the House and Senate much more than Democrats over the past 30 years. And what has that achieved? A few symbolic laws that don’t actually limit abortions, no significant reduction in abortions, and no closer to outlawing abortions. For “pro-lifers,” maybe it’s time to hold your party accountable. If the GOP knows it can count on ¾ of your votes every election without producing results in 35 years, why would they have any motivation to do anything at all? Politically, it actually makes more sense for them NOT to act and just let the votes keep rolling in if pro-life voters will keep electing them and not require results. In Christian lingo, we say you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I see talking but no walking in the GOP, and they’ve had ample opportunity in control. This isn’t to say that some politicians haven’t tried, but the fact remains that 30 years of primarily Republican control has not advanced the cause much if at all in any practical ways.
  1. The limits of overturning Roe V. Wade. My sense is that the strategy of most pro-lifers is to overturn Roe, hence all the focus every presidential election on the power to appoint Supreme Court justices. The fact that 9 of the last 11 justices have been nominated by Republicans notwithstanding, I think many pro-lifers don’t understand the real limits of overturning Roe. It would not outlaw abortions, but just return the decision to the states, and there is good evidence that most states would keep abortion legal. Those states most likely to enact significant restrictions or even outlaw abortion altogether are low-abortion states anyway, and women would then just cross state lines. A recent study estimated that if Roe were overturned, the number of abortions in this country would stay roughly the same because high-abortion states would likely keep it legal and women in low-access states would travel. And this is not to mention the extreme difficulty in overturning a decided case. Even with Republicans nominating most of our current justices, only 2 have given any indication they’d be willing to re-open Roe. That’s a far cry from this magical and elusive “5th vote.” Simply, overturning Roe is unlikely, and even if it were overturned, it is not the silver bullet that many pro-lifers think that it is.
  1. The unlikelihood of criminalizing abortion. If pro-lifers are really serious about outlawing abortions, the best bet is some sort of constitutional amendment that makes abortion illegal and/or legally defines personhood at conception. One problem with that is that most Americans are against making abortion illegal, including 1/3 of evangelicals. Passing a constitutional amendment requires the highest degree of national and political consensus (as it should), and given current public opinion and the fact that American is becoming more pro-choice over time, it simply doesn’t look like it’ll happen even in the remotely distant future.
  1. The limits of criminalizing abortion. However, for the sake of argument, let’s say we as a nation could criminalize abortion. What would that do? Well, a recent study compared the abortion rate in countries where it is legal and illegal, and it found that there is actually very little difference. Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop abortions, it just makes them unsafe. Some purists may still see criminalization as a moral victory, but in practical terms, it might not mean significantly less aborted babies, and it will certainly mean more sick and dying women. Consider that unsafe abortions are the leading cause of maternal mortality in Latin America, and 1 in 3 hospital beds in Argentina is occupied by a woman suffering complications from an unsafe abortion. Making abortion illegal won’t reduce the number of abortions but will hurt lots more women.
  1. What does limit abortions? So if criminalizing abortions actually doesn’t limit abortions, what does? Contrary to some public perception, most abortions are economically-driven. I think if pro-life people understood the difficult circumstances that surround many of these unintended pregnancies, there would be much more compassion and much less judgment. Most women do not love abortion, but they find themselves in difficult circumstances, and recent research shows that robust social and economic supports for women drastically reduce the number of abortions. It isn’t rocket science to say that coming alongside scared women in desperate situations to help them, not making them criminals, is a better option for supporting women and for helping them carry their babies to term. As for reducing the unwanted or unexpected pregnancies to begin with, for all the preaching that churches do on sexual morality, religion is not the greatest predictor of marriage success or in-wedlock births – education is. Despite perceptions that college secularizes and liberalizes, only 4% of college-educated women – regardless of religious upbringing – have children out of wedlock. Education means greater economic security and the future-orientation needed to wait on having children (and to have no sex or safe sex in the meantime). College-educated women tend to marry more and get divorced less (much less than evangelicals, who have lower-than-average educational levels and a high divorce rate). Given this, it isn’t much of a logical leap to say that breaking the cycles of poverty, improving our failing schools, and giving kids a hope and a future would be more effective in the long run at reducing abortions than making them illegal.
  1. The Democratic shift to reduction. All of the reasons above show why I think the Republican approach to abortion is sorely lacking. Yelling “pro-life” works for political rallies, bumper stickers, and getting Republicans elected, but I think it fails to understand the political and legal complexity of this issue. Purists may still insist on making it illegal as a matter of morality, but I have yet to hear a compelling way that the pro-life movement can get from Point A (where we are now) to Point B (abortions criminalized nationally). Being dogmatic about criminalizing allows the pro-life movement to keep its moral purity, but it is not remotely realistic. Meanwhile, each year that passes in which there is not realistic effort to reduce abortions and find some common ground with the equally dogmatic pro-choice folks means more than million abortions occur while the shouting match continues. This year, thanks to the persistence of many Christian and other voices, the Democrats included a plank in their party platform calling for strategies to reduce abortions. Meanwhile, the Republicans made their platform more punitive and restrictive, allowing for no exceptions and including no language about reduction. (That increased “toughness” is largely a symbolic move to pander to the base, I’d argue, since none of those things are politically possible.) I actually believe that the Democrats, not the Republicans, have advanced a platform that – at the end of the day – will actually mean less abortions and more support for women, not to mention that their approach of reduction is actually politically possible RIGHT NOW because it is an approach that both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” people can support without needing to resolve their deeply-held disagreements about the origin of personhood. And there is already proof that a pro-life Democratic constituency can have some sway in how the party thinks about this issue, which gives hope – not the Dems will turn 180 degrees and support criminalization – but will consider ways to reduce.

These are some of the points that have caused me to rethink abortion as an issue. I still see abortion as tragic, but if the goal is to actually reduce abortions and not just engage in shouting matches, then I think all pro-life people ought to at least rethink what pro-life really means to them and what they see as the best ways to reduce abortions. Some may think this is a tragic slippery slope, but I encourage thinking beyond moral purity for its own sake and about what might actually work in the actual political and legal world. Is the pro-life movement satisfied with its approach over the last 35 years? What has it achieved? Are we any closer today than we were in the 1970s to significantly reducing abortions? If some say yes, I’d be very open to hearing why.

Lastly, I am not necessarily claiming that the Democratic Party is the best party for folks who ultimately want to see abortion criminalized. Honestly, I think that is a losing argument for Democrats. Even if the GOP has failed to deliver abortion restrictions and there is no plan nor realistic hope to do so in the distant future, at least the party is saying they’d like to criminalize as a matter of principle. My argument is more along the lines that a) criminalizing abortion in America is highly, highly improbable, regardless of one's timeline and regardless of which party has control of the WH and Congress, and b) criminalizing abortion nationally, even if it ever were accomplished, would not actually decrease abortions significantly (but would hurt a lot of already marginalized and under-supported women), and c) we know of some other ways to reduce abortions that we can start working on right away without needing to resolve the “where does life begin?” question. If those assertions are true and if the answers to the questions in the previous paragraph about the Republican approach are “no,” then I submit that pro-life folks really do have a choice of parties. This might be especially refreshing for the many people who find a lot of the Democratic social and economic policies more inviting but always get stuck on the abortion issue.

Evangelical writer Tony Campolo has said that if we find 10 children drowning in a swimming pool and we know how to save 6 right away, do we save those six, or do we not save any because our principles are offended that we can’t save all 10? I say we save the 6 and then work at saving the rest.

I am always open to the power of good arguments, so comments and questions welcome.