Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Abortion

The brouhaha over President Obama’s commence-ment address at the famously and officially Catholic University of Notre Dame this past Sunday, his comments in that speech about abortion, and the pending nomination of a new justice to the Supreme Court, have combined to focus a new wave of attention to and discussion about one of the thorniest problems of modern times. I don’t pretend to have the answer to the Abortion Question, but the President’s remarks at Notre Dame, particularly his call for open hearts and open minds in the search for some common ground on this issue, prompt me to offer this post.

First, let me be clear about my own position. I believe that any woman who becomes pregnant under any circumstance should have the right to make a personal decision about whether or not to bring that pregnancy to term, and if she chooses abortion, that procedure should be safely and readily available to her, regardless of her age, marital status, or ability to pay for it.

That said, I also agree with the President, who said in his First 100 Days press conference on April 29th that “Abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue. I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations. …The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that position casually…they struggle with these decisions…and I think they are in a better position to make these decisions, ultimately, than members of Congress or a president of the United States…that's been my consistent position. The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is, I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion…and so I've got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.”

Camille Paglia, the self-defined “dissident feminist,” expanded on these ideas in her now oft-quoted 9/10/08 Salon.com essay: “Let's take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter. As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice… But the pro-life position, whether or not it is based on religious orthodoxy, is more ethically highly evolved than my own tenet of unconstrained access to abortion on demand. My argument…has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature's fascism… Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder… I [also] support the death penalty for atrocious crimes (such as rape-murder or the murder of children). I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty… What I am getting at here is that not until the Democratic Party stringently reexamines its own implicit assumptions and rhetorical formulas will it be able to deal effectively with the enduring and now escalating challenge from the pro-life right wing. Because pro-choice Democrats…have thus far been unable to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion.”

I may be wrong, but it is my impression that the current expression of Obama’s and Paglia’s support of the right to abortion with an understanding that there are ethical considerations that cannot be dismissed as mere right-wing idiocy is the first time this combination of ideas has been broadly articulated – and I agree with them, both the persons and their ideas, and see within them a glimmer of hope that something akin to common ground can eventually be reached.

I think there are four central points to be considered and resolved. One: abortion is the taking of human life, especially in the more-developed second and third trimesters. Two: the best way to minimize the taking of life by abortion is to use all practical, possible means to reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy. Three: when an unwanted pregnancy does occur, it should be the woman’s decision whether or not to terminate that pregnancy without restriction or limitation by government. Four: women faced with the crisis of unwanted pregnancy must have a greater variety of options to choose from besides abortion.

Like Paglia, I, too, have never understood the pro-choice/anti-death penalty combo and I too am pro-choice and pro-death penalty. Since the dawn of civilization, societies around the world and law throughout time have recognized that there are circumstances in which the taking of another life is justifiable, such as self-defense (or in the defense of endangered loved ones), war, and as the ultimate punishment for the most heinous of crimes. If a woman is unable or unwilling to be a consistent, capable mother and equally unwilling to bring the pregnancy to term, then the taking of life through abortion should be an available option and regarded by law as an instance of justifiable homicide.

Like Obama, I, too, believe prevention is a powerful and woefully under-used practice, and that viable alternatives to abortion are too few and too inaccessible. But in order to improve prevention, increase the number and variety of options, and ensure a woman’s ultimate full autonomy over her body, we as a society, left and right, religious and not, must face certain facts and make definite distinctions between personal values and public policy.

The first and most important fact to be faced is that people are sexual beings, and from puberty on, the sexual drive is very compelling. Many people are uncomfortable with sexuality, particularly active female sexuality out of wedlock, which still carries the stigma of loose morals in some quarters. Those who feel this way must come to accept that this is their personal belief and not a universal truth to be integrated into law and social policy. Therefore, acknowledging the facts of human sexuality and greatly increasing and improving sex education is the first pillar of pregnancy prevention.

The second pillar is contraception – something that should be readily available to all sexually active women and men (and girls and boys) in all its varieties. Persons who oppose contraception and propose “abstinence only” on religious or moral grounds are free to personally behave in accordance with their values. But they should not have the legal right to make their values into society’s laws. Raise your kids with the values you believe in and supervise their behavior to enforce those values as best you can. But also recognize that once they’re physically capable of sexual activity, your children must be equipped to make sexually mature decisions – including choosing abstinence. However, they also need to be well educated about sex (including the nature/expression of intimacy and the responsibility of men in regard to pregnancy and child rearing), being aware of their responsibility to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases with the correct use of contraception, and being able to have ready access to the contraceptive methods that will enable them to act responsibly. This is essential, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

The second important fact is that not all unwanted pregnancies are genuinely unwanted; sometimes they’re just viewed by the woman and those around her as unmanageable. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control says that in 2007, 40% of births were delivered by unwed mothers, up from 34% in 2002. I don’t know what percentage of these were pregnancies planned by single women who wanted to function as single parents. Interestingly, teen birthrates, which were at 50% in 1970, were down to 23% in 2007. They didn’t say what the stats are for women who are married or in otherwise committed relationships who got pregnant, but didn’t want to be.

Unlike Ms. Paglia, I’m not a libertarian. I strongly believe in the state playing a useful, significant role in the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. Among the options that should be available to pregnant women is meaningful, substantial, financial and social service support if they wish to have and keep their babies, regardless of their age or marital status – support they can count on at least until their child comes of age. The policies, programs and services currently in place are mind-numbingly byzantine and shamefully inadequate.

The increase and improvement of adoption policy is another critical component in addressing the abortion dilemma. Many couples (and singles), straight and gay, who long to adopt, are prevented from doing so by arcane laws and judgmental as well as discriminatory policies. If adoption policy was extensively revamped, it would be an enormous contribution to providing a viable alternative to abortion for some women.

And of course, the establishment of wide-ranging, generous, universal health care is a significant element in reducing abortion. If women of child-bearing age have easy, consistent access to quality women’s health care, they are less likely to get pregnant if they don’t want to. And if they do, and abortion is their solution of choice, they will be more likely and able to get abortions at earlier stages of pregnancy, which will be less traumatic for them and for society.

We are an enormously diverse nation filled with a plethora of moral, ethical and religious beliefs. Unless we want to continue to cope with abortion (legal or illegal; it ain’t goin’ away) on a large and socially divisive scale, it’s time to hit the common ground running.

No comments: