Over at Patheos, evangelical Timothy Dalrymple is talking about votes, Obama and abortion.
The post is officially about an internet evangelist named Bill Keller who’s encouraging Americans to write in a vote for Jesus Christ rather than voting for either the “enemy of God and a true tool of Satan” (Obama) or the “priest in a satanically inspired cult” who would set up a Mormon theocracy and lead millions of Americans away from the one true faith (Romney). Personally, I think that folks like Keller are doing more than a Mormon president ever would to drive folks away from Christianity, but any critique of Mr. Keller is almost beside the point. He’s ridiculous. He’s a walking, talking hyperbole, and as Mr. Dalrymple puts it, “one starts to suspect that Keller just likes to throw around big numbers he invented in the shower.”
He is, to put it mildly, the side show.
The real story here isn’t so much the fear of a small number of evangelicals writing in Obama (btw, when can we see the birth certificate?). It’s abortion and the fact that, as Mr. Dalrymple says in his post:
And make no mistake. On many other issues, we can say that the differences between the two parties are subtle and prudential, sometimes hard to untangle. But we cannot say that on abortion. The Democratic party simply is the party of abortion. Witness the lavish celebration of abortion “rights” on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention. On this one issue of overwhelming importance for Christians, the Democratic Party is absolutely 100 percent in the wrong. The Democrats are the abortion regime, and if Obama is President from 2013-2017 then he will be able to install an even stronger pro-choice contingent in the Supreme Court. It will set the pro-life movement back by a generation.
Some evangelicals make the argument that Obama’s commitment to social services would reduce the number of abortions, but (a) a flourishing economy will reduce the number of abortions and Romney is better equipped to bring that about, and (2) you don’t vote for the guy who celebrates the Holocaust but whose policies might lead to marginally fewer dying there, you vote for the guy who opposes the Holocaust on principle and wants to bring it to an end.
A vote for Jesus is a vote for Obama. And a vote for Obama is a vote for abortion.(emphasis added.)
Let me be absolutely clear on this. I am politically progressive. I voted for Obama. I am anti-abortion but I am also pro-choice. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m anti-pro-life movement, meaning I think one of the biggest threats to fighting abortion and generally helping to build the kind of country I want to live in is the pro-life movement as it exists in America today. I’m a pro-choice moderate in that I’m fine with some reasonable restrictions on abortion. But I definitely don’t think personhood begins at conception, and I also think this is one of those issues with enough subtlety that the law just isn’t the best tool we have for addressing this issue.
Maybe I should unpack that paragraph a bit. First, I said I don’t believe personhood begins at conception. Most people who are anti-abortion would say “life begins at conception,” but this drives me a bit batty. An unfertilized sperm and egg are both alive. A single-celled bacterium is also alive, and it has a leg up on the sperm/egg: it is its own life, it is not part of some greater whole. But when I cut my foot last week I had no qualms about reaching for the antibacterial ointment. It’s obviously not killing off living material or even killing off unique lives that matters. It’s killing off the life that is human. So let’s say what we mean here.
Next obvious question: what do we mean by human? It can’t just mean a single cell of human DNA, even unique human DNA. What if the human cells we excreted through defecation, urination, sweat, exfoliation, etc. had a mutation so they were genetically unique in some way? And what about twins – would we be okay killing one of a pair of twins, if his genetically-identical sibling survived? No, in my opinion we’re so upset by killing humans because of what humans can do – make a choice and not just be driven by our instinct. A human zygote has the potential to develop this capacity, but he definitely doesn’t have it yet.
Some people would say that’s enough to make abortion immoral. I agree in most cases, though I’d clarify: it makes it prima facie immoral – basically, that it’s immoral in general but that in particular cases other factors can outweigh it. We have an obligation to encourage potential. It’s just not the only obligation and sometimes other obligations outweigh it. That’s why I believe it’s immoral to willingly have sex without being ready to deal with the foreseeable consequences. That means using reliable contraception. If a friend was having unprotected sex under the theory she could just get an abortion if she missed her pregnancy, I’d probably try to help change her actions. Not because it’s my decision but because she’s my friend and taking that kind of approach to your actions just isn’t virtuous. It would be hurting my friend, and part of love is helping people watch out for themselves.
But here’s the thing: this kind of abortion is a myth. I’m not saying people don’t get pregnant because they have unprotected sex; I’m saying this isn’t because they’re so cavalier about the life they create that they’d rather kill it than plan ahead. Rather, I think there are two main issues: poor planning and poorer availability. That’s why I’m majorly in favor of anything that makes birth control available and gives people fact-based education on its use and costs (physical, moral, financial) to use it effectively. More than that, I think it’s crucial to develop a culture of responsibility here, for both men and women and even more, for teenage girls and boys. This involves a radical shift from how we think about pregnancy. We need to tell guys that it’s as much their responsibility to plan for pregnancy (or its lack, if that’s what you and your partner want). We need a culture that gives girls the tools they need to make pregnancy intentional, and that tells boys it’s their responsibilities, too. This is a complicated problem and touches on issues of feminism, health care access, education vs. indoctrination. It’s so much more complicated than making abortion illegal or telling girls to pop a pill every morning.
This brings me to another Patheos post I’ve been wanting to recommend for a while. The atheist blogger Libby Anne makes a very strong case that if you want to cut back on the number of abortions, you should fight to make contraception available and useful, rather than fighting to make abortion. (In the interest of fairness, Bad Catholic has answered her in some depth, here and here. I’ve only scanned the rebuttals, but I can say that both he and Libby Anne use actual facts and numbers, a ready change in the debates over abortion.) I think she goes a bit too far in her conclusions when she says pro-life people who fight against birth control access are being hypocritical. But she’s absolutely right on one thing: if a pro-lifer’s only goal is to prevent abortion, then focusing on overturning Roe is a really, really bad approach to take.
Why doesn’t this make the pro-lifers hypocrites? Because many pro-lifers aren’t so much about saving individual lives as they are about creating a culture that values lives – creating them and nurturing them. To people with a bit of distance this often sounds misogynistic – like what you really want is to keep the woman barefoot and pregnant, as if this is where her only worth comes from. I don’t think this is what many pro-lifers are actually saying. Some really are anti-feminist, but there’s a way to treat motherhood as a good thing without saying women can’t have jobs or have to be defined solely as a mother. I think the best pro-life messages I’ve come across emphasized the value of being a dad and the importance of being a partner with your partner, not just by providing DNA but also by helping form a family this child can grow up in. But that family needs to be purposeful, the result of a choice rather than an accident. You support that culture of life by encouraging people to make that choice – not by arranging things to make it their only viable choice.
So to reiterate here are the key elements of Marta’s plan to reduce abortions:
1. Families and Friends: Educate your sons and daughters on what it means to be sexually responsible. This is essentially moral education. It goes beyond abstinence because even if you think teen sex or casual sex is flat-out wrong, there will come a point when your son or daughter will have sex. And they need to know this isn’t just a passion-driven blind leap off a cliff. Okay, it may be that too, but it has to involve responsibility and planning before you get to that moment.
2. Schools: Educate your students about the facts of sexuality, STDs, and birth control. It’s not your place to tell students whether they should have sex; this is the parents’ job, and it’s presumptive to think you should be doing it. But it is your job to make sure your students have access to the information they need so they can actually act responsibly in the world as it really is.
3. Speaking of access, Society: Provide mechanisms for everyone, regardless of income, to be able to afford both contraception and child-raising. We can and should argue over how best to do this; as a progressive, I like Obamacare generally but am not too crazy about treating contraception like preventative medicine because of the implication that pregnancy is a kind of disease. My preferred method is to work for greater income equality along with tax-supported programs like free contraceptives, nutritious food, and daycare for the poor. I also think offering paternal benefits like sick child days and flexible schedules for both parents are crucial. You may have other ideas that help make pregnancy an intentional choice rather than an accident, and help foster a culture that makes caring for that child a priority. The point is, it can’t and doesn’t end with overturning Roe.
There’s another reason why I’m both anti-abortion and pro-choice. Even aside from needing more than just overturning Roe I think the pro-life music is way too simplistic in its approach to abortion. In my experience they just focus on the fetus’s right to life. While this is certainly part of the picture, there are other things to consider, too. To make it simple let’s talk about adults. Say I knew a certain panhandler would die if I didn’t give him money. There’s no welfare safety net, no jobs available, no one else to help him out. If I kept walking you might think that was a horrible wrong – but would you really think that was just as bad as if I’d shot him in the head? Rework the particulars anyway you like. Say that the panhandler I let die was a former co-worker, a friend, even your own grown child. Those would certainly make me more blameworthy, but they would just as certainly not make you into a murderer.
I believe there are things that mitigate our responsibility, make it less but don’t get it down to zero. Things like lack of access to birth control or lack of realistic options to raise the child. There are other things that do bring our culpability much further, even all the way down to zero, like the fact that the pregnancy resulted not from consensual sex but from coercive sex like rape, sex motivated by intimidation (like sexual harassment), or the situation you see in domestic violence where the abusive spouse will sabotage a woman’s contraception to maintain control over her. There are probably other situations I haven’t thought of. If the pregnancy isn’t the result of a bad choice by the mother-to-be, she isn’t obligated to let the fetus use her body. It may be the virtuous thing to do, and I certainly would praise a woman who chose to do that. But certainly the calculus on whether she has to stay pregnant is entirely different. Not because the fetus has any less of a right to life, but because he doesn’t have any kind of a claim on her body. That’s significant, and it’s overlooked so often.
I’ve said above that I’m anti-abortion but I’ve also implied that I don’t belief you’re a person with moral rights – the kind of thing that can be murdered rather than just killed – from the moment of conception. So why do I consider abortion immoral? A few reasons off the top of my head, which may not apply in every case:
1. Abortion means destroying potential. Potential humans aren’t more important than actual humans, of course, but it’s important to encourage humans where we can. (And the further along the pregnancy gets, the further the fetus moves from potential to actual human – meaning you need increasingly good reasons to get an abortion.
2. Abortion, particularly late abortion, harms the parents. It’s violent and painful and (if the mother has come to see the fetus as her child, as a human being that’s part of her) dehumanizing. I’m thinking of something akin to the Kantian case for treating animals well here. There’s also the physical pain to both the fetus and mother to consider, if any exists.
3. Often abortion comes from not respecting some group (girl babies, illegitimate children, etc.) as much as we should. As such, having the abortion means buying into those thought patterns. The abortion is morally wrong in those cases because it doesn’t value women (or whomever) properly. More than that, it’s a symptom of a disease in need of treatment.
In case you haven’t noticed, though, these are all moral considerations. I can think a certain abortion is immoral and try to encourage those around me not to have them, without thinking the law should make those abortions illegal. I’m more than a bit surprised at many Christians’ (including Mr. Dalrymple’s) failure to see this), since our shared religion is built around choices – the price of bad ones, and the redemptive power of good ones. I think it’s vitally important that we give women the tools they need to make good choices so abortions are as rare as possible.
So I think Mr. Dalrymple has it wrong here. The Democrats aren’t saying everyone should get abortions; they’re saying the law shouldn’t be that barrier. (Do any progressives actually think abortions are a good thing? I sure don’t.) I started this wanting to talk about the difference between morality and the law and I didn’t quite get there. Maybe in another post. But going back to his assertion that you can’t vote liberal without being in favor of more abortions (and said in my best Obama voice): Yes, we can.