23 March 2009

TIME published a great article that hits at one of the solutions I talked about in my blog post last week regarding abortion. The article promotes a style of sex-education that is balanced, sympathetic to the lived experiences of teenagers, realistic, yet still affirms the essential value of abstinence.

If a solution is ever to be found to the abortion debate, it will be found in part by programs like the one described here.

Map Update

Here's the latest update of the map I've been working on...it's of the Honbaar/Iamhamuhr region, which you can read more about here. I'm almost done with it. It's taken about five weeks to do, an hour here and there at a time. Click for a larger version.

11 March 2009


Note: This is from a letter I wrote to a very dear family member who asked me what I thought on the matter. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to clear my thoughts on abortion a bit.

Every abortion that occurs is a tragedy. I want to live in a society where abortion isn’t even considered an option. But sadly, we’re not there yet, and sadder still – our current public debate on abortion is a farce. Both sides of this debate have found themselves bogged down by ideological differences, distracted by high profile but irrelevant legal disputes, and manipulated by political parties and candidates more interested in perpetuating a culture war than they are in making women whole and affirming the dignity of human life.

The “partial birth” abortion controversy is but one element of the sad condition of our current debate. Partial birth abortion – itself a political term invented by a Congressman to frame the debate – is a rarely-used clinical procedure that accounts for a tiny fraction of abortions that occur. Sure it’s gruesome, but so are most other abortion procedures (as if anaesthetizing the fetus and dismembering it in the womb is any better), so you must ask yourself, if you believe that abortion is the legally-sanctioned killing of human life, why is the public debate so focused on peripheral issues, such as clinical procedures and whether or not the Department of Defense should allow abortions to take place in military hospitals?

Imagine if your house was overrun with vermin. Setting mousetraps alone is ineffective. What the house needs is a serious cleaning and perhaps some foundation repair. Our debate has become focused on the mousetraps at the expense of housecleaning. In other words, abortions (even the so-called “elective” abortions) usually don’t happen for no reason. Abortions occur because of a crisis. Even if two of the reasons listed in the chart in that link (“unready” and “can’t afford baby”) sound anodyne, they actually indicate something deeply troubling. Collectively, abortions are an indicator of a much broader social breakdown. What is happening to our women and girls in this country? And why aren’t we talking about this? Instead we are debating parental notification, litmus tests, and activist judges. Abortion is a double tragedy: an enormous amount of human potential is being sacrificed and a social breakdown affecting women in crisis is being ignored. We are fiddling while Rome burns.

I blame our political parties. I don’t think the Republicans in elected office have any desire of overturning Roe v. Wade anytime soon, because as long as abortion is legal, they can nibble away at the edges and rack up enough symbolic victories, so that they will continue to rake in the cash, having duped a lot of well-meaning if na├»ve people that they represent the “party of Life.” Meanwhile, abortions in America still occur in the millions. Sadly, some religious leaders in our country have bought this line, among others regarding evolution, privacy, and domestic arrangements. The result is not that a political party has become holier; on the contrary: religion has become politicized. The mundane treads upon the sacred, and there’s a word for that: blasphemy.

On the other side, Democrats have accepted the argument that abortion is intrinsic to freedom and equality, particularly as it pertains to women. Just as Republican elected officials are retained by those who believe abortion should be outlawed now, Democrats are in the thrall of those who hold true the false choice that restricting abortion (or even working to reduce its incidence within the existing legal framework) would undue all the progress we’ve made in promoting freedom and equality. Although Roe may have set a bad legal precedent (at best, abortion law should be dealt with at the state level, which was the case before Roe), it is premised on important legal assumptions – including the revolutionary idea that what consenting adults do in their bedrooms is no business of the government. It’s that privacy thing. I don’t want the government snooping around my house, and I don’t want them snooping around yours, either.

The right to privacy is an important and meaningful right, especially in the modern age. I don’t want to see it go away, and efforts to repeal Roe cause me worry that we would be back to the bad old days before Griswold v. Connecticut, which essentially affirmed the right of a person to buy birth control without government interference. But although abortion rights are related to privacy through judicial precedent, the right to an abortion is not essential to the right to privacy. Nor is it a legal standard that should be hailed as a benchmark of equality. Abortion is a tragedy, an action for which there is no turning back, and a horrible thing for a woman to go through. Instead of celebrating the "right" she has, we should be concerned about the reasons that brought her to that decision in the first place.

So, as I see it, these are the rough contours of the abortion debate. It is a debate over competing values, life and equality, that frame every public conversation we have on this issue. These values are deeply held by virtually every American -- they're the stuff our political life is made of. But debating which takes precedence is little more than a philosophical game of rock-paper-scissors. Who wins? Who doesn't support equality? Who doesn't support life? How can we build a consensus from two values that are shared but are posed in perfect opposition to one another for the sake a of a constrained and ineffective political debate?

I’m avoiding the philosophical question of whether a fetus is a living human being. While important, it’s a question subject to considerable disagreement, and that ultimately biology or religion is unable to answer to everyone's satisfaction. It is a question for scientists and theologians, not politicians.

The life/equality conflict that frames the abortion debate prevents us from solving the abortion problem. Bringing us full circle to the situation of women in crisis, even if a pro-choice person does not believe that a fetus is alive, he or she surely recognizes that a woman in crisis is indeed a terrible thing. Because of this, reducing abortions will require a grand bargain wherein all parties must agree to change the terms of debate. Conservatives will have to embrace some social reforms and maybe even government intervention to support women in crisis. Liberals will have to accept that the majority of Americans oppose elective abortions, particularly late-term abortions, where sometimes that “partial birth” approach is used. They will also have to accept and embrace certain shared values, such as strong families, responsible fatherhood, and the role of faith in shaping a communal destiny.

On the theological and philosophical question of life, everyone will have to set that aside for the sake of achieving the goal of reduced abortions. I know that sounds ugly, but, prayer and protest aside, what we are seeking is ultimately a political and social solution that will require the establishment of common ground.

So why not just hope for an outright ban, either in the form of an overturn of Roe and subsequent bans on the State level, or in the form of a Right to Life amendment in the Constitution? Setting aside the problems of using the Constitution to codify a moral statement that is subject to considerable controversy, what would a ban accomplish? It would shove the situation underground, to shady doctors, to witches' brews and wire hangers, to pro-choice states, or to foreign countries. Abortions will still occur, and women will still suffer. I suppose the Right to Life crowd would celebrate this as an enormous victory, but I see it as Pontius Pilate saw himself when Jesus Christ was sentenced to death: “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it’” (Matthew 27:24).

In order to reduce abortions, to preserve and protect human life and the dignity and well-being of mothers, we must be willing to look at this as a question of politics, social justice, and policy. We need to be willing to support mothers, perhaps even to the extent of encouraging mothers to stay out of the workforce until their children are ready for Kindergarten. We need to be able to provide a better infrastructure to encourage adoption, which could include facilitating in-family adoptions through reduced costs or tax breaks. A mother should not have to worry about financing health care for herself or for her child. Her job and career should be protected while she is pregnant and nursing, if she chooses to go back to work. Day care should be affordable and worthy of the name. To every extent possible, teenage mothers should be protected from shame, ridicule, and abuse, whether from their peers or from their parents. Sex education should place a value on abstinence, long-term planning, and the building of a family. But educators should be realistic enough to acknowledge that kids will have sex, and some of them will get pregnant. And yes – contraception should be available to them through their school counselors. And of course: fathers should be held to account.

These proposals may run counter to the small-government conservatism that is popular among right-to-lifers, but it is nonetheless the path to reducing abortion in this country. I’m going to end with an interesting parallel: Austria, a country where abortion is legal within certain parameters, just as it is here. Our abortion rate is around 20%. Theirs is 3%. What accounts for the difference? I’m guessing it has to do with a strong pro-family culture that encourages women to stay at home with their kids, and supports them in their goal; a Catholic Church that remains a vibrant moral force in the country, support for marriage and other domestic arrangements for those who choose not to marry, and healthy social institutions that provide a safety net for women and children in crisis.