The Obamanation of Desolation

An Audacious Call for Single-Issue Voting

Monday, November 3, 2008

Let me begin by describing my intended audience. I am writing to those who agree that there is some point before birth where a human being becomes a person worthy of the same human rights protections uniformly granted to those of us who have passed through the birth canal. For those of you who believe that no fetus, no matter how late term, should be attributed the full human rights of newborn infants, there is no reason to read on. If you disagree on this first principle, the rest of the logic will be nonsense. So long as we agree that the age of human rights is sometime before birth, it does not matter whether we are talking about fertilization, implantation, first heartbeat, first trimester, last trimester, or last month. My purpose here is to persuade you that if you accept that first principle, voting for Barack Obama and Joseph Biden is unthinkable, indeed desolatory.

Let me also admit up front that what I am asking of some of you--single-issue voting--is something that in this current election I don't have to do. Some of you may largely agree with Obama's policy proposals or perhaps believe that his foreign policy tacks will be more productive than McCain's would be. I am not thus conflicted. In fact, while I do not agree with McCain on everything, I believe I can say that on no issue do I disagree with McCain and simultaneously agree with Obama. So, while I may write that the protection of the unborn is an issue that ought to trump all other issues in this election, there is no way I can prove the depth of my conviction, because it was not a difficult decision for me.

I do know plenty of people who have made such difficult voting decisions, however. As a member of MIT Pro-Life, I visited Washington, DC a number of times. One time, I met Wellesley Pro-Life--a group of three women with rather liberal political views who nevertheless marched and lobbied against abortion. Gaining an audience with an unsuspecting Ted Kennedy, they could declare with all sincerity that they were largely fans of his politics, but wished that he would work to protect the unborn. As pro-life feminists, they may seem an oddity today, but they are in good company historically, joining the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I know another woman who has liberal political leanings, but has been pro-life ever since she was young--long before she became a Christian. She felt compelled to vote for President Bush, despite the fact that her husband thought Bush might be the Anti-Christ. My father has been a union worker for more than 30 years and is now the president of his local union. Even when he was rank and file, he was aware that deals go better for unions when the Democrats are in charge. But despite having parents who've voted Democrat since FDR, he voted against his own self-interest starting in 1980, because he "can't force [himself] to vote for someone who thinks killing babies is a good idea." Indeed, the first Republican that my father voted for, President Ronald Reagan, began as a Democrat and a union leader. He quipped famously, "I didn't leave the party. The party left me."

I am often surprised at how many Americans are unaware of the legal landscape surrounding abortion. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. Abortion is, after all, a decidedly distasteful subject for most people, whether they oppose or support it. That distaste is evidenced by this year's Democratic Party platform, which added a clause to its usual abortion plank (See p. 50.) claiming that its health care and education policies would reduce the need for abortions--a strange statement after a declaration of "strong and unequivocal" support for abortion and opposition to "any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." People don't want to talk about abortion. They would like all of it to go away.

Here is the bottom line: abortion is legal in all fifty states up until the moment of birth. Happily, infanticide is strictly illegal in America, and there seems to be no likelihood that the situation will change anytime soon, as even Obama is apparently ashamed of his repeated votes against an anti-infanticide bill in the Illinois legislature, and abortion lobbyists such as NARAL oppose the practice. Abortion, however, is legal right up until the time of birth. Not viability, not third trimester, but birth.

How can that be? The story begins with the 1960s. At that point, all 50 states had laws that prohibited abortion unless the doctor was convinced it was necessary to save the life of the mother. In 1967, Colorado and California made their abortion laws less restrictive. By 1973, thirteen other states had also relaxed their abortion laws somewhat. Then in 1973 came the Roe v. Wade decision. In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that neither Congress nor the states could prohibit abortion in the first trimester for any reason. After that point, Congress and the states may regulate abortion to some degree. After fetal viability, they may prohibit abortion entirely, except where necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother. But "health" here is the operative word. What constitutes the health of the mother? For that, we have to read Doe v. Bolton, a lesser known decision that was decided by the Supreme Court that same year. In it, the Court defined health "in the light of all factors - physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age - relevant to the wellbeing of the patient." Let me run that past you again. Even after viability, right up until the time of birth, abortion is legal in all fifty states if the doctor can claim that the procedure is necessary due to emotional, psychological, or familial factors related to the mother's well-being. With the recent exception of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, no abortion law has gotten past the Supreme Court without a "maternal health" exception that implies the Doe v. Bolton health definition, thereby removing any significant protection of the unborn. The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act itself only prohibits one particularly grisly abortion method; it does not protect the unborn of the same gestational age from abortion by alternate methods.

But how prevalent is abortion, really? Didn't Bill Clinton tell us it should be "safe, legal, and rare"? The best source of information on abortion rates is the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of America's largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, largely because some states (most notably, California) do not report abortions to the CDC. The number of abortions in the United States since 1973 is approximately 48 million. The current number of abortions per year is somewhere around 1.3 million.

But when do these abortions occur? Aren't most of them in the first trimester, long before viability? The good news is yes, the majority of abortions happen to fetuses aged 12 weeks or younger. The numbers from 2004 indicate that number is 88.7%, or approximately 1.15 million. That leaves 150,000 fetuses per year that are aborted in the second or third trimester. About 60,000 are aborted after 4 months. About 14,000 yearly are aborted after five months.

Those are the facts of the matter, the State of the Union with respect to abortion. If, then, you hold that fetuses of some gestational age are worthy of human rights, and that intentional killing of such a fetus is equivalent to infanticide, then it is important to know how many legally protected infanticides are perpetrated in the United States yearly in order to weigh the importance of this issue. If your conviction is that the age of human rights is somewhere in the last couple of months, then the yearly number of infanticides is probably a couple thousand. If that time is somewhere in the second trimester, then the yearly total is around 100,000. If that time is somewhere in the first trimester--by the end of which all major organs are already formed and beginning of function--then the yearly total is on the order of a million.

What other issues could compare with this grave injustice? Perhaps you are an advocate for taxpayer-provided healthcare. You are convinced that Obama's healthcare plan will save lives. But are you clear how many lives would be saved? How does not providing healthcare for one group of people compare with allowing another group of people to be killed? Perhaps your concern is some other entitlement program that may be more heavily funded by Obama than McCain. But how can poor government funding of an entitlement program compare to government sanction of the killing of thousands to millions of innocent lives? Perhaps you are convinced that Obama cares more about the poor than McCain does. Flannery O'Connor cleverly pointed out, "You can't be any poorer than dead." Or perhaps the concern is Iraq or the War on Terror. If you are a strict pacifist, then you might consider any enemy deaths to be as important a consideration as abortions. But how many enemy deaths have there been? How does that number compare to the yearly number of abortions that you would classify as infanticide?

If you are convinced that some fetuses deserve basic human rights, and are aware of the utter lack of legal protection given to unborn life today and of the number of abortions, then the candidate's positions on abortion should weigh heavily on your decision. But perhaps neither candidate reflects your position. You are a moderate on abortion, believing that abortions early in the first trimester should be legal, while later abortions should be illegal. You disagree with Obama and Biden's view, implied by their unequivocal support for Roe v. Wade, that abortion should be permitted until birth, but you are also uncomfortable with McCain's view that life begins at conception. You would prefer some sort of reasonable compromise, and since neither candidate seems to advocate your view, you figure that abortion shouldn't be a deciding factor for you.

If that it is the case, it is important to recall the legal state of abortion in the United States and consider the impact of each of the candidates. If Obama is elected, no compromise on abortion is possible. Both he and Biden support Roe v. Wade. So long as that decision--and more importantly, Doe v. Bolton--stand, there can be no compromise. There can be no discussion in Congress or in state legislatures about what unborn life should be protected. You can be sure that Obama would appoint Supreme Court justices who support the Roe and Doe decisions. And Biden was one of the main architects of the campaign against Robert Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court, primarily because his judicial philosophy ran counter to Roe. Furthermore, Obama has promised that as president "the first thing [he]'d do is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." That act has never passed Congress, but if there is a significant Democratic win this year, it could conceivably make its way to the president's desk. This act would not only codify Roe v. Wade as federal law rather than judicial fiat, it would invalidate all current protections, such as waiting periods and parental notification for minors, and would also invalidate any attempts at stopping federal funding for abortion and revoke the right of medical personnel and hospitals to conscientiously object to performing an abortion. An Obama win will guarantee the status quo at best. At worst, it could make it even more difficult to protect unborn life in the future.

But what about a vote for McCain? With his Supreme Court choices, might we have a reversal of Roe v. Wade that would go to the opposite extreme and outlaw all abortions in the United States? No. A reversal of Roe v. Wade would not outlaw a single abortion. Instead, it would turn the decision back to the people and their representatives at the state and federal level. As state views on abortion vary, so would state laws. The Alan Guttmacher Institute has an overview of state abortion laws. One third of states have no abortion restrictions that would kick in with Roe v. Wade overturned. For almost all of the states that do have restrictions, the cut-off time is set at viability or sometime in the third trimester. Until there is a thorough change of heart in the American people, there will be legalized abortion somewhere, but at least the most egregious injustice of late-term abortion will be curbed. The result would be a yearly sparing of tens of thousands of lives, if not 100,000. Isn't that worth something?

Do we need to change attitudes? Absolutely! Until we convince everyone that unborn life is worth of protection, our job will not be done. We want to win over hearts, so that we don't have to close loopholes. But consider American slavery in the 19th century. It was not until Abraham Lincoln forced the issue with the Emancipation Proclamation that real progress could be made. Let's not kid ourselves with the convenient logic that we can somehow reduce the number of abortions by making abortion legal, accessible, and affordable in all situations.

Single-issue voting has been much maligned in the past few years. Jim Wallis, a politically liberal Christian, has accused politically conservative Christians of caring about people only until birth, implying that they oppose abortion but do nothing to help people after birth. While I should say that the proliferation of Crisis Pregnancy Centers renders that accusation verifiably false, let me instead emphasize that I am not trying to win you over to political conservatism. Instead, I am trying to convince you to oppose the status quo of abortion in the United States. By all means, remain a liberal or Libertarian or Green and yet oppose abortion. I long for the day when all major political parties in America agree that abortion is an egregious evil. And don't think that such a change in heart cannot happen. It was only 150 years ago that a major dividing issue between Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats was slavery. Now, all major parties agree that chattel slavery is an egregious evil.

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