The choice of Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee is among the most surprising and intriguing developments to hit the American political scene in many years. That it will materially impact the current electoral contest is undeniable. How and to what degree that effect will manifest itself are open questions, ones likely to occasion debate among political analysts long after the last ballot has been cast.
One effect that is hopefully clear to observers on both sides of the partisan divide is an increase in the urgency of the issue of reproductive freedom. Two facts that obviously figured in to the choice of Governor Palin as running-mate are her potential appeal to fellow women angered at the persistent glass ceiling of American power and her high profile among fellow social conservatives as an advocate of the so-called "pro-life" political agenda. These two forms of appeal work at cross-purposes to one another. This state of affairs should occasion open, frank and critical discussion of the issue of reproductive freedom, though inertia may (perhaps "most likely will" is more apt) cause the campaign debate to run along well-worn ruts, making it as oblique and obfuscatory as it has been for many years.
The Democrats would be especially ill-advised to let such a state of inertia prevail. Already the signs of it are distressingly apparent. At the recent "faith in politics" forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren, when confronted with the comparison of the practice of abortion in the U.S. to a "Holocaust," Barack Obama did not offer a robust defense of the principles of reproductive freedom that have animated Democratic policies on this issue. Rather, he went in to the evasive rhetorical tailspin that has ubiquitously typified Democratic discussion of abortion in recent years: abashedly detouring into the topics of facilitating adoption, educating teens, and making prenatal care more widely available.
This is only one of many examples of how Democrats have ceded control of both the political discourse and their own public image to Republicans in recent years. Through self-censorship Democrats not only grant the Republicans unlimited freedom to frame the issue, they make themselves look like opportunistic pols who do not really believe the content of their own campaign positions. In a race that looks to be very close and in which the stakes are high, such political anemia will once again prove fatal, especially on the issue of reproductive freedom.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Clintonian position that abortion should be "legal but rare," but if Democrats leave off their positive engagement with the issue at that point they will abdicate any chance of depriving the GOP maximum political traction from the nomination of Sarah Palin. Reproductive freedom can not be reduced to a question of the morality of abortion. It is a civil rights issue, and one that impacts women profoundly (though not exclusively).
The failure of Democrats to fully engage the debate over reproductive freedom has allowed flagrant misconceptions to persist among the voting public. Many people, if closely questioned on the issue, would express the view that the legality of abortion is basically a lifestyle issue. "Pro-choice" advocates, so they assume, propose that abortion should be legal to prevent the sexually active from being burdened by any unintended consequences of their behavior. Reproductive freedom thus reduces, in the eyes of many on all parts of the political spectrum, to a defense of an individual's unfettered pursuit of personal happiness. However sympathetic many voters may be to such a stance, this distortion of the issue and its philosophical content saps the defense of reproductive freedom of its moral force and social urgency.
The question of the legality of abortion is one of freedom, but of a kind much more fundamental and constitutionally significant than that of personal lifestyle. Believers in reproductive freedom begin from the premise that whatever else a fetus might be, it is first and foremost a part of a woman's body. "Pro-life" advocates would insist that the central question pertaining to the legality of abortion is "what are the 'rights' of the 'unborn?'" Advocates of reproductive freedom, however, insist that the first question in this debate must be "what are the rights of a woman with regard to her own body?" Tag-lines like "legal but rare" elide this basic philosophical concern and thus trivialize the issue of reproductive freedom and its advocates.
As a result, lost in the current anemic discourse is any awareness that to ban abortion would entail a vast increase in the power of the state. No American would tolerate a law that empowered the government to prevent a woman from having surgery to remove cancer. Pregnancy, like cancer, invariably has profound physiological effects, with potential health consequences ranging up to and including death. We accept that an individual should not have to appear in court to have his or her tumor assessed as benign or malignant, it is not a great leap to the position that a woman should enjoy the same discretion with regard to a fetus.
The important thing to remember in this regard is the reality of state power and how it operates. Imagine a rape victim who has a pre-existing condition that makes her pregnancy life-threatening. As the fetus grows in her body and her health deteriorates over weeks and months she is forced to wait for a court hearing, or to sit in a courtroom and answer the questions of a state prosecutor as to her medical condition and character (is she lying? has she bribed her doctor to lie for her?). Perhaps she will die before the court completes its findings, perhaps she will be allowed the medical treatment she needs and live. Either way, can anything that happens in that courtroom genuinely be called "justice?"
The ethical and moral injustices that flow from this augmentation of state power are exacerbated by the power dynamics of American society at large. One in every six women in the U.S. is the victim of sexual assault during her lifetime. In an average year more than 570,000 women are the victims of domestic violence, ten times the incidence of such violence against men. An estimated 20 million Americans have been the victim of parent incest. To comprehensively ban abortion would be to effectively harness the full power of the federal government on behalf of rapists and abusers. An abusive man who wanted to leverage his power over a woman would only need to impregnate her, ensuring that the state would intervene to insist that he be the father of her child.
Any redemptive objections ("any unwanted child may be given up for adoption") are contingent on the most benign circumstances. For a woman who has been trying to escape an abusive man, falling under his sway for nine months might be a death sentence. Moreover, those who discount such concerns as trivial ("the law already protects abused women") have an unrealistic image of how state power operates. Any legal climate in which the "rights" of the "unborn" were given equal status to those of a woman would empower men in ways that many citizens would not anticipate but are a virtual certainty. Imagine a pregnant woman who has been systematically raped and abused, though her husband has been clever enough to allow no witnesses and leave no physical marks on her body. She climbs aboard a long-distance bus to escape (perhaps fully intending to carry her child to term), but is dragged off the bus by police because her husband has filed a complaint accusing her of intending to abort their unborn child. Anyone who scoffs at the possibility of such a scenario knows little about American legal history.
It is against these injustices that believers in reproductive freedom take a principled stand, in the view that they represent a moral evil far superseding any that might hypothetically flow from legalized abortion. Advocates of a ban on abortion, of course, view the philosophical parameters of the problem very differently. In their eyes the "unborn" have all of the rights of a human being, and thus to legalize abortion is to condone murder. These citizens are entitled to their views, but they are not entitled to have their principles exclusively privileged in the public square.
There is nothing intuitively obvious, philosophically ironclad, or religiously universal about the proposition that the "unborn" have the same moral status and rights as a living human being. The Jewish Torah, for example, though it treats the killing of a fetus as a crime, sanctions it as one many orders of magnitude less severe than the murder of a human being. Moreover, proponents of the assertion that life begins at conception must address the statistic that 40% of all conceptions spontaneously end in miscarriage. It is fair to ask of those who insist that the law be rewritten to redress the inconsistency between the treatment of "abortion" and "murder" if they are as consistent in their treatment of "death" and "miscarriage." For example, every time a sexually active woman has her period late, should investigations be done to determine whether or not she had conceived an embryo? If she had, should final rites be performed for her "child?" Should investigations be opened as to whether her behavior may have contributed to the miscarriage, making her guilty of "negligent homicide?"
The question of whether or not life and all of the rights pertaining to it begin at conception is, of course, a matter of faith that cannot be resolved logically or empirically. For a person of a particular faith, the example I gave above of a rape victim facing death due to her pregnancy is no argument for the legalization of abortion. Her position may be tragic, but it is a function of the will of God. Defenders of reproductive freedom ask whether it is right or just for the government to force women who do not share that faith to submit to its strictures, even at the cost of their own lives. Beyond this, believers in reproductive freedom stand opposed to the degradation of our constitutional system and its safeguards of individual rights that would result from a government that exercised such arbitrary and invasive power over one half of its citizenry but not the other.
The fact that their views hinge on articles of faith does not disqualify opponents of reproductive freedom from championing them in the public square. It does make it fair, however, to assess the political implications of faith-based positions in quantitative terms. For example, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 26% percent of respondents believe that abortion should be illegal in "most cases," 18% believe that abortion should be illegal in "all cases." Support for a ban on abortion is thus a minority view, albeit one that accounts for a substantial plurality of the electorate. These raw statistics, however, make the position appear more mainstream and less contingent on particular religious views than is actually the case. As many as 20% of "pro-life" advocates are against legal contraception. This is a logical extension of religious objections to reproductive freedom, as the attempt to avoid conception may be construed as a contravention of God's will as serious as abortion itself. Though logically perfectly consistent with support for a ban on abortion, this stance reflects a world view and social outlook far more out of step with mainstream American culture than the mere fact of opposition to abortion would suggest. If (hypothetically) this number were subtracted from the block opposed to reproductive freedom, a constitutional amendment legislating the findings of Roe v. Wade would most likely pass ratification.
All of these dimensions of the issue go unseen as long as Democrats continue to run from their own beliefs and seek rhetorical cover in tepid formulas like "legal but rare." If they are to win this presidential contest, they must give full-throated voice to the reasons why a ban on abortion would be a civil rights disaster. At the very least, they should scrutinize their opponents' position and their understanding of its human implications. Does Senator McCain see no connection between reproductive rights and the widespread abuse of women? Does Governor Palin favor a ban on contraception to supplement that on abortion? Some of her more extreme social conservative supporters might be particularly interested in her answer to such a question, especially if it is negative. If Democrats do not proactively engage this debate, John McCain and Sarah Palin will derive substantial political capital from their "pro-life" stance without suffering any of the political liabilities of their assault upon reproductive freedom and Americans' (particularly American women's) civil rights.