21 October 2008

The abortion debate

Here in Canada abortion appears to be on the radar screen of no major political party or politician. After Brian Mulroney's failed attempt to enact a law regulating abortion more than a decade and a half ago, it was dropped from the national agenda, a political hot potato that no one wanted to touch. We Canadians are largely a quiescent lot, unwilling to rock the boat on the most divisive of issues, seemingly content to allow our élites to act on our behalf.

Our cousins to the south have no such qualms about raising and tackling difficult issues. This was exhibited in the third presidential debate last week between John McCain and Barack Obama, where Bob Schieffer brought up the issue. Although views on abortion once crossed party lines some three decades ago, they no longer do. The Republican Party platform is now definitively on the pro-life side, even if not all Republicans necessarily agree with this position. Similarly, the Democratic Party is now solidly on the pro-choice side, with dissidents increasingly relegated to the margins of, if not completely excluded from, the party. Democrats who were once pro-life have gradually been brow-beaten into going along with their party's mainstream.

In the wake of the debate, it would be difficult to imagine two more contrasting responses by fellow Christians than these: At Long Last: Obama, Abortion, and the Courts, by Fr. Neuhaus; and A New Conversation on Abortion, by Jim Wallis.

First, Neuhaus. My perceptions of how the two candidates comported themselves are at such variance with Neuhaus' that I find myself wondering whether we were watching the same debate. I thought Obama came across as cool and composed — even presidential — while McCain looked distinctly ill-at-ease with a smirk pasted across his face. Admittedly, this is only to focus on the images projected by the two gentlemen, which leaves McCain at a disadvantage.

I am also wary of Neuhaus' description of the "two nations" (shades of Lord Durham!) uneasily co-existing in the United States today, which is a little overwrought. I think Jim Skillen is closer to the mark in discussing the two exodus stories that divide Americans. Nevertheless, I share Neuhaus' concern over Obama being put in a position to change the composition of the US Supreme Court in the direction of greater judicial activism. I have little sympathy with Colin Powell's "difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court" as his reason for endorsing Obama, "conservative" in this case referring to someone unwilling to legislate from the bench.

Now to Wallis. It seems to me that his above-cited piece definitely reflects his pragmatist rather than prophetic side. Wallis appears to believe that, in the interest of bipartisanship, the issue of the justice of abortion can be set aside, as long as both parties can be brought to agree on the need to reduce the number of abortions. As noted before, Wallis portrays himself as an agent of reconciliation on this issue, although he admits ultimately to being pro-choice. The notion that innocent life might deserve legal protection he describes as a mere posture.

In the comments to a recent post, "gerard" asks: "Hasn't [Wallis] a point that every step into the right direction is one to appreciate?" Certainly, provided we have correctly discerned which direction is really being taken. Politics has been famously described as the art of the possible. It may be necessary to settle for less than one would like out of the political process. I have little sympathy with those pro-lifers who would sooner bring down the entire political order than tolerate a single abortion.

That said, Wallis' effort to play the political game, if I may be permitted that metaphor, lacks the sort of savvy needed to assess where his own political party is actually headed. Despite his claim to have influenced the Democratic Party's platform (see p. 45.18-31), its policy statement on abortion appears to have hardened in its support for Roe vs. Wade ("strongly and unequivocally"), dropping the old language of wanting to make abortion "rare," consenting only to expand the number of choices available to pregnant women who might decide against abortion. Such language not only makes no dent in the party's pro-choice position; it is entirely consistent with it. In short, there is good reason to think that Wallis and company allowed themselves to be used for partisan purposes while gaining nothing of significance in the exchange. In this respect, his claim to have moved the party in a better direction rings hollow.

What would real progress on abortion look like? I disagree on prudential grounds with those who would begin and end their efforts by working to ban it altogether. However, an expressed commitment to a supposed right to abortion is not even a place to start. In the real world we may have to accept some regulation that falls short of full protection of the unborn from conception onwards, while doing everything within our power to nurture a public consensus in favour of legally defending life in the womb. I suspect that Wallis' functional pacifism prevents him acknowledging the need for the law, with its coercive sanctions, to speak to this, which further suggests a defective understanding of justice.

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