Friday, 23 May 2008

Society for informed life choices

I have always been impressed with the way in which the Salvation Army separates its moral preaching as a church from its work among the downtrodden in society. For instance, the Sally Ann church takes historically orthodox views on sexual morality, including related issues such as homosexuality, yet it funds and staffs ministries for AIDS victims. It lays out an ideal while dealing practically with the present reality.

The same is true with an organization like, say, the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver. The leadership there is, to the best of my knowledge, pretty straitlaced evangelical. Yet they had (and may still have) an outreach to sex trade workers in which my daughter was once involved. Volunteers go to the various street corners in the area taking the prostitutes something to drink and showing them friendship. The idea is that should one of these women (a large number of whom are transgendered) want help of any kind, they would know to whom they could turn (and some do). Marvelous.

I would like to float a trial balloon among YMFR (you my faithful reader). The pro-life movement, to a great degree, is like the church. It takes a strong moral position (abortion is murder), and argues for what it sees as the ideal moral solution (make abortions illegal). Often these groups tie themselves very directly to a church, most often the Roman Catholic denomination.

Public demonstrations are usually directed at a legislature, are highly moral in character, and usually pretty obviously Christian. I participated in just such a demonstration in Victoria earlier this month when I m.c.'d the March for Women's Lives. Virtually all of the speakers were Roman Catholic, two being priests in full battle dress (dog collar, etc). One of the marchers carried a huge picture of the Virgin with child. The march was preceded by a mass (with no Protestant or interfaith equivalent available). The speeches were all pretty good, with two or three of them being very creative, passionate and compelling. A common complaint later was that none of the politicians inside the Legislature dared to show her/his face.

The pro-life movement defines itself as the opposite of the pro-choice movement, which it often labels the pro-abortion movement. Of course, the pro-choice people in turn call pro-lifers "anti-choice" and "anti-woman."

Outside of the pro-life movement, the pro-life profile is seen as follows:
1. Opposed to any choice other than life.
2. Desirous of legislating abortion away.
3. Highly religious in character, particularly evangelical and Roman Catholic.
4. Morally absolutist and intolerant.
5. Pro-fetus but anti-women's rights.

That some of the above is unfair stereotype is true but nevertheless the present reality. It doesn't help that the Roman Catholic Church is carrying additional baggage these days with the many scandals involving priests and little children, or the residential schools.

I won't argue that the moral side must not be taught. In fact, the Protestant churches by and large pay life issues scant heed, or actually take an official pro-choice position; e.g., the Presbyterian Church of Canada. So somebody has to do it.

But what if we were to follow the Salvation Army model? There would be those who, taking the place of timorous preachers, would continue to urge a moral examination of the abortion and euthanasia questions. These folks could continue to call themselves pro-life.

But there would be another group who would deal with the present reality and choose their agenda accordingly. I am using "Society for Informed Life Choices" as a working title. Such groups would deal with the issue in an educational fashion, looking at the array of choices that are available to women, and at the crises that cause women to make one choice or another.

The educational efforts (including research as well as teaching/counseling) would take three forms. One would deal with the actual physical issues; e.g., i. Are abortions safe?; ii. Is there a link with breast cancer?; iii. Fetal development; iv. The various positions on mercy killing and the strengths and challenges of each, etc.

Parties in pitched camps often have a hard time being objective about these matters. For instance, a local college newspaper published a front-page article called The Abortion-Breast Cancer Link is a Myth . When Abbotsford Right to Life held a public meeting on the issue, with a stem cell specialist as speaker, representatives from that college were invited but declined to attend. So much for the inquiring mind.

A second form that this education would take would be philosophical and moral in a more general sense. For instance, one of the big problems that pro-choice activists have with the pro-life movement is that women's rights, as they define them, are incompatible with any restrictions on abortion. Is this valid? Are there other alternatives? What is needed is more than just "because the Bible says so" (or the Pope, etc.). Some people, like Prof. Somerville, are doing this kind of argumentation right now, but much more is needed.

Thirdly, we need analysis of the many factors that make a pregnancy a crisis, and discuss these from the point of view of what makes for good public policy that genuinely supports the sanctity of life. The same thing is needed with respect to euthanasia.

What is my purpose in this? We live in a pluralistic and secular society. The church is one of many competing voices, with no more authority or credibility than any other. In fact, the representatives of the marketplace have far more credibility with right-wing governments than other voices, while organized labour has the socialists' ear.

So I am proposing a kind of "think tank" approach that avoids affiliations and positions that carry so much baggage as to paint them into a corner by definition. This would allow for a broader public reception, I should think, than is presently the case.

Is this an idea with any merit? Please fill out the little survey in the sidebar to give me your ideas. Or email a comment for me to publish.


Friday, 16 May 2008

Talking past each other

Observing the to and fro between the Ken Epp supporters and the Ken Epp denouncers simply serves to illustrate again that the ardent pro-life people and the ardent pro-abortion people simply talk past each other.

Like it or not, the nature of our secular society is such that a woman's rights are tied up with a notion of independence that makes it impossible to see a fetus as of equal personhood. Because genuine Christianity, and a number of other major religions, are communally-focused rather than individually-focused, the pro-choice notion of independence makes no sense to people of faith.

Now this secular view of women's rights is, to some degree, an attempt to address wrongs of the past (and the present) that have victimized women far more then men. This is understandable and laudable. But it has come at a cost.

Over the centuries societies have created various fictions to justify other things that are more important to them. The best examples are the legal fictions that black slaves, women and native North Americans were not persons. All of these inventions were for a purpose deemed to be rational or self-evident within the circles that created them (e.g., a strong economy was more important than the personhood of slaves; or, men are inherently superior to women and must protect them from things that they can't handle or understand--like voting). I suspect that the Sudanese political leaders have just such a fantasy to justify what is happening in Darfur. The widespread popularity of eugenics certainly required such illusionary thinking.

In Canada we have two such fictions. First is the medical one, that a fetus is part of the woman and not distinct from her in any way that matters. That this is nonsensical medically hardly needs to be said, but it is nevertheless widely held. Thus we have pro-abortion advocates parading around with signs saying, "Keep your hands (laws, religion, etc.) off my body." It's the unborn baby's body that is at issue, but to the pro-abortion crowd there is no difference.

The second is the hoary chestnut that the state can decide in its wisdom what human beings are viewed as persons. We have decried this over the centuries, but continue to perpetrate it now in the exact same fashion as did those societies of the past.

To maintain this fiction, a number of very illogical positions have to be taken. They are stated routinely in the Canadian Parliament's Question Period if you could stomach watching it for several days. Often misrepresentations and outright lies are resorted to, particularly when fighting with "enemies", that would be rejected as nonsense should they be used in arguing any other cause. But the ends justify the means apparently, so utter drivel is not only proclaimed but acclaimed.

What we have is the clashing of two world views. Because many pro-life Christians have not grasped the importance of "taking the crisis out of a crisis pregnancy", but have focused almost exclusively on fetal rights, their view will inevitably be rejected outright by their secular "foes". It is unlikely that the secular view will change in the foreseeable future. It's up to the people of faith to begin to exercise the creativity necessary to bring society around. The clergy and other Christians did it in the 19th century with the slaves. Let's do it again.

Let's make it possible to have women's rights and fetal rights. That will take a lot more work than organizing a march, however large. In fact, the focus will have to swing from debating the pro-abortionists (as I said, the two worldviews are watertight and admit to no alterations), to redeeming society in such a way that women will not feel the pressure to resort to abortion.

Isn't redemption what we're all about?

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

I normally write new things in this blog. I'm still sorting out some of my own thoughts on life issues, and I find the writing process as the best way to think things through.

But today I am reproducing an article I found, you may be surprised to know, at the Pagans for Life website, one that I had not visited before. The article is old (first published in 1992). I borrowed it, and to some degree it made me blue to read it, despite its strong pro-life worldview. We live in a tremendously polarized society with respect to life issues, and rational thought appears to be the victim--a depressing thought to an academic.

At the time this article was written, Bill Clinton was president, having succeeded Republicans George Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan. Jesse Jackson was still seen as a credible force in political life (he's a bit of a caricature now).

The author, Nat Hentoff, is a distinguished American in many ways, and has retained both his left-wing views and his support for pro-life to this day. You might want to read his bio. I found my old friend Wikipedia to be quite helpful in this regard.

Please read it through to the end. It's a first-rate piece.

Pro Choice Bigots
by Nat Hentoff

This article first appeared in The New Republic (Nov. 30, 1992)

Not too long ago, he was a pro-lifer. He wrote and spoke about the right to life and attacked advocates of abortion rights. "There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of a higher order than the right to life," he would say. "That was the premise to slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation, because that was private and therefore outside of your right to be concerned." He told the story of how he himself had almost been aborted. A physician had advised his mother to let him go, but she wouldn't. Don't let the pro-choicers convince you that a fetus isn't a human being, he warned: "That's how the whites dehumanized us, by calling us niggers. The first step was to distort the image of us as human beings in order to justify that which they wanted to do-and not even feel like they'd done anything wrong."

But as Jesse Jackson decided to run for president in 1984, his fiery pro-life rhetoric suddenly subsided. If being black was a political obstacle, being black and pro-life would raise the odds much too high. Jackson understood that it is hard to be a pro-lifer if you want the support of the left-or just have friends on the left. The lockstep liberal orthodoxy on abortion is pro-choice, as Bill Clinton's election showed and his presidency will reinforce. Dissenters are not tolerated.

Nearly ten years ago I declared myself a pro-lifer. A Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer. Immediately, three women editors at The Village Voice, my New York base, stopped speaking to me. Not long after, I was invited to speak on this startling heresy at Nazareth College in Rochester (long since a secular institution). Two weeks before the lecture, it was canceled. The women on the lecture committee, I was told by the embarrassed professor who had asked me to come, had decided that there was a limit to the kind of speech the students could safely hear, and I was outside that limit. I was told, however, that I could come the next year to give a different talk. Even the women would very much like me to speak about one of my specialties, censorship in America. I went and was delighted to talk about censorship at Nazareth.

At the Voice, some of my colleagues in the editorial department wondered, I was told, when I had converted to Catholicism-the only explanation they could think of for my apostasy. (Once I received a note from someone deep in the ranks of the classified department. She too was pro-life, but would I please keep her secret? Life would be unbearable if anyone knew.)

To others, I was a novelty. Interviews were arranged on National Public Radio and various television programs, and I spoke at one of Fred Friendly's constitutional confrontations on PBS. Afterward, men, women, and teenagers wrote from all over the country that they had thought themselves to be solitary pro-lifers in the office, at school, even at home. They were surprised to find that there was someone else who was against capital punishment, against Reagan and Bush, and dismayed at the annual killing of 1.6 million developing human beings. They felt, they told me, that it was absurd to talk blithely of disposing of potential life. These were lives-lives with potential to someday do New York Times crossword puzzles and dig Charlie Parker. That is, if they weren't thrown out with the garbage.

I felt less alone myself. In time, I found other heretics. For instance, the bold, witty, crisply intelligent members of Feminists for Life of America. There are some in every state, and chapters in thirty-five. Many of them came out of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and now they also focus on blocking attempts to enact death penalty laws. They have succeeded in Minnesota. You won't see much about Feminists for Life in the press. When reporters look for pro-lifers to interview, they tend to go after pinched elderly men who look like Jesse Helms and women who wear crucifixes.

On the other hand, not all stereotypes are without actual models. As an exotic pro-lifer, I was invited to address an annual Right to Life convention in Columbus, Ohio. The event was held in a large field. A rickety platform faced the predominantly Christian crowd.

I told them that as pro-lifers, they ought to oppose capital punishment and the life-diminishing poverty associated with the policies of their Republican president. Ronald Reagan, I emphasized, had just cut the budget for the WIC program (federally funded Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children). He and those who support him, I said, give credence to Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank's line: "Those who oppose abortion are pro-life only up to the moment of birth."

From the back of the crowd, and then moving forward, there were growls, shouts, and table-thumping. Suddenly, a number of people began rushing toward the platform. I said to the man sitting next to me, a leader of the flock, that I had not quite decided that this cause was worth dying for.

As it happened, the souls on fire only wanted to say that I was in grievous error about these Christian presidents because I had not yet found God. Indeed, I often get letters from religious pro-lifers telling me that it is impossible for me to be simultaneously an atheist and a pro-lifer. Some of the pro-abortion-rights leaders whom I have debated are certain of the same correlation. No serious atheist, no Jewish atheist, no left-wing atheist could want to-as my fiercely pro-choice wife puts it-enslave women.

Yet being without theology isn't the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual-Williams Obstetrics, for example-points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born "should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman." Nor, biologically, does it make any sense to draw life-or-death lines at viability. Once implantation takes place, this being has all the genetic information within that makes each human being unique. And he or she embodies continually developing human life from that point on. It misses a crucial point to say that the extermination can take place because the brain has not yet functioned or because that thing is not yet a "person." Whether the life is cut off in the fourth week or the fourteenth, the victim is one of our species, and has been from the start.

Yet rational arguments like these are met with undiluted hostility by otherwise clear-thinking liberals. Mary Meehan, a veteran of the anti-war movement, tried to pierce this pall of left orthodoxy in a 1980 article in The Progressive:

Some of us who went through the anti-war struggles of the 1960s and 1970s are now active in the right-to-life movement. We do not enjoy opposing our old friends on the abortion issue, but we feel that we have no choice. We are moved by what pro-life feminists call the "consistency thing"-the belief that respect for human life demands opposition to abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and war... It is out of character for the left to neglect the weak and helpless. The traditional mark of the left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor... The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient.

Meehan's article provoked an extraordinary amount of mail. A few writers praised The Progressive for having enough respect for its readers to expose them to a perspective opposite to the magazine's. But the great percentage of letter writers were furious, indignant that a "left" magazine should print such vicious right-wing propaganda.

Because defending the killing of the fetus is inconsistent with the liberal/left world view in other matters, the abortion rights orthodoxy has relied on extraordinary hypothetical arguments to justify its position in the twenty years since the Roe decision. Take two examples. In 1971, when abortion was legalized in New York state, an editorial on WCBS radio in New York attempted to define abortion as an act of compassion: "It is one sensible method of dealing with such problems as overpopulation, illegitimacy, and possible birth defects," the announcer said. "It is one way of fighting the rising welfare rolls and the increasing number of child abuse cases."

In 1992 the defense has changed. No longer a means of compassion, abortion is now viewed as a form of preemptive law enforcement. As Nicholas von Hoffman writes in the New York Observer:

"Free, cheap abortion is a policy of social defense. To save ourselves from being murdered in our beds and raped on the streets, we should do everything possible to encourage pregnant women who don't want the baby and will not take care of it to get rid of the thing before it turns into a monster....

"At their demonstrations, the anti-abortionists parade around with pictures of dead and dismembered fetuses. The pro-abortionists should meet these displays with some of their own: pictures of the victims of the unaborted-murder victims, rape victims, mutilation victims-pictures to remind us that the fight for abortion is but part of the larger struggle for safe homes and safe streets."

As a sometime admirer of von Hoffman, I take this to be-maybe-his assuming the role of Jonathan Swift in these hard times, but it doesn't matter particularly whether he's serious or not. Those who see abortion as a cost-effective, even humane, way to thin the ranks of the lower orders are not few in number.

Pro-choicers clearly are only interested in their version of the choice in this matter. But why are the liberals among them so immovably illiberal only when it comes to abortion? The male pro-choicers, by and large, consider this to be entirely an issue for women to decide. And the only women they know are pro-choice. If a man has any doubts or subversive ambivalences, he keeps them to himself because should he speak of them, he will be banished from the company of all the progressive women he knows-and any whom he might hope to know.

Pro-choice women are so unyielding because they profoundly believe that without the power to abort at will, they will be enslaved. Once an abortion is wanted, the fetus, as one woman told me, is-to some women-"the enemy within." In the fight not to be enslaved, liberalism is an abstraction.

Accordingly, I am no longer surprised to find myself considered an external enemy. For years, American Civil Liberties Union affiliates around the country invited me to speak at their fund-raising Bill of Rights dinners. But once I declared myself a pro-lifer, all such invitations stopped. They know I agree with them on most ACLU policies, but that no longer matters. I am now no better than Jesse Helms. Free speech, after all, has its limits.

This disdain on the left for anything or anyone pro-life has clearly taken a toll on the political process. Liberal/left politicians who remain true to their philosophy and oppose abortion are virtually impossible to find. Like Jackson, most simply cave in to abortion rights pressure, fearing that no matter how left-leaning they are on other issues, if they come out against abortion they will be branded as right-wing fanatics. Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, a liberal pro-life Democrat, was forbidden from speaking at this year's Democratic convention. And when The Village Voice later offered him a forum in New York to talk and answer questions about whether it is possible to be both liberal and pro-life, he (and I, the putative moderator) was shouted down by pro-choicers. Meanwhile, the president-elect, who has been on both sides of the abortion question during his career, has already pledged to satisfy his pro-choice backers by requiring that any nominee to the Supreme Court be an explicit and public supporter of abortion rights.

I saw Jesse Jackson recently on a train, and we talked for quite a while about George Bush's awful nomination of Ed Carnes to the federal bench. An assistant attorney general in Alabama, Carnes built his reputation on sending people to "Yellow Mama," the state's electric chair. He would replace Frank Johnson, whom Martin Luther King once described as "the man who gave true meaning to the word justice." (A few weeks later Jackson joined the campaign to defeat the nomination. To no avail. Carnes was eventually confirmed.) I then asked Jackson about another form of execution. I told him that in speeches I often quote what he wrote as a pro-lifer. He looked uncomfortable. I asked him if he still believed what he said then. "I'll get back to you on that," he said. He hasn't yet.