November 13, 2008

Abortion and Obama

A friend of mine -- a leftist Catholic theologian who, I believe, is pro-life -- posted this open letter to Obama on Facebook a few minutes ago. The argument, in essence, is that the new administration can win a great deal of support from pro-life evangelicals and Catholics, but liberal and conservative, by building its approach to abortion policy around `reducing the number of abortions, for instance initiatives to help facilitate adoption, provid[ing] care for pregnant women and children, of a kind that will make it easier for women with troubled pregnancies to keep their children, introduc[ing a] sex education curriculum that teaches responsibility and the sacredness of sex that [Obama] ... talked about in [his] campaign'. That is, through policies that have a more-or-less immediate effect of reducing the incidence of abortion, while still being consistent with the basic pro-choice position.

I meant to write a post about abortion and Obama before the election, but never got a chance. One of the few benefits of being a leftist, pro-choice atheist at Notre Dame this past election cycle has been watching -- and helping -- my colleagues and students think through how to weigh their profound opposition to abortion against their otherwise generally Democratic-leaning views. I actually discussed the line of thought in this letter with my students in a special section of class, and with a couple of my fellow grad students over Facebook.

Some of my interlocutors did not find it convincing. They felt that either the symbolic value of an abortion ban -- or overturning Roe -- would be too important, or that Obama's voting record suggested he would not actually implement these sorts of policies recommended in this letter. I certainly respect their opinions, even as I don't understand the first (that's a pragmatist for you!) and think the second is too speculative.

But many did find it at least very compelling. And about five weeks ago I came to the same conclusion as the author of this letter: I think a genuine overlapping consensus -- an agreement at the level of public policy acceptable to all reasonable views -- is possible in the abortion debate. I don't think it's yet clear what the content of that overlapping consensus will be. That will require a lot of time and a lot of work, both intellectual and emotional. And what I'm seeing, from both pro-life and pro-choice camps, is not a willingness to compromise. Instead, there is a willingness to deliberate, to respectfully speak to and listen to each other and identify points of agreement. I'm optimistic that this will be the great social project of our generation, the d├ętente of the culture wars, that Obama can (and, even more, will) be the leader who takes us in that direction at a national level, and that the recommendations of this letter are the right first step.


MosBen said...

I was thinking about something similar pretty recently as well. I think there might have been an NPR story that prompted me. Anyway, I've long thought that conservatives would be much more productive in their goal of, at the very least, reducing the number of abortions if they dropped their opposition to proper sex ed and contraception. I know there are some problematic aspects of that for conservatives, but like you I think our generation will end up approaching abortion from a much more nuanced perspective than the last. Not necessarily that we'll resolve the issue, but that we'll move past a binary pro-life/pro-choice situation.

Noumena said...

This is purely anecdotal, but the number of social conservatives who are opposed to using birth control and see it as anything more than their own personal view (and hence object to, for example, sex ed programs in public schools that teach teenagers about both abstinence and birth control methods) is rather small, and vanishingly small among people under 35. The anti-BC movement seems to be made up largely of disproportionately loud people over 60.