Sunday, January 4, 2009

Abortion in the National Political Arena - a Response to Eric Scheidler

I recently ran across a post on Eric Scheidler’s blog about abortion in the national political arena. Although Scheidler wrote his post back in September and it was specifically geared toward the election in November, the issues raised are more pervasive and more long-range than the 2008 election—especially since the outcome says would have put the issue to bed didn’t occur.

I want to be clear up front that I am not writing this post to pick apart Scheidler’s analysis. I disagree with his conclusion, but I’m responding in hopes of furthering the dialogue and thought process, for two very positive reasons.

The first is that, as Scheidler points out in his post, we’re all on the same side. Regardless of your feelings on the associated legal and political issues, if you’re reading this blog then I’m reasonably confident that you’d prefer to see more pregnancies end with happy babies well cared for in loving arms and fewer in abortion. The second is that Scheidler’s argument is the first rational one I’ve ever seen for basing your Presidential vote on the abortion issue.

In short—though I strongly encourage you to read the original post—Scheidler argued that electing John McCain would finally take the abortion issue off the table in national politics and move the battle to the states, where abortion laws are actually enacted, and allow the national focus to shift to other pressing issues. I’m all for getting the issue off the national table and back to the states, for a variety of reasons. The first is purely practical...aside from the role that U.S. Supreme Court appointments have played over the past few decades, the President has very little to do with abortion issues; that’s governed by state legislation, within the parameters set by the U.S. Supreme Court and (in some cases) their own state constitutions and state supreme courts.

That means the abortion issue weighs too heavily in national elections for two reasons. The first is that it simply isn’t the arena in which the true battle will be fought. The second, often overlooked, is that the President is in fact charged with a wide variety of important duties that have nothing to do with abortion. When abortion issues become the deciding factor in Presidential voting, the issues the President will actually confront on a daily basis take a backseat—which means we may or may not be choosing the right person to handle the actual job at hand.

I would also like to see abortion move out of the national arena because I have an attachment to the U.S. Constitution as written and the system of government it created, and that system of government very explicitly reserved such issues to the states; abortion isn’t a matter of federal law, but efforts from both “sides” have pushed it in that direction—and that’s simply not the system our forefathers created.

I believe, though, that Scheidler’s contention that electing a President who would appoint the right Supreme Court Justice to overturn Roe v. Wade would take the issue off the national agenda is overly optimistic. A comment to his post raised the issue of federal legislation, but I share Scheidler’s view on the relative triviality of that concern. Mine is much simpler and, I think, much more soundly supported by history: For decades, it hasn’t made much sense to make abortion the primary issue in national elections, and yet, there it’s been. Some people—a large number of people—have been basing their votes on this issue for decades. Organizations like Scheidler’s have been encouraging them to do so. And in 35 years, nothing significant has changed at the national level. Roe v. Wade is right where it was 9 Presidential elections ago. That’s 9 Presidential votes cast with an eye toward a single issue that hasn’t moved in either direction (at the national level) during that time. That history makes me highly skeptical that having the issue “resolved” by a change in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of abortion rights would change much in terms of how people choose their candidates. I think, at the risk of offending some voters, that the whole state/federal issue and exactly what falls within the purview of which sector of government and why escapes many very zealous voters. Once you throw into the mix a history of huge blocks of voters focusing on this issue despite the minor involvement of the federal government, the emotion involved, and the complexity of the issue, I don’t think that overturning Roe v. Wade would cause a significant shift in voter focus.

And, of course, there’s an inherent “for us” in Scheidler’s argument. He writes as if the issue would be off the table once Roe v. Wade was overturned, but of course there are millions of voters who feel passionately about preserving Roe v. Wade—would they consider the issue “settled” at the national level and move the battleground to the states? Of course, to some degree they would be forced to do so, because legislation would presumably be developing rapidly at the state level. But it’s much easier to fight one battle than 51, and we have to assume that the primary concern of the pro-choice movement at that stage would be reinstatement of a federal Constitutional interpretation that limited states’ ability to restrict abortion rights. And that puts abortion and appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court right back at the top of the national agenda.

I don’t have an answer. I agree with Scheidler that having babies born alive and healthy is a paramount goal. I agree with the folks he calls “liberal Catholics” that outlawing abortion isn’t enough and may be entirely the wrong way to go about that—our religion requires us to do much more than ensure that people are born alive and then abandon them to their own devices. I agree that the focus on abortion law in the national political arena has a detrimental effect on election results and national policy at a much broader level, but I don’t think that shifting which side is currently prevailing will take that issue off the table. I hope to hear more discussion on this issue from both “sides”.

1 comment:

Naturallawyer said...

Very insightful comment. However, there is an unmentioned problem.

Whether voting against a pro-abortion candidate changes the issue or not, we must not cooperate with evil. So even if the last nine presidential elections have not affected much about abortion policy in the United States, there is no limit to the number of times we are required to oppose abortion.

And you actually provide us the very reason to keep it at the center of presidential elections: "it’s much easier to fight one battle than 51, and we have to assume that the primary concern of the pro-choice movement at that stage would be reinstatement of a federal Constitutional interpretation that limited states’ ability to restrict abortion rights." The president will be pivotal in this fight. If Roe v. Wade is ever overturned (or, miraculously, ignored by a presidential administration), the president will occupy a very important position with respect to abortion policy. If we're committed to opposing abortion, who do we want in office when that happens?

Moreover, President Obama has already demonstrated for us how important the president is to the abortion issue. He overturned the Mexico City policy in his second day in office, and he obviously plans to include rampant abortion funding in his health care package, if he can. Additionally, as Eric noted in his original post, the appointment of Supreme Court Justices plays a major role in abortion policy. A pro-lifer absolutely cannot overlook the abortion issue in electing a president.

Incidentally, on a political structural level, it is possible to be a conservative on the federal level and a liberal on the state/local level. Precisely because it's easier to fight one battle than 51, perhaps we should limit the impact of bad decisions by keeping them at the local level. For example, there is no federal assisted suicide right, but Oregon allows it. We now see how that has affected its health care policies, and the scary policy has not been forced on every state. Oregonians still have the power to change their policy, but it would be practically impossible to change the policy if it was decided at the federal level by the judiciary (which is also why you can be a judicial conservative and a political liberal).