Earlier this year I dipped my toe in the controversial waters of the abortion debate, expressing my conflicted feelings, as someone who sees himself as pro-feminist and generally on the left, but gets queasy about a good deal of abortion rights rhetoric. Now, at the risk of alienating my liberal-left and secularist readership (with whom, on most issues, I am at one), I’m going to get my feet wet again.
Here at Margins Manor we’ve been following the US health reform debate quite closely, particularly as we were in Washington when some of the key breakthroughs occurred. This week, the successful passage of the health care bill through the House, thanks in part to the inclusion of the Stupak amendment restricting federal funding of abortion, has brought the issue back into the centre of political debate – and to the forefront of my mind.
On MSNBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday, Rachel Maddow described the amendment as a ‘poison pill’ that would alienate women from the Democratic Party. I’m usually a huge admirer of Maddow – watching clips from her show on the laptop at the kitchen table is a regular tea-time treat in our household – but on this issue I’m tempted to agree, if only for a swiftly passing moment, with those who criticise MSNBC as a liberal mirror-image of the execrably one-sided Fox News. Whenever Rachel discusses this topic, she always describes opponents of abortion as ‘anti-choice’, a phrase that is just as loaded as the equally partisan ‘pro-life’ (who isn’t?), and which rides roughshod over the complex and conflicted views of the majority of Americans.
Those on the left, like Maddow, who are up in arms about Stupak, characterise it as the denial of state funding for a perfectly legal medical procedure. In theory they’re right. But can abortion really be treated like any other medical procedure - except perhaps when it’s a matter of saving the mother’s life? Defending the gains of the women’s movement is of the first importance, but isn’t it a massive simplification to see federal funding for abortion as only a women’s rights issue? Isn’t the difficulty with abortion that it’s an issue that involves a balancing of competing rights – crucially, the right of a woman to make decisions about what happens to her body, and the right of the unborn child to life? Pretending that having an abortion is as morally straightforward as having your appendix out, or casting aspersions on the genuine ethical concerns of your opponents, is disingenuous.
Looking for a perspective on Stupak that goes beyond the shouting match between the partisans of left and right, I turned to Michael Sean Winters. In a comment on an earlier post of mine, Martin M. voiced doubts about the possibilities for a liberal Catholicism. But Winters, who has attempted to (re-) build bridges between the Church and the Democratic Party, represents exactly the kind of thoughtful, engaged, left-of-centre Catholicism that one had thought extinct, even if he is something of a voice crying in the wilderness.
Writing this week about the amendment to the health care bill, Winters denies that it’s a vote against women:
No, the members who voted for Stupak sent a message to the entire country that abortion is an issue about which most Americans evidence profound ambivalence. Even those who think it should be legal do not think it is something to be encouraged. "Safe, legal and rare" was the formulation Bill Clinton provided in 1996 and it captured the way most Americans feel still, especially those in the center of the electorate.
Like Clinton, Obama has pledged himself to look for common ground on abortion and has identified reducing the number of abortions as an aim that people on both sides of this contentious issue should be able to agree on. I don’t pretend to understand all the details of the Stupak amendment, but it seems to be a step in this direction, and a pragmatic concession that will ensure that the larger, historic project of providing affordable health care for all Americans finally comes to pass. As Winters writes:
What should be clear, crystal clear, is that many of us who support health care reform, who backed the President in part because of his pledge to accomplish health care reform, also cringe at the prospect of health care reform being hijacked by Planned Parenthood to increase abortion coverage with our tax dollars.
I'd encourage you to read the whole article. Even if you disagree profoundly with Winters' position, and are deeply suspicious of the Church's role in American politics, it's important to acknowledge that there is a perfectly respectable left-of-centre argument against unrestricted abortion.
While we’re on the subject, you may find this video (via Red Maria) a little cheesy, and take issue with its implicit message, but it’s good to see the Catholic Church making the positive ‘pro-life’ case for a change, rather than indulging in horror stories and negative rhetoric: