In recent days I have had a few arguments with fellow pro-lifers about the Stupak amendment in particular, and political strategy in general. While I see the victory of the Stupak amendment as a victory for the pro-life movement, they see it as an unacceptable compromise with the Culture of Death. Stupak makes exceptions, after all, for rape, incest and ‘life of the mother’, and does not address issues such as the use of embryos, euthanasia, etc.
Naturally I am not in favor of processes which require destroying embryos or euthanasia, nor do I accept that an unborn child loses its right to life because it is a product of rape or incest. When the life of the mother is at stake, as pro-life physicians point out, abortion is not necessary, even if the child will die as a result of the treatment needed to save the mother’s life. In a perfect would we would be able to enact the whole pro-life agenda across the board, and no one would be happier with that than me.
Unfortunately we live in a fallen world and a fallen society. Anyone who wants to wade through the mire of abortion politics as a pro-lifer must understand two political facts: 1) that the majority of Americans support more restrictions but not an outright ban on abortion, and 2) the majority of Americans, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, do not place abortion anywhere near the top of the list of their political priorities.
The question that we all face, therefore, is whether it is better to compromise on the issue of abortion in order to win partial victories, or to reject compromise on the basis of pro-life principles. Some of the folks with whom I argued have crafted elaborate theological arguments (from Catholic and Protestant perspectives) against political compromise. Since I studied politics and not theology, I approach the issue from a political angle.
In my view, it is those who reject compromise that are often the greatest compromisers of all. In my view, if one is going to live in society, one must be there mind, body, and soul. As I wrote in a previous post, I don’t mind if a person wants to form an alternative community on the edge of society in the interests of escaping moral and spiritual corruption; the temptation to do just that is always present for me.
Those who remain within society but decide to “opt out” politically are still tacitly consenting to the society in which they live, as much as those involved in the political process. Yet they act as if they are above it because they refuse to participate. I understand this position too, since I occupied it for many years as part of a much different sort of movement. But it is ultimately a bankrupt position that ends up justifying inertia and rationalizing failure.
If we state as our ultimate goal the recognition of the human rights of unborn children by the law, then our only options are to participate in the political process, or to organize an armed takeover of the government. I am quite certain that most of the naysayers with whom I have argued are not in favor of the latter option, or if they are, realize that it is quite impossible for the foreseeable future (it could only happen if the current government ceased to exist and a power vacuum was opened up). We are left then with the political process as the only realistic means by which to achieve our goal.
But this process has to take into account where the majority of the people are, morally, spiritually, and politically. Things are looking better for the pro-life position on all of these fronts. Young people are less tolerant of abortion than their parents, according to one poll. The social and psychological costs of abortion are becoming more manifest in all societies through declining birth rates, infertility, skewed gender ratios, and moral collapse. It is no wonder that pro-life Democrats are making a strong showing now; the cultural mood is shifting. When Rev. Walter Hoye was arrested in Oakland for sidewalk counseling, his pro-life supporters at trial were young and multi-racial, while his detractors were old white boomer liberals.
For all that, however, we are still at a point where the majority of Americans only want greater restrictions, and aren’t too fired up about it in comparison to other issues. This is a moral failing of our society, without question. It is amazing that a matter of life and death which is so fundamental to our world view can be so casually approached by the majority of citizens, but that is the reality we face. Therefore we must find ways to attach pro-life political objectives to broader political programs that the majority of Americans can accept.
In addition I see great value in striking as many blows against the abortion status quo as possible. Every parental notification law, every restriction of public funding, every conscience-protection clause; each of these make things more difficult for the abortion industry and weaken its overall position. The passage of Stupak demonstrated its loss of political influence and inability to maintain a political coalition. This is not simply a process that has taken place at the heights of power in Washington, but rather a reflection at the top of what has been taking place at the bottom in society for the last decade or so.
Thus when the purist who rejects compromise scoffs at one of these partial victories, I ask them to look at it as part of a momentum that is pushing towards the ultimate goal. The argument that “we’ve tried that for 40 years and it hasn’t worked” is false for many reasons; first, because pro-life politicians are not always doing “the same thing”, secondly, because it is actually starting to work. Not that politicians deserve most of the credit, of course not!
The point is that the cultural shift is underway, and political parties cannot ignore cultural shifts if they want to remain relevant. The growing number of Democrats who break ranks with the hard-line pro-choicers in Congress are being pulled not only by their personal convictions but by the movement of their constituencies, which are becoming less tolerant of abortion and more open to the pro-life position. It is the opposite of the process that pulled Jessie Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, and Ted Kennedy away from the pro-life position a few decades ago when it was less popular. It seems foolish to upbraid and chastise the electorate or their representatives because they aren’t going fast enough. They can, after all, go back the way in which they came.
When all is said and done, I’m actually surprised that this shift is taking place at all. I believe the Culture of Death is still a strong influence in the lives of ordinary people. It may well be that the bulk of the electorate will reach a certain point along its road towards the pro-life position and then stop, unwilling to go further. It may never support outright bans, it may never want to let go of its irrational fondness for the “hard case” exceptions. In the never-ending cultural struggle between respect for life and the celebration of death, the best we may be able to accomplish – though this is not the goal I hold for myself or the movement – is holding the darker forces at bay. Surely that is better than complaining on the sidelines.