Virtue coerced, or virtue chosen: on abortion, contraception, happiness, and Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat made waves last year when he joined the New York Times as a columnist. A social conservative, Douthat’s views are generally well to the right of both the paper’s editorial positions, as well as those of its star pundits such as Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman.

Today, Douthat wrestles with what must be an uncomfortable truth for any righty: “blue states” tend to have a better track record on family values than “red ones.” (For background, see this Pew report and this National Journal article). Douthat:

…from divorce rates to teen births, nearly every indicator of family life now varies dramatically by education, race, geography and income.

In a rare convergence, conservatives and liberals basically agree on how this happened. First, the sexual revolution overturned the old order of single-earner households, early marriages, and strong stigmas against divorce and unwed motherhood. In its aftermath, the professional classes found a new equilibrium. Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.

For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach. In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.

Douthat and his allies are in a pickle. Clearly, the widespread availability of abortion and contraception have not led to the decline of those families whose members are most likely to support access to these two critical rights. The dichotomy is stark: those most likely to pay lip service to family values (and to vote Republican) are those whose personal choices are most at odds with those same values. Those most likely to delay having children — but to have children in wedlock — are those whose politics lean left. Even more simply, the evidence is stark that access to safe and legal abortion and effective methods of contraception have strengthened rather than weakened “traditional families”. What a painful conundrum for conservatives to confront!

To be clear, I don’t agree with Douthat that the rise in single-parent households is lamentable. The reality is more nuanced. To the extent that the rising numbers of babies born to unmarried women reflects the happy reality that the stigma against “illegitimacy” is waning, that’s cause for at least as much celebration as sorrow. To the extent that community networks and social programs can reduce women’s reliance on unstable or abusive male partners, this is also a good thing. (When it comes to understanding poor women’s choices about reproduction and marriage, there’s no better resource than the magisterial Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage , which I reviewed here.)

From the progressive perspective, marriage ought to be a choice rooted in mutual desire rather than a necessity rooted in desperation. Better fewer marriages, but happier ones — that’s a reasonable goal. And it’s a goal that, as Douthat notes, a fair number of “blue state” Americans have pursued successfully. But he suggests that the price of all of this stability and happiness has been too high:

Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.

So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.

Shorter Douthat: you liberals may be healthier and wealthier and happier, but y’all had to kill your poor blessed babies to achieve these fine things, so you ought to feel ashamed of yourselves. Continue reading

Parental notification reconsidered — and rejected — by the father of a daughter

A friend, noting my past opposition to laws that would require teen girls to notify their parents before having an abortion, asked if my views had changed since Heloise was born. He’s not the only person to assume that becoming a father to a daughter would shift my views. And his assumption was that I would want my daughter to be forced to tell me (or her mother) if she became pregnant and wanted to terminate that pregnancy.

I gave him a one-word answer: no.

I’ve been pro-choice for almost all of my life, save for a brief period (from 2000-2004) during which I flirted with the “consistent life ethic”. When I was under the influence of the Mennonites, with whom I worshipped for a few years, my pacifism became so strong that it included opposition to abortion as well as to capital punishment, war, and factory farming. What seemed congruent with the spirit of Jesus, however, was really just a longing for a kind of perfect consistency. And my opposition to legalized abortion foundered on the rocks of hard reality.

When one of the 16 year-olds in my youth group came to me for help with an unintended pregnancy, I realized that in my gut, I had never for a moment stopped believing in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. I helped pay (quietly) for that young woman’s abortion. And her parents, whom I knew well, were never told. My youth grouper wasn’t ready to have that conversation; all I could do was offer to be present when she told them. She was adamant that she couldn’t tell them (for a while, I was the only adult who knew), and I didn’t push any further.

I’ve written about that before. And now that I have a daughter, a daughter whom I love with an intensity that takes my breath away, have my views changed? What if Heloise Cerys Raquel were pregnant at 16? Would I want her to come to me? Of course. But if she couldn’t come to me, for whatever reason, I would not want the state to compel her to do so. I would hope that she would find someone like, well, me — a teacher or a youth leader whose counsel she trusted. I would hope that if she chose abortion, that she would have easy access to a skilled medical provider — and to friends to support her through the process. Continue reading

“Mommy, was that your friend?” More on Dr. Tiller, two months on.

It’s been nearly two months since George Tiller was murdered, and I still feel the shock of that assassination keenly. The most emotion-driven (albeit also — I’d like to think — reason-and-theology-informed) post I’ve written in 2009 was in response to the killing.

There’s a great piece in the new summer issue of Ms.Magazine about Dr. Tiller, and an extended excerpt is online. Here’s how it finishes:

“The last time I talked to him,” says (Tiller’s friend) Susan Hill, “I said, ‘Why are you still doing this, George? You certainly don’t need to. Why don’t you just retire, enjoy life?’

“He said, ‘I can’t, I can’t leave these women. There’s no one else for them.’”

“When I found out about the murder,” says Miriam Kleiman, “I just kept hugging and kissing my boys and telling them I loved them.” Her 8-year-old asked, “Mommy, why do you keep crying?”

“And I said, ‘There was a man who helped us about Junior’”—the family’s name for the son whose life was unsustainable. “Someone killed that man, and I’m sad.” Later, her son saw a headline and a photo of Tiller in the newspaper and asked, “Mommy, was that your friend?”

“At whatever level,” says Kleiman, emotion welling up again, “my son got it.”

I liked that bit about Kleiman embracing her sons, born after a previous, hopeless pregnancy was ended in Dr. Tiller’s office. I wanted to hug my daughter a lot (even more than normal) on the day Dr. Tiller died. In 2009, for the first time in my life, I watched a woman I love give birth to our child; in 2009, my feminism has become even more personal as the consequence of now having a daughter (as well as a wife, sisters, a mother, and many other wonderful women in my life.) Dr. Tiller wasn’t just a physician who provided a full range of reproductive care, he was a feminist who, as is now well-known, abided by a simple motto: “Trust Women.”

One reason I’m a feminist is that I do trust women. And one reason I admire Dr. Tiller, and continue to be so moved by his life and so troubled by his murder is because in his life and in his ministry (there is no other word as adequate) he embodied what it meant to be a man who believed in women. Going back to John Stuart Mill and Frederick Douglass, there have been men who believed in women’s rights and were willing to fight to see those rights acquired. But very few male feminists have been martyred; very few male feminists took the risks, the calumny, the hatred of so many in order to continue to do what so few would do and what in so many tragic instances desperately needed doing.

I said it on May 31, the day of his murder: I am Dr. Tiller, and treat me as you would him. And while I certainly have no desire to be shot, I continue to find myself inspired this summer — my first as a father — to live out my feminism more fully and more boldly as a consequence of this gentle, good, Christian, feminist man’s legacy.

More on the martyrdom of Dr. Tiller, and repudiating violence in the animal rights movement

I’m still very distressed this Monday morning about the George Tiller murder; the raw emotions that undergirded my post last night are still with me. I’m heartened, as I peruse the blogosphere this morning, to see so many rousing calls to action. I’m moved by the willingness of so many to donate afresh to various organizations that facilitate choice for women. Christians remark often that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. And Dr. Tiller’s blood will plant many good seeds; just counting those whom I know personally, I’m aware of over $10,000 pledged to pro-choice organizations in the past 24 hours in the name of this man, our martyr.

My own commitment to the pro-choice position has been renewed in recent years, and was galvanized by the experience of witnessing my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of our daughter. (More on my journey from pro-choice to pro-life and back to pro-choice here.) The murder of Dr. Tiller has made me even more resolute in my commitment, as a Christian and as a feminist, to supporting women’s right to abortion. And let me make this clear: had I the skills to do as Dr. Tiller did in his life, I would. As I wrote yesterday, I am Dr. Tiller. If you would curse his name and pray for his end, then do the same for me. I assure you that my dollars and prayers and efforts will go to raise up others to take his place, so that the blood of this martyr will be a great seed for justice. For my conservative friends, please understand that this may seem sufficiently appalling as to serve as an abrogation of our relationship. But in the face of this monstrousness (and the less monstrous, but just as dedicated efforts on the part of others to deny women sovereignty over their flesh) I’m putting my proverbial cards on the table. I am Dr. Tiller. If you hated him, hate me.

Let me note, too, that I have been thinking about my own rhetoric on animal rights. I have made it very clear that, as a vegan who believes that rights are grounded as much in sentience as in humanity, I’m opposed to factory farming and scientific experimentation using animals. But I want to reiterate again my absolute rejection of any use of violence against persons in order to liberate animals. I want to defund animal research. I belong to organizations that work to defund animal research. But I repudiate anyone within the vegan or AR movements who advocates violence. The man who shot Dr. Tiller was nurtured by the language of some in the pro-life movement, a language which demonizes those on the other side and creates a culture in which such murders are seen as justified. Though it is worth noting that the Animal Liberation Front or its affiliates have never been responsible for the death of a factory farmer or medical researcher, let me say again — again, again — the final victory will be won by acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and by concentrated political action.

Those of us who believe passionately in making illegal what is yet legal (as the anti-abortion movement does, and as we in the animal rights community do) must be even more explicit about rejecting language that condones violence as a means to achieving the ends we long for. And we must do more than reject the language of violence; we must repudiate those in our movements who are willing to countenance bloodshed. Then and only then can we make a claim to legitimacy and understanding. I haven’t been clear enough on this issue in the past. I am now.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”: of a doctor, an usher, and the answerer of a call

It’s been years since I’ve been as shocked by an assassination as I was by today’s cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller. I’d followed Dr. Tiller’s career since his town of Wichita, Kansas, became “ground zero” for the anti-abortion movement in the early 1990s; I knew he had been shot before, faced harassment and death threats. I knew he had also persevered with quiet dignity to provide late-term abortions and other reproductive services to women in his community and from across the country, often at little or no cost. I knew he was tops on the “target list” for those who were willing to kill abortion providers. And yet I was still stunned and heartsick when I saw the news this morning.

But here’s one thing I didn’t know. Dr. Tiller was a Christian, active in his local Lutheran church. It was at that church where he died this morning, ushering just as he had done on countless Sundays before. I had no reason to suspect he wasn’t a church-goer, of course. As a Christian who has wrestled mightily with my own views on abortion before coming to what is today a staunchly pro-choice position, I know full well that it is possible to believe in a loving sovereign God (as the Calvinists always put it) and to believe in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. (I belong to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and have heard that good Dr. Tiller did as well.) Dr. Tiller gave hope and comfort to women who were often in desperate, medically dangerous situations; far from being a craven Dr. Death, he was a gentle, dignified man who did what he did out of a profound commitment.

That commitment was to his patients, but it was also clearly to his faith. He had faced death so many times, faced trials and lawsuits and threat after threat. Where did he find the strength and the courage to continue to do what he did? Did he find it in a sense of an ethical obligation to women who had nowhere else to turn? Certainly. Did he also find it in his belief in a loving God who had called him to do something hard, something that many would not understand, something that would cause him to risk his very life? I suspect he did. Lutherans are famous for their sense of “calling”; it was Luther himself who first began to emphasize the idea that each of us has a “calling”, a vocation, outside of our role in the church. And it was another Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the famous Cost of Discipleship, with its devastating line: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer, of course, was martyred by the Nazis for many reasons, not least because he stood up for the dignity of creation in the face of the monstrous evil that was the Third Reich. George Tiller was martyred today, not least because he stood — and stood publicly and openly — for the God-given dignity of women in the face of a movement that seeks to deny women their full humanity.

(I am well aware that today, some loathsome folks have dared compare Tiller’s murderer to Bonhoeffer; the latter, of course, was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Some see abortion as akin to the Shoah, and an attack on Tiller as akin to the less-successful one on Hitler. But these bloggers have it back-to-front. It was Tiller himself who was far more like the gentle German pastor, and his assassin far more akin to those who martyred him.)

According to the Wikipedia entry on his life, Dr. Tiller had originally planned to be a dermatologist. Few emergencies or controversies in dermatology, after all; his life would have an easy and untroubled one, no doubt far more lucrative to boot.* But something changed, as he himself said:

In July of 1970, I planned to start a dermatology residency. On August 21, 1970, my father, mother, sister and brother-in-law were killed in an aircraft accident. My sister had a 12-month-old boy, Maurice. They had written out a will in longhand the evening before the airplane crash, that I was to raise Maurice. So we took charge of my sister’s boy and we moved back to Wichita. My game plan was to spend six months here, close out my father’s huge family medicine practice.

We Christians know a lot about game plans. As we say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. Tiller:

And I found out that in 1945, ’46, or ’47, a young woman for whom Dad had already delivered two babies came to him pregnant again right away, and she said something to the effect that, “I can’t take it, can you help me?” That is apparently the way you asked for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal. Dad said, “No. Big families are in vogue, by the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She had a non-healthcare provider abortion and came back and died.

I can understand how upset my father was. I do not know whether he did 100 abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.

When it became legal and my patients began to ask for it, I’d say, “Sure. It’s a legal process.” I was a service provider. I was a physician. The patients needed abortions, and I did them. It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.

Bold emphases mine. God didn’t want George Tiller doing facial peels, removing basal cells, and comforting the be-pimpled. God had something else in mind for him, something that in the end George was one of the few to do. Dr. Tiller heard a call in the midst of a family tragedy, and answered it. He lived and — died — in a very Lutheran way. Christ called Him, and George said “yes.”

George Tiller died today while ushering. Ushers quietly and unassumingly help folks to find their place in God’s house. Ushers, in many churches, are the first to tell a visiting newcomer that he or she is welcome. Dr. Tiller did that at his church on Sunday mornings, and he did it at his clinic all week long when he welcomed in women who had nowhere else to turn. And he was murdered in cold blood today as he did this precious work. I have not peeked at the Lamb’s Book of Life; but I say this with all the certainty that my rebirth in Christ has given me: I think George Tiller’s name is in that book, and that he has been welcomed today with love and rejoicing on the far side of the Jordan.

When I first heard the news, I prayed. I got angry, very angry. And then I donated money, as that seemed the only tangible way I had at my disposal to strike back against this act of evil, this killing of a righteous man who knew how to do what was needed in the face of so much danger and hatred. I give monthly to Planned Parenthood, but at Heather Corinna‘s suggestion, gave a large donation today to the National Abortion Federation. I gave a smaller donation to Medical Students for Choice, which works to raise up the next generation of abortion providers. I gave in memory of Dr. Tiller, of course, but also in the name of my wife, my daughter, my mother, my sisters, and all of the women in my life. As I’ve written before, any lingering sense I had that I might still place a foot in the anti-choice camp ended the day I saw my wife give birth to our daughter. I pray that my daughter will never be in the situation that so many of Dr. Tiller’s patients were in. But if she should be, I pray a doctor of his decency and caliber will be there for her.

Please check out a list that Jill has put together at Feministe. Many suggestions for where to give in Dr. Tiller’s name, and more in the comments.

Any comments here suggesting that what was done today was somehow justified will obviously be deleted.

I am George Tiller. If you support the thug who killed the good doctor, know that I stand with Dr. Tiller and give time and money to support his work. Come for me. And if you stand for a woman’s right to choose, even if it is a hard choice, then say it and repeat it: I am George Tiller. They can’t shoot us all.

*Update: Having had time to sleep on this post, I stand by all of it — save my unfair mischaracterization of dermatologists. I have dear friends who are dermatologists, and they do far more than I suggested in this piece. My apologies.

Dan Whitmarsh on pro-life policies

Last week, I put up a brief challenge to those who oppose abortion rights: what are your policy prescriptions? What legal penalties, for women and for physicians, do you propose? The pro-life community owes us clarity; if they want us to be conscious of abortion as a moral wrong, they must also be explicit about what they regard as the right consequences for seeking or providing an abortion. Dan Whitmarsh, a pastor and blogger, takes up my challenge in his very thoughtful post. He invites more responses, with the caveat that his thread is not the place to discuss abortion itself, but the policy prescriptions that the anti-abortion movement ought to put forward.

If you comment, respect his blog and his thread, please, with the civility for which you are already much celebrated.

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Pro-life in private, pro-choice in the voting booth: UPDATED

I posted about Obama, abortion, and irreconcilables yesterday. As coincidence would have it, a major anti-abortion campaign has descended on Pasadena City College this week. At strategic points around campus, activists have erected massive billboards depicting the fetus at various stages of prenatal development. Several dozen young people, clean-cut and mostly white, clad in shorts and t-shirts, are manning the displays with literature and a willingness to talk. Yesterday, these huge set-ups attracted large crowds, drawn to the brightly colored, highly controversial images. As I walked on to campus this morning, the displays were being erected once more; this is presumably part of a week-long campaign.

(UPDATE: I’ve learned that our visitors this week come from the Wichita, Kansas outfit called Justice for All. Their website — with exact reproductions of the images they have on campus this week — is here. Warning: May be triggering for many. A visit to the JFA site makes clear they are tied to conservative Protestant evangelicalism, advocating abstinence until marriage. JFA is closely linked with Stand To Reason, the Southern California apologetics group; STR’s statement of faith is here. JFA has been sued before over their displays, and a lawsuit is ongoing in Texas after a display at UT Austin.)

This often happens this time of year. Christian colleges and universities that finish their terms in early May free up committed young activists to descend on public colleges and universities that won’t finish up until June. What a fine thing it must be to be able to tell one’s friends that one is spending the summer campaigning and witnessing for life, bringing the “truth about abortion” to the ignorant, the misled, and the Great Unsaved! I’m a bit snarky, but also empathetic. I’ve been part of similar marches and campaigns, and unlike most people, have adult experience with being on both sides of the abortion issue. (Pro-choice, pro-life, and pro-choice once more.) I know how easy it is to move from passionate conviction to righteous indignation to dehumanization of one’s opponents.

On a day like today, I have no interest in wading out onto the quad to engage one-one-one with these folks. My main concern is for the emotional welfare of my students, particularly those who have had abortions. (I can think of four young women currently on this campus who have confided in me that they have made that particular choice. I’m under no illusion that everyone who has had an abortion shares the story with me, and as a result, can only assume that a substantial percentage of my students have terminated a pregnancy.) The activists have set up their displays in such a way that it is difficult to enter or exit our main buildings without seeing these graphic and troubling images; I am eager to make myself available (and I know I speak for my feminist colleagues when I say that they are also available) to students who want to process through their feelings.

If I were to engage with the activists, I wouldn’t debate the issue of when life begins. The answer to that question is so weighted with theological conviction and emotional intuition that the chances of achieving a happy universal consensus are nil. (See yesterday’s post about the inevitabilty of irreconcilables.) Rather, I’d prefer to focus solely on policy. What laws do they want changed? What punishments would be appropriate for women who seek abortion? What punishments would be appropriate for doctors who provide abortion? What expectations do these activists have that ending legal abortion will also end illicit pregnancy terminations?

President Obama rightly pointed out that most Americans have contradictory views. Many Americans, an increasing number, are “pro-life.” The anti-abortion movement is winning the battle to convince folks that a fetus is a human being. But they aren’t winning elections; just last fall, pro-life propositions were resoundingly defeated in Colorado, South Dakota, and in California. The reason for this apparent disconnect is that a great many people find abortion abhorrent, but are reluctant to ban the procedure in all instances. Most Americans can imagine their own daughters or little sisters getting raped, after all; few Americans would want to force a woman to carry such a pregnancy to term.

So the question I would have for my pro-life friends is about policy. What specific policy recommendations do you call for? If doctors continue to perform abortions once it has been made illegal, what charges do you intend to bring against them? What crime do you think a woman ought to be charged with if she seeks an abortion? If you believe that women are “victims” of abortion, do you see them as emotional children who cannot be held accountable for their actions? Do you think penalties should be enhanced for women who seek more than one abortion over the course of their lifetimes?

The issue of when life begins is, I think, more or less a moot point. Even if we concede (and I do not concede this) that life begins at conception, what specific policies and coercive tactics ought to be adopted to protect that embryonic life? In the public square, those of us who hold strong views need to bring tangible policy solutions to the table. And this, of course, is where the pro-life movement loses traction with the American people. 51% of Americans may describe themselves as pro-life, but that doesn’t mean 51% of Americans want abortion to be outlawed, or want clinic workers charged with murder. Americans, in other words, seem to be increasingly pro-life in their private moral views and resolutely pro-choice in terms of their views on public policy. (This explains why parental notification initiatives have failed three times in California, despite the fact that most Californians think teens should talk to their parents before seeking an abortion.) We lean increasingly to the right philosophically, but increasingly left in terms of practicalities.

But today, my thoughts are not about politics or philosophy. My thoughts are with the young women on this campus (statistically, on a campus with more than 15,000 women, there are thousands who are have had or will have an abortion) who will come face to face with these graphic displays today. My prayers are for them, my office door (as I told my women’s studies class this morning) is open to them. And I’m choosing to remain cheerfully civil to those whose views are different from my own.

Barack Obama, Isaiah Berlin, and the wisdom of honoring irreconcilables

We were in the Bay Area until yesterday afternoon, and stayed at our host’s home in San Francisco long enough to catch President Obama’s remarkable — and controversial — commencement address at Notre Dame.

I have not hesitated to be critical of the new president when I think criticism is warranted; his refusal to embrace the cause of marriage equality, and his administration’s reluctance to use its powers to protect grey wolves and polar bears have been serious disappointments. But it is in the nature of leaders to disappoint their most ardent followers, and I accept that. It is in the light of these recent disappointments that I watched Obama give his speech to the Notre Dame community, and I was as impressed as ever with his seriousness, his thoughtfulness, and his commitment to changing the tone of contemporary discourse.

The full transcript of the address is here. There is much within his talk that others are discussing, but I wanted to note my favorite bit. Referencing our long and seemingly never-ending public fights over abortion and other divisive social issues (such as same-sex marriage) the president said:

Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Bold emphasis mine.

I liked that very much, largely because most politicians on left and right (and, I confess, this blogger) tend towards a crude but honest triumphalism. We sing “We Shall Overcome”, and quote (or misquote) Dr. King’s line about the long arc of history curving towards justice. In the animal rights world, many of us are confident that we will reach a point where eating the flesh of other sentient beings is as abhorrent as eating the flesh of our own children. My pro-life friends speak constantly of a coming moral awakening; my gay activist friends expect — within their lifetimes — to see all opposition to same-sex marriage fade away. To some extent, staying involved in any kind of activism requires this faith that your cause will triumph someday. Who among us — across the political spectrum — doesn’t thrill to King’s sentiment in that final speech of his in Memphis, when he tells us he has seen the promised land from the mountaintop? Like MLK, many of us know (or fear, or suspect) that the promised land (the end of abortion, universal acceptance of gay marriage, the end of animal agriculture) will not be reached in our lifetimes. But the bittersweet sense that we, like Moses, will not live to enter what has so long been sought often gives rise to sweeping denunciations of those who are impeding the path of progress. And it was to that triumphalist worldview that President Obama so capably addressed himself yesterday. Continue reading

Pregnant women, personhood, and some paternal reflections

I suppose that many of my upcoming posts will touch, in one way or another, on the experience of becoming a father. My daughter is one week old today, and she and my wife are resting comfortably at home. Our little girl — whose name will be given soon — is perfect and lovely and captivating, and my wife has never been more beautiful and amazing in my eyes. It’s a happy time, albeit a sleep-deprived one.

It would be odd if going through this pregnancy with my wife and watching my daughter be born didn’t have a profound impact on how I see the world. The whole experience shaped, and is continuing to shape, many aspects of my thinking. I have no doubt at all that parenthood will continue to transform me, though that is hardly my child’s primary purpose in the world. My job is to love her, hers is to be loved unconditionally, and whatever insights come along the way are a bonus. And one way in which this journey has impacted me very profoundly is in my views on feminism.

Years ago, Susan Bordo wrote a wonderful essay: Are Mothers Persons? Reproductive Rights and Subject-ivity, which appeared in her Unbearable Weight. Bordo makes the point that our American legal system has an historic concern for the autonomy of the individual, but that a pregnant woman’s right to bodily integrity is uniquely subject to challenge:

The essence of the pregnant woman, by contrast, is her biological, purely mechanical role in preserving the life of another. In her case, this is the given value, against which her claims to subjectivity must be rigorously evaluated, and they will usually be found wanting insofar as they conflict with her life-support function. In the face of such a conflict, her valuations, choices, consciousness are expendable.

In other words, my wife’s status as an independent person collapsed, in the eyes of the world, the moment folks started to realize she was pregnant. And while I’d been quite prepared to discuss reproductive rights theory with colleagues and students, nothing has shaped my gut feelings about the issue of women’s subjectivity like witnessing my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of this daughter. And believe me, nothing has made me more committed to feminist principles than this experience!

It is much commented upon, but no less remarkable for its frequency: an amazing number of people seem to believe that they have the right to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. My wife, who has a keen sense of body integrity, did not like to have her stomach touched by anyone other than me and her various professional caregivers. But for the last four months of her pregnancy, as her belly began to swell, family and friends and even strangers made all sorts of attempts to get their hands on her tummy. My wife got very good at fending people off politely, and I did my best to remain cool while helping (particularly with my family) to keep prying hands at bay. Continue reading

Ed Feser on abortion and gay marriage

I teach in the same department as Edward Feser, who among other things, was a graduate student of my late father at UCSB. Unlike my dear Dad, Ed is a very conservative Catholic (something I had not realized until recently). He’s also recently published a book which I’ve just ordered. (Evangelical Richard Mouw was also my Dad’s graduate student. What gives? My dear, sweet, gently atheist and — even more gently, socialist — father ends up having all of these famous conservatives Christians among his former proteges. Of course, my father was close to Karl Popper for many years, but rejected that mentor’s views almost entirely. And so it goes. Cripes, I’m such a name-dropper.)

Anyhow, thanks to Jonah Goldberg, of all people, I just learned I am not the only blogger in the Social Sciences Division at Pasadena City College! How ignorant I have been! Here’s Ed’s blog.

Ed, writing from a very right-wing perspective, offers his answer to the question (independently) I posed several weeks ago: why did so many Americans vote to protect abortion rights, while simultaneously voting to deny marriage equality to gays and lesbians? (Here in California, Proposition 4, which would have required parental notification for abortion, failed by almost the same margin that Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, passed.)

Ed, who is an absolutely delightful colleague with absolutely appalling views, offers three possibilities, the last of which is this:

Some heterosexuals who have at least a grudging respect for traditional sexual morality are more keen to see it respected by others than to practice it themselves. (Think e.g. of the secularized Beltway conservative think-tank or journalist type who heartily endorses pragmatic Burkean arguments for the social utility of stigmas against fornication and the like, but who nevertheless lives with his girlfriend.) Hence, while it costs such people little or nothing personally to vote against “same-sex marriage,” limitations on abortion might put a crimp on their own lifestyle should their less-than-conservative personal sexual behavior “punish them with a baby.”

Ed may be right. We both lament the inconsistency of the electorate, but we do so from two radically different perspectives.

Perhaps an intra-departmental debate is in order.