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Voting on Abortion: Confessions and Questions

September 11, 2012

Following up on Darren’s response to Owen Strachan’s column at Christianity Today, I wanted to share some thoughts in regard to the politics of abortion.  I have been a voter for almost two decades now and on several occasions in the past I have consciously allowed the abortion issue to be a significant swaying or even deciding factor in how I cast my ballot. Sometimes that’s been lazy; other times it was conviction. What I’m grappling with is whether and how and why the issue of abortion effects my vote in national elections.

My posture here is open-ended and searching rather than definitive. I am only going to broach the subject and raise some questions. But I do think them to be important ones. I will do this by sharing  with you a letter I wrote to my Member of Parliament this summer (I’m Canadian by the way), and then part of an email I sent Darren while we were discussing his then-forthcoming post. First, the letter. It is pretty self-explanatory.

Dear Madame Minister,

It has come to my attention that House of Commons will soon have before it a motion to strike up a special committee to review the Criminal Code section 223(1) in order to revisit the definition of “human being” and  investigate the parameters and ramifications of this definition. Seeing as this is a country divided on the matter, and seeing as there are related issues which are impossible to properly sort out without an up-to-date and carefully-considered definition on this matter, as a member of your political riding I wish to seriously encourage you to vote “Yes” to the striking up of this committee.

As difficult as this issue is, and as politically turbulent and rhetorically manipulated as it may be in public discourse, I wish to call you to courageously uphold rather than neglect the responsibility of your office in this regard.

My own convictions are that the science gives no definitive answer to this question, but does inform it rather crucially. The rights of a woman over her own body are relevant to this question, but neither do they decide the matter for us apart from individual convictions regarding the definition of freedom and the proper ways to balance individual rights and social responsibilities. Despite the common rhetoric, it is not only the religious who let scientifically unproven and rationally debatable theories guide them in these matters.

As one of many who is inclined to believe that human life and being begins at conception, I implore you to reopen this issue for responsible public and political discourse. In as much as murder is illegal, it also behoves us a country to decide at what point a human being becomes protected by this legality.

Furthermore, as one who also believes that “freedom” is a social construct as well as an individualistic one, and who believes that “rights” also come with responsibilities, I think a woman’s rights should be upheld in such a manner that is not detrimental to the lives growing inside of them. If we are going to be a society that allows for a great degree of sexual freedom we should also be prepared to educate and support people to first dissuade from and then, if needed, to deal with unwanted pregnancies in a manner that decreases if not eliminates the occurrence of abortions.

The diversity of views on the serious matter of defining “human being” in our country should lead us to have this conversation at the highest levels and in the most intellectual and respectful manner possible. Not only would this be the right thing to do but, done well, it would also restore a great deal of public faith in our political processes.

I do not expect a response, but if you do choose to vote against this motion I hope that you would be so kind as to share with me the rationale for this decision. Thank you for your attention to this matter, and for your service to our country.

Sincerely, Rev. Jon Coutts

By way of response I received a very short form letter informing me that this motion was on the table and signalling the MP’s intention to vote it down. I was disappointed. I had voted for this MP and her party, mainly because I didn’t like my other options and went with my lingering sense that Conservatives may yet reopen the abortion issue. (Knowing that his party has long received votes for this reason, on the election trail our now-Prime Minister said he would not address this in his first term, but would not say “never .) I am highly unlikely to vote for this party based on this dangled carrot again. In fact, the disappointment has led me to re-inspect the carrot.

The more intense the rhetoric from voters the more I have realized that politicians are not the only ones who score points off of abortion. The voting public does as well. Even though we know there is more required, I’d wager that many of us who have anti-abortion convictions funnel most of our energies toward electing someone to address the issue for us. To make matters worse, once we’ve voted on it we forget about it for four years; consciences appeased–after all, we did what we could.

I know this does not describe everyone. But at my worst it describes me, and I suspect I’m not the only one who fits the description. And if it is even half-accurate then I suggest we look at ourselves in the mirror–as Darren’s post prompted me to do in this private email:

… Another angle one could take is that it is common Christian practice to scapegoat the public official for the church’s paralysis and/or apathy in regard to the real hard theological and practical work that it would take in each and every city and state to actually speak against abortion while also doing something about it; doing something to make sure that the women are not inequitably burdened to carry the responsibilities of our male-favouring, sexually exploitive culture. [i.e., we keep the government out of the bedrooms of the nation and then we let businesses leverage lust for sales, leaving it largely up to women to deal with the repercussions of the liberties of a sex-craved culture.]

What is needed is local and legal action that makes it possible for women to sustain pregnancies and keep their jobs; adoption reform; and, quite frankly, higher demands on men to bear the responsibility for the children they have a hand in bringing about. Then we would be addressing abortion in a real self-giving Christian manner. With difficulty and self-sacrifice. Most Christians are understandably frustrated by how hard this would be, and paralyzed against the rhetoric and beuracracy that stands against them even if they did give their lives to this.

I have not even begun to address how much work is needed for Christians to actually begin to make an argument in the larger society which will address this clearly, intelligently and complexly enough to be not only understood but compelling. We are understandably frustrated by the demands here. But given such passion as Strachan displays in his rhetoric, don’t we think we could muster up the self-giving chops for that great work?

Some do. We don’t hear about them much. They man the phones at crisis pregnancy centres and they adopt babies and care for exploited women and abandoned mothers. Some also work hard to get an intelligent argument out there. But public attention gathers around the sound-bytes and the extremism. And all Strachan does is give us some more, all in the interest of political leverage, it would seem. To my mind all it does is expose frustration at the demands of digging deeper.

Who easier to blame for the moral failures of a nation than its highest public official (who has little reason to believe that anyone would have his back if he actually sought the reform necessary on this front)?Is Obama a convenient and politically advantageous scapegoat for the guilt and lethargy of Christians who need some reason to vote Romney and keep their consciences clear another four years because they’ve ‘done all they could’? What if my abortion-motivated vote just soothes my troubled conscience so  I won’t have to follow through with intelligence or social action? Keep voting like this and I become more complicit than I’d care to admit….

God help us.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2012 8:02 pm

    It’s much easier to vote for a certain candidate every 4 years and call it “enough” than to pray every day, volunteer at crisis pregnancy resource centers, or donate to adoption services.

    I don’t think this is a reason to stop voting for individuals with a pro-life platform, but it does mean that we must hold our representatives accountable for their promises and put our feet on the streets for what we believe is godly and right.

    Excellent post.

  2. September 11, 2012 8:23 pm

    Yeah, and I realize you actually have politicians with a pro-life platform in the States, whereas in Canada we have hints and gestures at best. Either way, I’m certainly going to demand a lot more than platitudes from politicians if I ever let this issue inform my vote again. Lots of times it isn’t so much a “platform” as, like I said, a “carrot”…

    Perhaps I could smell out the difference if I were actually “on the streets” and involved, discerning possible approaches from idealistic and evasive pipe dreams.

    Thanks Richard.

  3. September 12, 2012 9:12 am

    Very thoughtful, Jon. Thanks for sharing.

    I especially agree with your distinction between a “pro-life platform” and dangling this issue as a political carrot. The only way it’s possible to think we have politicians with a pro-life platform in the States is if “pro-life” strictly means stating publicly, during campaign season, that you personally are “against abortion.”

  4. September 12, 2012 2:07 pm

    Yeah no doubt. But I’d still hesitate to say it means something until they actually said how that “against-ness” pairs with a concern for gender equity in how it is worked out.

  5. September 15, 2012 10:35 pm

    Jon, thanks for sharing this. The proliferation of platitudes certainly makes it more difficult to distinguish a clown fishing for votes from someone who truly believes in the unborn’s right to life.

    Two questions:
    1. What do you have in mind with regards to a pro-life position and gender equity?
    2. Would you agree that having a genuinely pro-life president (in the United States) actually advances the cause?

  6. September 17, 2012 5:31 am

    Tyler, I guess I’m thinking about the fact that most of the time pro-life and pro-choice talk past each other, each seeming to ignore the concerns of the other, and the politicians seems to play that game happily. And I’m also thinking about how true it is that if one was to simply legislate against abortions then the burden of responsibility would fall on women and so the result would be discriminatory or oppressive. Any protection of the fetus needs to find ways to ensure that the responsibility for that life is carried by both parties and that the demands of pregnancy do not cost that woman more than the man. I’m not sure what that would end up looking like but like I said above I think that any politician who wants me to believe they have a pro-life platform that doesn’t play into the hands of a patriarchal edge is going to have to speak about making it more common for women to sustain pregnancies and keep their jobs, and perhaps about adoption reform and paternal responsibility.

    As for the second part of your question, I’m not sure what it means to be genuinely pro-life if the President doesn’t really do what it takes to try to cover some of the ground I’m talking about above. A President could speak with conviction about being pro-life and still do way less than a pro-choice President to promote an environment where women keep their babies to term. A president can also be genuine about being pro-life when it comes to abortion but not in other areas. And so I need to see a lot more evidence of intelligent political conviction on this before I vote according to it again, because all the while I’m falling for the platitudes I’m voting against my inclinations on a host of other issues.

  7. September 18, 2012 1:02 am

    I can’t speak to Canada’s context, but in America the pro-life position needs a lot more than legislation to help ease the burden of responsibility. De Tocqueville realized, as did many founding fathers, that democracy was worthless apart from a moral society. With a society that increasingly promotes freedom and equality as goods in themselves, rather than means to a greater good, we’re not likely to find ourselves in a position to ease the burden of responsibility any time soon. The logic of abortion, as federally permitted in the United States, can only lead to the complete absolution of the men involved in the pregnancy. If it’s entirely about the woman’s right and the man’s right is out of the picture, then in our current legalistic culture we are going to end up with men absolved of the responsibility to pay child support and other basics.

    I’m not sure how to fix that, either. But shifting the discussion to the rights of the child would (or perhaps should) relativize the rights of both the mother and father, rendering them both responsible to the child. The point is not only about making men more responsible, but making women responsible as well. But it all seems rather bleak apart from men and women with changed hearts. Policy, on either side of the aisle, won’t carry the day.

  8. September 18, 2012 1:56 am

    Yes. Thanks Tyler.

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