“The United States has one of the highest abortion rates in the developed world, with women from every socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious and age-group obtaining abortions,” says Lawrence Finer, associate director for domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute.

The highest rate of abortion was recorded in 1981, when the rate of abortion in the States stood at an astounding 29.3 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. In the three decades since, we’ve seen a gradual decline, until last year we had 19.4 abortions per 1,000, and a total of 1.2 million. The decline is notable among teenagers, and when abortion does take place, it tends to happen earlier in the pregnancy, which is more beneficial for the mother’s health. I’m thankful for the decreasing rate of abortion. But, first, 1.2 million abortions per year is still too high for me; and second, the overall decline hides a disparity that I’ll talk about later.

The issue of (induced) abortion is one of the most contentious of our time. Some call it the defining moral issue in this election. And let me say from the outset, I believe that abortion, whenever it happens, is horrific. To crush the promise of life is an unspeakable tragedy. But I also think—I have to think—that the issue is far more comprehensive than traditional arguments for and against abortion stand. To say that one’s stance on abortion is defined by whether one believes abortion is good or bad—and I think most everyone would agree that it’s never a good thing—or by whether one believes it should be criminalized, or by some other black and white dichotomy, is too simplistic. But I’ll get into that in a second.

I believe that God gives life. Personally, I wouldn’t claim Psalm 139:13 (“it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”) as a basis for the understanding that life begins at conception. To do so would be to haphazardly harness a piece of beautifully poetic writing to support a moral argument for a biological event. It’d be like saying the creation poem of Genesis 1 tells us how God literally created the world rather than telling us the more foundational proposition that God is the Creator. (If I’ve lost you already … oh well.) But I do believe that life is a gift from God.

So I want to be committed to the position that values life—not just the life of the unborn child, but the life of the mother as well. But what does this look like? Some would say, without hesitation, making abortion illegal, or placing more restrictions on abortion. Others, like Susan Cohen, director of government affairs at the Guttmacher Institute, argue, “Evidence from around the world shows that placing restrictions on abortion to make it harder to obtain has much more to do with making it less safe than making it rarer.” So, because of the contentiousness of the issue, because we don’t live in a Christian nation (and whose version of Christianity would take precedence), because there are hardliners on both sides who would be unwilling to give up any ground or meet in the middle, I want to focus on the things that we can agree upon.

Abortions are unwanted pregnancies. Virtually every single time. (But not all unwanted pregnancies end in abortion. Nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion, which means that about 22% of all pregnancies end in abortion.)

So how can we try to reduce unwanted pregnancy?

Fifty percent of U.S. women obtaining abortions are younger than 25; teenagers account for 17% of all abortions. So should we continue teaching abstinence? Sure; I’m a firm believer that not having sex is the best way to prevent pregnancies. But teaching kids not to have sex isn’t going to stop them from actually having it. (The teen abortion rates declined from 42 per 1,000 in 1989 to 20 per 1,000 in 2004, and it started even before abstinence-only education kicked in, so let’s not jump on that bandwagon.) Is teaching contraception going to mean less unwanted pregnancies? Possibly, probably, hopefully; but it’s not going to definitively deal with the problem. 13% of pill users and 14% of condom users, who reported consistent, correct use, still got pregnant.

But what about other factors that come into play? According to the Guttmacher Institute’s research, non-use of any kind of birth control is greatest among those who are young, poor, black, Hispanic or less-educated. Since 1994, unplanned pregnancy rates among poor women (those whose income was below the poverty line) have increased 29%, while rates among higher-income women (those with incomes at least twice the federal poverty level) have decreased by 20%. In 2001, a poor woman was four times as likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy as a higher-income woman, five times as likely to have an unintended birth and more than three times as likely to have an abortion as her higher-income counterpart.

Looking at race, Hispanic and black women are three and five times more likely, respectively, than non-Hispanic white women. On average, the abortion rate declined across the board, but while it fell 30% among non-Hispanic white women (from 15 to 11 per 1,000), it fell only 20% for Hispanic women (from 35 to 28 per 1,000) and only 15% for black women (from 59 to 50 per 1,000). For me, that disparity is a glaring indictment of the inequality that still plagues the system.

So let’s not pretend that abortion doesn’t disproportionately affect the poorer, the less-educated, and blacks and Latinos. Let’s not pretend that poverty doesn’t factor into it, that education doesn’t factor into it, that structures that may favor the majority culture don’t factor into it. Let’s not pretend that any number of other factors that I haven’t mentioned (and may not even be aware of) don’t factor. We’ll need to address the cultural issues that say, for example, that the men can do whatever they want and not take responsibility for it. We’ll need to address some cultural mindsets that have women looking to men to define their identity, thereby leading them to enter into ill-advised relationships.

In short, let’s not make abortion a black-and-white issue when there are so many factors involved that it’s mind-boggling. As I said at the beginning, I think that abortion, whenever it occurs, is a horrific tragedy, but some people approach the situation in a similar blasé manner as telling poor people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps … ignoring the fact that, figuratively speaking, some people don’t even have bootstraps.

At the end, I’m left facing a situation that seems to large to do anything about. But I think it’s better to have a more holistic understanding of issues—and everything is interconnected—than to make something cut-and-dry that is not so simple. Hopefully, it will make us less self-assured and more humble, more open to hearing out the other side and seeing what ideas and strategies they have for addressing the problems that face us. Hopefully, it will make us realize that we don’t hold all the cards, that we don’t know everything, and that those who have different opinions about a contentious issue such as this aren’t necessarily ignoring the gravity of the situation (or morons).

Obama and Abortion
Here are some things Barack has said over the last few years:

On an issue like partial birth abortion, I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. All I’ve said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother, and many of the bills that came before me didn’t have that.

Part of the reason they didn’t have it was purposeful, because those who are opposed to abortion have a moral calling to try to oppose what they think is immoral. Oftentimes what they were trying to do was to polarize the debate and make it more difficult for people, so that they could try to bring an end to abortions overall.

As president, my goal is to bring people together, to listen to them, and I don’t think that’s any Republican out there who I’ve worked with who would say that I don’t listen to them, I don’t respect their ideas, I don’t understand their perspective. And my goal is to get us out of this polarizing debate where we’re always trying to score cheap political points and actually get things done.

(2008 Fox News interview: presidential series; Apr 27, 2008)

I absolutely think we can find common ground [between pro-life and pro-choice positions]. And it requires a couple of things. It requires us to acknowledge that.
1. There is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down. I think that’s a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about.

2. People of good will can exist on both sides. That nobody wishes to be placed in a circumstance where they are even confronted with the choice of abortion. How we determine what’s right at that moment, I think, people of good will can differ.

And if we can acknowledge that much, then we can certainly agree on the fact that we should be doing everything we can to avoid unwanted pregnancies that might even lead somebody to consider having an abortion.

(2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College; Apr 13, 2008)

[The issue of when life begins] is something that I have not come to a firm resolution on. I think it’s very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? So I don’t presume to know the answer to that question. What I know is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we’re having these debates.

(2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College; Apr 13, 2008)

We’ve actually made progress over the last several years in reducing teen pregnancies, for example. And what I have consistently talked about is to take a comprehensive approach where we focus on abstinence, where we are teaching the sacredness of sexuality to our children.

But we also recognize the importance of good medical care for women, that we’re also recognizing the importance of age-appropriate education to reduce risks. I do believe that contraception has to be part of that education process.

And if we do those things, then I think that we can reduce abortions and I think we should make sure that adoption is an option for people out there. If we put all of those things in place, then I think we will take some of the edge off the debate.

We’re not going to completely resolve it. At some point, there may just be an irreconcilable difference. And those who are opposed to abortion, I think, should continue to be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws.

(2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College; Apr 13, 2008)

On partial birth abortion:

I think that most Americans recognize that this is a profoundly difficult issue for the women and families who make these decisions. They don’t make them casually. And I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their doctors and their families and their clergy. And I think that’s where most Americans are. Now, when you describe a specific procedure that accounts for less than 1% of the abortions that take place, then naturally, people get concerned, and I think legitimately so. But the broader issue here is: Do women have the right to make these profoundly difficult decisions? And I trust them to do it. There is a broader issue: Can we move past some of the debates around which we disagree and can we start talking about the things we do agree on? Reducing teen pregnancy; making it less likely for women to find themselves in these circumstances.

(2007 South Carolina Democratic primary debate, on MSNBC; Apr 26, 2007)

[An abortion protester at a campaign event] handed me a pamphlet. “Mr. Obama, I know you’re a Christian, with a family of your own. So how can you support murdering babies?”

I told him I understood his position but had to disagree with it. I explained my belief that few women made the decision to terminate a pregnancy casually; that any pregnant woman felt the full force of the moral issues involved when making that decision; that I feared a ban on abortion would force women to seek unsafe abortions, as they had once done in this country. I suggested that perhaps we could agree on ways to reduce the number of women who felt the need to have abortions in the first place.

“I will pray for you,” the protester said. “I pray that you have a change of heart.” Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, nor did they in the days to come. But that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own-that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that had been extended to me.

(The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama, 197-198; Oct 1, 2006)

Obama and the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA)

Some have condemned Barack Obama for his support of the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation which will remove all of the legal restrictions on abortion that have developed in the years since Roe v. Wade. Personally, I would prefer that Barack be less pro-choice than he is; and many would argue that hi
s championing of the Freedom of Choice Act clearly demonstrates what an extreme pro-abortionist he is, but this is the reductive and simplistic view that I have been arguing against. I believe that, despite being pro-choice (and I believe one can be pro-choice and still be a Christian), he is wanting to meet those in the middle who want to work on ways that will achieve a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, precisely by addressing many of the factors (poverty, education) that I outlined above (and healthcare, which I didn’t mention) that many people would categorize as separate issues.

I recognize that I may not agree with you on this issue—can’t please everyone, right? And I may not have persuaded you to think otherwise. But persuasion hasn’t been my goal. I really just wanted to articulate the thoughts that are zooming around in my brain. I will confess that an issue as big and complex as this often leaves me stumped, and I swing back and forth on the best perspective with which to view the problem, and the best ways to deal with it. But I’ll do the best I can with what I do know and understand, and trust that God will somehow put his redeeming touch on my sin-tainted thoughts and actions.




Civil Political Discourse

Following up on my Obama/Ayers, it seems that McCain did realize the impact of his words and has tried to tamp back the hostility. (It wasn’t met with too much success.) But Obama recognized this, as Ken Vogel reportsfrom Philadelphia:

“I want to acknowledge that Sen. McCain tried to tone down the rhetoric in his town hall meeting yesterday,” Obama said at a morning rally in North Philadelphia, drawing loud boos from the mostly black audience.

Obama pivoted into a mini riff on civil political discourse, concluding “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Obama and Ayers

The McCain campaign’s recent line of attack has been to try to tar Obama by associating him with Bill Ayers, who they’ve labeled a ‘domestic terrorist’. Let me tell you about the Obama/Ayers connection, from what I’ve been able to find out.

First of all, a little on Bill Ayers. In the 1960s, he was a student activist who was one of the leaders of the Weathermen group, also known as the Weather Underground, an organization that campaigned against the government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, often by violent means, such as bombs. Since the early 1980s however, Ayers has been well-known for his work in education reform. Currently a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, his interests include “teaching for social justice, urban educational reform, narrative and interpretive research, children in trouble with the law, and related issues.” He’s worked with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to help shape the city’s school reform system, and was even named Chicago’s Citizen of the Year Award in 1997 for his work in school reform. So he’s hardly an anti-establishment figure right now.

Which leads us to the connection between Ayers and Obama. Ayers hosted a meet-and-greet for his inaugural run for the state senate in 1995, contributed $200 to Barack’s re-election fund to the Illinois State Senate in 2001, and the two served together from 2000-2002 on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty, philanthropic foundation. That’s about it. Obama’s denounced the violent actions of the Weather Underground, and since he was 8 years old and living in Indonesia at the time, it’s hard to see how the guilt by association ploy works at all.

What angers, frustrates, but most of all, worries, me is that I don’t think they understand the consequences of what they’re doing. McCain and Palin are equating Barack Obama with a terrorist. Unless you’re inclined to think that Barack is some kind of Manchurian candidate (and if you do, I really can’t help you), such a claim is absurd. Not only this, but it feeds into the fears and prejudices of people who are already uncertain about him, whether because of his race or his name. At McCain and Palin rallies recently, they’ve been asking the question, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” In response, people have been shouting, “Terrorist!” or “Traitor!”, and in one case, even calling for him to be killed.

I came across this video clip this morning. I’ll let the people speak for themselves.

Of course, I’m not saying that all people who are against Barack are only against him because they’re paranoid or ignorant. But you’ve got to wonder if the McCain campaign understands the kind of vitriol they’re inciting with their line of character attacks. And if they do know what they’re doing, what does this say about the kind of administration they’d lead?

I understand attacking an opponent’s policy proposals, for outlining why you disagree on the economy or on foreign policy or on energy, for pointing out where you think the holes are in the other person’s ideas. But trying to incite animosity, or to try to win votes by playing on people’s fears, is deplorable.

UPDATE: Here’s what Barack had to say about the issue today (Oct. 9).

Barack, redux

[Photo: Pete Souza/White House]

Original post: October 9, 2008, updating an earlier blog; repost: March 5, 2010. Still read best in tandem with my friend Liz’s blog on election season 2008.

When I arrived in the US in the summer of 2006, I had never even heard the name of Barack Obama, and I had very little interest in politics. That changed within a month of being here. A friend of mine, shocked at my ignorance, directed me to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Obama was the keynote speaker. I watched the video. I was blown away.

[You can see the video here, and read the transcript here.]

Here was a man who inspired me to believe in hope for the future, even at a time when we were still entrenched in Iraq, chasing the wind of Al Qaeda and catching nothing, and our foreign policy had led us to become largely isolated from and resented by the rest of the world—coming from the UK, I experienced a fair amount of this. Here was a man who exuded responsible (not just more or less) government, who spoke of the audacity of hope, who seemed to speak for everyone. Here was a man of charisma, of inspiration. Yet there was something more, a sense that these were more than just words.

And as I watched him and listened to him, I began to believe. I trust Barack Obama: I trust his character, I trust his integrity, I trust his faith in God and his faith in people.

People may call me a fool for being taken in by his empty rhetoric and his false promises; they may deride me or be anxious for me because I think that he will actually try to do the things that he says he will. However, those who know me know that I brook no nonsense, that I do not make decisions lightly, impulsively, or irrationally. Furthermore, while I understand that presidents often are unable (or unwilling) to carry through on promises they make to the people, I support the vision that Barack has and the direction he wants to take the country.

I believe that his faith shapes his life, shapes his choices and decisions. He was not raised in a Christian, or in any kind of religious, household; his parents had Muslim, Baptist and Methodist roots, but the Bible, Koran, and Bhagavad Gita shared shelf space with books of mythology. He is a Christian now (contrary to circulating reports about him being a Muslim), but I’ll let his own words speak for him. Probably the most widely-publicized are his words in The Audacity of Hope, in which he writes:

It was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ [in Chicago] one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth. (208)

In January 2007, reporter Cathleen Falsani (who also wrote an article on Bono’s faith), asked him the question, “Are you an evangelical?”

Gosh, I’m not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations. I came to Christianity through the black church tradition where the line between evangelical and non-evangelical is completely blurred. Nobody knows exactly what it means.

Does it mean that you feel you’ve got a personal relationship with Christ the savior? Then that’s directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you’re born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it’s understood by some other tradition? I’m not sure.

My faith is complicated by the fact that I didn’t grow up in a particular religious tradition. And so what that means is when you come at it as an adult, your brain mediates a lot, and you ask a lot of questions.

There are aspects of Christian tradition that I’m comfortable with and aspects that I’m not. There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go, ‘You know, I’m not sure about that.’

A simple ‘yes’ would have been much easier. But it would have been too simplistic. Faith is not simplistic. It is simple, but it is not simplistic. In 2006, Obama delivered the keynote address for the Call to Renewal conference and it was described by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. as “what may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the Vatican.” For the full text of the address, you can go here, but here are some snippets (that definitely do not encapsulate the inspiration of the speech):

Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts. You need to come to church in the first place because you are first of this world, not apart from it.

[Conservative religious leaders] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.

[When a gang member] shoots indiscriminately into a crowd … there’s a hole in that young man’s heart—a hole that the government alone cannot fix. [Contraception can reduce teen pregnancy rates, but so can] faith and guidance [which] help fortify a young woman’s sense of self, a young man’s sense of responsibility and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.

Our fear of getting “preachy” may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide. They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that’s not how they think about faith in their own lives.

Before I began to learn more and more about the issues and policies, the biggest draw for me was his character. I admire Barack Obama because he preaches and lives out integrity and accountability—in his work as a state senator, as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, as a lawyer, in his life as a father, husband and Christian. I admire the fact that he had the conviction to vote against the war in Iraq when even I thought it wasn’t all that bad an idea. I like that he has won the unofficial endorsement of Colin Powell, a man I greatly admire; Powell serves as an informal advisor to Obama, which counts in my book. He is a politician who has been described as ‘humble’ (by CA Senator Barbara Boxer).

But I am not simply voting for Barack because he is a Christian, because he has what I perceive to be good character. I support him also in the policies that he puts forward and the things that he defends. I don’t agree with him on every issue, I don’t expect him to legislate exactly as I would like. But for the most part, I see in Barack Obama a more pragmatic and more thought-out approach in terms of what the gospel demands of us on the one hand and what the Constitution demands of us on the other. I think the line that politicians have to tread in living out their faith is a very narrow tightrope, and it involves much balancing and careful consideration.

Three years ago, before I’d even heard of Barack Obama, I figured that American unilateral action in Iraq and its belligerence on other matters of foreign policy had relegated the world’s richest and most powerful nation to the role of global bully and isolated it against the rest of the world. I figured that the Republicans had cornered the Christian vote, that people who voted both pro-life and for the death penalty (a contradictory position for those who believe in the sanctity of human life?) would also vote red. Then along came a guy who introduced me to the nuances of the interaction between politics and faith, re-emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between church and state while maintaining that his faith is not something that can be detached from his character and his decisions. I figured that the only way to work for change was to challenge governments to do things by getting people to make enough noise, as Bono did with the One Campaign and Make Poverty History (and continues to do with other matters). Then along came Barack Obama, who made me believe that the system, while flawed and broken, is not impossible to work within, though much grace and perseverance is required.