In an interesting look at the up, downs, simplicities, and complexities in advancing a Pro-Life agenda, looking at what has recently happened in Ohio makes for interesting debate.
On the one hand, an “incrementalist” view is favored in some segments of the Pro-Life community. Depending on the lens with which one looks, this is either a horrible compromise or a solid strategic way of making progress that has more of a permanent foothold. It can be best viewed as trying to meet the public where they are willing to be on this issue in a way that changes opinions, hearts, and minds with far less risk of a sudden backlash. The downside, of course, is that it is a compromise. A strategic vision is in place that tries to assess the reality around us, work within that reality, accepting that abortion is still the law of the land, while continuing to poke and prod, slowly and incrementally changing where that acceptable line is. One consideration is public backlash and the other is an assessment of court rulings. The fear on the judicial side is that a negative ruling sets things back and erodes prospects for future progress.
There are other segments in the pro-life community that take a more simplistic and pure view – that we should push for everything we can whenever we can, and setbacks be damned. This really is a play of principle in a lot of cases – it is known that certain laws that are passed will not only be challenged in court, but will also almost certainly be declared unconstitutional under the current make-up of the federal courts, particularly SCOTUS, and that precedents aren’t on the side of drastic changes.
Both sides have a solid argument. From a purist perspective, one cannot accept something that is intrinsically evil. There is nothing wrong with incremental changes when that is your only option, but to reject more dramatic action when made available is very problematic, regardless of the claims that this is in the long run a better strategic approach towards attaining more permanent and significant change.
The incrementalist view has good intentions, and perhaps has strategic merit. I think it is wrong to consider these persons as “not really” pro-life. I think it’s more that they are scared to death of losing whatever it is they have gained to date, and the fact that they fear negative court decisions and public backlash.
While I think we need to remain charitable with respect to what labels we assign to the different camps, and I think it’s worth understanding the perspectives, I think there is also a time where we need to look inward and ask the question about the fundamental message we are giving by the stance we are taking.
So, back to the Ohio example. The Ohio state legislature passed a fetal heartbeat bill that disallowed abortions after a heartbeat is detected. This effectively limits abortions to the first 6-8 weeks of pregnancy. At the same time there was a different bill that simply limited abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, with no considerations for technical viability, detected heartbeats, etc. Governor Kasich signed the 20-week bill into law, and vetoed the fetal heartbeat bill.
The explanation given by Kasich, and it should be noted that this was supported by Ohio Right to Life, is that similar attempts to restrict abortion at this level invited defeat in the courts, so signing this would have set up lengthy and expensive court battles. The President of Ohio Right to Life, Mike Gonidakis, went so far as to say “By endorsing the 20-week ban in lieu of the heartbeat approach, Gov. Kasich provided strong pro-life leadership to finally engage a winnable battle with the federal judiciary while saving countless babies.”
I think the heart is generally in the right place, but I also think this approach is flawed in a number of respects. First of all, Ohio already had a viability law in place. Every life counts, but the relative increase in babies saved with this restriction will not be countless. This is a very incremental improvement. Standing alone, it is welcomed, and is a good thing. Considering this a huge step forward is really not factually correct. This is still allowing abortions for nearly the first 5 months of pregnancy. Five months is still a long time of risk for a baby in the womb. Further, health exceptions are still firmly in place.
The other issue I have is that he didn’t have to choose one or the other. He could have signed both. So, making the argument that he signed one in lieu of the other is erroneous. He signed one and vetoed the other, pure and simple. Had both been signed, and the more restrictive law found to be unconstitutional, then the other would still be in place. This was a punt.
I appreciate the incremental gains we’ve made. But I think there is also such a thing as overanalyzing things in order to get to a certain end. There are times where a strategic approach to achieve the best end is not problematic. An example was the Presidential Election. If one firmly believed that there were truly only two options, then voting for the least imperfect candidate is not an immoral thing to do, nor does it compromise your principles. This is not an incremental decision. It’s a binary one. But this is not true of the pro-life issue.
We are obligated to communicate the entire reason we are pro-life. It’s murder. It’s immoral. The baby is a human being. The womb should be safe. Like the election decision, if the choice is between a slight restriction and no restriction then you take the slight restriction. You are not immoral because you sign a ban after 20 weeks that still allows abortion in the first 20 weeks if the only other choice is that the status quo is 24 weeks. But rejecting a more restrictive law for strategic reasons goes beyond a binary decision. Especially with the Supreme Court in flux, and the fact that nobody can predict the future, to somehow state with certainty that this is a loser is probably not the best position to take to begin with. But even if it is, there is a very real moral question involved here. Why in the world is it not in our DNA to fight as hard as we can for an injustice to be corrected? Why aren’t we willing to die on that hill? Even if the courts shoot us down, why do we care? I do understand there is a resource issue – but millions of people will support these expenses.
I have had people who are not pro-life ask me in the past that if we think abortion is essentially the killing of an innocent human being, then why are there exceptions for rape and incest? The question was not necessarily meant to support the idea that they want us to fight for a comprehensive abortion ban, but it is an honest confusion about the message we are sending as a pro-life community. If it’s a person, then why are we agreeing to certain lines of differentiation in treatment? If they are confused by that, then how much more confusing is the message (real or perceived) that we are OK with abortions up to a certain number of weeks, but not after? And that we’re willing to draw one line, but not another?
The danger here is also something I’ve heard: that pro-lifers don’t really want this issue to be ever completely won, because it takes away the life issue in the political conversation. I don’t believe this to be true for most people, but I do think the incrementalist approach feeds into that perception. It’s confusing and contradictory in many ways, and the only actual way to explain it is in terms of politics and strategy. This is problematic as far as messaging goes, any way you slice it.
Sadly, there may also be some truth to that perception. I think a lot of politicians are nominally pro-life, but it is not what they would consider to be a crtical issue. They would never personally have an abortion, and being pro-life is a winning issue for their particular constituents. Small progress is a win, and they can tout it as progress. But they have no stomach for any political fallout on this issue at all, so they would never support harsh steps even if they could be had, because it makes it more of an issue and could be politically damaging.
I don’t know if Kasich is in the “nominal” category, or if he truly believes he just did the best thing to get where we need to do and would be willing to go further if he feels it would be upheld. But his approach is most definitely incremental, and for the good it does for some babies, it pulls the plug on a potentially much greater opportunity. But that would be bold. And who needs that?