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Why I'm voting for Barack Obama ... and I hope you will too. Reason 5

Reason 5: The Sacredness of Life

(You can read my earlier posts beginning here ...)


Some of my friends and relatives have been reading my reasons for voting for Barack Obama, but the issue of abortion is a major roadblock for them. They believe that a vote for Obama is a vote for abortion, and a vote for McCain is a vote against abortion. They are surprised to learn that I believe an Obama presidency could actually take us farther in reducing abortion than a McCain presidency, and it could do so through a wiser, less-divisive, more effective strategy. Here’s why.

Again and again over the last 30 years, Republican presidents and other politicians have used the issue of abortion to get elected and raise funds, but then, once in office, they have said little about abortion and done even less. Some say that their silence doesn’t matter, because the only way abortion can be reduced is by electing presidents who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe vs. Wade. This strategy is being quietly pursued, they say, so the plan is working. But there are good reasons to question this logic.


First, even if McCain were to win the election and appoint Supreme Court justices who would in fact overturn Roe vs. Wade, this move will not outlaw abortion, contrary to what many believe. It will only return the decision to the states, which raises this question: how many states lean toward criminalization? The answer: only sixteen states have at least 45% support for criminalizing abortion.

What would the impact of criminalization be in these sixteen states? Only ten percent of abortions occur in these states, and women desiring abortions would still be able to travel easily to a nearby state for an abortion. So even with a best-case scenario, there would be less than a ten percent reduction in abortions nationwide, not counting the likelihood of abortions still being performed illegally in the sixteen states in question.

Would sincere and intelligent Evangelical and Catholic Christians have given such extraordinary and largely uncritical political loyalty to Religious Right/Republican leaders for all these years if they had been told from the start that their efforts would eventually achieve only a ten percent reduction in abortion? How would they respond to the knowledge that we could likely achieve more than a ten percent reduction in abortions by providing increased economic assistance and social support for pregnant women who are poor, since women in poverty have abortions at four times the rate of higher-income women?

The chosen strategy of the anti-abortion movement, in this light, depends on an untested assumption: that criminalizing abortion is the best way to reduce abortion rates. If we look at other nations, this assumption is highly questionable.

For example, Western European nations, where abortion is legal and available, have the lowest abortion rates in the free world, with less than 10 abortions per 1000 women of reproductive age. In contrast, in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, there are between 29 and 31 abortions per 1000 women of reproductive age – in spite of the fact that abortion laws are highly restrictive there. So it’s clear that in free societies, poverty and a lack of services are more likely to lead to high abortion rates than whether or not abortion is legal.

The issue isn’t simply whether people are for or against abortion, because even among people labeled “pro-choice,” most would agree that abortion is a sad, even tragic, moral choice. The real issue is whether criminalization is the best way to reduce the number of abortions.

When I share these facts and reflections with my friends, many are surprised. For over thirty years, they’ve been told that voting Republican means voting out abortion. Many begin to wonder if we Christians have been manipulated by clever but cynical political operatives who have used the issue of abortion to win elections, without ever really intending to make a significant difference.

Some anti-abortion voters have told me that they agree with me in this diagnosis, but they feel their vote for McCain is a symbolic protest against the generally low moral conditions in our society. I respect their desire to cast their vote on the side of morality and family values. But it's clear - from both positive and negative examples in both parties - that neither party can lay claim to being the exclusive champion of strong marriages and dedicated parenting. In this election, voters have in Barack Obama and Joe Biden faithful husbands and dedicated fathers who exemplify in their marriages and families exactly the personal family values we hope more people will follow. If voters are truly looking for a symbolic affirmation of strong families, Obama and Biden can't be eliminated for partisan reasons.

In my book Everything Must Change, I shared my personal belief that a high abortion rate is a symptom of a deeper and complex societal disease. It is one expression of what I call the "covert curriculum" - a "framing story" that also fuels the current economic crisis, environmental crisis, and security crisis that together threaten our future. Until we unite to acknowledge and address that deeper disease and dysfunction, thus dealing with our symptoms in a systemic way, we will stay stuck in polarized paralysis, fighting divisive and ineffective culture wars while our moral health continues to deteriorate.

In this light, if we really care about seeing fewer pregnancies ending in abortion, a greater concern for "the least of these" - demonstrated through better health care, more vigorous job creation, better education, and other needed initiatives for people in poverty - could bring us greater results than a strategy of criminalization. And Senator Obama is the stronger candidate in these areas.

During this election, more and more of us who consider life sacred are losing confidence in the simplistic one-or-two issue voting habits that some vocal religious leaders and broadcasters have urged upon us for decades. We are beginning to see through the unhelpfully-framed arguments that have dominated both our religious and political discourse for too long. We’re looking for wiser and better means to wiser and better ends.

We aren’t so naïve as to believe that electing Barack Obama will solve all of our problems. But in regards to abortion along with many other issues, we are convinced – firmly, thoughtfully, and enthusiastically convinced – that casting our vote for Obama is a step in the right direction, fully consistent with our desire to celebrate the sacredness of life and improve the moral health of our nation and world.

[For more information, see Matthew 25.org. See the Guttmacher Institute, "An Overview of Abortion in The United States" and "An Overview of Abortion in The United States." See also the Catholics United study "Reducing Abortion in America: Beyond Roe v. Wade,” and Joseph Wright and Michael Bailey, "Reducing Abortion in America : The Effect of Economic and Social Supports."]