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Friday, December 30, 2005

Mitt Romney, Observant Jews, and Abortion Politics

We can all safely assume that Mitt Romney is running for president.  We can also safely assume that his positions on abortion are going to raise many eyebrows in conservative circles.

To break it down, Romney is basically personally opposed to abortion but favors its legality.  To be sure, to some audiences he has come across as somewhat more conservative, but this seems to be the gist of it.

Naturally, some conservative voters, particularly religiously conservative Christians, are aghast at this position.  They see him as wishy-washy and flip-floppy on a position that is central to their agenda, and they believe that he has taken this position for political purposes.  (It wouldn't do, after all, to run for governor of Massachusetts on a "pro-life" platform.)

I think, however, that there is more here than his naked political tightrope walking.  Abortion politics seem to revolve around two extremes.  On the one hand you have people who believe that abortion should be freely available in all circumstances.  On the other hand some believe that it should never be available.  Pro-life has taken on the definition of "opposition to abortion in all cases," and pro-choice has basically taken on the opposite definition.  Of course, there are a great number of us in the middle, but the most energetic and committed activists (and thus those most likely to participate in the primaries) on both sides are, predictably, those at the poles.

But, of course, Romney is a practicing Mormon.  And Mormon teaching on abortion seems to be more gray than black-or-white.  For this reason, Romney can't fully identify with either group of activists in the abortion debate.  The same is true of many Orthodox Jews.  Many (most? all?  I make no claims) Orthodox Rabbis take the position that abortion is permitted in narrow circumstances.  Some may even hold that abortion is required in limited circumstances.  At the same time, most Orthodox Rabbis would be repulsed by the idea of freely available abortions.  Indeed, there is a debate among some Orthodox Rabbis concerning which option would be preferable given a choice between the current liberal abortion laws or a total ban on abortion.  But exceedingly few would prefer either of those options.  And so it could be said that many (most? all? I have no idea and make no claims) Orthodox Jews similarly feel uncomfortable with either side of the abortion debate, which seems to have been taken over mainly by conservative Christians and more-or-less non-religious liberals.

This is not simply wishy-washiness (though it may be that); it is a limitation of language and political discourse.  Many Mormons and Orthodox Jews simply don't fit comfortably on either side of this debate. 

***Note that I have completely ignored the normative and legal questions concerning whether, how, and when religious belief and commitment should and may dictate policy preferences.  I take it as a given in this post that religious beliefs and commitments do influence policy preferences to varying degrees.

Posted by Hillel Levin on December 30, 2005 at 12:19 PM in Hillel Levin | Permalink

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Comments

Have you ever seen any numbers indicating most GOP primary voters want abortion banned even if necessary to save the mother's life? I find that hard to believe. I've always understood the general right-wing preference to be with a mother's life exception with a half-hearted acceptance of rape and incest exceptions.

Posted by: Sam | Dec 30, 2005 1:01:51 PM

Two points to make. One is vis-a-vis Mormonism and abortion; when we discussed this here recently, another poster gave a brief explanation of what Mormonism regards abortion as immoral but somewhere short of murder. Since I can't actually get into that comments section now, am I accurately summing it up thus: Mormons believe that abortion is wrong because each child is conceived with divine purpose, and thus to abort the child is to thawrt that purpose, but that abortion is not murder because the child does not receieve its...I don't know what they call it, a divine spirit, a soul, whatever the term is, in any instance, it doesn't get it until it's born. Is that an accurate summary, anyone?

The other was just to respond to something Hillel said:I think, however, that there is more here than his naked political tightrope walking. Abortion politics seem to revolve around two extremes. On the one hand you have people who believe that abortion should be freely available in all circumstances. On the other hand some believe that it should never be available. Pro-life has taken on the definition of "opposition to abortion in all cases," and pro-choice has basically taken on the opposite definition. Of course, there are a great number of us in the middle, but the most energetic and committed activists (and thus those most likely to participate in the primaries) on both sides are, predictably, those at the poles.I agree that there is polarization, but I'd go one step further and suggest that the field has become so polarized that it has become counter-productive. I take the view that abortion is murder, which necessarily places me as close to "opposition to abortion in all cases" as anyone gets (in reality, though, I think there are very few pro-life people who are quite this absolute, and almost all are willing to concede that there ARE circumstances in which it can be permitted for some purposes and at some times). However, I do not believe that the way to get there is to reject any solutions which merely reduce the demand for abortion, which it seems to me that some pro-life people do decide. It just seems to me that the best approach is to take positive steps to provide better education and better choices, since the current legal landscape permits little more. That isn't to say that I'm against passing laws, but I am against mindlessly passing laws that "test the boundaries" by going as far as they can. Instead, I think a more sensible approach is to pass laws that very gradually and incrementally improve regulation of abortion, and see how they stand up in court. Sooner or later, the legislature will go too far and the courts will strike it down, but at least then they can only strike down that one regulation, not the entire regulatory framework. Better is still better.

The ideal would be to just overturn Roe in one fell swoop. There are so many good reasons to do precisely that, but in the meantime, accepting Roe and Casey are there should lead to a certain evaluation of what steps can be taken in the meantime to improve the situation, not just put everything on hold until those cases are gone.

Posted by: Simon | Dec 30, 2005 5:47:26 PM

Have you ever seen any numbers indicating most GOP primary voters want abortion banned even if necessary to save the mother's life? I find that hard to believe. I've always understood the general right-wing preference to be with a mother's life exception with a half-hearted acceptance of rape and incest exceptions.I think most people who are pro-life recognize some circumstances under which abortion should be permitted, although there isn't universal agreement about what those exceptions are. I have to admit that I don't see the logic behind the rape/incest exceptions, other than because it's a political kiss of death to not add such caveats. My own view is that there should always be exceptions for the life of the mother, but I think that the child should be treated with the same dignity and respect as would any other human being (conjoined twins spring to mind), which means every effort should be made to save both, and only when there is literally no other alternative do we make the choice (which, in my view, should always err on the side of the mother).

Posted by: Simon | Dec 30, 2005 5:57:28 PM

While not completely on point, this discussion has got me thinking about an aspect of the ongoing dispute over abortion.

Although I was born and raised Roman Catholic, my personal view on abortion was aptly expressed by Bill Clinton: abortions should be "safe, legal, and rare." But I wonder whether one can plausibly assert that the abortion debate has been miscast (in Constitutional terms) all along.

More specifically, it has always seemed to me that the overwhelming majority of those who are opposed to ready availability of abortions are opposed primarily because they believe, as a matter of religious faith, that from the moment of conception the blastula/embryo/fetus is a fully realized human being, complete with soul. That's certainly orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine.

If my surmise about the source of opposition to abortion is correct, then isn't abortion really an Establishment Clause issue? And doesn't reframing the issue as an Establishment Clause issue dramatically shift the balance of power on the issue?

Posted by: burnspbesq | Dec 31, 2005 12:27:16 AM

No, it really doesn't at all. People bring that argument up from time to time, but it clearly fails. For example, if it turned out that the reason most people support laws prohibiting the enslavement of other races, or indentured servitude (or robbery, or charging excessive interest) is because they view such prohibitions as consonant with their religiously grounded morality, this would scarcely render those laws unenforceable as an Establishment Clause violation. The Establishment Clause is not even colorably implicated. No one is being coerced into making any sort of religious act; they are simply prohibited from engaging in certain kinds of conduct deemed harmful or cruel. The abortion situation is exactly the same. It is no different from any other exercise of the police power.

The unborn human being is either a legal person or it's not. The answer to that question cannot be established purely through logical proof -- any more than the question whether you should be deemed a legal person can be so proven. Thus, you're starting from a false premise if you think withdrawing protection from the unborn is any less metaphysically "loaded" than extending protection to them. All laws reflect some sort of debatable normative judgment; most people (indeed, I would say all) are committed to norms that are not wholly derived from empirical observation; atheist materialism is a metaphysics, just as much as whatever variety of theism you have in mind.

Hence, with respect, the argument is a non-starter.

Posted by: Plainsman | Dec 31, 2005 8:09:47 PM

Hillel, I'm not sure you are right that Gov. Romney is an "I'm personally opposed, but it should be legal" (i.e., Mario Cuomo?) guy. According to an essay by James Taranto on OpinionJournal (dated Dec. 31):

[O]n the issues, Mr. Romney is largely in tune with the Christian right. "I am pro-life," he says, though he's not an absolutist. He favors a return to the status quo ante Roe v. Wade, when states decided abortion policy. In 2002, recognizing that Massachusetts is an "overwhelmingly pro-choice state," he campaigned only on a promise to veto any legislation changing the state's abortion laws, including a proposal, which Ms. O'Brien endorsed, to reduce the age of parental consent to 16 from 18. The Legislature never passed that measure.
Some question whether he is antiabortion enough to satisfy his party's base. But George W. Bush has made similar nods to political reality--"I'm a realistic enough person to know that America is not ready to ban abortions," he said in 1999--and few dispute the president's pro-life credentials.

. . . So, who knows where he would be on, say, nominating judges willing to criticize or read narrowly Roe, abortion funding, conscience clauses for religious hospitals, etc.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Dec 31, 2005 10:00:24 PM

It's a moot point actually, Romney cannot win any southern primary due to his particular religion.

Sad to say, but Mormons are viewed as a cult by Southern Baptist. They aren't about to cast a vote to put one in the White House.I was raised a Southern Baptist Mormons=cult is the conventional wisdom.

I know this impolitic to say, but it is reality in the South. And as we know, no Southern Baptist= no nomination. He would lso be a huge liability as a VP candidate, that's how deeply suspicious folks are of Mormons in the South, though they do respect various tenets of their faith.

Posted by: lawstudent05 | Jan 1, 2006 12:02:36 AM

I take the view that abortion is murder. . .in reality, though, I think there are very few pro-life people who are quite this absolute. . .

Simon -- How can humans--including some who are admirable humans-- fail to see that abortion is murder? People may want abortion reduced, but they don't want to prosecute, convict and punish as murderers the women who get abortions and/or the medical workers who perform the killings, just as people do want society to punish the killers of post-fetal humans. It seems to me, there can be only two explanations for the odd degree of social acceptance of abortion--either people are blinded by pity (which jurors are admonished to set aside) or abortion isn't murder, after all, but acceptable to human experience.

The doubt that abortion really isn't murder lurks stubornly, if unwelcomely, in Hillel's great "middle." To me, this is the real scandal of abortion. People tolerate it, with various degrees of bad conscience. They may understand the moral teachings of the church concerning human nature, and tolerate abortion. They may dislike the theory of evolution, yet still tolerate abortion. You can teach the parallels with slavery, but people tolerate abortion. I can only speculate why. Ironically, religion itself encourages the practice of this "particular institution" of abortion, through the empowering concept of "dominion." Just as humans received dominion over "the animals" (sentient forms which the ancients believed were "almost" human, or metamorphosically or potentially human), a woman has dominion over the fetus in the private sphere of her womb. Scandalous.

I'm with you, Simon. Either abortion is murder or it isn't. But I happen to think it isn't, because it fails to evoque universal opprobrium.

Posted by: Scroop Moth | Jan 1, 2006 6:26:20 PM

Hillel,

I just got back from vacation, so let me weigh in as the token Mormon. I think the church's position is less gray than you indicate. In fact, I kicked off a pretty lively debate at T&S when I asked "is it okay to be a pro-choice Mormon?" (See http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=333 ). The answer is yes, I think -- but there are many rank-and-file church members who think otherwise.

I believe that the most current official statement from the church on abortion is this one:

"The Church opposes abortion and counsels its members not to submit to or perform an abortion except in the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or good health of the mother is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by rape and produces serious emotional trauma in the mother. Even then it should be done only after counseling with the local presiding priesthood authority and after receiving divine confirmation through prayer."

See http://www.mormon.org/question/faq/category/answer/0,9777,1601-1-61-1,00.html

It is true that abortion is viewed as less than murder; it is also true that church leaders may permit abortion in instances of rape, incest, and threat to the mother's life.

So yes, Mormons are in a gray area -- but only if one is viewing them from an even more black-and-white, "abortion = murder" viewpoint, which is (I believe) the belief of many evangelicals. Based on my own understanding of Orthodox Jewish belief -- which is admittedly not a particularly deep understanding -- I have always thought that the Orthodox position was somewhat more flexible and "gray," so to speak, than the Mormon position.

Posted by: Kaimi | Jan 2, 2006 9:44:50 PM

Rick-
Some question whether he is antiabortion enough to satisfy his party's base. But George W. Bush has made similar nods to political reality--"I'm a realistic enough person to know that America is not ready to ban abortions," he said in 1999--and few dispute the president's pro-life credentials.Actually, many people do question the President's commitment to the pro-life cause. In that vein, I thought this Lithwick piece - joyfully interring the Miers nomination - which (likely rightly, I think) suggests that it will be very difficult for someone who is not unambiguously pro-life to win the GOP nomination again.

Posted by: Simon | Jan 2, 2006 10:26:25 PM

"Many Mormons . . . simply don't fit comfortably on either side of this debate."

Hillel,

I surveyed a class of 155 freshman at BYU (almost all of whom are devout Mormons) in November about their self-identity on abortion politics, asking them pick the label that best represents their view: strongly pro-choice, mildly pro-choice, mildly pro-life, or strongly pro-life. The distribution was:

2 = strongly pro-choice (1%)
13 = mildly pro-choice (8%)
43 = mildly pro-life (28%)
97 = strongly pro-life (63%)

Posted by: Matt Evans | Jan 3, 2006 9:22:02 PM

What is important is how the Evangelicals view Latter-day Saints, and not how Latter-day Saints view themselves. Evangelicals, and perhaps many devout Catholics (i.e. those who actually follow the injunctions of the Vatican and form their belief structures accordingly), view Latter-day Saints as pro-choice, I would argue, precisely based on the Church's stated policy that abortion might be an option in the case of rape, incest, or mortal threat to the life of the mother. This formulation puts Latter-day Saints very much in a grey area from the perspective of the abortion=murder crowd, never mind the fact that a majority of individual Latter-day Saints very likely belongs to that crowd as well, in spite of the more flexible official Church policy. The reason this matters more than what Latter-day Saints think about themselves is that it will be the Republican Primaries that Mitt Romney will have great difficulty in surviving. If Mitt ends up in a presidential race against Hilary, he has a good chance (at that point Evangelicals would arguably back Mitt the Mormon as a lesser evil to Hilary the Harbinger of Doom). But the real question is whether he could ever possibly end up in that position. The core Republican constituency, arguably dominated by the Evangelical abortion=murder-so-Mormons-must-be-pro-choice mindset, would likely back one of their own who takes a clear and firm pro-life position, as demanded by that constituency. Such a candidate could take the primaries away from Mitt, and then lose the election to a more moderate democratic candidate.

Posted by: john fowles | Jan 4, 2006 4:24:13 PM

John,
I really and honestly don't know anyone who is pro-life who regards making an exception to an abortion prohibition for a "mortal threat to the life of the mother" as a squishy, gray area policy. For myself, my position is a statement that the child has worth, not that the mother has none, and since both have worth, their interests must be balanced accordingly; but I don't think even the most stringent of those who are pro-life believe in no exceptions for maternal life, and the opposition (such as it is) to exceptions for "health" are not because of a genuine opposition to such an exception, but from the real-world awareness that so squishy a term will be used for abortion-on-demand by the back door.

Posted by: Simon | Jan 5, 2006 1:40:56 PM

good point Simon.

Posted by: john f. | Jan 7, 2006 5:21:01 PM

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