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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Abortion, Symbolism, and Waiting a Day

At MoJ, Michael Scaperlanda links to an NPR story suggesting that President Obama may well take the occasion of today's 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade to reverse some of the previous administration's executive orders on abortion, most prominently the rule prohibiting foreign aid to international family planning groups that also perform or "promote" abortion.  Our estimable co-blogger Rick Garnett has also written about this on MoJ.

Unlike Rick and Michael, I suspect, I tend to favor the President's rescinding the order.  But I'd like to think there is room for one of Obama's classic gestures to the other side in an emotional debate -- a fairly trivial gesture, to be sure, but also a meaningful one.  As the NPR story notes, "it's become something of a tradition" for new presidents to use the anniversary of Roe to issue executive orders on abortion: Clinton did it, and so did Bush 43.  The symbolism is apparent, and in a sense so is the way in which abortion fights are often as much (or more!) about symbolism as they are about substance. 

Rick has followed, even more closely than I have, I'm sure, some of the debates during the campaign over whether a staunch opponent of abortion could vote for a pro-choice candidate or was conversely obliged to vote for an anti-abortion candidate (choose your own terms; that kind of symbolic struggle over nomenclature doesn't interest me).  One of the arguments that was advanced was that many conservative politicians have paid lip service to their opposition to abortion without doing much about it -- indeed, perhaps without wanting to do much about it, lest they go beyond placating their base and face genuine political costs.  (This is, incidentally, one of the many ways that Roe has arguably made the world safe for politicians to use abortion as a symbolic issue without facing serious political consequences for their actions on these issues.) The argument runs that if we are serious about abortion as a moral wrong, we should vote for those candidates who, we are convinced on balance, will actually reduce the number of abortions, whether through social welfare legislation or other more direct means, rather than care simply about whether a politician postures one way or another on the issue.  The contrary argument, which I am not doing justice here but which certainly has strong and thoughtful proponents, is that it would be a wrong in itself to vote for a politician who countenances a grave moral wrong.

I won't take sides here, although I've already noted that I favor rescinding this rule and some others.  I do want to suggest that President Obama, while taking the substantive actions on abortion that he thinks necessary and proper, should consider denying Roe's supporters the symbolic victory of rescinding the rules today.  It makes little difference substantively whether Obama takes action today or waits another day, or week.  But symbolically, it rejects the use of abortion as a symbol, with all the corrosive effects on our politics that it has had. 

Those who hold strong moral views on abortion and abortion rights may not agree with this point, but I would suggest that treating abortion as a symbol ultimately fails to give full respect and dignity to the seriousness of abortion and abortion rights.  Those who staunchly support any liberalization of abortion laws may think that doing so is wrong no matter when the President does so; and those who staunchly oppose restrictions on abortion and abortion rights may conversely think that it is important that the President act today.  But I think there is a sense in which, if the President waits to act until tomorrow, he can say that he takes abortion seriously and that his substantive views on the matter have not changed, but that he believes the whole issue is too serious to treat it as a symbolic issue, and that he is unwilling to use Roe's anniversary as either a sop to his base or a message to those who oppose abortion rights.  Sometimes, it may be the case that the most respectful thing a public servant can do for those with strong beliefs on an important issue is to refuse to play the games of those who lead the forces on either side.               


Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 22, 2009 at 10:56 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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A thoughtful post, as always, Paul. Obviously, my preference would be that Pres. Obama show his often-expressed respect for "the other side" by *not* pushing to increase public funding for abortion, either at home or abroad. It strikes me that he could make good on his promise -- indeed, on what I'm sure he regards as his obligation -- to protect the legal right to abortion while offering a tangible sign of respect to people who are anti-abortion by keeping in place the Mexico City policy, the Hyde Amendment, etc.

With respect to your general point about "symbolism", a point I tried to make, in some contexts, was that, for many pro-lifers, the issue is not (or, at least, not only) to reduce the *number* of abortions, but to undo the constitutionalization of a regime that, they (we) believe, both needlessly circumvents the political process and rests on incorrect premises about the dignity of the unborn.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 22, 2009 11:59:09 AM

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