January 25, 2016

How the presidential candidates’ extreme abortion positions distort a growing consensus (COMMENTARY)

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Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the National March for Life rally in Washington on January 22, 2016. The rally marks the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade.      Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Gary Cameron
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 25, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the National March for Life rally in Washington on January 22, 2016. The rally marks the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Gary Cameron *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CAMOSY-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 25, 2016.

(RNS) My friend, a high school teacher in the Washington, D.C., area, invited me to speak to his pro-life club in advance of the March for Life last week. When I asked what I might expect from the audience, he dropped this bomb:

“Well, you know the president of the club? She’s an atheist.”

I looked at him for a few seconds, momentarily taken aback.

But I should have known better. Yes, the pro-life movement in the U.S. began as a movement of religious people. But today it is very diverse, with groups like “Secular Pro-Life” giving a very public and influential home for nontheists in the movement.

The annual March for Life has become a gathering of people from every race, language and way of life. Among the marchers this year were liberalsJewspagans, blacks, Latinos, and gays and lesbians. As has been the case for some years now, the crowd was also disproportionately young — connecting to the myriad of interesting events (and the tens of thousands of people) through the March for Life app.

The new energy of the pro-life movement comes in part from a growing consensus on abortion in the United States.


RELATED STORY: ‘Evangelicals for Life’ participants join Catholics in annual march


Though an overwhelming majority of Americans (including 3 in 4 who identify as pro-life) want to see abortion legally available in cases of rape and the endangered life of the mother, multiple polls have found that a clear majority (including 1 in 4 who identify as pro-choice) want it legally restricted in other circumstances.

If you go by development of the fetus instead of circumstances of pregnancy, there is also a strong consensus found in multiple polls. About 6 in 10 want to see abortion largely available before 12 weeks, while about 7 in 10 want to see it largely restricted after 12 weeks.

Unfortunately, this consensus is not reflected in most of our public discussions of abortion. These tend to be dominated by extremist positions.

I document many of the reasons for this in my book “Beyond the Abortion Wars,” including the media’s interest in framing the issue has an “us vs. them” fight to the death between those who want abortion banned and those who want it available.

But one issue I overlooked was the significant impact of presidential primary campaigns, especially as candidates’ hopes for the nomination push them to satisfy extremist wings in their party.

Take Marco Rubio. Seen in this election cycle as an alternative to people such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, he has nevertheless been forced by the extreme pro-life groups to draw focus away from the American consensus on more abortion restrictions and onto his views on abortion in the case of sexual violence.

If he is the nominee, he will now be forced to defend his wildly unpopular view that abortion ought to be restricted even in this horrific circumstance, a view rejected even by a majority of those who identify as pro-life.


RELATED STORY: Pope Francis asks priests to forgive the sin of abortion


Hillary Clinton once thought that abortion should be rare, but in her current presidential run she has been pushed by extreme pro-choice groups to adopt the “abortion as a social good” model. No more talk of reasonable restrictions. Indeed, she now even argues that taxpayers should be forced to pay for abortions, another wildly unpopular proposition, rejected by a majority of those who identify as pro-choice.

It often takes many years for national politics to catch up with a growing consensus, especially on contentious issues. In 2004, for instance, GOP strategists put same-sex marriage bans on the ballot in several states in an attempt to drive up voter turnout among their base. By 2012, however, that strategy seemed nearly incomprehensible given the broad public support for gays and lesbians to marry.

Something similar is going on with abortion today. Our public discourse, political debates and cultural imagination are trapped in the “us vs. them,” “choice vs. life,” “woman vs. baby” antagonistic narrative from the 1980s. But the growing American consensus on abortion is more complex and, frankly, much more interesting.

Americans want abortion to be far more restricted than it is now. Given our support for women, Americans want abortion to be legal in certain limited circumstances. This consensus is an important and happy development, and it is long past time that gatekeepers of our public discussions change their language and assumptions to reflect it.

Evaluating the positions of the presidential candidates would be a good place to start.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University)

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  • This commentary by Charles Camosy is just lazy.
    It relies on an unscientific “poll” conducted by an interest group.

    “Seven in ten Americans believe freedom of religion should be protected even if it conflicts with government laws.”

    FREEDOM OF RELIGION CANNOT CONFLICT WITH THE LAW!
    IT IS THE LAW!

    If your religion requires you to not have an abortion – then don’t have one!
    This stupid poll is made up of questions which are no better than asking people whether a coin should have two sides!

    Here is the smart question this foolish poll doesn’t ask:

    “How many years should a 19 year old girl spend on death row
    for getting an abortion?”

    This religious pro-life movement is just an unrealistic, unhelpful nuisance.
    Meanwhile they forbid sex education!!!

    If my 19 year old had an unwanted pregnancy I would
    sue the public schools for not teaching
    proper science of the human reproductive system!

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  • The Great God Pan

    “Yes, the pro-life movement in the U.S. began as a movement of religious people. But today it is very diverse, with groups like ‘Secular Pro-Life’ giving a very public and influential home for nontheists in the movement.”

    It has been shown that many members of Secular Pro-Life and similar purportedly nontheist organizations actually identify as Catholic. These groups appear to be part of a Catholic astroturf campaign rather than genuine grassroots organizations started by nontheists. Specific information about SPL’s founding and funding, for instance, don’t seem to be available on the group’s website.

  • Chris

    You didn’t look very hard. It started with a very public 19 year old athiest and is funded through online donations:

    http://www.secularprolife.org/#!history/c11me

    Perhaps, given that this is clearly a civil rights issue and not about enforcing religion, you would like to donate to them?

  • Diogenes

    As one who is pro-life in nearly every category of life’s circumstances (and still struggles intellectually with the death penalty), I sympathize with women who become pregnant as a result of rape; and who may reasonably shudder at the thought of bearing a child who shares the DNA of their attacker. However, there are some very good examples of supremely courageous women who have done just that, because they could not bring themselves to punish and destroy the innocent life within them that bore no responsibility for their condition. To fulfill an unwanted pregnancy is a selfless act and selfless acts are becoming all to rare in this present world.

  • Diogenes

    Correction: “all too rare in this present world.”

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  • Garson Abuita

    Any organization that puts “Jewish” in its name, proclaims that “life begins at conception,” then goes on to discuss halachic permission and prohibition of abortion, may be fond of sound bites, but not of deep understanding of halacha.

  • The Great God Pan

    I’ve already seen that page. You and I must have very different ideas of what constitutes “specific information.” That page doesn’t even give the name of supposed founder Kelsey Hazzard, or mention that she was born in 1988 (*) which makes it odd that she was only 19 in 2009.

    SPL sprung up seemingly out of nowhere and achieved a very high profile virtually overnight. It is highly unlikely that this was pulled off by an inexperienced “19-year-old” operating on her own without outside money and guidance.

    (*) http://www.chtlegal.com/attorney-profiles/kelsey-l-hazzard.aspx

  • Chris

    It generally works that you have the idea for the organization first…and then you found it, right? She probably had the idea at 19 first…and the organization followed when she was 20 or 21.

    I’ve been following them for years now…it is only recently that their website was anything more than a free blogspot platform. They would also ask for money on FB and Twitter. They still only have just over 4000 Twitter follows. None of these things would be the case if they were something other than grassroots.

  • Betty Clermont

    Camosy is pretty selective about which polls he quotes, including some which are pretty old and one by the Knights of Columbus, which should tell us something. The latest INDEPENDENT poll I could find is dated May 2015: “Americans Choose “Pro-Choice” for First Time in Seven Years” by Gallup. 78% of Americans approved legal abortion in at least a few circumstances.

  • Navi

    The 78% figure is meaningless. It could imply that 78% of Americans approve of legal abortion only to save the mother’s life (so in other words, all Americans are pro-life). Or it could mean that 78% of Americans want abortion to be available without limits throughout all nine months of pregnancy (so in other words, three quarters of Americans are pro-choice). Or pretty much anything in between.

  • Michael Glass

    Abortion raises difficult moral questions, and this is becoming more obvious as pre-natal testing becomes more precise.

    * Most people approve of abortion in the case of rape and incest and to save the life of the mother, but less comfortable with abortion for social or medical reasons.

    Many people would terminate a pregnancy if they found that the child had downs syndrome, but there are other conditions that would cause at least some people to consider termination. These include serious inherited diseases such as tay-sache disease and cystic fibrosis.

    But what if it became possible to test for congenital deafness, short-sightedness, or a tendency to mental illness or homosexuality? Many parents would jump at the chance to avoid bearing such children.

    Right to life versus right to choose looks very different as pre-natal testing advances into such territory. The brave new world of pre-natal testing has some troubling implications.