Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wal Mart, the Supreme Court, and the Catholic vote

I may be in Bolivia, but I read enough online news to know that the U.S. presidential elections - still 17 months away - are already getting plenty of buzz. In the coming months, Catholic organizations like the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as other faith-based groups like Sojourners will start putting out voting guides helping Christian voters to consider the moral and ethical implications of a wide array of issues. Inevitably, we'll also see Catholics - at church, on TV, etc. - arguing the importance of abortion relative to all other issues, and we'll be told by a number of them that, while everything from poverty to war to the death penalty is negotiable, abortion is not and Catholics mustn't ever vote for a pro-choice candidate.

I hate the abortion issue. I definitely don't intend to address it with any regularity on this blog. I realize people do occasionally change their minds about aspects of it, and I haven't completely given up on the idea that it can be discussed in a mutually respectful way. But it rarely is, and opining on it usually serves mainly to turn off half of one's audience. Besides, I think my own opinions on abortion, particularly as a political issue, are too nuanced for me ever to become an activist for either of the major camps. People often portray the debate as if everyone were lined up firmly on one side or the other of a clearly demarcated fault line. But I know I'm not the only one who lives in the gray and mushy middle between the black and white poles of pro-life/anti-choice and pro-choice/pro-abortion. 

All of that said, there was a story in the news this week that I think is worth mentioning in the context of abortion. And I'd just as soon write about it now, before the heat of next year's election season, and then let it be. The story itself wasn't actually about abortion. It was about the Supreme Court's decisions to block a class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit against Wal Mart. I won't analyze it except to say this: the Supreme Court has, for over a century, made decisions empowering corporations over and against human citizens. And the current, conservative Court has been particularly radical in this regard, the most obvious example being the Citizens United case last year. This week's Wal Mart decision is another damaging blow, as Peter Goodman explains here.

What does this have to do with abortion? The bulk of the pro-life movement is not just rooted in principle. It's supposedly also rooted in strategy. Pro-life activists often support pro-criminalization candidates even while recognizing that there is little lawmakers or executives can do to change the legal status of abortion as currently established in Roe v. Wade. What they hope for is an overturning of Roe v. Wade, which they aim to achieve by electing presidents - virtually always Republican/conservative* - who will appoint conservative judges.  And we've had several terms with such presidents since Roe v. Wade, and particularly in recent years, we've seen the Court stacked with conservative justices. They've done nothing to change the legality of abortion. Meanwhile, Citizens United and this week's Wal Mart decisions reflect the kind of activism we can expect from conservative justices.

It is plain to me: conservative political elites use abortion as a wedge issue to morally intimidate Christian voters into supporting politicians who give mere lip service to their pro-life positions, while taking concrete steps to advance all of the most un-Christian and immoral planks in their respective platforms. In abortion, they've found their ace-in-the-hole: an issue that not only distracts from others with its inherent emotional appeal, but actually trumps all other issues in the eyes of millions of otherwise thoughtful voters. And while individual politicians may be sincere in their opposition to abortion, they are doing nothing about it. They are, however, doing plenty to start wars, demonize immigrants and poor people, keep our criminal justice system purely punitive, and prop up their corporate and wealthy backers. The Roberts Court is not interested in defending the unborn. It is interested in defending Wal Mart and Wall Street. Adding more Republicans to the bench will only serve to advance this trend.

I've been told for years that I'm copping out by arguing that the best way to protect life is to support policies that put fewer women in the position of feeling they have no choice but to get abortions. The state must defend the unborn, I'm told, and it must do so by outlawing abortion, period. But the more I watch, the more I'm convinced that such arguments, whatever their (questionable) hypothetical merits, are simply not rooted in reality. They only lead people to vote for politicians who never actually do a thing to make abortion illegal, and meanwhile, create a much more hostile environment for mothers and children, born and unborn. I am convinced that voting for "pro-life" candidates whose only pro-life position is a theoretical opposition to legalized abortion is the true cop-out. 

Next year, there will likely be no prominent pro-choice candidates running against Barack Obama. But there will be pro-choice Catholics pursuing seats in Congress. And so soon, we will no doubt see bishops refusing those politicians communion. Catholics around the country will be told by individual Church leaders that there is only one issue that matters, and that they must not vote for anyone who does not claim to want to make abortion illegal, and even that doing so is tantamount to excommunicating oneself.

Many of these same bishops accept Just War doctrine, an ethical argument that states that, in order to be morally acceptable, a war must be just not only in its cause, but in its execution. One measure of this is that the war effort must have a reasonable probability of victory. Another measure is that the damage done in carrying out the war must not be disproportionate to the damage it seeks to avoid. I try to apply the same kind of ethical thinking to the abortion issue. I understand that the damage the pro-life movement seeks to avoid is enormous when understood in terms of millions of human lives lost.  But even if one holds that the best way to reduce abortions is to outlaw them (a debatable issue, to be sure, but in many church circles such debate itself is seen as anti-life), the last 38 years of U.S. history suggest to me that the probability of achieving criminalization is very low, while the damage done in pursuit of criminalization is real, and devastating.

I don't expect to have a lot of very satisfying choices on the ballot next year. The two major parties seem to have a lock on things, and corporations and Wall Street gamblers have a lock on them. Neither represents me well.  I wouldn't venture to bet on who will win, but I would bet money it won't mean a thing in terms of legalized abortion. As primary debates and the accompanying culture wars begin to ramp up, though, I imagine the executives at Wal Mart are feeling well-represented indeed.

* I recognize that the word 'conservative' has become almost meaningless. Here, I don't believe that 'conservative' justices represent traditional conservative values, but they do represent the current conservative political movement in the U.S., which, above all else, stands for corporate-driven market capitalism and holds the rights of corporations above the rights of individual human beings, non-corporate communities, the environment, etc.   


mamajo said...

Brilliant! xoxo

Chris K said...

Excellent analysis, Dan!

I'd like to add that I learned a lot about the abortion issue when I found out that in Peru - where abortion is illegal and always has been - there are more abortions per population than in the US.

Not only do the Republicans have no serious intention of making abortion illegal - even if they did it would not reduce the numbers much. Trying to help and create more options for people with unplanned pregnancies would save more lives.

Katrina H said...

Thanks for sharing Dan...You are right on target...and it is so frustrating. Destroying this country over one issue is such b.s. I have to say this is one of the most disappointing things about the Catholic Church-the centrality of the abortion issue. If only they knew what they were really doing...which it doesn't seem like they do or they just choose not to listen.