Billy McMahon | Wednesday, January 14, 2015
If one were to judge Christianity by its influence on mainstream politics in the United States, they might be struck by the religion’s obsessive focus on abortion, homosexuality and pre-marital sex. Those fighting against these things nearly always drape their arguments in Christianity, while those fighting against poverty and hunger most often make secular arguments. Under the mountain of sexual moralizing, one might never know that Jesus of Nazareth said a great deal about the poor and dispossessed.
In truth, abortion is the religious right’s greatest friend. It’s a terrific political distraction. The preachers tell their congregations that abortion is the most important issue of our time, and suddenly everything else takes a back seat. How many working class people have thrown their own interests to the wind because they put so much weight on this single issue?
It’s not that social issues are unimportant. They can be terribly important. But the more politicians of either persuasion get to talk about abortion, the fewer hard questions about their role in an intensely unequal society they have to endure. The term “pro-life” evokes battles over abortion, not over poverty, hunger, exploitation, insufficient wages, wars, imprisonment or lack of medical care — the biggest threats to human life and dignity. Bishops deny communion to pro-choice politicians but not to the rich, despite Jesus explicitly condemning the latter and not the former. I suppose it’s better to keep the donations rolling in.
The abortion debate will not go away if we ignore it, but those who are pro-life must realize that their politicians can do little to ban a constitutionally-recognized right to abortion, while they gleefully feed off the distractions and fervor surrounding the issue. So instead, look for reasonable action. While the country is polarized on the legality of abortion, all can agree on reducing the number of abortions. We can all become practically pro-life. This means examining the reasons why people seek abortions and addressing the underlying causes. Even the most hard-core abortion opponents must recognize that banning abortion without reducing demand would lead to an underground black market of illegal, unsafe abortions.
As it stands, I believe that no one wants to have an abortion — it is an option of last resort. In 2004, researchers at the Guttmacher Institute surveyed women seeking abortions. Most cited multiple reasons for their decision, but when it came to primary reasons, 63 percent of women fell into categories broadly defined by simply not wanting a child, 23 percent could not afford to have a child and seven percent were motivated by their own health or the health of the fetus.
The 63 percent of abortions that derive primarily from unwanted pregnancies could be directly targeted if so many of the people fighting against abortion would stop fighting just as hard against responsible sex education, sexual liberation and freely available contraception. So many of the churches that will be marching in Washington next week are the same forces pushing discredited theories of abstinence-only education into our schools. Teenagers are going to have sex — a majority do before leaving high school. Those not taught about safe sex in school often carry on unsafe sexual practices for life. If contraception is restricted, if it’s not discussed, if it’s shamed, then these people will be the first ones in line at the abortion clinic.
The 23 percent of abortions that derive primarily from poor economic situations can only be addressed through reducing poverty, ensuring living wages, increasing workers’ rights and fighting systemic inequality. No one should be thrust into poverty by an unexpected pregnancy, and no one should have to choose between having the child they want and having something to eat. If Christians want to reduce these abortions, they have to actually listen to Jesus and stand with the poor — not through charity, but through real structural changes to the fundamentals of our economy. No system can be “pro-life” that does not ensure the essentials of human life and dignity for all.
The seven percent who abort for medical reasons will never totally go away, but the number can be greatly reduced in a society with full, comprehensive health care for all. Nobody who fights against universal medical care can call themselves “pro-life” with any shred of honesty, yet there’s a blood fight over any perceived threat to the profits of insurance companies.
So, those who want to reduce or eliminate abortion have a decision before them — will you march and shout and change little, or will you be pro-life in a practical sense and examine the structural problems that cause desperate people to seek out abortions? If you’re not willing to do the latter, then you might want to examine your own motivations.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.