Friday, October 12, 2012

Religious Freedom and the Election: Why You Should Vote Obama/Biden

A key question in this election is whether abortion should remain legal at the federal level. A secondary issue is whether the federal government has any proper role in determining whether gay people can get married.  Both questions, I believe, come down to the proper role of religion in government, and also impinge on state and individual rights.

Given that the next president is likely to make two life appointments to the Supreme Court, the choice between Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden is a critical one with regard to both of these questions. 

First, abortion. I believe that the question of abortion is really a question of whether decisions about abortion should be made by the federal judiciary, legislature, or executive, by each state, or by individual women in consultation with their partners and doctors.  This question can be considered a proxy for the whole election/debate going on in this country right now.  Here's why.

Obama/Biden will do everything in their power to make sure that the federal government  acts to keep this decision a private one between the individual woman (and her partner) and their doctor, while Romney/Ryan will do everything in their power, including working to overturn Roe v. Wade, to make sure a woman who chooses abortion (or the doctor who performs one) is treated as a criminal for making the "wrong" choice 

Even if you believe life begins as conception, you can still say (as Biden did in the V.P. debate last night) that the government has no right to interfere in this very personal choice. If, as both Ryan and Biden concede, this is a position determined by their religion, the establishment clause should dictate that the federal government has no power to interfere.  Biden made this position quite clear last night in response to Martha Radatz's excellent question about religion and abortion.

On what basis can a religious person rightfully claim that a religious belief should *dictate* US federal policy?  On no basis at's expressly forbidden in the Constitution.  (An individual can certainly rely on religion to make a personal decision, and a politician can rely on his religious values to make a political decision, but we're talking here about the use of federal powers to enforce a particular decision on others. I'm saying it's expressly unconstitutional for the government to dictate the decision for religious reasons.)

Since members of the religious right cannot rely (solely) on religion for the claim that abortion should be illegal for everyone, they argue that "science" determines that life begins at conception.  How do they make this argument?  One way is to remind everyone that "abortion stops a beating heart."  Yes, that's true, if the abortion occurs after 5-6 weeks.  But a beating heart isn't the scientific definition of life (even though it is certainly a significant emotional/spiritual marker).  

According to a very rough summary on Wikipedia (, life requires: homeostasis (not a characteristic of an early fetus); organization (yes); metabolism (not until later); growth (yes); adaptation (no); response to stimuli (gradually, but not at first); and reproduction (no).  On this admittedly crude set of criteria, the early fetus has the *potential* for life, but not life itself.  It is, rather, like stem cells that can be induced to produce red blood cells outside of the body, but which, without life support, have no independent life.  Or, to put it somewhat crassly but illustratively, the fetus is like the twirly-thingies that fall down from certain oak trees: yes, provided the right conditions for a certain period of time, an independent life is possible, but is not yet assured. A twirly-thingie is not an oak tree; it's only a *potential* oak tree. (Note that I am willing to concede that any fetus which is viable outside the womb should be afforded legal protection as a person.  To me, that's a way of basing the decision on science. To my knowledge this is also the position of both Obama and Biden.)

So without a *clear* scientific basis for claiming that the fetus is life (that is, "life" itself, not "potential life"), the abortion debate becomes either a religious issue or an emotional issue.  Just like "pre-marital sex" might be an appropriate subject for religious dogma (especially in Islam and in Catholicism, but also, notably, in Mormonism) but isn't any longer considered an appropriate object of governmental dictate (except of course in the case of statutory rape, where the issue is consent, not the sexual act itself), abortion should be off-limits as well.

But the objection will be raised immediately that the unborn fetus is like the girl (or boy) before the age of consent: deserving of government protection because s/he isn't ready to protect him or herself.  But this requires us to say that the legal status of the unborn fetus is similar to that of the juvenile person (an independent life but without legal maturity)...but that is exactly what is under debate here.  You can't claim the fetus's legal status as a person as the reason an unborn fetus is a legal person... That's circular.  So you're left making a statement of faith, or conflating "potential" life with life itself. 

To put this another way, you don't hear people saying that a woman's own hand deserves government protection (from being used for masturbation) because it doesn't "consent" to the act.  An unborn fetus is, scientifically, like the woman's hand... An appendage of the woman, or an organ of the woman.   Or, even better, the unborn fetus is like the fertilized seed of a plant that *could* become a second plant if properly nurtured, but which doesn't become a second plant until such time as those conditions have enabled independence of living. 

Some will immediately say that my comparison of an unborn fetus to a woman's own hand or to the fertilized seed of a plant is insensitive, or spiritually misguided.  This is my point, exactly: this objection isn't scientific... It's emotional or religious. (Did you notice in the debate that while Ryan said the abortion issue was a matter of reason and science, his own views were a result of the emotional/spiritual experience he had seeing the ultrasound of his first (potential) child, "Bean"?) According to this blatantly religious (or emotional) position, a woman who chooses to abort her fetus is spiritually bankrupt (or emotionally insensitive) and, therefore, should be prevented by criminal sanctions from taking that route.

I won't go into how paternalistic and hegemonic this position is (with regard to the individual woman faced with what is often an incredibly difficult personal choice), except to say that it is helpful to compare this abortion-should-be-illegal stance with another favorite "social issue" of the Right:  gay marriage. 

On what basis can people justify the position that two *consenting* adults who wish to marry each other should be prohibited (by an amendment to the US Constitution, no less!) from doing so?  The appeal in this case is to "the "sanctity of marriage" or "tradition" or something the Right likes to call the "decline of civilization."  Forget the first's clearly a religious argument and has no place here.  The second is merely an appeal to a way of doing things that has discriminated against a whole class of people for centuries (sort of like the arguments for continuing slavery... quite obviously bigoted and backwards).  "Tradition" has been almost universally discarded as a basis for justifying legal prohibitions, as it should be.  

And as for the supposed "decline of civilization," that is completely an emotional matter, as anyone who understands the way gay marriage has actually worked for the benefit of the LGBT community (and their children, in both the US and elsewhere) can attest: the legal protections and rights of marriage benefit gays as much as they benefit straight people, and do nothng to reduce the protections and benefits available to straight people. (I will buy a beer for anyone who can point to a specific way in which gay marriage limits the legal rights of non-gays, or, for that matter, that abortion limits the rights of any actual person.) By any non-religious criterion, gay marriage is a sign of INcreasing civilization, not the opposite.

Yet the Right suggests banning gay marriage and abortions for the entire country.  Let's be clear on this:  legally what is wanted is a prohibition on the STATES allowing individuals to engage in these practices.  On what basis can the federal government prohibit something that the states wish to do?!?! Certainly NOT on a religious basis (because of the establishment clause)... So, on what?  Because it is an overstepping of states' rights (i.e. because it violates the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution)?  Oh, come on!  That is not an argument... The states have all the rights not expressly forbidden to them, and the US Constitution has nothing whatsoever to say about either abortion OR gay marriage (hence the push for constitutional amendments).

Of course, the Right is consistently hypocritical about its stance on the entire range of issues revolving around states' (and individual) rights. States' rights are appealed to when the Right wants to prevent any progressive federal program (have any states ACTUALLY refused to implement Obamacare and the increased money it makes available to Medicaid, by the way?), yet if a state wants to do something that is clearly allowed by the Constitution (for example California's consistently aggressive stance toward pollution and in favor of cleaning up the environment), the argument from the Right is that the states are violating individual liberties (although the "right" to pollute, for example, is a pretty difficult thing to defend).  

Ah, and here is the rub:  what is the limit of "individual liberties"?  Does a woman have the right to decide she doesn't want that (potential) baby growing inside of her?  Does a gay man have the right to marry his long-time gay lover and enjoy the various legal and social protections afforded those who are married?  

The most commonly cited criterion by both the Right and the Left for whether an individual has a particular liberty is whether the exercise of that liberty violates the rights of others.  Abortion does so only if the potential life is treated as a life, which I have argued is a religious argument.  Gay marriage does so only if you somehow believe that two gay people marrying each other reduces the rights of non-gay people not to have to see them loving each other in that way (I don't think there is a legal right to continue to be bigoted, is there?) or if you believe that God will punish the US for allowing either (which is what the "decline of civilization" argument referred to above really comes down to), which is, of course, a religious argument.  (Despite what religious people like to believe, there is no scientific basis for the claim that God punishes anyone for anything--or rewards them for anything, for that matter.)

Ironically, the Right is willing to severely limit the right of a woman to control her own reproductive processes, and a gay person's right to marry the person of his or her choice, but howls bloody murder when the Obama administration adopts policies that force power companies to abandon coal as a source for yet-to-be-built power plants or mandate that individuals who can afford health insurance actually buy it. Yet the latter regulations CLEARLY protect the lives and health (the rights) of millions of people (born AND soon-to-be born) and/or save the country billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs (a hidden benefit of legal abortion, too, by the way), while the former policies benefit no living person in any other way than protecting their religious sensibilities. 

Because Romney/Ryan have stated, publicly (and, until recently in the case of Romney, unequivocally) that they are committed to promoting the religiously-motivated policies of criminalizing abortion and prohibiting gay marriage, they represent a direct threat to the existence of the United States as a country without a government establishment of religion. Romney/Ryan, if elected, will establish Christian evangelism (of which Ryan's brand of Catholicism and Romney's Mormonism seem to be extensions) as the religion of the land. 

This is supremely frightening to me, and it should be to you, too, especially if you are a woman or if you are gay, but also if you are a straight male committed to the religious freedom of all people.  The Right lambastes Islamists for suggesting that the Koran should determine public policy, and yet it is willing to let its own preferred religion do the same.  For this reason, if for no other (for example the absolutely ridiculous Romney position that the EPA should be abolished), you should vote for Obama and Biden. 

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