Whenever I write or talk about abortion and reproductive rights, I’m careful to describe each side with the term it has chosen for itself:  “pro-life” and “pro-choice”.  It’s a simple policy decision, really — any discussion of the appropriateness of either term quickly becomes tendentious, and people have a right to decide how to self-identify.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about the terms people use.  “Anti-choice” and “anti-life” are argumentative metatags.  “Anti-abortion” seems descriptive and largely not provocative, although I understand the preference for being “pro” something.

Conversely, “pro-abortion” does seem provocative and inappropriate.  For years I told myself, nobody is really pro-abortion, but people like me believe a woman should have the right, at least under some circumstances, to decide whether to have an abortion.

I’ve been pro-choice my entire adult life, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. Bill Clinton had it about right when he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”  Abortion is a deeply personal, sometimes wrenching decision made on the threshold of life and death.  It’s much like the decision, at the other end of the timeline, on whether to remove the feeding tube or refrain from resuscitation. At both ends, I believe the choice should be made by the people who are most directly affected, and the rest of us should move along.

But there is, at the very least, something morally ambiguous about abortion, and it becomes more troubling the closer the fetus comes to viability.  I’m not particularly interested in debating when life begins — it’s enough to know that it does begin.  Barring miscarriage, disease or trauma, the fetus eventually becomes a baby.  If someone says “abortion is murder” I have no trouble ignoring them.  The slogan that clutches at my soul is “abortion stops a beating heart.”*

In recent years, it’s become clear I was mistaken in believing nobody is “pro-abortion.”  I was projecting my own values onto people who did not necessarily share them. I was utterly appalled when a prominent priest in my own Episcopal denomination proclaimed that “abortion is a blessing” — under every circumstance.

Think I may be exaggerating? Here’s the passage in question:

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion — there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember — abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

Now that same mindset — the idea that reproductive rights are absolute and trump every other consideration — is at play in the current controversy over the Obama administrations mandate that Catholic organizations must cover contraception free of charge in their employee health plans.

Personally I think the Catholic Church’s opposition to all contraception — whether or not abortifacients are involved — is silly and misguided.  Most Catholics outside the hierarchy agree.  The 98% figure floated by the White House seems to be exaggerated, but it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority of sexual active Catholics use contraception if they don’t want to make a baby.

But nobody is talking about denying anyone access to contraception.  Any person with a job that includes healthcare coverage makes enough money to be able to afford some form of reliable birth control, even if the employee has to pay every dollar of the cost.  The debate is whether a Catholic organization should be forced to pay for a product or service that the church believes is immoral.

Despite Justice Douglas’s emanations from penumbras, the Bill of Rights doesn’t actually say anything about reproductive rights.  But it does say something, explicitly and forcefully, about religion.  Liberals and Democrats would be well-advised to be more deferential to religious liberty when one of the three people most likely to win the next presidential election is Rick Santorum.

* This isn’t literally true of very early-term abortions.  But fetal heartbeat begins as early as week six — well within the first-trimester threshold established by Roe v. Wade.

I market my blog as the musings of “a red-state voter in a deep blue state.”  It’s a catchy line, and it lends itself to a jazzy 125×125 logo — created by the Web Goddess, naturally. But sometimes I’ve wondered if New Jersey really is as “deep blue” as, say, Massachusetts or Vermont.  (I’m sure as heck in a deep blue town.)

KP-EntreCard 129Then today I saw this from fellow New Jersey blogger TigerHawk:  “Forty-nine states have elected a Republican to state-wide office since New Jersey last did.”  So by that metric, at least, it’s the bluest state in the nation.

The irony of my self-identification is that in the current governor’s race, I’m almost certainly going to vote for the Democrat — who probably is going to lose.  Which would make me a red-state voter turning blue in a blue state turning red.

I went looking for more info on New Jersey’s red/blue divide and found this from PolitickerNJ:

The last time a Republican statewide candidate won New Jersey was in 1997 [Christie Whitman's re-election].  Since then, 49 other states have elected a Republican to a statewide office. But also consider this: the last time New Jersey re-elected a Democratic governor was 32 years ago [Brendan Byrne's re-election].

One of those two streaks will end this year. As of this week, Republican Chris Christie leads Democrat Jon Corzine by a wide margin, 53-41 percent.

My slogan and party affiliation incline me toward Christie, and I’m impressed by his law enforcement record as the state’s U.S. Attorney.  Earlier this year, a friend who follows my blog suggested I get involved in the Christie campaign, and I looked into that. The deal-breaker was his strong stands against abortion rights and against marriage equality for same-sex couples.  (I was on the other side of those issues from McCain as well, but in a presidential election, national security trumps all else in my mind.)

On marriage equality especially, the choice in New Jersey is stark.  Corzine supports “full marriage equality and is committed to signing marriage equality legislation in 2009.”  Christie says on his website:

If a bill legalizing same sex marriage came to my desk as Governor, I would veto it. If the law were changed by judicial fiat, I would be in favor of a constitutional amendment on the ballot so that voters, not judges, would decide this important social question.

Sorry, no sale.  Maplewood, my home for 10 years, has a high concentration of gay residents.  My gay friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners deserve the same marriage rights that the Web Goddess and I enjoy.

Christie hammers Corzine for raising taxes, and says he’ll cut them.  Fair enough… but I don’t see Corzine as a spendthrift.  From Corzine’s website:

Governor Corzine reshaped and resized state government. He eliminated and consolidated departments, sold state cars, tore up gas cards and closed office buildings. He reduced the state workforce by 7,000 employees and achieved additional savings by increasing the retirement age from 55 to 62, capping pensions, and asking state workers to contribute for the first time toward the cost of their health care. This year, he even negotiated a 7.5 percent wage cut for public employees.

Because Jon Corzine made the right choices, he is the only New Jersey governor in over six decades to reduce the size of state government. The budget that he signed into law on June 29th is $1.8 billion smaller than the first budget he signed in 2006.

Sounds good to me.  Besides, I kinda like the guy.  Maybe it’s the beard.

I’m generally opposed to the idea of judges legislating from the bench — but I’m not an absolutist about it.  Brown v. Board of Education could be described as legislating from the bench, but I think the ruling was necessary and appropriate, and in fact a proud moment in American history.  Over the following decades, judges not only legislated from the bench in support of Brown, they in some cases took over the administration of school districts to enforce integration.  There might be valid arguments against this busing order or that forced redistricting, but in general I think the judiciary was taking (appropriately) extraordinary steps to overcome extraordinary defiance by segregationists.

Roe v. Wade is more complicated for me. I’m in the Clintonian “safe, legal and rare” camp, generally opposing most restrictions on access to abortion — so in that regard, Roe v. Wade has brought America about to where I want it to be.  But I wish we had gotten here through legislation rather than through judicial activism, and the Roe decision is utterly indefensible from a separation of powers perspective.

Via GayPatriot, the half-minute video above tells you all you need to know provides troubling evidence about where Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor stands on judicial activism:  She thinks the appeals courts are “where policy is made.”  She acknowledges that the Framers didn’t see it that way, but she clearly is untroubled by the idea of judges in policy-making roles.

As for identity politics, Obama apparently only considered women for the nomination.  I was rooting for a different Princeton graduate — rather than Sonia Sotomayor ’76, I was hoping for Elena Kagan ’81, with whom I worked on The Daily Princetonian before she went off to become Dean of Harvard Law and now Solicitor General.  But seriously, I’d rather see nominations made on the basis of qualifications rather than identity.  (In that regard, Sotomayor is a stronger pick, with more than a decade on the Court of Appeals.)

As GayPatriot also notes, it would be outrageous for a male jurist to make this statement:

“I would hope that a wise white man with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a Hispanic woman who hasn’t lived that life.”

But Sotomayor has said exactly that — just reversing the roles of the “wise Latina” and the white male.

I expect she’ll get confirmed, unless some skeleton is found in her closet.  But 29 Republican senators voted against putting her on the Court of Appeals, and that number no doubt will rise this time around.  I just don’t understand why it seems to be only Republicans who care about Constitutional separation of powers.

The abortion issue lends itself to extremism.  The only logically consistent positions are at the extremes.

The Rev. Katherine Ragsdale

The Rev. Katherine Ragsdale

The pro-life extreme can be summed up in three words: “Abortion is murder.”  The pro-choice extreme is more complicated.  The mainstream pro-choice movement’s rallying cry of “keep abortion safe and legal” doesn’t come close to being extreme.  Something can be safe and legal and yet still be morally ambiguous.

Activist Florynce Kennedy came closer to a pithy expression of pro-choice extremism when she said “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”  But the line has a chuckle-inducing quality that keeps it from being nearly as powerful as “abortion is murder.”  Besides, she’s not actually saying that abortion IS a sacrament — she’s making a hypothetical statement that may, I think, have some validity.

Here’s how I’ve always articulated what I think of as the extremist pro-choice position: “A woman’s right to an abortion trumps all other considerations.”  A pithier version: “Abortion rights are absolute.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans come down between the two extremes.  Personally, I think Bill Clinton had it just about right when he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”  But that formulation is deliberately imprecise — it can’t serve as a clear roadmap to legislation.  Bill Clinton supported laws requiring parental consent and a 24-hour waiting period.  Other generally pro-choice people would draw the lines in  different places, but most would still draw lines.

Here are two clear roadmaps, each of them logical and internally consistent:

  1. Abortion is murder.
  2. A woman’s right to abortion trumps all other considerations.

Although there are people who advocate one direction or the other, for most of us those maps take us places where we do not want to go.  If abortion truly is murder, then yes, a woman should be forced to bear her rapist’s baby, even in the case of incest.  If abortion rights are absolute, then third-trimester abortions for gender-selection purposes cannot be ruled out.  I reject both of those positions, and I am grateful that I am not, myself, empowered to decide where the lines should be drawn.

These thoughts are all occasioned by reports that the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, the newly named dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, apparently has insisted from the pulpit that “abortion is a blessing, and our work is not done.”  She also stated that abortion providers and pro-choice activists are “engaged in holy work.”

Hat tip to a force of nature

Hat tip to a force of nature

I learned of this from reading the blog of the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, an Episcopal priest from a nearby township in New Jersey.  This post actually started its life as an extended comment on her blog.  I’ve jousted with Mother Kaeton in her comments in the past, and I realized this time that it made more sense to lay out my thoughts on my own site.

Before today I had never heard of the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, and I have no opinion about whether she is a good choice for Dean of EDS. She doesn’t look like an extremist in the photo above from the EDS website, and I won’t pin that label on her.

But I’ll pin it on that particular sermon.  Her insistence that “abortion is a blessing” is, I think clearly, well outside the mainstream, even among supporters of abortion rights.  I think Dean Ragsdale does the pro-choice cause no benefit by making that proclamation, and I’m glad she has removed it from her website.

Dean Ragsdale was villified by a ham-handed conservative blog as “a lying baby-murdering witch” (I’ve inserted the essential hyphen), which was what set Mother Kaeton off on what she herself described as a rant.  The anonymous ham-handed blogger does the pro-life cause no benefit either.

This is not to imply moral equivalence.  The anonymous blogger’s headline is disgraceful, and arguably an incitement to violence against a single individual.  Dean Ragsdale’s sermon is merely wrong-headed, and contemptuously dismissive of the views of, I believe, the vast majority of Americans.

People are complicated.  I voted for McCain and I market this blog as the ruminations of a “red voter in a blue state.” But I’m not a social conservative, and I join Mother Kaeton in standing proudly to the left of President Obama on the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples.

Issues also are complicated, and reasonable people can differ.  In the case of abortion, far too often the battle lines are drawn by unreasonable people.  Most of us prefer a middle way.