Thursday, October 16, 2008

The moral obligation to vote and other forms of torture

I have been reading. And reading. Usually at this point in a presidential election, I am so sickened by the campaigns that when the subject of the election comes up in conversation, I tune out and go to my happy place.

This year has been different, due to the intervention of several friends. I am up to my eyeballs in opinions and judgments from various wide-ranging sources, in an attempt to educate myself. I am planning to vote in the upcoming election, for the first time in at least a decade. The only trouble is that I still don't know who I will vote for.

At In Umbris Sancti Petri, Andrew Haines provided a copy of Alasdair MacIntyre's The Only Vote Worth Casting in November and asked for comments. In his analysis of the circumstances and questions that voters face in trying to select between two candidates, neither of whom represents what they hold most dear, MacIntyre argues:

When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives. These are propositions which in the abstract may seem to invite easy agreement. But, when they find application to the coming presidential election, they are likely to be rejected out of hand. For it has become an ingrained piece of received wisdom that voting is one mark of a good citizen, not voting a sign of irresponsibility. But the only vote worth casting in November is a vote that no one will be able to cast, a vote against a system that presents one with a choice between Bush's conservatism and Kerry's liberalism, those two partners in ideological debate, both of whom need the other as a target... [read the rest here]

As those who know me have probably guessed, this argument is quite seductive to me!

Meanwhile, over at my friend Justine's blog, Justinspired, in a post titled Voices of reason, she makes a very strong case for not sitting out the election and moreover, voting for one candidate in particular:
Listening to the presidential debate on the radio while nursing a little girl who is awfully cute, (but too old to still be waking up to nurse, in my opinion) Senator Obama told me that if my health had been too fragile when she was born, I could have just delivered her body, and then had scissors jammed into her skull.

Can any pro-lifer honestly believe that it is not their moral obligation to vote against this man? The one who just looked us in the eye and said he believes Roe vs. Wade was a good decision? And when I say vote against, I mean vote FOR John McCain, the only candidate who has a chance to beat him. Who cares that he's not the guy you'd choose for your fantasy executive office, or for your patron saint. Voting third party, at this point in the election, is like watching a tug of war, but pulling on a tree branch instead of joining in. Some team is going to end up with their faces in the mud, and you won't have done a thing about it!
Wow, Justine! Somehow I think, though, that there is more to voting for a third party candidate than wishing for a "fantasy executive" or "patron saint" as president. In my case, I get a very real, physical case of nausea when I think about voting for John McCain, though I do concede that a) the thought of voting for Obama also nauseates me; and b) following my inner "nausea meter" is not a reasonable way to decide anything!

Here's the thing: Abortion rates in this country have been declining steadily (apart from a small spike in 1988, toward the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency) since 1981, when they peaked at 434.6 per 1000 live births. The current rate is 291.5 per 1000 live births (see the table at the bottom of this post, taken from here). This decline cannot be explained by legal action or social welfare policies, since, as a country we have fiddled with both of those variables and still obtain the same result.

So, why are some pro-life conservatives so certain that legal action is the answer to the problem of abortion in this country? And why are some pro-life liberals so certain that social policy changes will solve this problem? Both the legal and the social policy solutions represent steps that those in power can take in an attempt to influence or even potentially force the free decisions of individuals. While both recourses are good (legal action because then our laws will reflect the documents our nation was founded on, particularly the Declaration of Independence, "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"; and social policy reform because it will improve the conditions needed in order for these rights to flourish), neither is a solution to the problem of abortion.

The problem of abortion is one of orientation. Do we share, with the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the certainty "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"? Because much has been done to educate the public about when a person ("men") becomes a person -- at conception, but how about the idea that our unalienable Rights were endowed by God? By overemphasizing legal reform, conservative Catholics risk implying that it is up to the legal system to endow us with these rights.

Here is an example of the kind of orientation we need: Yesterday, in the Level III atrium, we began our study of Moses by reading the first chapter of Exodus. It describes how Pharoah ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male Hebrew babies at birth. The midwives, however, did not do as Pharoah ordered because they "feared God." Not only was infanticide legal, it was mandated by the state, yet the midwives refused to carry out the law. And as we noted in our discussion yesterday, the Ten Commandments hadn't even been given yet! Where did this fear of God come from, and how did it bring the midwives to understand that infanticide is wrong? If we are going to put an end to abortion in this country, we should really try to understand how this works. We also need to understand that a legal system devised by human hands is never going to end injustice and suffering. The two Hebrew midwives (who were so esteemed as protagonists within sacred history that their names, Shiphrah and Puah, are recorded) lied to Pharoah; they didn't openly defy him. Still, the Bible tells us that "God dealt well with the midwives" (Exodus 1:20a). Eventually, he dealt with Pharoah, as well. We need to help one and all come to the share this "fear of God." Only then will each citizen (born and unborn) of this country be able to exercise his or her Rights, endowed by the Creator.

Meanwhile, at a rally to support his wife's bid for the Democratic nomination, former president Bill Clinton visited our town. Pro-life protesters showed up and managed to irritate Clinton to such an extent, that he shouted at them:
You wanna criminalize women and their doctors and we disagree. I reduced abortion. Tell the truth, tell the truth, If you were really pro-life, if you were really pro-life, you would want to put every doctor and every mother as an accessory to murder in prison... Now, the issue is who, the issue is, you can't name me anybody presently in politics that did more to introduce policies that reduce the number of real abortions instead of the hot air putting out to tear people up and make votes by dividing America... (published on What's Wrong With the World -- along with the video of the event)
He seems (if you watch the video) really sincere as he accuses pro-life activists of wanting "to put every ... [abortion provider] and every mother [who has an abortion] ... in prison." Now, I have never heard anybody, not even the most passionate pro-life activist (and I have been in places where I was most likely to hear such things should they come up) say or imply or otherwise disclose a desire to put anyone in prison. What the pro-life movement wants is for the abortions to stop. End of discussion. Making abortion illegal does raise the question, though, of what should happen to those who persist in offering and receiving abortions, should they become illegal. Then one has to ask: What sort of prison reforms should be demanded by those who recognize the sanctity of life?

And here's another question for Catholics who believe that John McCain is the only possible candidate a Catholic can vote for, based on his stance on abortion: Just how pro-life is John McCain? What are his true political priorities? When given the opportunity to select a Supreme Court justice, will the candidate's views on abortion be the deciding factor? Or would McCain be willing to compromise that point in favor of other qualities he would like in a justice? His position on stem cell research seems to indicate that he does not share the Catholic passion for embrionic human life. What does he really stand for?

And this morning, on Clairity Daily, I saw this:
It has been an agonizing presidential campaign for the conscientious Catholic voter faced with two bad bad choices. The Republican party, which has been identified with the pro-life cause since Roe v. Wade, has flaunted the basic human rights which we have cherished in our democracy, particularly during the George W. Bush administration. These breaches include the Iraq War waged under false pretenses, the denial of habeas corpus and manipulation of legal procedure at Guantanamo Bay, the torture perpetrated at Abu-Gharaib and elsewhere including the "justifications" for same, the Patriot Act and other unconstitutional incursions on our freedoms. [read the whole thing, here]

"Agonizing" has indeed been the word! Clairity also writes, "We are being strong-armed through fear and pro-life loyalty again as four years ago to make what is for some of us a repugnant and irrational choice."

The President of the United States has many powers, but no one has yet been able to convince me that the power to put an end to abortion in this country is one of them.

What we should really be trying to determine is how each candidate will act in difficult, or even crisis situations. We need to judge his power of judgment, his consistency, his temperment, his moral fibre. Who will advise him? What are his priorities? What does he hold most dear?


United States abortion rates, 1960-2005

compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston
last modified 17 February 2008
Note: data is scaled relative to 1990 (1990 value=100).


Marie said...

I'll speak to just one issue, that of the significance of legal action on the abortion issue. Over the last 20 or so years many states have enacted legal restrictions on abortion, such as parental consent laws, waiting periods, informed consent, etc. Obama has stated that a top priority for his potential administration is signing into law the Freedom of Choice Act. If passed, this would undo at a federal level every state-passed law that serves as a speed bump, a protection, along the way to procuring abortion.

One can't predict whether any judge change would be likely to result in Roe v. Wade being overturned. (I mean, if it would even come up.) But these legal gains on the part of the states could be gone if Congress hands a potential President Obama FOCA to sign into law. Under Clinton, Congress couldn't do it. I wouldn't at all be surprised to see a Democratic Congress & President pair pull it off now, though.

Suzanne said...

One point I didn't bother to make, since my post was already becoming too long, is that the fact that murder is illegal doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.

I think that the decline in the abortion rate is a result of a change of heart -- that more people are becoming aware that even if it is an option, it is a bad option. I think that if Obama does sign the FOCA, that it could backfire for him -- that Americans are not behind him on this issue (if the polls are correct) -- if he is voted into office, it will be despite his position on abortion, not because of it. He may face the same kinds of problems that Bill Clinton faced with his attempt at health care reform. No matter who wins this election, our work will not be over in November.

None of this is to say that I support him. I'm truly undecided. But the legal speed bumps you mention may deter some from the wrong path -- or they may not. I guess I want hard facts about this -- proof that these laws really do make a difference (or do they only serve to salve our worries?).

I would feel better knowing that we had a president in office who shares my sense of the irreducible value of ALL human life. It's my judgment that neither of them do. Personally, I think they're both Pharoahs, and I resent that I have to help one or the other to power.

Suzanne said...

Found my hard facts:

"We know that the federal and state pro-life laws and policies that Obama has promised to sweep away (and that John McCain would protect) save thousands of lives every year. Studies conducted by Professor Michael New and other social scientists have removed any doubt. Often enough, the abortion lobby itself confirms the truth of what these scholars have determined. Tom McClusky has observed that Planned Parenthood's own statistics show that in each of the seven states that have FOCA-type legislation on the books, "abortion rates have increased while the national rate has decreased." In Maryland, where a bill similar to the one favored by Obama was enacted in 1991, he notes that "abortion rates have increased by 8 percent while the overall national abortion rate decreased by 9 percent." No one is really surprised. After all, the message clearly conveyed by policies such as those Obama favors is that abortion is a legitimate solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies - so clearly legitimate that taxpayers should be forced to pay for it. " [ ]

Andrew Haines said...

Sorry for the delay. I looked at Justine's blog, and I think that her comments on third-party voting (or, in MacIntyre's case not voting at all) are misinformed. It seems that she equates not voting with not caring about reality. In fact, for one not to vote intentionally is to care about reality to the extent of sacrificing a right (to vote) in order to be heard. Enough silence is deafening.

[Also, you might look at my last comment on my blog about 'possibility' and 'probability.' Although not voting leaves open a possibility for doing harm to the structure of a governmental system, I do not think this outcome is probable. In the case of voting for Obama or McCain, however, the probability of doing some real harm, under the guise of supporting the least possible evil, is still very strong. Not voting, in my estimation, seems more fitting than voting, when a choice between two discernably evil--yet incommensurable--options is at stake.]

Justine said...

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post, and thank you, Suzanne, for letting me clarify my position in your comments box.

First of all, I DO believe that people who sacrifice their vote care, and care very deeply or they wouldn't choose their course of action. Please don't misinterpret me on that point.

Though, while I can sympathize, I do not think such a sacrifice will have the result you desire. Because when you don't vote at all, you are just lumped in the polling data with every other lazy, apathetic person who doesn't participate in the election. Your "defining silence" will not be interpreted the way you intend it. Unlike our spiritual sacrifices, a sacrificed vote is wasted.

A vote for an unelectable third party candidate is at least heard, and I would agree is sometimes necessary.

But when it comes to swing states this year, I think voting for anyone but McCain in an attempt to block Obama is dangerously irresponsible. I agree with Fr. Pavone when he says, "Elections, after all, are not contests between two candidates. They are contests between two teams."

Voting is a right, but it is also a responsibility. You have one vote for president this year, and I believe all pro-lifers have an obligation to use it to stop Obama, who is clearly the greater evil.

Justine said...

One more thing--my husband just pointed out that voting is not about sending a message.

Voting is about choosing which of two candidates should be in office. No matter how abstract and theoretical you want to get about the whole thing, the practical reality is that, at the end of the day, either Obama or McCain will be president. I think this is undeniable, right?

Therefore, every eligible voter is somehow contributing to the outcome of the race, and the end result is the sum result of all those contributions.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."