November 13, 2008

A 'Culture First' Strategy

One of the great strengths of the Roman Republic was its courageous realism. When Hannibal defeated the Romans in the first great encounter between the two armies, a battle in northern Italy, the leaders of the city called the people together to give them the news, and the opening words of the announcement were these: "We have suffered a tremendous defeat." In their heyday, the Romans obviously did not believe in sugar-coating bad news.
Those of us in the pro-life movement need to imitate the old Romans. No sugar-coating. Our movement suffered a great defeat in the November election. The pro-life candidate, Sen. John McCain, was decisively defeated by the pro-choice candidate, Sen. Barack Obama. Further, America's pro-choice political party, the Democrats, won a definite majority in the United States Senate and a lopsided majority in the House of Representative. Not only that, but three state referendums that had been put on ballots by pro-lifers were defeated -- one in California, a second in South Dakota, and a third in Colorado.
This is the worst political defeat for the pro-life movement since the election in 1992 of Bill Clinton and a Democratic Senate and House; indeed, it is probably worse even than that defeat. For Obama has a "mandate," while Clinton, who won less than 50 percent of the popular vote, did not. Further, Obama has much larger Democratic margins in the House and Senate than Clinton had. Again, Obama, though no more intelligent than Clinton (it's not easy to be more intelligent than Mr. Clinton), very probably has a capacity that Clinton lacked, namely a capacity for avoiding stupid blunders. When Obama sets out to do something in Washington, the odds are that he'll succeed.
And when it comes to abortion, what is it he'll set out to do? He has promised that he'll sign FOCA (the Freedom of Choice Act) if it comes to his desk. This would put current abortion rights into federal statutory law -- just in case the Supreme Court ever decides to reverse its Roe decision. But the likelihood that the Court will reverse Roe will almost certainly be greatly reduced during Obama's administration. Two or three justices may well retire in the next few years, and Obama has made it clear that he will nominate only pro-Roe justices to Court vacancies.
The bright side here is that the justices who are likely to retire (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, for example) are already pro-Roe. So Obama appointments to the Court won't make it any more pro-Roe than it already is. But the dark side is that these appointees, being much younger men and women than the retirees, will guarantee that the Court will have a pro-Roe majority for decades to come. If you're a pro-lifer over the age of 55, it is now very unlikely that you'll live long enough to see a reversal of Roe. 
This suggests to me the need for a new strategy in the pro-life movement. For many years now, the movement has had what may be called a strategy of "politics first." By getting a pro-life president elected, along with winning pro-life control of the House and Senate, the pro-life movement could hinder government support for abortion and even chip away at certain abortion rights -- for instance, the "right" to partial-birth abortion. And by holding on to the White House and the Senate, anti-Roe justices could be appointed to the Supreme Court, creating a realistic possibility of reversing Roe and thereby sending the abortion question back to the states, where at least some state legislatures would seriously restrict legalized abortion.
Now that the reversal of Roe is probably off the table for many years to come, even many decades, a new strategy is needed: no longer a "politics first" strategy, but now a "culture first" strategy. Instead of focusing on the political balance of power in Washington, the focus should be placed on American culture, with an eye toward making it more unfriendly to abortion and more friendly to the right to life.
I don't mean that politics should be abandoned; far from it. If abortion is what we say it is (namely, unwarranted homicide), we can't very well give up the political fight. To do so would be tantamount to admitting that abortion is not really a very serious matter. Besides, even if we take a culture-first approach, one of the most important ways to shape cultural beliefs and values is by fighting for them in the political arena.
So the political fight must be kept up; maybe it should even be intensified. But it should be subordinated to the cultural fight. What does this mean? Well, many things; too many to list them in detail here. But at the heart of our cultural fight should be an unremitting stress on the rationality of our position. We pro-lifers hold (at least most of us do) that natural reason alone leads to the conclusion that abortion is a grave moral wrong. Our pro-life convictions are not simply matters of religious faith, even though it is true that our faith strengthens our rational convictions.
Our proabortion opponents -- most of whom are well-educated and religiously skeptical people from the upper middle classes -- think that we are simple-minded believers in a religion that has no basis in rationality, and that our anti-abortion attitudes are simply a function of this unfortunate superstition. Therefore, our opponents never feel a need to give serious consideration to the arguments we make. We have to change this and find a way to encourage them to take our arguments seriously. We have to convince them that we are not, as they complacently presume, mere boobs and nincompoops.

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* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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