Here are some possible answers, and some food for thought–or debate.
One comes from Thomas Reese, Jesuit priest and political scientist, writing at the WaPo’s “On Faith” blog on “Abortion: Rhetoric or Results?” Reese has the best roundup I’ve seen on studies of what works–or doesn’t–in effecting change on abortion rates. He starts with the recent Pew Forum surveys showing opinions on abortion have remained relatively stable since 1995, with support for keeping abortion legal in all or most cases has fluctuating between 49% and 61% while support for making abortion illegal in all or most cases has fluctuated between 36% and 48%. Currently the numbers are 54% for keeping it legal; 41% for making it illegal. As Reese says, “Neither side is convincing the other.” So how is a “culture of life” created?
A second insight comes from Dan Gilgoff’s God-o-Meter interview with for Reagan/Bush official and pro-lifer, Doug Kmiec, who has been much in the news, here and elsewhere. In the interview, Kmiec talks about his rationale for supporting Obama. But two things struck me in particular, and they are of a personal (perhaps personalist) nature. One was Kmiec’s reaction at a sit-down between Obama and religious leaders in Chicago last year. Obama’s characteristic openness and graciousness made an impression–and beyond simply coming off as a “nice guy,” he offers a way forward by the example of his own approach.
He opened by saying that everything he was going to tell us was on the record, that we could repeat it anywhere we liked. There were cameras outside the building but he said he knew those gathered in the room were not supporters and might be antagonists and that they might be uncomfortable being seen with him. So he said he’d maintain the confidence of anything they said in that meeting and also the maintain the confidence of whether they participated in the meeting. Comparing that to the existing political administration that has thrived on secrecy and closed circle of advisors, it was marvelously refreshing.
The second thing was that I was deeply impressed with the sense in which he got tough questions and not once was he angered or flustered or provoked. He frequently would turn it around and ask three of four questions that would illustrate the division in his own turn of mind and would inevitably find something in agreement in which the exchange could end. I’ve seen a lot of public figures and most of them spend five or ten minutes talking to you and take a picture and leave. Senator Obama came at 1:30 and I remember looking at my watch and it was 5:30 and he showed no sign of inching toward the door. And there was no camera inside.
Obama has continued to go “into the lion’s den,” engaging his would-be opponents on their own turf–think of the Saddleback Forum–something McCain seems loathe to do.
The second element of the interview is the effect of Kmiec’s personal involvement in helping pregnant women considering an abortion:
My wife and I have become increasingly involved in counseling women in college who are confronting an unwanted pregnancy. They come to us in confidence and are going to have an abortion because ‘I can’t talk to my parents–it would disappoint them’ and they are often in great anxiety. And together my wife and I are able to calm those anxieties and take them apart one at a time. I’ve seen how effective this is, if you can provide some tangible assurance that they can continue in school, if you help them find a job or temporary housing, if you can put them in touch with parishes that have resources that assist them with maternity needs, they choose life. Not every time, but most of the time. I began to look at the ledger and said, ‘I’ve asked the Supreme Court five times to overturn Roe, and each time they gave me the back of the hand. I’ve testified before Congress against the Freedom of Choice Act and in favor of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban. I can’t count the times I’ve been before the Judiciary Committee and all of it pales in comparison with my wife’s and my experience.’
There’s a Catholic notion of subsidiarity: that the government’s role is to help the person make the right direction. It’s not the government’s role to come in and displace the person but to help the individual help themselves. And the person speaking that language is not John McCain–it’s Barack Obama. He was the one talking about prenatal care and funding for maternity leave and rebuilding the adoption process so it’s far less costly. The other side was not saying any of those things. Late in the day I hear, ‘Well of course [McCain’s] interested in that too’ but most of the conversation I hear on the other side is “until we get the law changed, we can’t do anything on the topic. And the legal issue becomes like an iron curtain that falls in front of the social gospel, as if it cannot be touched until this flaw in the legal system is addressed.
Powerful testimony to a “culture of life” that too often gets lip service.