President-elect Obama has said he is worried that in the echo chamber of the presidency he'll only be hearing one set of opinions. One opinion I'll bet he isn't hearing right now is this: be very careful of re-energizing the culture wars by pandering to the extreme left of the pro-choice movement.
President-elect Obama has said that he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) shortly after assuming office. The act would strike down local and state laws related to limiting abortion, parental notification and such. This act might also be used to force doctors, nurses and other medical personal to either perform abortions and/or refer women to doctors that do. According to some reports, President-elect Obama may even sign FOCA as one of his first (and therefore most closely scrutinized) initiatives as president.
That would be a huge mistake.
Please note: I'm an Obama fan, a one-time lifelong Republican who voted for Mr. Obama and wrote extensively in support of him here, probably as many positive heartfelt words about and for Mr. Obama as any other blogger on this site.
But here's my question for the President-elect: Why start Round Two of the culture wars as one of your first acts as president?
And why do something that may also be used by pro-choice ideologues to try and force doctors and nurses to act against their conscience? Why reinvigorate the Religious Right -- a sop, perhaps, to your critics on the left who want you to be "more progressive"?
I am somewhat uniquely placed to foresee the ramifications of what you are said to be planning to do. I was a leader at the start of the anti-abortion movement. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, I collaborated with my father, evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer (now deceased), and Dr. C. Everett Koop (soon to be Ronald Reagan's surgeon general) on an anti-abortion film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I directed the films. We went on the road with a nationwide seminar tour that, taken together with other writings of my father's and our meetings with Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, launched and then sustained the evangelical pro-life movement.
I've changed my mind.
I now believe abortion should remain legal. I think Roe was too sweeping but that it should nevertheless stand. I think abortion is a matter of the heart, not the law.
However, like many Americans -- including millions of hitherto staunch Republican evangelical young people who voted for Mr. Obama -- I also believe that we should do all we can to make abortion a last option. For the newly installed President to simply sweep away everything that is dearest to the anti-abortion folks (in terms of local ordinances etc. related to somewhat limiting abortions) with the stroke of a pen would be unfortunate. Abortion is legal and will stay that way without the next president doing anything other than closely scrutinizing his court appointments.
Make no mistake: there are plenty of people on both sides of this issue that don't fit the extreme stereotypes. Here is a letter from one such person that I received as an email today.
Dear Mr. Schaeffer,
I listened with interest to last week's interview on NPRs Fresh Air program where Terri Gross interviewed you... I, like you, believe that people should have choice in the United States... I am a health care worker, and we have lost our right to conscientious objection in many areas of the US, and I see the risk of that expanding.
....Pro-choice groups have done a wonderful job of vilifying health care workers who have conscientiously objected to participating in abortions and have passed laws in Illinois, Washington, Nevada, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Jersey prohibiting pharmacists like me from objecting to filling [abortion-related] prescriptions. Physicians have been affected in other areas of the country too. This could expand nationwide if the Freedom of Choice Act is passed into law...
People rightly were outraged when The Bush administration broke article 5 of the UN universal Declaration of Human Rights (" No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."). But I hear very little outcry about the breaking of Article 18 - "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion..."
I find many pro-life groups to be [wrong] as they are always pushing for complete eradication of Roe v. Wade - but I am trying to continue to raise my voice over the injustices being thrust on health care workers [who are ambivalent about abortion] - who are being denied their right to choice...
Does President-elect Obama really want to disregard thoughtful people such as Susan who have real concerns on such a big moral question? I don't think so. She is pro-choice and yet wants her conscience respected.
Pushing abortion regulations and laws into a more permissive place beyond even Roe v. Wade -- which is already the most permissive abortion law in the world, in contrast to, for instance France, where abortion is strongly discouraged after 10 weeks -- is a mistake. It will only guarantee that this fight gets even more bitter.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama said:
"This is an issue that - look, it divides us. ... We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby. Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion."
Why not follow up that statement with early action? Why not first find a way to show Americans who are ambivalent about abortion that he is doing something to make abortions less frequent?
How Mr. Obama deals with abortion could be his "Nixon goes to China" moment. As a progressive Democrat, he is in a position to defuse the bitterest element of the culture wars and begin to heal our country in a way that no Republican president has been able (or willing) to do.
Since 1973 and Roe v. Wade, the Republicans have talked incessantly about being "against abortion" but have done little to help women to deal with unwanted pregnancies. Mr. Obama could do the opposite. Instead of signing the Freedom of Choice Act, why not surprise the pro-life movement by announcing a major effort to reduce abortions, drawing attention to programs ranging from improved adoption services to age-appropriate sex education? None of this would conflict with his core value of keeping abortion legal and defending Roe.
Mr. Obama will need every American to support the sacrifices he will soon be calling on all of us to make. Why should he start his term in office by shrugging off the good will of millions of Americans who disapprove passionately of abortion and yet, as of now, are favorably disposed toward him?
President-elect Obama, why make your opening move a revived culture war? Defusing, not inflaming, the anti-abortion community's anger is the best long-term defense of a woman's right to choose. It is also what is best for America.
President-elect Obama please give us a break from divisions and fulfill your promise to bring us together. Signing the Freedom of Choice Act would be a big step backward.
Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (Now in Paperback).