Sunday, July 06, 2008

So Much for Obama Changing the Way Things are Done in Washington: Is Obama Anti-choice or Pandering?

There is nothing like a candidate's comments on late-term abortion to compel me to post. Many of the readers of this blog have probably already been clued into the fact that Obama gave an online interview to Relevant Magazine about his views, including abortion. From what I gather from the website, Relevant is a progressive Christian magazine and hence not the favorite periodicals of the wingnuts and moral majority. I am genuinely sympathetic to these folks and so I am all the more disappointed by how Obama handled the question on late-term abortions.

Strang: Based on emails we received, another issue of deep importance to our readers is a candidate’s stance on abortion. We largely know your platform, but there seems to be some real confusion about your position on third-trimester and partial-birth abortions. Can you clarify your stance for us?

What Obama said to the question was:

Obama: I absolutely can, so please don’t believe the emails. I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

The other email rumor that’s been floating around is that somehow I’m unwilling to see doctors offer life-saving care to children who were born as a result of an induced abortion. That’s just false. There was a bill that came up in Illinois that was called the “Born Alive” bill that purported to require life-saving treatment to such infants. And I did vote against that bill. The reason was that there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances, and this bill actually was designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I didn’t think it was going to pass constitutional muster.

Ever since that time, emails have been sent out suggesting that, somehow, I would be in favor of letting an infant die in a hospital because of this particular vote. That’s not a fair characterization, and that’s not an honest characterization. It defies common sense to think that a hospital wouldn't provide life-saving treatment to an infant that was alive and had a chance of survival.

There is a lot that I find disappointing in Obama's answer to this question. First of all, I think it is a shame that he didn't practice what his campaign preaches and "change the way politics is done." Secondly, I am disappointed that Obama didn't take the time to further educate the readers of this magazine about all of the real moral dilemmas involved in late-term abortions and the actual percentage of women who seek late-term abortions. Thirdly, I cannot believe that he is so unsophisticated as to offer up a rather Cartesian mind-body dualism--echoing such anti-psychiatrists as Thomas Szasz (who believe that there is no such thing as mental illness, that it is not as serious as physical illness, and thereby does not warrant our concern, interest, and medical attention (read Szasz's classic essay "The Myth of Mental Illness"). Let me tackle each one of these in turn.

Failed to Change the Way Things Work in Washington and Lost Chance to Educate Readers.

We all know that Obama, as a "pro-choice" candidate will get thumped by the religious right in the general election. There is no appeasing these folks. But, there is an opportunity for a real moral dialogue with progressive Christians. Sure, many will be unpersuaded by pro-choice stances and even the stances of pro-choice candidates on late-term abortions, but it is still worth being candid and open about why one holds the position he does. What I read in Obama's response, particularly the line that I highlighted is pandering. The complex decisions that mothers seeking late term abortions must wrestle with have been wholly eclipsed by the religious right's fanatical campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade, using "partial birth abortion" bans as its strategy. The very name of the ban is problematic--invoking public disgust at the practice by consciously making a connection between abortion and infanticide. Rarely in the public debate about late term abortions have there been thoughtful considerations of the reasons why women seek these abortions.

To clarify this, let's take an example from my own life. Some of you may remember a post I wrote concerning my sister-in-law in October. I also wrote a post about my own difficulties with getting a timely genetic screening of my fetus. The point is this. Let's say that you are pregnant, you want the baby, you are dutifully getting pre-natal care, and yet, through no fault of your own, you discover late in your pregnancy, let's say 20 weeks that a test indicates your baby might have Tay-Sachs disease. You need to undergo more tests and those results will come after the cut-off point for late term abortions. You are in a tough situation. If you go for the tests and they conclude that indeed your child will be born with Tay-Sachs, you no longer have the option to abort due to the Supreme Court. If you abort before, you have to live with the decision that it may not have had Tay-Sachs. This dilemma is a product of bad legislation crafted by intolerant anti-choice folks who don't think that a woman (and her husband) are the ONLY people who should have had the right to make that decision. (see Reproductive Rights Prof Blog for more analysis of Obama's position).

Furthermore, late term abortion bans--and Obama seems to be wholly in agreement with them as long as they have a health exception for the woman--do not give a mother the right to terminate a pregnancy wherein the fetus has a horrible genetic disease. So many opponents to late term abortions think that the women seeking these procedures are "loose" and thereby need to be punished for their sinful behavior. They also paint these women as callous, murderous, and selfish. But, the real stories show that these women are anything but. They are facing real dilemmas and the last thing they need is a bunch of politicians who have no real connection to their lives and choices dictating what they should do.

Obama had this opportunity to explain this to Relevant Magazine. Sure, the readers might not have liked his answer, but he would have been changing the way things are done in Washington had he done so.

Either Obama is pandering, which is what I suspect, or he actually believes what he says. If it is the latter, then I am worried. I sincerely hope that he reads the criticism out there now of his recent interview and digests it. If he doesn't believe in late term abortions for mental distress, then as Jan Crawford Greenburg points out, he is expressing views only held by Thomas and Scalia. I doubt these are the justices that Obama really wants to identify with.

Before moving onto my third point, I want to direct you to the Bitch Ph.D.'s excellent argument for why pro-choice candidates should not qualify their support of abortion entitled, "Do You Trust Women?"

Unfortunate Mind-Body Dualism

I wonder if major organizations that advocate for the mentally ill, such as NAMI, will take issue with Obama's statement that "mental distress" doesn't count. One could be charitable and assume that Obama wanted to make a distinction between mental illness and mental distress, but if he did, I am not sure how useful that distinction is. My fear is that what he revealed in this answer is a sort of intolerance to mental illness defenses that many Americans unfortunately hold. Such intolerance is a consequence of our puritan heritage, which sees mental illness as weakness and malingering (acedia/sloth). It is a pervasive view. The upshot is that this view of mental distress turns those who are suffering into folks evading moral responsibility for their own lives. Mental illness becomes moral problems, pure and simple.

I alerted you above to Thomas Szasz, who took this view to a new height, and still inspires all sorts of anti-psychiatrists (including Scientologists like Tom Cruise). Such a view that mental illness is not real illness, and thereby not deserving of medical intervention (which was exactly Szasz' argument) is cruel.

I think it would be interesting to see how Obama reacts to further questions about his view of mental distress. Does rape or incest constitute a mental distress? What exactly does he have in mind when he dismisses mental distress as legitimate grounds for an exception to the late term abortion ban?

Mental illness is as real and devastating as physical illness. In fact, the very distinction between the two is untenable unless you have a very naive view of mind as some sort of ethereal God Stuff. The mind is part of the body and thereby is as prone to suffering and illness as the other organs and systems of our mortal coil.

In sum, if Obama believes what he wrote, then his pro-choice credentials are seriously suspect. What he is saying is that (a) we cannot trust women to make the difficult moral decisions before during their pregnancies and (b) that women with mental distress (mental illness) are not to be taken seriously.

If Obama doesn't believe what he is saying, then he is pandering. And, we can really question if he is going to change the way things are done in Washington.

UPDATE: Here is a partial list of other feminist blogs on Obama's interview: Melissa at Shakesville, Bitch Ph.D., Amanda at Pandagon, and Violet Socks at Reclusive Leftist.