Commentary

Is symbolic victory really victory?

Nathaniel Porter

I am personally against abortion on principle in most cases, but acknowledge the practical challenge of banning it and the differences of opinion reasonable humans (even Christians) can have as to its morality. What frustrates me today is that states only pass “health and safety” regulations for clinics when they have little to do with their stated purpose and everything to do with ideology. In fact, this isn’t really as much about abortion as about the purpose of laws and the role of lawmakers.

When Roe v. Wade was decided 40 years ago last January, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that the fourth amendment right to privacy included the right for women to have an abortion, but gave states some room to regulate them in the interest of safety. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey broadened the latitude of states to regulate as long as they did not place an undue burden on women.

Realizing they had little power either to outlaw or liberalize the procedure, politicians looked for any path they could to gain symbolic traction on the issue. Conservative legislators tried to require consent of husbands and/or parents; liberals sought to restrict the medical regulation of abortion clinics. Everyone blamed everyone else, and everything became about an issue rather than people.

Today, polarized state legislatures in Mississippi and Alabama, among others, have discovered a new back door — regulating clinics out of existence for “health” concerns. Now, I have hoped for years that clinics could be held more accountable for medical standards. That might have prevented the necessity of the horror that is the Kermit Gosnell trial.

I would like to believe these new laws are genuine attempts at improving accountability, but it only takes listening to the bills’ proponents or considering the empirical consequences to discover the same old political play. When bills pass to require that administration of an oral medication (RU-486) take place in a certified surgical facility, we have stepped into the realm of politics for its own sake.

If you are going to require clinics to be authorized to admit patients with trouble to hospitals, then require county hospitals to accept them. If you are going to require an M.D. or specialized training in gynecology, then make a case for the need. All of these requirements have recently passed in state legislatures, but none with mechanisms to ensure their actual health value.

What’s a citizen to do?

If you are genuinely interested in the safety of patients, look at the research, find the cracks, and fix them. And if the necessary research hasn’t been done, fund it and find out. Gun control remains an intractable debate in part because Congress passed a law in 1996 essentially banning federal funds from gun safety research. The recent amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) to defund political science research demonstrates the same disinterest in the empirical effects of laws. Our political parties have made idols of their platforms and proven they don’t want to know the truth if it might be at odds with them.

Our political parties have made idols of their platforms and proven they don’t want to know the truth if it might be at odds with them.

The Christian person’s devotion to any one ideal, no matter how well-intentioned, must be subjugated to devotion to God. Political parties, politicians, and activists have become enslaved to issues as diverse as abortion and tax policy at the expense of the nation. Legislators have a singular constitutional task: to make laws for the good of the citizens and the world.

Symbolic victories without substance pervert representative government. Don’t block necessary regulation because you happen to be liberal, and don’t pass unnecessary regulation because you happen to be conservative. And when you are ready to argue the case for banning abortion outright, then by all means do. But use the proper means: courts, in this case.

We will have moved in the right direction when we can return the natural order to society, and so I make a simple plea to legislators and their constituents across our great nation: Politicize politics and medicalize medicine.

Citizens: Be vocal and persistent in demanding legislation that works today and prepares for tomorrow, rather than pontificating toward the future at the expense of real people today. And legislators: There is more than enough work to go around; the people of your state and country will appreciate you getting something useful done.

Nathaniel Porter is a doctoral student in sociology of religion at Penn State University and a research associate with TheARDA.com. He is also a Luther Seminary graduate and attends Zion Lutheran Church in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.

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