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A Modest Proposal Amid Endless Debate

Commentary

Abortion: Both sides can find common ground by setting an agenda to help the neediest children already born.

July 03, 2000|JEAN SCHROEDEL | Jean Schroedel is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate University and author of "Is the Fetus a Person? A Comparison of Policies Across the Fifty States" (Cornell University Press, 2000)

Now that the Supreme Court's ritual reading of the tea leaves in the endless debate over abortion is over for this year, the expected sound-bite endorsements and denunciations of the ruling have surfaced. Two things, however, are missing.

First, all of the sound and fury obscures the fact that the court's decision probably will have absolutely no impact on the number of abortions performed. Had the Nebraska statute been upheld, physicians would have substituted different, possibly less safe, surgical abortion procedures for those prohibited.

Second, we still are likely to hear rhetoric from all sides rather than a meaningful discussion of the value of fetal life, or heaven forbid, the value of human life. Right-to-life commentators will emphasize the gruesomeness of "partial birth" abortions while the pro-choice proponents will talk about their rarity and the need to protect women's health.

I have a modest proposal. Let's instead engage in a discussion of ways to ensure that every child born in this country has a chance for a decent life. Recently, I compared the stringency of state abortion statutes with the state's commitment to provide for the most needy and vulnerable children.

Given that the right-to-life movement's claim of the moral high ground is based on its concern for human life, I expected to find a positive relationship between the restrictiveness of state abortion laws and policies designed to aid the most needy and vulnerable children after birth. Instead, I found that state support for special-needs adoptions, foster care, welfare spending and overall support for poor children were generally lower in states with more restrictive abortion laws.

I do not point this out to denigrate the sincerity of right-to-life legislators or activists. Rather, I would like to illustrate that there is an opportunity for individuals of goodwill to move away from the endlessly polarizing debate over abortion and focus on the very real needs of American children.

Before dismissing my proposal as hopelessly naive, consider the Call to Renewal movement, a national faith-based coalition of liberal and conservative Christian groups that believes that "biblical norms and Christian reflection" mandate that politicians and policymakers be judged on the basis of their commitment to providing for "the least of those who are members of my family." Leaders of the group propose to issue "voter scorecards" that evaluate political candidates. For example, they propose to ask candidates what they will do to help the 14 million children who go to bed hungry every night. I would suggest that people of conscience, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, emulate the Call to Renewal movement's willingness to bring long-term political and doctrinal adversaries together in the interest of pursuing a common societal good.

Consider for a moment the potential range of items covered by such a pro-child agenda and what it would mean if political leaders were held accountable on these issues.

For example, George W. Bush should be asked why Texas recently cut the amount of funding to support special-needs adoptions in the state. Given that there are about 150,000 special-needs children available for adoption in this country, political leaders should be debating the best means of getting those children permanent families and not coming up with ways that make it more difficult for families to adopt them.

Al Gore needs to be asked equally hard questions about the Environmental Protection Agency's failure to monitor commonly used industrial and agricultural chemicals. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that nearly a quarter of all developmental disabilities may be caused by the interaction of neurotoxicants and genetic predispositions. Given that 1 out of every 6 children in the U.S. experiences developmental difficulties, Gore should be asked why the EPA has only studied the neurotoxicity of nine pesticides and three industrial chemicals in the past decade.

The debate over abortion will be endless. This won't be the last case the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to decide on the issue. Progress would be people taking a step back and deciding on an agenda to make life better for less-fortunate children.

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