On Supporting Abortion Rights

A new bill proposed by Pennsylvania Representative Kathy Rapp would require any woman seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound. During this procedure, the doctor would be forced to put the view screen in her field of vision so she could see the fetus and observe its heartbeat. Although she’d have the right to close her eyes, there is no doubt that this ordeal would still put her through an exceptional amount of psychological and emotional stress.Then again, perhaps she should be grateful that the people trying to diminish her ability to make lucid choices about other parts of her body are at least leaving her with unquestioned sovereignty over her eyelids.All questions regarding the legality of abortion ultimately revolve around whether aborting a fetus is an act of murder; after all, abortion should obviously be prohibited if it constitutes an act of homicide, while it is entirely justifiable if it doesn’t constitute the taking of a human life. Unfortunately, the debate as to when life begins still rages on among scientists, with prominent figures in that community taking both sides of the question. Indeed, a 2009 Pew Poll found that 52% of scientists identified as liberal (who, according to another Pew Poll taken that year, support abortion rights 70% to 23%), 35% as moderate (pro-choice by 55% to 37%), and 9% as conservative (anti-abortion by 63% to 30%). For those who worked specifically in biology and medicine, 58% self-labeled as Democrats (pro-choice 60% to 31%), 31% as Independents (pro-choice 47% to 44%), and 6% as Republicans (anti-abortion by 63% to 32%).

In the absence of a scientific consensus as to life’s inception, a free government based on the concept of individual rights must respect each woman’s liberty to use her own judgment should an unwanted pregnancy occur. While other people in a woman’s life certainly have the right to try to influence her decision – through moral persuasion, a practical analysis of alternatives, or yes, even an ultrasound procedure – the state should not have the authority to force any of those influences upon her. Barry Goldwater, one of the modern Republican Party’s foundational figures, explained it best when he observed that despite personally opposing abortion, “in a pluralistic society the issue is not ours to decide alone.”

Unfortunately, this issue has heavy religious overtones, which raises passions and causes drastic schisms in perspectives. The aforementioned Pew Poll found that only 28% of Americans whose religious attendance was weekly or more support abortion rights, compared to 53% whose attendance was monthly/yearly and 64% for those whose attendance was seldom/never. Positions also varied wildly among different religious groups, with white evangelical Protestants being the least likely to support abortion rights (23%), Jews being the most likely to do so (76%), and those without any religious affiliation ranking second highest (68%). In short, while religious views are hardly the sole factor that determines outlooks on abortion, religion undeniably provides emotional fuel for this fiery issue.

This brings us back to Kathy Rapp, who earlier this month defended a House Resolution that proclaimed 2012 to be “Year of the Bible” by insisting that “the Bible was instrumental in the founding of our country.” A few weeks earlier, she had even supported dedicating November 2011 as “King James Bible Heritage Month,” which Jews like me noticed excluded not only our co-religionists, but all other non-Christians. Of course, this is exactly what Rapp and other members of the Christian Right — including Pennsylvania’s own former Senator, presidential candidate Rick Santorum — intend to accomplish. By depicting America as a nation founded on the conservative values taught in their interpretations of Christianity, they can justify imposing their moral beliefs on those who don’t share them, be it by banning abortion, limiting female access to contraception, preventing homosexuals from marrying or serving in the military, or using public schools to promote their religious beliefs through teaching creationism or mandating school prayer. What liberals need to remind them is that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” to quote a treaty signed by President John Adams. If that doesn’t work, then they should respond by quoting Thomas Jefferson himself:

“Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights … Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential to a free society.”

Why Ron Paul Appeals to the Millennial Generation

Published:  The Morning Call (February 24, 2012)PolicyMic (February 24, 2012) 

As Ron Paul’s inability to expand his base within the Republican Party makes his bid for the GOP presidential nomination seem increasingly futile, media outlets are discussing whether he’ll make another run as a third-party candidate. While the jury is out as to what he’ll decide, one thing is certain: Paul would perform very well among the millennial generation.

The Texas congressman’s strong support among people ages 18 to 36 is apparent everywhere, with the pro-Paul buzz that has long pervaded college campuses and online message boards now being reflected in the primaries, where he has won the youth vote in most states.

While some believe this reveals a pre-existing libertarian streak among millennials, that diagnosis overlooks some inconvenient details. For one thing, many in this same generation turned out in droves four years ago to elect Barack Obama.

What’s more, his young followers are quite the eclectic bunch: Ayn Rand worshipers and old-fashioned paleoconservatives, Ph.D. candidates in economics and quasi-illiterate conspiracy theorists, stoners smitten by his stance on marijuana legalization, and bigots who embrace the racist newsletters published under his name, all topped off by a generous sprinkling of trendies who flaunt their independent-mindedness by mimicking other self-proclaimed independent-minded people, among whom Paul is currently chic.

So why are so many millennials gravitating to Paul? Simple: They are a generation in rebellion against banality.

That’s why there was such a rally behind Obama in 2008. For all the attention paid to how his candidacy was making history by breaking racial barriers, Obama attracted millennials by being a throwback, offering the thoughtfulness, gravitas, and eloquence of John Kennedy after eight years of the callow faltering of George W. Bush.

By contrast, Paul’s appeal comes from the fact that he’s perceived as refreshingly novel. Even as he insists that his message contains nothing more than old-fashioned constitutional ideals (a claim many historians vigorously contest), Paul is primarily adored for being a gleeful slayer of sacred cows, from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Reserve to the military-industrial complex and countless social welfare programs. At a time when the public has been inundated with partisan talking points so overused that they’ve jelled into platitudes, Paul stands out by being unapologetically iconoclastic.

While the millennial instinct to oppose banality is healthy, however, the consequent idolization of individual political figures is not. For Obama, the main result has merely been disappointment, since, like Kennedy, his luster has faded now that the abstract art of inspiration has clashed with the grubby realities of governing (Kennedy’s brand didn’t recover until it was sanctified by assassination). The Paul boom, on the other hand, could lead to something much worse.

Because millennials have been ill-served by an education system that skimps on history and political theory, many mistake Paul’s knack for shaking up our national conversation for a sign that his ideas are the only meaningful ones in the ideological marketplace.

What they fail to understand is that, when past presidential aspirants purveyed ideas like Paul’s, they were accompanied by other statesmen intelligently advocating different perspectives. Just look back to 1952, the last year in which one of Paul’s political heroes, Robert Taft, competed for the Republican presidential nomination. His chief opponent was Dwight Eisenhower, a centrist well-versed in the work of philosopher Eric Hoffer; the winner of that battle went on to face Adlai Stevenson, a cerebral progressive whose innovative policy proposals inspired the next two Democratic presidents.

While our era has an analogue to Taft in Paul, we don’t have any Eisenhowers or Stevensons, and this is what Paul illuminates — not that his views are or aren’t the correct ones to adopt in today’s debate, but rather that a substantive debate isn’t even taking place.

Millennials who fail to recognize this crucial distinction risk mistaking Paul’s bold unorthodox belief for infallible truth, thus turning them into dogmatic libertarians no better than the dogmatic liberals and dogmatic conservatives they rightfully deride. While it is easy and comforting to believe that one political hero or one set of ideological assumptions will solve all of our problems, the prevalence of such mind-sets is what caused our political culture to become so banal in the first place.

The lesson we should instead learn is the one President Eisenhower himself best articulated: “In a democracy debate is the breath of life.”

Matthew Rozsa of Bethlehem is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University. His email address is mlr511@lehigh.edu.

Why Elena Kagan Should Not Recuse Herself from Health Care Law Hearing

Published: The Morning Call (February 1, 2012) 

As Obama’s health care law reaches the Supreme Court, the clamor from conservatives and their libertarian sympathizers becomes shriller every day. From Dick Morris and Hans von Spakovsky to WorldNetDaily and The Washington Times, the call rings clear: Justice Elena Kagan, they insist, must recuse herself from the case.The argument against Kagan hinges on the assumption that her service as solicitor general under Barack Obama violates the U.S. Code section stating that “any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”For this to apply to Kagan, a precedent would need to exist in which other ex-solicitors general who served on the Supreme Court were compelled to recuse themselves when asked to rule on policies they had supported under their presidential bosses.Instead the previous jurists to whom this would have indisputably applied (William Howard Taft, Stanley Reed, Robert H. Jackson, and Thurgood Marshall) had the matter left to their personal judgment. Indeed, because so many Supreme Court judges have had politically active pasts before their appointments, it would have been unrealistic to disqualify them each time a controversial issue intersected with their earlier careers.Hence Taft, who had been solicitor general for Benjamin Harrison before being appointed to the court by Warren Harding, was around to rule on antitrust cases despite having helped draft the Sherman Antitrust Act under Harrison (as well as vigorously enforcing it during his own presidency). Similarly, Marshall was allowed to uphold regulations that prevented racial discrimination in the sale of private property even though he had supported Lyndon Johnson’s Fair Housing Act while serving as his solicitor general.Although there is no historical or legal basis supporting a Kagan recusal, the same can’t be said about one of her peers.

A financial disclosure form released last year revealed that Clarence Thomas’ wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, received more than $150,000 from a political action committee that has been especially vocal in opposing health care reform, in addition to nearly $15,000 from a lobbying firm that has focused on that issue. What’s more, between 2003-07 she received more than $600,000 from the Heritage Foundation, which has been at the forefront of the anti-health care reform movement.

When comparable financial conflicts of interest were discovered about Judge Abe Fortas in the 1960s, they ultimately ended his judicial career, first forcing him to ask President Johnson to withdraw his nomination for chief justice (after it came out that business groups with potential court interests had paid him $15,000 to deliver a series of speeches) and then leading to his resignation (after it was discovered he had accepted a $20,000 annual retainer from a Wall Street financier who was under investigation for securities violations).

Since the precedent sorely lacking in the anti-Kagan movement actually does exist against Thomas, it would stand to reason that the people calling for her removal from the health care case would also be demanding the abstention of her conservative colleague.

They aren’t demanding that, of course, because the hoopla over Kagan isn’t really driven by a sincere concern about judicial ethics. The only reason right-wingers are focusing on Kagan’s relationship with Obama is because they believe her recusal will increase the likelihood of the health care law being overturned. Since having Thomas step down as well would negate the advantage of removing Kagan, they dismiss his conflict of interest even as they harp on hers.

This kind of logical inconsistency is by no means limited to the health care law and the Supreme Court. It can be seen when conservatives and libertarians denounce the so-called fiscal irresponsibility of Obama’s $1.2 trillion in stimulus funds but ignore, or even support, the nearly $1.3 trillion we’ve spent so far for Bush’s stimulus, the massive tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

Likewise, it is evident when right-wingers who speak of the need for small government support policies that expand the state’s power so long as it promotes their specific ideological objectives (like stopping homosexuals from getting married or curtailing women’s reproductive rights).

In short, the Recuse Kagan campaign isn’t only noteworthy as a particularly egregious instance of partisanship trumping reason, but it also serves as one more example of the double standards used by the political right when trying to advance its agenda.

Matthew Rozsa, who lives in Forks Township, is a student in Lehigh University’s Ph.D. program in history.