Antidisestablishmentarianism

You may have heard the word that serves as the title of this post. It has the most syllables of any word in the English language. Unfortunately for lovers of trivia who like to spread this factoid, the only times it has been used have been sentences just like the former. So what does “antidisestablishmentarianism” actually mean? It means “a word that has more syllables than any other.”

By stating such trivia, we miss the point of the sentence. The speaker doesn’t actually have useful new information to share; they simply have a fun piece of trivia that doesn’t even go deep enough to give the piece of trivia meaning.

A few days ago, the senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential underdog Bernie Sanders asserted in an interview that Planned Parenthood was part of “The Establishment.” The Media went nuts, and liberals around the country have thrown verbal barbs at the presidential hopeful, who has resonated with the liberal crowd very well in the past few months. The senator has since retracted his statement saying that he misspoke, and the campaign has been performing frantic damage control.

Coming into this a bit late (I’m usually a few days late getting breaking news), I missed the fervor. In my humble opinion, we’ve all missed the point here. The point is not that a Democratic presidential candidate who has waged a war on the establishment has labeled a progressive organization “establishment.” The point is that Planned Parenthood is part of the liberal establishment. In 2015, Planned Parenthood spent more than $1.2 million on lobbying efforts. While conservatives across the country aren’t buying any of their rhetoric, Planned Parenthood has maintained its funding in an unusually civil budget compromise. Apparently, someone on the blue side of the aisle is fighting for Planned Parenthood. This is an organization who has acquired the means and the knowledge to play the game, and calling them part of “The Establishment” is a fair assessment.

Regardless of my or any average citizen’s opinions, Planned Parenthood got funding. Let’s not overlook the obvious point of that statement. Regardless of our opinions, congressmen are fighting for Planned Parenthood. I may be overstated the phenomenon, but it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that the Congress pays far more attention to their largest campaign donors than to their constituents, and the interests of those two groups don’t always overlap.

This is the issue that Sen. Sanders has resolved to address, and it’s why I have become an active supporter of his campaign. Many people I have spoken with throughout this campaign have expressed their concern over his extremely liberal positions on healthcare, finance, and education. Sen. Sanders has more than once invoked the fiat power of the government for proposing solutions. Some agree with the ideas but doubt his ability to push the reform through a polarized Congress. Others fear that he will be too successful in his aims. To me, both points are irrelevant.

Perhaps it will utterly fail, and President Sanders will go down in history as a Carter-like, well-meaning humanitarian who just couldn’t stand up to the Washington machine.

But what if he does achieve his goals?

Regardless of how far left he pulls the country or how far right the country pulls back, if a President Sanders succeeds in his disestablishmentarian aims, he will have fundamentally changed the way politics works in the United States.

The debate here is not left-right or liberal-conservative; it is establishment-public. The government exists as the collective voice of the people (at least in the post-Magna Charta modern Western conception of government). If the government is not acting in the interest of all its people, it is failing as a government. Today, the U.S. Congress is receptive only to the interests of the country’s wealthiest citizens. (Read more about how this happens in my review of Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost). President Sanders will do everything he can to dismantle this situation. If he succeeds, he will destroy the influence of large organizations who back members of Congress throughout the chamber.

Though this will mean that liberal organizations will lose political power just as conservative ones will, more importantly, it will mean that the People will fill that power vacuum. If the People really want an organization like Planned Parenthood to exist, they will demand that their representatives support it. If People want programs like fossil fuel subsidies to continue, they will demand that their representatives support them. The difference here is that the People will demand these things, not the moneyed interests.

As a volunteer for the Sanders Campaign, I won’t try to perform damage control because of his recent statement about Planned Parenthood. If the people who are up in arms over the issue really care about Planned Parenthood’s mission, they will embrace a post-Sanders world in which they will have the political power they need to maintain such an organization instead of depending on the corruption of the current system.

The thing we must remember about Sen. Sanders is that he only recently accepted the Democratic party affiliation because he knew an Independent bid for president would be futile. At heart, he is not dedicated to the ideals of any major political party. The issue he is fighting is not partisan, it is endemic to the system itself. Bernie Sanders is fighting for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I encourage the liberal Sanders supporters out there to let go of their reaction of antidisestablishmentarianism, and fight for a system that does not depend upon having money and influence to get the government to work for its people.

Perhaps Sen. Sanders will fail, but he is the only presidential hopeful this year who will even try.


 

yeah, I just used antidisestablishmentarianism in a sentence that didn’t invoke its trivial significance.

The Politics of Fact

Tonight, President Barack Obama gave his seventh and final state of the union address to a joint session of Congress. Though he promised to keep it short, it still stretched on for an hour (he has a habit of being verbose). Like all politicians, he has made some promises he couldn’t keep. Despite these shortfalls, we should recognize that the past seven years have been good for the United States as a whole. As the president noted when talking about the values that make America strong,

It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.

These statements are general, but they are based in fact. It has been three generations since the Great Depression [1]. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the portion of Americans without health insurance has fallen from 18% to just over 11% [2].  Renewable energies like wind, solar, and geothermal have more than doubled since President Obama took office [3]. The Department of Veterans Affairs has received continual budget increases during his presidency [4]. Last summer the Supreme Court struck down laws that restricted marriage rights of homosexuals (how much the public opinion influenced that decision is speculative, but clearly the decision was made by nine very human Americans).

These are statements of fact. Sure, the recovery has not been felt throughout the population (the majority of us haven’t felt it at all) [5]. Renewables still make up only a small fraction of American energy production. More money doesn’t always mean better results in healthcare (sometimes it means the opposite). And stigma against homosexuality in many parts of the country still forces thousands of Americans to remain in the closet. However, none of these caveats make what the president said untrue.

In the Republican response to the state of the union, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley opened with almost the exact opposite of what President Obama had,

As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities.

As noted (and the president noted), the recovery has not been equal, but that has not been because the economy has been too weak. By the numbers, the American economic is one of the strongest in the world, and still by far the largest [6]. Though the national debt is high, it’s not as high as some countries [7], and it’s quite a stretch to say that the American people are feeling it on the microeconomic level. Though the ACA hasn’t slowed the move of doctors from private practice to large hospitals [8], the idea that healthcare is less affordable and doctors less available for the millions of Americans for whom insurance was unaffordable and doctors completely unavailable before the ACA is simply illogical. Make of the last statement what you will.

The point here is not to tear apart every line of the address and response. I don’t have that much patience. The point here is that somehow facts have become subject to political debate. Facts are not up for debate. They should frame the debate.

The Democratic Party is full of bad ideas, but it certainly seems that at least they are more often beginning from a point based somewhere in the real world. Recently, the Republican Party has become the party of denial. Over half of Republican congressmen deny global warming even exists [9], even though, in the president’s words,

[I]f anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military [10], most of America’s business leaders [11], the majority of the American people [12], almost the entire scientific community [13], and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it [14].

This is not up for debate. Neither is evolution. Neither is the non-existence of a “war on Christmas.”

But this is not a rant on the lunacy of the Republican party (just browse any of the liberal blogospheres for plenty of that). This is a call to journalists to end the lunacy and hold politicians accountable.

After the Republican response, NBC gave a few minutes to two presidential candidates, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT). The host, Lester Holt, provided both candidates with a few questions on both the address and the campaign. As Sen. Cruz was calling the president “out of touch” right before stating that students are in too much debt (something President Obama noted in his address), Holt interrupted him. I had hoped that he was going to inform the senator that the two men were in agreement on that front. If we want to start closing the extreme political polarization in this country, finding those common grounds is going to be essential. Instead, Holt changed the subject to ask the senator to respond to a thinly veiled attack the president threw. Sen. Cruz responded by standing firm on his “commitment to kill the terrorists.” In response, Holt allowed the senator to rant on the president’s weakness toward terrorism.

I’ll leave my opinion on the president’s decision to leave out mentions of terrorism for another time, but this was exactly the wrong decision on Holt’s part. First off, how was his first question, “Do you regret it?”? How about something along the lines of “You’re fellow candidates Sen.s Rubio and Sanders returned from their campaigning to pay their respects to the office of the president. Why do you feel you’re special?” Why didn’t he jump in to challenge the senator on how exactly “carpet bombing” the Middle East is going to defeat terrorism? Why didn’t he ask the senator to explain his substantive plan to defeat Da’ash when Sen. Cruz criticized the president for holding back his? Why didn’t he say anything?!

As my dad and I wondered how Sen. Cruz managed to get his little campaign plug, NBC cut over to Sen. Sanders still in the Capitol. At least they tried to be balanced, but they managed only balance in their impotence. After opening with an open-ended question to which Sen. Sanders began a discussion about climate change and campaign finance (his big talking points), Holt interrupted the senator to ask him to comment on the president’s lack of mention of the US sailors being held by the Iranians. The senator rightly transitioned quickly to “issues that will impact this country for decades to come.” After Sen. Sanders offers a cursory mention of income inequality and higher education (more big talking points), Holt pivots again (as if he didn’t hear a word the senator just said) to discuss the horse race.

How was the Iranian hostage situation (which Sen. Sanders could not have known much of anything about at this point) the most important foreign relations question he had? If he wanted to talk about the campaign, why not ask about former the Secretary of State’s record on foreign policy? Why not challenge the senator on how exactly he’s going to find the money to pay for skyrocketing higher education costs while the federal government has been in a brutal fight to drag down the deficit? How about asking the guy when he’s going to talk specifics on his plans for trust busting, universal health care, and speculation taxes?

When people say that the media is liberally biased, I understand why. They see pundits go easy on liberal candidates, and it’s easy to draw that conclusion.

The problem is not left-right bias. The problem is a bias of fear. Journalists nowadays are too afraid to appear biased. They have allowed the Republican party to deny basic scientific fact because to tell them they’re wrong is somehow biased. Their fear has allowed facts to become political issues. It’s not bias when you ask a representative tough questions. It’s not bias when you call leaders out for lying. It’s not bias when you hold your interview subjects accountable.

The American people are lost right now. A portion of us cling to a hope that in the most powerful country in the world, a country that still stands on a centuries-old document based on liberty and equality, that we can set right a course that has strayed from our values. A portion of us cling to our power and lash out in fear of a world that appears terrifying, strange, and incomprehensible. Yet, most of us have just given up. Most of us take in what we are fed, accept the statements of politicians and pundits, and either pick the lesser of two evils when we get to the polls or make the rational decision that it doesn’t matter anymore.

I am in that first camp. I believe (based on the evidence) that this country can right itself. Despite what Republican fear-mongers tell you, we are not facing an existential threat from terrorism or immigrants. Despite what Democratic idealists tell you, our economic picture isn’t particularly rosy. But that’s what you hear because no one is standing up to those who are feeding it to you.

This is a call to all you journalists – professional writers or part-time bloggers – to take up the torch and light the way. Scrutinize what the politicians promise, and demand that they explain how they’ll give it to you. Be skeptical of the “facts” our leaders use when they’re speaking off the cuff, and use your unlimited access to information to set them straight. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to challenge authority. You got into this profession because you are passionate. Learn from the greats – Walter Cronkite, Katharine Graham, Sy Hersh – and use your passion to find the evidence, present it clearly, and inform the People.

America used to be a great country, and I want to believe that it still is, but the evidence is stacking against the hypothesis. If you’re sick of President Obama’s “change,” if you’re tired of the Washington establishment, don’t just accept your fate. The American people aren’t as dumb as they might seem. They are simply misinformed.

I will leave you with a few lines from one of the few tv shows I followed closely, HBO’s The Newsroom.

We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

Book Review: Republic, Lost

Professor Lawrence Lessig of the Harvard Law School concludes his cynical review of the state of the union with the beloved account of Benjamin Franklin emerging from the Independence Hall after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention: when asked by a woman passing by, “Mr. Franklin, what have you wrought?” he replied, “A republic, madam; if you can keep it.”

Professor Lessig contends that we have lost that republic. He argues that the United States has reached a point at which its leaders are now corrupted by the special interests that can raise enough money to fund campaigns and employ lobbyists. Though the corruption is painfully banal and incontrovertibly transparent, it is real. The issue’s lack of an evil nature or conspiratorial actor make the rallying of motivation to its solution all the more difficult. The issue, Lessig argues, is not a cabal of venal and heartless villains. Indeed, the largest issue is the fact that those who have created and perpetuate this cycle are normal, well-meaning people. They have found themselves in a system that necessarily requires a conflict of interest for them to do their jobs.

Lessig’s starting point, which he strangely buried in the middle of the second part of this book, is that the founders intended to create an independent legislature. By “independent,” Lessig means that it depends only on one source of influence: the People. As James Madison wrote in “The Federalist #52,” the House of Representatives should be “that branch of the federal government which ought to be dependent on the people alone.” [1] This is the “baseline of independence” from which Lessig argues and extends it to both houses since the implementation of the popular election of the Senate. He does not purport that the government is wholly lost. Indeed, he recognizes that the government still does many things that do benefit those with the least financial means (e.g. welfare programs, public transportation, etc.). His argument, though, is that the republic no longer functions as it was designed. Its competing influences make it behave like a compass placed near a ferrous metal. It may point in the general direction of the magnetic north pole, but that deviation renders the compass inaccurate. To operate with a government with such deviation is like trying to navigate unknown territory with an inaccurate compass.

Lessig identifies as the root of this problem the current campaign finance system. In our current system, aggravated by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. U.S., individuals (including those operating on behalf of corporations) may spend as much money as they wish for political means. Though the decision to allow unlimited spending has exacerbated the issue, Lessig argues that the problem began in earnest with a realization by an aide to former Representative George McGovern (D-SD), Gerald S. J. Cassidy. In 1976, Cassidy leveraged his position as a lobbyist on behalf of Tufts University to secure a grant for nutritional research. With the redirection of federal money to a specific private group, the modern earmark was born. As the idea spread over the years, lobbyists also entered the business of fundraising in order to gain the favor of the appropriate members of Congress. Though quid pro quo exchanges remain few, the newly purchased influence of organizations with the financial and personnel power to raise funds on behalf of members of Congress gained access to representatives far beyond that of their respective constituents in a process that Lessig is not bashful to call corruption. Progressively, the cost of running a congressional campaign grew, and with recent loosening of regulations, it has reached on average over $600,000 for the House and nearly $3 million for the Senate. Members of Congress raised nearly $2 billion dollars in the 2012 election cycle, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. [2] As a result, the votes of the People on Election Day now compete with the votes of the dollars going into their campaign coffers.

Lessig makes it clear that there is a conflict of interest in Congress between the desires of constituents and the desires of their largest campaign contributors, but he rises to the harder challenge of showing to what extent this affects national policy. He lays out three ways that this process harms Congress’s dependency upon the People alone: distraction, distortion, and trust.

To show how distracted Congress is, he simply identifies the daily requirement for Congressmen to ask for money. Lessig cites interviews with Congressmen from between 1988 and 2000 that claim that in order to take the job, they needed to accept the fact that they would spend up to 90 percent of their time fundraising. One Senator who left office in 2005 claimed that he needed to raise $30,000 every week, and most of that money he would seek  outside of his home state. With the rising cost of elections, this time commitment must also be on the rise. Lessig points out that the number of committee meetings, in which members of Congress discuss the legislation they are to implement, have been plummeting over the past four decades. In the House, days in session have seen a similar downfall. His point is that the life of a legislator has become more dedicated to collecting money and less to legislating.

The issue of distortion takes a bit more nuance, but Lessig effectively shows that the influence of lobbyists in Washington distorts the priorities of Congress. He breaks this influence into “agenda distortion” and “substantive distortion.” On the first, he illustrates the state of the nation in the fall of 2013 when the country faced the slow winding down of two wars, high unemployment, millions in poverty, controversy over the new healthcare regulations, mass misinformation on the subject of climate change, and a partisan fight that would temporarily shut down the government. Yet with all these issues obvious to the average American, Congress was consumed by a bill that would limit the amount banks can charge stores to use debit cards. The issue of the day lined up with the prevalence of the aligned lobbyists, not the needs of the People. A graphic displaying the responses of both lobbyists and the public on their opinion of the most important issue of the day clearly shows the complete disconnect. Whereas lobbying firms saw “Health”, “Environment”, and “Transportation” as top issues, the public wanted to see action on “Law, Crime, and Family Policy”, “Macroeconomics and Taxation”, and “International Affairs and Foreign Aid.” None of the categories listed shows even slight agreement between the lobbyists and the public at large. Lessig shows that this disconnect manifests itself in the policy as “substantive distortion.” He goes straight to economics in discussing the recovery from the Great Recession, in which the majority of gains have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners. His argument would have benefited from a 2015 report by UC Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez, which showed that between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent of earners saw real incomes rise by 34 percent while the rest of the country saw incomes rise by less than one percent. [3] Lessig identifies the source of these unequal gains as the successful lobbying to defeat regulation in general and in particular to increase the complexity of the tax code – an already incomprehensible document that saw nearly 600 revisions in 2014 – building in tax breaks for entire industries all the way down to individual companies. Lessig uses comments from current and former legislators to exemplify the fact that those exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government for redress were equal but some were more equal than others (ie: those who could offer campaign donations or had threatened to donate to an opponent). With a Congressional agenda distorted to fit those of powerful lobbying firms and the substance of the state of the union being biased in their favor, the existence of oligarchy seems all but proven.

However, those who know their logical fallacies will recognize that the correlation does not prove causation. Here Lessig appeals to the skeptics in his discussion of trust. He begins the book with a series of examples in which our trust that honest work has been done plummets when we see money in the wrong places. The book was published at a time when Congressional approval ratings barely remained out of the single digits and surveys showed that only 22 percent of Americans trusted Washington to do the right thing at least most of the time. Historical polling data showed that Washington had lost the trust of nearly half the population in just thirty years. This mistrust has led the perfectly rational electorate to accept that participating in the political process is a waste of energy. There are simply more important things to tend to in our busy lives. This, of course, compounds the issue, allowing the extremes of the political spectrum and the special interest influence on K Street to dominate.

For those who are not so cynically disillusioned by this point in the book, Lessig does offer a series of solutions (for which he predicts odds of success from a “wildly optimistic” two percent to a “quite good” ten percent). In the end, he encourages the passionate patriots to wage a three pronged attack on the forces of the status quo. These guerrilla tactics he compares to the American revolutionaries fighting the Redcoats who would have decimated them in a conventional war. The first strategy is to attack Congressional candidates at their weakest: the primary. Here’s the idea: a prominent member (or members) of the state runs in the primary election, garnering enough of the vote to threaten a “safe” seat, but vowing to bow out of the race as soon as the real candidate publicly commits to a truly citizen-owned election. Fortunately, there need not be someone to challenge every district because a Constitutional loophole allows one person to run in any (or every) district of the state in which they reside. The second strategy is an attempt to commandeer the bully pulpit: the presidency. Again a respected figure would run a presidential campaign, but this campaign would have a sole focus: campaign finance reform. The candidate would promise that upon successful legislative reform, she would resign and allow her vice president to finish out her term. The final prong of the attack is to follow our forefathers’ example: a constitutional convention. Article V of the U.S. Constitution outlines the two methods to pass amendments. The first is the way it has been done all 26 times: Congress proposes the amendment, and at least three quarters of the state legislatures ratify it. However, there’s an alternative: two-thirds of the state legislatures may call for a constitutional convention to start the process. Lessig proposes that we the People ought to petition our legislatures to call such a convention and appoint a random selection of voters to determine the most appropriate amendment to fix the problem. He suggests that we may benefit from a voluntary program in which all citizens are allotted 50 dollars out of their taxes to support a candidate and up 100 dollars to support their candidate of choice in what has been coined “The Grant and Franklin Project.” He also proposes mandatory secrecy of donations to defeat the tit for tat attitude of legislators and donors or even the proven systems of public campaign finance implemented in Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut, but he recognizes that none of these solutions is impervious to the flow of money. Indeed, he holds out hope that this constitutional convention may produce a few great minds like our founding fathers, who may rejuvenate the democratic spirit and republican form of governance in the United States.

Despite Lessig’s effort and wishful propositions, he never comes across truly hopeful for our republic. Indeed he understands the fatalistic attitude undoubtedly felt by many a reader (including myself) and expressed by a Dartmouth student who asked after a lecture, “What’s the point?” The moment nearly brought him to tears as he thought of a scenario in which the doctors told him that his son had terminal cancer, and there was nothing they could do. Even if there truly were nothing he could do to save his son’s life, was that a reason to simply give up? Of course not. He would feed off the irrationality of his love to fight to his dying breath even for the remotest chance that his son might live. He carries that same love for his country and will continue to fight for his “wildly optimistic” two percent chance that this might actually work.

In fact, Professor Lessig did exactly that last year when he announced his candidacy for President of the United States. Sadly, in a moment seemingly scripted out of his book that describes the efforts of the Washington establishment to defend the status quo, a last-minute rule change disqualified Lessig from the Democratic debates, rendering his campaign completely ineffectual.

If you want to get involved in the campaign to fix campaign finance, Lessig offers a list of online communities including his own, Rootstrikers.org.

He also commends the work of the following organizations:

OpenSecrets.org – sponsored by the Center for Responsive Politics

FollowTheMoney.org – sponsored by the National Institute on Money in State Politics

OpenCongress.org – sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation

PublicCitizen.org

PublicCampaign.org

CommonCause.org


[1] Madison, J. (1788, February 8). The Federalist Papers: No. 52. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed52.asp

[2] Price of Admission. (2013, April 16). Retrieved January 11, 2016, from https://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/stats.php?cycle=2012&type=A&display=T

[3] Saez, E. (2015, January 25). Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States. Retrieved January 11, 2016, from http://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf

A Liberal’s Case Against Abortion

Early in the morning after the latest Republican debate, the U.S. Congress published an omnibus spending bill for 2016. The budget was passed with little fanfare, but disgruntled citizens have already started to pick apart the 2,000-page budget that authorizes the US Government to shell out just over a trillion dollars this year. The bill is rife with compromises. Subsidies for renewable energy stay in, but restrictions on selling oil to the international market are gone. The Affordable Care Act keeps its funding, but significant changes are sure to ameliorate special interests. Corporate welfare continues in earnest, but low-income parents also get some tax relief. For more details, Barney Jopson at the Financial Times did a great piece laying out the details (Jopson).

The most interesting part to me is that one of the most contentious issues hitting the Republican debate stage – Planned Parenthood – gets no significant attention; their funding goes substantially unchanged. The organization has been all over the sensationalist news recently, particularly after Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina mentioned a grisly video in a recent debate. Her comments greatly exaggerated the content, but the video exists, and it exposes some of the ugliest parts of the abortion system.

Before I go any further, let me first clarify that abortions are a small part of what Planned Parenthood does. Planned Parenthood provides education, contraception, and sexual health examinations that are invaluable in a country that has such a phobia of discussing sex. Although Planned Parenthood would not collapse entirely without federal funding, cutting funding would greatly limit their ability to provide essential, non-controversial services for millions.

Under current federal law, as determined in Roe v. Wade (1973), a woman has total autonomy of her pregnancy during the first trimester. In the majority opinion, Justice Blackmun considered the historical definition for the beginning of personhood at the point of “quickening,” or the first noticeable movement of the fetus. However, he recognizes that this definition was associated with the infusion of the “soul” or other life-giving force. Modern biological understanding proves these concepts unnecessary in the understanding of the animation of living beings. The opinion also considers the position of the American Medical Association, which at the time was in opposition to any form of abortion except in cases that threatened the life of the mother. Currently, the AMA opposes any abortion in the third trimester except in cases of significant possibility that the child will face “anomalies incompatible with life.” (“Health and Ethics”). Under the current ruling, a state has the right to prohibit abortion after viability, the point at which a fetus has equal chance of living or dying outside the mother’s womb. Thus, the federal government currently does not expressly prohibit any form of abortion, but it recognizes the states’ rights to do so in certain cases.

We should recognize that the central question of this debate is Does the government have the right to demand that a woman carry her pregnancy to term?

I think you will be hard pressed to find anything in the U.S. Constitution that makes this issue clear. The Constitution provides guidelines for the rights the federal government ought to grant its citizens. By definition, an unborn child is not a citizen. Therefore, we must examine the moral grounding for a government’s intervention in a woman’s pregnancy.

A couple years ago, I laid out an argument for the essential role of government. In it, I concluded that the most fundamental role of the government is the protection of its people. (You can read the argument here.) I determined that a government should protect its people from external threats, internal threats, and natural threats. Pertinent here are the internal threats. Governments must maintain the authority to dictate behavior to the extent that the actions of one are not harmful to others.

This authority reasonably applies to all persons living within the government’s jurisdiction. To discriminate on the basis of citizenship flies in the face of commonly accepted understanding of fairness. Imagine a world in which tourists, foreign family members of citizens, foreign diplomats, and other non-citizen residents were not subject to the protection of the government. Imagine your friend from Canada is visiting, and they are assaulted. They call the police, the police arrive quickly, and when they learn that he is Canadian, they turn away because they don’t have the authority to protect him. It’s a ridiculous proposition. The government has not only the right but the responsibility to take necessary action to ensure the safety of those within its borders.

Now comes the key question: is an unborn child a person warranting the protection of the government?

Here we must determine a definition of “person.” If we accept that a “person” is any member of the species Homo sapiens, then we must accept that personhood begins at fertilization. At the point that sperm and egg combine and their chromosomes fuse, creating a single-celled organism bearing the genetic material of an individual and unique member of the species H. sapiens. The processes within the cell are by definition alive, so based on this line of reasoning, a zygote is indeed a living person, deserving of the protection of the government, even from its mother. Though this is not a legal definition, current federal legislation recognizes a “child in utero” as a “member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” [18 U.S.C. § 1841(d)]. The law, however, sidesteps the issue of personhood by using the term “child in utero,” and the law also exempts mothers and medical personnel assisting in the termination of a pregnancy. At this point, no legislation defines a person in this way.

This, of course, is not the only definition of a “person.” Alternative views of personhood can be gleaned from philosophers like Locke, who believed that a person was more than just a human being because a human is “a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places” (Locke). Modern bioethics agrees that a person must have such qualities as self-awareness and a capacity for communication (Singer). These, however, are not particularly useful because we cannot exactly measure the self-awareness of a child in utero. The only thing we can say for certain is that a brain is required for such abilities. Given that a fetal brain begins to develop after about five weeks of gestation, those subscribing to these definitions would only oppose abortion after a minimum of five weeks. At which point the brain attains the functions necessary for self-awareness is far more uncertain.

Though convenient, these definitions are based on rather arbitrary and certainly contentious grounds. If we accept definitions of personhood based on rationality and reflection, we must call into question the personhood of those with mental illness, brain damage, and of course, supporters of Donald Trump.

In a democracy, we may turn to the people for a definition of their choice of ethics as we do with capital punishment, legal age of adulthood, and legal status of drugs. However, it is quite clear at this point that there will certainly be nothing resembling any form of consensus on this issue. Since philosophy, science, law, and public opinion offer no clear definition, I believe that we must operate on the most liberal view, that which protects the broadest spectrum of potential persons.

Thus, we should accept the premise being a human being is the only prerequisite to personhood. Therefore, the government has the right and responsibility to protect all human beings within its jurisdiction, including those in utero. Therefore, I assert that abortion should only be performed in such instances that a qualified medical professional determines that the child faces developmental complications incompatible with life.

I do not support a complete rejections of all abortions. There are certainly reasonable exceptions – physical and psychological health of the mother, health of the child, or other complications – but efforts spent on performing abortions should be spent on educating potential parents and caring for children, and access to these necessary terminations must be universal. Unlike the positions of both major political parties, this position is logically consistent and compassionate.

In order for this position to be logically consistent, we must consider the protection of the formerly unwanted children once they are born. This means providing maternity/paternity leave in order to ensure the proper care of the newborn. This means providing childcare in cases that parents must return to work. This means providing quality education for all children. This means providing extracurricular programs that keep kids productively occupied. This means providing comprehensive sex education and access to contraception. Most importantly, though, this means making an ideological change in the way we view sex and childbearing.

To expand, I offer a few general policy proposals.

  1. Maternity/paternity leave. Research has shown that ensuring paid maternity/paternity leave has a significant effect on the health and development of children and the health of the family (“Health and Ethics”). The early stages of child development are incredibly important, and allowing children the best possible opportunities from the outset will have cascading effects in future generations. Preservation of strong family bonds is essential for autonomous and productive societies.
  1. Childcare. With many households today having two working parents or a single parent and income-earner, families must have access to quality childcare in order to allow for the continued successful development of children. Doing so will not only have positive effects on the development of the child, but will have positive effects on an economy in which working class women can confidently return to the workplace after having children while employing an entire sector of childcare workers.
  1. Education. The United States currently faces a crisis of education in which children in low-income areas lack access to quality public education, pulling them behind their high-income peers throughout their formative years (Arends-Kuening & Vieira). This destroys social mobility and reinforces conditions for perpetual cycles of poverty.
  1. Extracurricular programs. Keeping kids out of trouble requires far more than telling them what to do. We must provide opportunities for them to stay engaged in activities that are both enjoyable and developmental. Athletics, music, and volunteering teach children and young adults important life skills while keeping them away from crime and unhealthy practices (DeAngelis).
  1. Sex education and access. Of course, if we want to avoid this problem entirely, we simply need to avoid unwanted pregnancies. In it’s entirety, that’s impossible, but we can drastically reduce the prevalence. Comprehensive education on safe sex and an open conversation about sexual activity can have a significant effect on teenage pregnancies and transmission of STDs (Stanger-Hall & Hall). This means maintaining funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood.

These changes all require a fundamental shift in the way Americans view sex and sexuality. The taboo nature of sex pushes educators toward abstinence-based education, reduces parent-child communication pertaining to sex, and leaves those unprepared to raise a child ill-equipped to make good decisions when it comes to sex. It leads to a stigma against women who have children out of wedlock, encourages secrecy when it comes to unwanted pregnancies, and retards progress toward a society in which all children have a fair shot at the American Dream.


 

Arends-Kuenning, Mary, and Renato Vieira. “Income Inequality and Educational Inequality: Comparing the U.S. and Brazil.” PolicyMatters. March 4, 2015. Accessed December 23, 2015. http://policymatters.illinois.edu/income-inequality-and-educational-inequality-comparing-the-u-s-and-brazil/.

Deangelis, Tori. “What Makes a Good Afterschool Program?” Monitor on Psychology 32, no. 3 (2001): 60. Accessed December 23, 2015. http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar01/afterschool.aspx.

“Health and Ethics Policies of the AMA House of Delegates” Accessed December 23, 2015. http://www.ama-assn.org/ad-com/polfind/Hlth-Ethics.pdf.

Jopson, Barney. “US Budget Deal Is Rare Compromise – FT.com.” Financial Times. December 16, 2015. Accessed January 4, 2016. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ccd0009c-a41c-11e5-8218-6b8ff73aae15.html#axzz3wJ3Bi1Tw.

Locke J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Book 2, Book 27. London, UK: Oxford University Press; 1964.

Singer P. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: 1993:83. This description was part of a list proposed by John Fletcher as “indicators of humanhood.” For the complete list see Fletcher J. Indicators of humanhood: a tentative profile of man. Hastings Cent Rep. 1972;2(5):1-4.

Stanger-Hall, Kathrin, and David Hall. “Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.” PLoS ONE. October 4, 2011. Accessed December 23, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/.

 

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: