Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama, an anti-abortion poster child?

Since I'm out of town, I've asked Dr. Kate Ott, associate director of the Religious Institute, to post about this disturbing new ad that came out on the 36th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision:


During the President’s Inauguration, Catholic Vote ran an advertisement on BET (Black Entertainment Television) that used Barack Obama’s story as an anti-abortion tale.

My first reaction to this ad was, “How disrespectful to Barack Obama! . . . to use him, a historical anomaly, to vilify women and men struggling to make a decision about an unwanted pregnancy; to use a man who clearly has stood up time and again for abortion access and women’s reproductive healthcare and choice; to use, and worse to distort, the circumstances of his birth, all for an advertisement!"

Here are my second, third and fourth reactions.

We do not know the potential fame or folly for which our children are destined. To base decisions solely on the unknown possibility of a pregnancy is flagrantly dismissive of the other lives involved in that decision and sets up our children for unrealistic, unattainable futures. We do not know who our children will become; we only know how well we can support them, provide for them, and give of ourselves to them. In the Religious Institute's Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision, we say, “The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. We support responsible procreation, the widespread availability of contraception, prenatal care and intentional parenting.”

There is no other visually identified person in this advertisement except a floating fetus. That’s a medical impossibility. Removing a woman’s body from the visual message does more than make us focus on the fetus; it forces us to create a false separation between a pregnant woman and the fetus in her uterus. They are inextricably intertwined, as are their lives and decisions about their futures. Abortion is not an abstract act; why must we continue to erase the physical presence of the moral agents in these decisions – women? This separation diminishes our ability to grasp the true moral complexity of an abortion decision. The advertisement stresses “broken, abandoned and struggle” as the descriptive circumstances into which Obama was born. Barack Obama’s mother and father were well educated and had family support systems that allowed them to make a choice about this pregnancy, which is not the case in all unwanted pregnancies. I don’t even think we can surmise (without hearing from his mother, which is no longer possible) if this was an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy.

My fourth reaction is that the advertisement is a new version of the old ethical argument that “absolute respect for human life” is the only moral principle upon which to judge abortion, and its only application is to prioritize the life of the fetus. In almost no other moral deliberations do we actively deny other moral principles, such as justice or love of neighbor. The advertisement coercively limits the scope of our moral imagination and denies how context influences moral choice. “The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by economic, educational, class or marital status, age, race, geographic location or inadequate information” (our Open Letter again), but in reality it is. The choice to have an abortion is always a moral choice; women are always capable moral agents; moral decision-making requires deliberation of multiple principles.

I haven’t even touched on the racial implications of airing this advertisement on BET during the inauguration of the first black President of the United States. This, I think, has more to do with the racist and sexist moral character of the group supporting and contributing to the ad, not the moral decision of women to have an abortion.

Our moral struggle should be one that sees racism, poverty, and heterosexism as factors that destroy communities and place women and men in uncompromisingly difficult moral decisions – not one that uses historical events as an opportunity for moral exploitation.


Anonymous said...

I have to object to Dr. Ott's characterization of the pro-life movement as racist and sexist. Really - that goes beyond strong disagreement with the principles. I am a Catholic pro-life Democrat, and my bumper-sticker says, 'NO War, NO Poverty, NO Abortion, NO Euthanasia, NO Capital Punishment NO Racism." I realize that a bumper sticker is just that - not necessarily evidence of how I live my life. But it does in my case reflect how I evaluate politicians and vote.

To suggest that an ad such as this one - the point of which being that unwantedness in no diminishes the potential of a human life, that every human being has limitless potential - is reflective of a "racist and sexist" fringe group is not only insulting - it is dangerous. It de-humanizes and demonizes the "opposition" in total contrast to the values that Obama I think is trying to emphasize in our country today in his search for admittedly elusive middle ground.

I agree that the argument for pro-choice positions with the most integrity actually IS that in our society, not all human life is actually valued. When we raise the speed limit from 55 to 65, an identifiable number of human beings WILL die, many of them children. But we as a society have no problem with this because convenience, economic prosperity and efficiency are our more important values, rather than the absolute protection of every human life. (And it's both Democrats and Republicans who agree to drive fast.) So as regards abortion, it makes sense for society to be clear - and the pro-choice movement in particular - that women's lives are more important than children's, and that children in the womb simply represent a form of life that is inferior and not worth protecting. The danger with making policy based on this principle is that it is easy for the category of "life that is inferior and not worth protecting" to expand - to include, for example, infant girls in China and India.

In calling the pro-life movement "racist", Dr. Ott is ignoring the fact that abortion affects the African-American community most heavily, something that not all African-Americans see as a good thing. (There was an African-American pastor speaking on this at the DC March for Life just yesterday.) With the promotion of American financial support for abortion overseas, more African, Asian and Hispanic babies - not to mention female fetuses who are not favored - will be aborted. Many good-faith supporters of the pro-life movement support the movement on the grounds that much abortion promotion is akin to eugenics. This is not an ignorant viewpoint - it is a reasoned view held by many informed, conscientious, educated (and even some non-religious) people based on careful consideration of the issues.

I have no problem that you hold your own views or advocate for them - and of course, I expect it here at this forum (that I freely choose to frequent), which is dedicated in part to promoting the unlimited abortion license. Even though I disagree with you completely on this issue, Rev. Haffner allows me to comment here because I am still able to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not evil, uninformed, lacking in good faith or stupid (or racist). I respect that you conscientiously arrived at your positions, and I keep hoping that resorting to demonizing the "other side" in preference to respectful engagement in dialogue will cease to be the preferred approach by pro-choice advocates.

This ad may disgust you, but it brings up a lot of questions that deserve to be debated - the real cost of abortion to the African-American community, the question of what constitutes "quality of life" such that an individual should be allowed to live to experience it, whether wantedness is a good benchmark for whether a human being will be allowed to live or not - and whether all children have great potential, regardless of how things look for them at the outset.

You may not like the message, but calling the messengers "sexist and racist" is beneath the level I usually am so glad to see in this forum. I was so disappointed to see that in this post.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Ott, I don't have more to add to what Pam said, but I do want to voice my disappointment in your labeling of the pro-life movement as "racist and sexist". I am part of the pro-life movement. I frequent this blog and respectfully voice my opinion which Rev. Debra graciously posts. Labels such as this are hurtful and are harmful to discourse.

Debra W. Haffner said...

Dear Pam and Cassandra, I'm just back from Mexico and still haven't actually viewed the ad myself. I'm going to ask Dr. Ott to post a response to you herself...but I think she was talking about the organization that created and posted this ad on BET, not the entire pro-life movement. I do not believe that the entire pro-life movement can be characterized by any label, and I truly understand how our deep abiding faiths lead us to different moral beliefs on the question of when life begins. I am beyond thrilled that President Obama is pro-choice, but really believe like him that the most important common ground is ELIMINATING UNINTENDED PREGNANCIES in the first place. As I have said many times, it is because life is sacred that it should never be created carelessly. That won't eliminate all abortions, as we all know that many wanted pregnancies sometimes require medical abortions to save the mother's health or because the fetus' life would be so badly compromised -- that contraceptives sometimes fail -- that rape and incest happen -- BUT, good education and access to family planning services (including natural family planning information) would go a long way to reducing abortions in the US and in the world. Are you and your organizations willing to work with organizations like mine on that? Surely helping women and couples avoid these moral choices is common ground.


Rev. Debra

Kate M. Ott said...

Dear Pam and Casandra,

I did not characterize the entire Pro-life movement as racist and sexist. I specifically applied that comment to "the group supporting and contributing to the ad". The comments I have made directly reflect my reaction to the placement, timing, and tactics of the ad.

To eliminate images of women from videos when we discuss abortion is sexist. I do understand any blanket assertion that a woman's decision to have an abortion is morally wrong as sexist. There are many circumstances in which it is the most "morally good" decision a woman can make. We do not agree on this point.

To pretend the decision of a white, well-educated women finishing her PhD with an African partner who was finishing his degree and heading to Harvard is in some way equal in circumstance to the 12-18 year old African-American girls and boys, with whom I have worked, who watch BET is racist. The ad intentionally obscures and even erases the truth of how race plays a role in reproductive choice.

The timing, tactics, and placement of the ad can be reasonably characterized as sexist and racist.

I do not believe any human life is more deserving than another. I was part of the development of our Open Letter on Abortion and stand by its theological statement. That is why I do not believe in an absolute application of "respect for human life" without a recognition that principles of love and justice must be used to help us discern in situations when one life or many lives come into conflict with the expression or survival of another or other lives. We need comprehensive sexuality education, family planning services, and comprehensive health care so we can reduce the number of times women and men are placed in the impossible moral dilemma of deciding between and among lives. Even then, I know we will not avoid medically necessary abortions and thus we need a deeper theology and ethic to describe and support the morally right decisions women make.


Anonymous said...

To eliminate images of women from videos when we discuss abortion is sexist.
I don't understand how this is sexist. Can you elaborate because I don't see it? I also don't see how it warrants labeling the members of Fidelis Center, the group that created that ad, sexist.

As for your claims that that ad is racist, you seem to be making assertions that the ad wasn't trying to make.

Labels such as these should not be thrown around lightly because they are so detrimental to open, civil dialogue. I'm very sorry you chose these words to describe these people who created the advertisement.

~Zen said...

You don't see how removing the images of women from videos when discussing abortion is sexist? Really? Honestly?

WHOSE body is sustaining the fetus? WHOSE circumstances and beliefs influence their choice? WHO is it who must make their choice, and, whatever that choice is, live with it for good or ill?

By removing any imagery of the woman from a video such as this one, you remove those questions from the picture. You don't present them to the viewer, much less ask the viewer to put themselves in the shoes not of a fetus, but of the sentient, sensate, independent who faces a pregnancy. You reduce that women to the role of an incubator whose sole purpose is either to 'choose life' and serve her purpose, or choose to abort and fail in her purpose. And in reducing the particular woman that SHOULD be seen in this video, you reduce EVERY woman who has or will ever find herself facing a pregnancy.

And that is sexist.

Anonymous said...

The ad is an unfair and problematic interpretation of Barak Obama's story and life. While, it appears to be an attempt to create a prolife message it uses race as a way of inappropriately forcing viewers to disregard the voice and choices of women. Not to mention, ignore Obama's own mother. Where is the picture in the slide show of his mother indicating that she herself was very conscious of the racial dynamic that her son would be facing in the world? Or the mention of the fact his mother was racially privileged and that this privilege allowed her to raise her son - not in a "broken home" but rather in a home that would lead him to live in the White House.
This Ad not only silences women - which is an act of sexism, but also attempts to use race in a way that ignores the real story. Obama embodies a both a white racial heritage and is a descendent of African and black peoples - many of whom where forced into slavery. Let us not forget the voices of women who are also represented in his blood line - Black women slaves were raped by slave masters, and forced to breed dozens of babies until their reproductive organs no longer functioned. Is this moral? These black women slaves were forced to give life. Is that right? Yes, clearly Dr. Ott is correct to mention the overtones of race and gender in the ad. If we are not careful - we will soak in messages and advertisements without thinking.


Anonymous said...

I of course object, like the other commenters, to the vilification of the makers of the ad as "sexist and racist". Rather than dwell on that though, I'd rather tackle the substantive points made in the post.

She quotes "The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly." This completely side-steps the issue. When a woman is considering an abortion, then a human being has already been created "carelessly". Yes, that should not have happened, but this hardly absolves one from confronting the fact that what comes next doesn't undo your first mistake.

Finally, you say that "The choice to have an abortion is always a moral choice; women are always capable moral agents; ... ". I hope you do not mean to say that no abortion is wrong, regardless of circumstances? That women are incapable of moral error in their choices? Please, get serious. If a particular choice is "always a moral choice", then it is a non-moral choice, i.e. trivial. Even the president agrees that abortion is a non-trivial choice.

Lyn said...

I think it is a distortion of the ad to call it vilifying. The ad, while somewhat unsettling for those of us who are pro-choice, does not seek to reduce women who get abortions to villains. Instead it says, "Life, imagines the potencial." It seems to be urging a second thought. I'm not sure that is offensive.

What might be offensive, is that this ad goes directly against the political views of its subject. I wonder who Obama, a pro-choice abdicate, feels about being used a poster child for the opposition.