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Michael Gerson: Gays can keep their rights if they don’t sue for them

In today’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson compares and contrasts the debates over gay rights with the debate over abortion rights — and concludes that gay rights, once gained, will be longer-lasting and more “settled” because they (mostly) haven’t been imposed by an out-of-control judiciary on an unwilling or divided public. Instead, the cause has advanced naturally and gradually through culture. And he warns:

It remains possible that the gay rights movement could provoke a backlash. If the Supreme Court were to strike down restrictions on gay marriage nationally, one could expect a Roe-like reaction in parts of the country.

Gerson might be right in a tactical sense. But his argument ignores a couple of things:

• The advancement of civil rights tends not to take an either-or approach to the question of judicial advances versus cultural advances. The ending of Jim Crow across the South, for example, clearly relied on court cases like Brown v. Board of Education, but the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and his cohorts simply made racism less acceptable as a matter of custom. Racism isn’t gone, of course, but the days of being overtly racist and a participant in polite society are largely over. Both aspects — legal and cultural — were important to including African Americans in the life of the country.

• The argument also ignores the question of whether certain civil rights actually exist under the law. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ on this, of course, but if a right to abortion actually exists under the Constitution, then it doesn’t really matter how “settled” the debate is. The whole point of being under the rule of law is to recognize that minority rights often conflict with the desires of the democratic majority.

It’s nice if everybody likes it when you exercise your rights. But it’s not strictly necessary.

Will Bart Stupak kill the health reform bill over abortion?

Looks like it could happen:

A dozen House of Representatives Democrats opposed to abortion are willing to kill President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform plan unless it satisfies their demand for language barring the procedure, Representative Bart Stupak said on Thursday.

“Yes. We’re prepared to take responsibility,” Stupak said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” when asked if he and his 11 Democratic allies were willing to accept the consequences for bringing down healthcare reform over abortion.

“Let’s face it. I want to see healthcare. But we’re not going to bypass the principles of belief that we feel strongly about,” he said.

This, of course, is the corrosive and corrupting way that the abortion issue affects our politics and policy debates: Bart Stupak is so pro-life that he’s willing to kill a bill that will help millions of Americans stay alive and healthy. It’s infuriating.

At this point, Stupak’s position amounts to little more than grandstanding. Never mind that the Obama Administration is promising that federal money won’t be used to fund abortions; Stupak might think about Congress itself. Simply put, we’re a couple of decades into a rough-but-by-n0-means-complete consensus that federal money not be used to pay for abortions. Given that plenty of Democrats in Congress feel this way, it’s unlikely we’ll see a sudden rush of tax dollars to abortion clinics, no matter how strict the safeguards in the bill.

Stupak is playing defense against an improbable scenario, in other words. And he’s willing to kill the health reform bill over this fantasy. It’s dumb and irresponsible.

Abortion, gay marriage and American dhimmitude

Ever since 9/11, conservatives of the “clash of the civilizations” stripe have had a favorite word they like to casually toss at appeasing lefties: “Dhimmi.” It’s an Arabic word that applies, basically, to lesser status of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Any time public officials wrestle with how to accommodate Muslims in America — say, when Muslim cabdrivers say they don’t want to carry passengers toting alcohol — cries of “dhimmitude” go up all along the right, with dreary consistency, an alarm that any accommodation with religious zealots whatsoever will surely result in the fall of Western civilization.

I suspect the same folks who scream “dhimmi” with some regularity, though, will have no real problem with this:

Citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to civil disobedience, 145 evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders have signed a declaration saying they will not cooperate with laws that they say could be used to compel their institutions to participate in abortions, or to bless or in any way recognize same-sex couples.

They want to signal to the Obama administration and to Congress that they are still a formidable force that will not compromise on abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. They hope to influence current debates over health care reform, the same-sex marriage bill in Washington, D.C., and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Ostensibly, these religious organizations don’t want to be forced to provide abortions, host gay marriages or even provide benefits to same sex partners of their employees. But it seems unlikely that any proposals on these issues would end up with that result. “Conscience clauses” largely prohibit physicians from being forced to provide medical services they find objectionable, and the First Amendment pretty much ensures no Catholic Church will ever be required to perform a marriage ceremony between Adam and Steve. It should be pretty easy to resolve these concerns, right?

Probably not. The churches don’t just want to abstain from what they believe to be immoral practices; they’re trying to influence policy and legislation so the rest of us must also abstain. I don’t really like that, but I suppose that’s their right.

But it’s interesting to me that the same folks who get the vapors when Muslim women want to use a gym separate from men are more or less the exact same folks who will defend to the death the right of a Catholic pharmacist (say) to refuse to dispense birth control pills.*

We’re expected to defer to and accommodate religious sensibilities in the public square, it seems, except when we’re not. We’re all dhimmis now.

*Christopher Hitchens, of course, is the exception to this. He thinks all of you are crazy.

On killing one’s political opponents

Killing George Tiller was wrong. It shouldn’t need to be said, but I will anyway: Killing an abortion opponent was also very, very wrong. I don’t think that abortion opponents face the same everyday threat of violence that abortion providers do — and furthermore, I very much hope that they never do. We ought to be able to settle — and live with — our differences without killing each other.

Does pro-life rhetoric incite murder?

That’s the question in my Scripps Howard column this week with my conservative colleague Ben Boychuk. My take:

Many Americans, I suspect, hate abortion politics. We understand why pro-lifers are appalled by abortion. We also understand why pro-choicers believe women should be free to make private reproductive health choices. Liberals like me usually end up on the pro-choice side, but the fit is often awkward.

The question of whether pro-life rhetoric led to George Tiller’s murder, however, is easy: Yes. Without a doubt. How could it not? How could a political movement spend decades portraying one man as the Hitler-like embodiment of evil and not expect that somebody someday wouldn’t try to violently end that perceived evil? Tiller’s death was, in retrospect, inevitable.

Nobody, it should be noted, is ever killed for refusing to perform an abortion or dispense birth control pills.

Some abortion defenders have suggested that it’s time for the abortion debate to end. That won’t happen. But pro-lifers must now vigorously root the merest suggestions of violence from their midst or be banished to the political fringes. And they can start by reining in the talk show blowhards on their side.

“If I could get my hands on Tiller — well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes,” Bill O’Reilly said on his radio show in 2006. “Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech.”

Abortion-opponents must be rigorously ensure their rhetoric doesn’t incite murder. Did O’Reilly’s comments cross that line? He certainly didn’t avoid it, so he deserves the criticism he receives. Those who encourage violence must feel the full weight of the law.

But abortion-rights defenders shouldn’t think they can or should try to silence the moral qualms of a great many Americans — including those who wrestle mightily with such qualms yet still support the pro-choice position.

The debate will be with us always. It must not become an actual war.

The death of George Tiller

I grew up and spent most of my adult life in Kansas. The shooting death of abortion Doctor George Tiller stuns me, but it doesn’t really surprise me, unfortunately. Tiller had been a signal feature of my home state’s political landscape for as long as I can remember — a person around whom political careers were sometimes made or broken — and I can only assume angry recriminations will be echoing in the Statehouse and at the polls for a little while to come.

I do not believe that one crazed gunman represents the whole of the pro-life movement — unlike Andrew Sullivan, I’m not tempted to pin this on Bill O’Reilly. But I also note that no doctor or pharmacist ever gets shot for refusing to perform an abortion or denying women access to birth control pills.

The trouble with Arlen Specter

The trouble with Arlen Specter, believe it or not, is not that he is Republican.

It’s not that that he’s pro-union or anti-union. It’s not that he’s pro-abortion or anti-abortion. It’s not that he’s a fiscal hawk or a big-spending lover of Big Government.

It’s that he’s all these things.

And the trouble with Arlen Specter’s wishy-washiness on all of the above issues is not that he is listening closely to the Will Of The People and thus following their wishy-washy lead. No, the problem is that Specter’s stance on important issues seems to flow from how much power other Republicans — in the Senate, or back home — will take away from him if he does what he wants.

That’s why he voted for the stimulus bill — but only after extracting cuts in a “half-a-loaf” solution that satisfied nobody but Specter.

That’s why, rather than stick to his pro-choice guns, he gained chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee by declaring he wouldn’t block President Bush’s pro-life judicial nominees.

And that’s why, facing a sudden likely primary challenge from Pat Toomey, Specter flip-flopped again: Instead of supporting the Employee Free Choice Act that smooths the path for union organizing, he is now an opponent.

What are Pennsylvania voters to think, really? If they send him back to the Senate next year, which Specter are they going to get?

I’m no fan of Pat Toomey and his Club for Growth ilk. But Pennsylvania voters might be best served with a Toomey primary victory in 2010. There’s be a cleaner ideological difference between Toomey and his Democratic opponent — thank God, not Chris Matthews — making the results of the election a little more easy to read.

All politicians are subject to party pressures and are liable to flip-flop under duress. With Specter, though, it’s become such a habit that there’s no way to be sure that he ever means what he says. Tomorrow, it’ll probably be something different.

Winners get to write history books, stem cell rules

I’ve noticed a peculiar argument coming from opponents of President Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on stem cell research. Larry Kudlow made it the other day at National Review, and this morning it appears in a Washington Post column by Michael Gerson.


There is a common thread running through President Obama’s pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone’s complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting “politics out of science” translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation.

The essence of the complaint, as I understand it, is that the Obama Administration isn’t just doing something that Gerson and Kudlow find objectionable — but that it’s somehow even more morally objectionable because taxpayer dollars are involved. Which is really a silly argument.

I’ll drag out the Iraq War analogy again. George W. Bush launched the invasion even though I and millions of Americans were opposed, often on moral grounds (in addition to national security grounds). By Gerson’s logic, Bush made me complicit in his pro-war agenda by using tax dollars to fund the invasion and occupation — and I should be even more cranky about the war as a result.

But I’m not. The essence of democracy is that the winners of elections* get to run the government more or less as they see fit. There are restrictions on those actions, of course, to protect the rights of people in political and other minorities, but there’s no right not to have your tax dollars spent only on stuff you like. That’s why elections really, really matter.

I noted in the comments the other day that Kudlow and Gerson have an option if they don’t want their taxes to go to stem cell research. It’s called “tax resistance.” Basically, you live in poverty in order to avoid giving your money to the government to use for purposes you find morally objectionable. Some Mennonites have adopted the practice in order to deprive the Defense Department of their funds. If Kudlow and Gerson are serious about their opposition to using tax dollars for stem cell research, they can take a vow of poverty. Or they can win the next election.

* I’m not going to fight the George W. Bush 2000 election battle here. Consider it acknowledged.

Abortion, war and the hypocrisy of CNBC’s Larry Kudlow

CNBC’s Larry Kudlow is probably best known for his unbending defense of free markets and low taxes, but today he wades — perhaps jumps, considering that he’s possibly a candidate for the Senate in Connecticut — into some sticky non-economic waters. His post at National Review’s The Corner is titled “As a Catholic I Oppose Obama’s Actions.” And he writes:

How can you destroy a life in order to save one? That’s a key question Pres. Obama is not answering as he aborts Pres. Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. We already have existing stem-cell lines, plus blood cells and skin cells. So why must we seek new stem-cell lines from human embryos?

And why is taxpayer money necessary for this? That means those of us who oppose embryonic stem-cell research — for ethical, moral, or religious reasons — must finance it. Why not leave all this to the private sector and private capital? That wouldn’t make me any happier from a moral standpoint. But at least I wouldn’t be paying for this research with my tax dollars.

So he did bring it back around to the free markets. That’s Kudlow for you.

Now let me tell you: I hate abortion politics. Hate ‘em. I completely understand why pro-life people think it’s murder. And I also completely understand why pro-choice folks see it as an issue of freedom over their bodies. The whole subject makes me queasy, I’d like to avoid taking sides and I’m probably dumb as hell to raise it here.

The standard paradox that gets raised in pointing out hypocrisy is that a venn diagram of pro-lifers and death penalty proponents would depict a substantial overlap between the two groups. (The opposite would be true of pro-choicers and death penalty opponents.) But there’s another, more stark paradox at work — and that is the overlap (and political alliance between) folks who are pro-life and hawkish advocates of the use of American military power.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, let me take you back to 2002. I give you Larry Kudlow, advocating for an invasion of Iraq. Because, well, it would be good for the stock market. (Kudlow always brings it back around to the free markets.)

Decisive shock therapy to revive the American spirit would surely come with a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Why not begin with a large-scale special-forces commando raid on the Iraqi oil fields? This will send a shot across Saddam’s bow; an electrifying signal to all terrorist nations. The message will be that the game is up. Surrender now or you will be crushed in a short while.

The shock therapy of decisive war will elevate the stock market by a couple-thousand points. We will know that our businesses will stay open, that our families will be safe, and that our future will be unlimited. The world will be righted in this life-and-death struggle to preserve our values and our civilization. But to do all this, we must act.

I’m not Catholic, so maybe this is an unfair cheap shot. But I want to ask Larry Kudlow, why did you not proclaim that “As a Catholic, I oppose President Bush’s invasion of Iraq?” After all, Popes John Paul and Benedict — whatever else you think of them — have pretty consistently opposed the war there.

But Kudlow thought the war was needed. A war that was certain to result in death and injury to innocent civilians — certain, because even when minimized these tragedies always accompany war — and that ended up being far worse in these regards than any initial supporter of the invasion would’ve suspected at the time. Why? To keep our businesses open. And our families safe. And our future unlimited. And Kudlow judged the benefit to be worth the cost.

When the subject turns to stem cell research, though, Kudlow asks a good and important — vital — question. Let’s repeat it here:

How can you destroy a life in order to save one?

For what it’s worth, I think the moral dimensions of stem cell research should be carefully weighed — but I also think that such research should proceed. I’ve also opposed the Iraq War since the beginning. So I’m not saying that I’ve attained a higher standard of moral rigor or consistency than Larry Kudlow. (Although I would argue that the killing of actual humans is morally worse than sacrificing a few cell clumps.) But I wonder, given the certainty of his statements, if Kudlow has considered the paradox. Or if he would even acknowledge it.

The politicization of abortion

There are some fronts on which I think Barack Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship are going to fail. And I think abortion is going to be one of those fronts. But he apparently doesn’t think so. Witness his statement upon rescinding the “Mexico City Policy,” and allowing U.S. aid to go to institutions that provide abortions or information about abortion:

It is time that we end the politicization of this issue. In the coming weeks, my Administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world.

But here’s the thing: There’s precious little common ground. Yes, Democrats and Republicans can work together to reduce the demand for abortions, but that only takes you so far. At the end of the day, abortion is either legal or it isn’t. And that leaves a substantial number of people on the losing side.

You can’t end the politicization of this issue, because we have politics for a good reason: To hash out difficult questions about the rules of society. It’s not always a zero-sum game, but in this case it probably is. I welcome the president’s efforts to focus on getting stuff done instead of getting entangled in partisan catfights. This is one area, though, where that approach probably won’t work.