We Still Need Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The recent shutdown of the federal government is almost exclusively the focus of all public policy debate at the expense of other important issues that are not explicitly related to the passage of a budget. As the end of this legislative session nears, Dr. Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, reminds Catholics of the moral and political necessity of continuing to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform:

Bro-choice: When Casual Sex Matters More Than Human Life

The pro-choice community argues that in advocating for abortion rights, it is protecting the dignity of women by preserving a key right that allows women to flourish.  Their “bro-choice” allies seem to be making a different argument.

The term “bro-choice” has recently been coined in an attempt to persuade men that protecting abortion rights is in their best interests, as well as the interests of the women in their lives. “Bro-choice” advocates call for men to defend the abortion rights of their sexual partners.  Why? A key motive appears to be ensuring that their own sex lives will not be hindered by the threat of an unplanned pregnancy that could not be legally terminated.  Abortion on demand means more casual sex without consequences.

This “bro-choice” position reveals once again that being “pro-choice” does not mean being pro-women.  These bros’ understanding of abortion as a legitimate form of birth control does not align with the mentality of most women, even supporters of legalized abortion who do not view abortion as an unqualified good.

This mentality objectifies women, treating them as sex objects.  It lets bros live in a fantasy world where there are no consequences for an infinite number of random hookups, where women need not be thought of as persons at all.  And the foundation of this lifestyle is the ability to kill their own children.

Especially concerning is the potential impact this attitude could have on the ability of women to choose life—the freedom of women to carry their children to term.  Women could experience undue pressure from their partners to undergo abortions and could be denied support from their “bro-choice” partners, making it difficult to carry their children to term.  Their “bro-choice” partners might argue that they don’t have any responsibilities, given the implicit bargain they believe they are making in supporting the pro-choice cause.

Ultimately, women’s choices would be narrowed and they would be viewed from a more misogynistic viewpoint.  This hardly seems like the best approach to promoting the flourishing of women.

Pro-lifers Must Support Those with Disabilities

We are all called to recognize the dignity and worth of every single person.  Whether it is as members of a community of faith or simply as members of the societies in which we live, we are called to respect all human life.  This requires a particular concern for the most vulnerable, those most exposed to potential indifference and exploitation. Hubert Humphrey spoke of the moral test of government, defining it as “how that government treats those in the dawn of life, children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of the life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Humphrey was describing a mindset that parallels a consistent life or “whole life” ethic, one that advocates for the protection of all of society’s most vulnerable members.

If we are to reflect on one particular aspect of this moral test of government, the respect for, and protection of, the disabled, we must conclude thus far as a society we have fallen short.  And for many pro-lifers, there has been a fundamental failure to work for the dignity and human flourishing of those with disabilities.  This must end.  We can only truly defend life if we defend all of the most vulnerable.

The passage of legislation in the 1970s, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited institutions that discriminated against disabled individuals from receiving federal funding, and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established basic rights for children with disabilities in their educational environments, were among the first steps taken to ensure the protection of disabled Americans.  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (with amendments passed in 2008), which prohibits the discrimination of the disabled in employment, education, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications, while crucial and certainly laudable, has not been enough.  Greater advocacy on the behalf of the disabled, especially the severely disabled, is still desperately needed.

In the abstract, of course we view those who are disabled as deserving of assistance and equally worthy of living quality lives.  However, we have been unable to back up those sentiments with real concrete action, particularly when it involves real economic costs.  We have not devoted the necessary time, energy and resources to advocate for and implement policies which provide care for the disabled and allow those living with intellectual and physical disabilities to realize their potential and enjoy a quality of life that is compatible with their inherent human dignity and worth.

Discrimination against those with disabilities often begins in the womb.  New technology in the medical field has helped to save countless young lives, but it has also allowed for increased discrimination against the disabled through the termination of their young lives.  But the injustice extends beyond abortion.

We have not done enough to implement policies that support the disabled and their caretakers, legislation that would recognize their human dignity and enhance their quality of life.  This is an indication that as a society, while we might voice our belief in helping those who need assistance, in reality, we view them as lesser; we treat them as though they are less deserving of opportunity, less deserving of an adequate quality of life.  If we are not willing to make that admission, we will not make the changes that are necessary.  We must recognize that if we are advocates for life–all life–care for the disabled is our responsibility and must be a part of our mission.

For those of us who are pro-life, it is crucial that we incorporate the needs of  intellectually and physically disabled people into our legislative platform and work to ensure that our disabled brothers and sisters have access to education and employment opportunities, to health care that meets their unique needs and to other services that will ensure their quality of life and allow them to reach their full potential as persons.

True respect for life is the protection of that life from the moment of conception until natural death and the respect for human dignity at every stage of life in between.  Refusing to see the intellectually and physically disabled as the “other” and insisting in our advocacy that they be afforded the same quality of life that the rest of us enjoy is the only way to maintain a consistent life ethic and to deserve the “pro-life” label.

Pro-life Democrats at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life

This weekend at the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life at Georgetown University, Millennial editor Robert Christian and I represented Democrats for Life of America and presented on the pro-life movement within the Democratic Party.  It may have largely been due to the plain curiosity that such a movement actually exists (“Isn’t Pro-life Democrat something of an oxymoron?”) or perhaps there was genuine interest in what such a movement could do for the pro-life cause and the future of the Democratic Party.  Either way, we gave two presentations to full, engaged classrooms.

The fact is 21 million Democrats identify as pro-life, which amounts to one third of the Democratic Party.  While pro-life Democrats make up a significant bloc in the party, their numbers are clearly not reflected in the national platform.  The Democratic Party’s platform opposes any effort to undermine or weaken a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion regardless of her ability to pay.  Yet various polls have shown that a majority of Democrats favor reducing the abortion rate, parental consent laws, 24-hour waiting periods, informed consent laws, and a ban on partial-birth abortions.

Historically, the Democratic Party has met what Hubert Humphrey referred to as the “moral test of government.”   As a party, through a number of landmark policy initiatives, Democrats have ensured the protection of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens: the poor, the sick, the disabled, children and the elderly.  However, particularly since the 1980s, Democrats have neglected to extend such protections to arguably the most vulnerable, the unborn.  Not only has the party chosen to not include protection of the unborn in its platform, it has also failed to remain inclusive to Democrats who do not share the party elite’s position on abortion, causing many Democrats to leave the party.

Not only has their own party ostracized them, pro-life Democrats seeking elected office have not been embraced by the pro-life movement in the United States. Rather than endorsing pro-life Democrats, pro-life groups, in order to promote other aspects of the Republican agenda, have instead consistently chosen to back Republicans with their endorsements and their sizeable financial contributions.

This weekend, at the conference, Robert and I sought to emphasize the importance of a bipartisan effort in the pro-life movement.  Such an effort would demand that pro-life groups who identify themselves as non-partisan and claim the protection of the unborn as their sole purpose refrain from pursuing other political agendas.  A bipartisan effort would have both moral and pragmatic implications.  It would revolve around the strategy of seeking to restrict access to abortion, while simultaneously working to provide pregnant women with the necessary support they need to carry their children to term.  And the assistance would not end at birth.  Furthermore, we argued that it is necessary to address the circumstances that cause many women to have abortions.  Eradicating poverty and increasing access to quality, affordable healthcare, good education, and safe and clean living environments are not only morally demanded policies for those who believe in the dignity and worth of the human person, but they will also bring about a reduction in unplanned pregnancies and reduce the likelihood that women will feel as though they have no other choice but to have an abortion.

Once again, it was very encouraging to see that the audience at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life was engaged and interested in the case that we were trying to make.  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, particularly on the point that being pro-life needs to mean more than simply supporting restrictions on access to abortion.   And most seemed to agree that a strong pro-life bloc within the Democratic Party coupled with a strong bipartisan effort in the pro-life movement is the only way to effectively save the lives of the unborn and improve the lives of women and their families.

Redefining the War on Women: The International Front

Every day millions of women and girls around the world are subjected to unspeakable cruelties and deprived of basic human rights.  They are stripped of their basic human dignity and denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential.  These atrocities are largely ignored by the communities and countries in which they take place, and are too often ignored by the global community.  In October, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women and Girls Worldwide, a documentary produced by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn, premiered in the United States.  The documentary followed the 2009 release of their New York Times best-selling book of the same title. The title refers to the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” meaning that families, communities and nations cannot reach their potential if women are not treated as equals and are not given the opportunity to thrive.  Through the tremendous efforts of Kristof and Wudunn, the book and the subsequent documentary have launched a movement to raise awareness about the oppression faced by women and girls around the globe and inspire action to eradicate violence against women in an effort to bring them out from the margins of societies that oppress them.

Contributors to the documentary rightly describe ending the global oppression of women as the unfinished business of the 21st century.  Around the globe, many women are subjected to lives of poverty, have little if any access to adequate healthcare, are denied any form of education and are completely disenfranchised economically. Many cultures accept domestic violence as a norm, tolerate rape as unfortunate but forgivable, permit the genital mutilation of young girls as a religious custom and view the sale of girls and women to brothels as an acceptable capitalist venture.

Half the Sky takes viewers into slums, villages and homes around the world to expose the horrific oppression faced by millions of women and girls.  Kristof travelled to Sierra Leone to shed light on the rampant gender-based violence that takes place in the previously war-torn country.  In Sierra Leone, rape is often accepted as a part of reality and devirginization remains a source of pride for men.  Women and girls who are victims of rape meanwhile are shamed and often disowned by their families.  As the documentary explains, while the action of rape is seen as unfortunate but forgivable, being raped is considered a sin.  Thus, due to the risk of being shamed and poor police investigations, not even one percent of the 10,000 cases of reported rape have resulted in a conviction.

Half the Sky’s exploration of Cambodia revealed a sex trafficking industry that views girls as expendable.   Young girls are stripped of their dignity as they are forced into prostitution. In addition to being forced to accept clients for sex, girls sold into Cambodia’s sex trade are often severely beaten (sometimes to death), subjected to forced abortions and are rejected by the families who sold them.

In Vietnam, the society’s preference for male children has excluded many women from the educational system and has denied them access to participation in the economy, subjecting them to lives of poverty and keeping them dependent on abusive husbands.

In Somaliland, women do not have the right to access a health care professional.  Since women are viewed as expendable, providing women with health care is viewed as a waste of resources.  Somaliland is therefore an extremely dangerous place to get pregnant.  Women who give birth in Somaliland have a one-in-twelve chance of dying during childbirth.  Pregnant women are often too young to safely carry babies, midwives are not adequately trained, and women have no access to prenatal care. Babies are often delivered in unsanitary conditions where the risk for infection and complications is extremely high.  The practice of female genital mutilation is the main cause of pregnancy complications.  Three million girls around the age of seven or eight are “cut” due to a perverse tradition.  The result of the mutilation makes childbirth extremely dangerous, yet the practice continues in the name of tradition.

The documentary then moves to India, where more women and girls are trafficked than in any other place in the world.  India’s caste system has fostered a tradition of intergenerational poverty, in which young girls from society’s lowest castes are essentially destined to lives of prostitution, often sold to brothels between the ages of nine and thirteen.  Even more so than in other countries, prostitutes in India are considered disposable and are often killed by their owners.

Each story in the documentary, however, highlights the tremendous efforts being made by individuals to alter backward traditions that accept violence and cruelty and perpetuate oppression. These individuals often work to provide educational and economic opportunities for young girls and women so that they might escape what is in many cases their death sentences and create better lives for themselves and their children.  In Sierra Leone, Amie Kandeh runs the Rainbo Center which provides counseling for rape victims and works with local law enforcement to see perpetrators arrested and prosecuted.  In Cambodia, Somaly Mam, a former child prostitute operates a rehabilitation center for young girls rescued from brothels.  In Vietnam, John Wood operates Room to Read, a school that works to promote literacy for children and creates equal educational opportunities for young girls.  In Somaliland, Edna Adan founded the Friends of Edna hospital, which provides quality care for expectant mothers and their babies as well as trains midwives to provide care and educate their communities.  And in India, Urmi Basu founded New Light, which is a shelter that protects and educates young girls who are at risk in the red light district in Kolkata, India.

Finally, in Nairobi, Kristof highlights the work of emerging micro-financiers that provide loans to women, enabling them to start their own businesses.  Women who benefit from such loans often become the main breadwinners in their households, giving them economic independence and making it less likely that they will be subjected to physical abuse from their husbands.

The atrocities committed against women and girls around the world are horrific and unimaginable to many of us.  They are perpetuated by the realities of extreme poverty and attitudes deeply rooted in traditions that suggest that women and girls are less valuable than men, that their purpose is to serve men and as such that they are ultimately expendable.  If change is to be realized, there must be a fundamental shift in the way these societies view and value women and girls.

However, just as there must be a fundamental shift in the attitudes these communities have about women and girls, there must be a shift in our own attitudes.  Yes, of course, we as Americans and as people of faith clearly consider the gross human rights abuses inflicted upon women and girls around the world as evil and immoral. But whether it is due to the fact that we lack true awareness, that distance has made us indifferent, that we have adopted some idea of cultural relativism or that we feel that the challenges are so widespread and the problems are so deep that our actions and our support cannot possibly make a difference, we must change our relative inaction.  If we are to claim that we recognize the human dignity of all people, we must acknowledge, as Kristof says, that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. No child in the world is safe unless all children are safe, and the injustice of these realities has to arouse anger and move us to action.

Redefining the War on Women

Throughout the election season and as the nation prepares for a new Congress to be sworn into office this January, the discussion of a “war on women” has received considerable attention.  But for all the challenges women face in today’s society, the broad notion of a “war on women” has been narrowly focused on matters relating to women’s reproductive issues.  While issues ranging from contraception to abortion are very significant and affect millions of women, the debate should not be limited to these issues alone.

In the United States, women make up over half of the population, yet they are still treated as a special interest group with limited interests and power.  Matters related to women in the workplace, women living in poverty and women who are victims of domestic violence are not discussed with much regularity and these issues are certainly not included in any reference to a war on women.

Just a few months ago, in a presidential debate, the Republican nominee for President, referenced the “binders full of women” he studied upon his election as Governor, in order to find qualified women in Massachusetts to work in his administration.  While Mitt Romney’s somewhat peculiar choice of words was widely parodied, there’s a larger issue to be examined.  The Governor of Massachusetts, home to some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities, in which women make up the majority of the students, seemed to be under the impression that qualified women that could make meaningful contributions to his administration were a rarity.   Too often it seems as though women appointed to such political positions are hired to appease women as an interest group, not necessarily because it is recognized that a woman could be the most qualified and best person for the job.

The 2010 Census revealed that poverty rates among women have grown at a faster rate than among men.   Approximately 17 million women live in poverty compared to 12.6 million men, and twice as many women over the age of 65 live in poverty.  The numbers are even more dire for minority women, with approximately 25% of Hispanic and African American women finding themselves living below the poverty line.  The fact that there exists a prominent wage gap in the United States, with women only earning approximately 77.5 cents to every dollar that men earn, is a clear instance of gender inequality. With 40% of women acting as the primary breadwinners for their families, closing the gap is not simply a matter of achieving equality for women but is also a broader matter of economic justice, an urgent issue for many women who rely on those wages to meet their basic needs and those of their families.

Finally, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act remains in question, with conservatives refusing to yield on certain aspects of the bill relating to homosexuals, American Indians and illegal immigrants.  The Act provides for a number of services, including legal aid to victims of violence.  Every year more than a thousand women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.  The Violence Against Women Act has been hailed as one of the most effective pieces of legislation to combat this kind of domestic violence, yet its reauthorization is being stymied by those who seek to advance a narrow political agenda related to homosexuals or illegal immigrants and those who still feel federal legislation that addresses violence in the home overreaches.

It is clear that women face inequality in many aspects of life, even to the extent that it could be argued that there is a war on women.  However, as the debate stands, it has been limited to a discussion of women’s reproductive issues and ignores equally important issues such as women’s opportunities for advancement in the work place, equality in pay so women have the capacity to financially take care of themselves and their families, and ensuring access to educational and legal tools that enhance their ability to overcome circumstances of domestic violence.  It is crucial that these issues begin to evoke the same kind of passion that accompanies discussions related to reproductive issues and become part of a serious national conversation.


Ending the Era of Bitter, Unproductive Partisanship

Last week, families all around the country gathered to break bread, give thanks and inevitably to share their thoughts in some awkward political discussions. The family Thanksgiving dinner table has always seemed to capture the political dynamic that exists in our country as a whole.  People who largely agree on how to raise children or where to go to church often nevertheless hold divergent viewpoints on political issues from the economy to healthcare to immigration.  This Thanksgiving closely followed the conclusion of a long and contentious election season that revealed the striking divide that exists among Americans when it comes to these issues.  President Obama’s reelection seems to have left 51% of the guests to Thanksgiving dinner optimistic about the next four years and 47% disappointed and some even distraught.

Following the election, there has been much discussion about the nation coming together in order to address the important business of our day, because, after all, as Americans, there is far more that brings us together than divides us.  But even as Grandma attempts to ease tensions by bringing out her fabulous pumpkin pie as Uncle Joe begins quoting (or maybe misquoting) the Affordable Care Act, the elephant in the room remains. Despite the talk of coming together and bipartisan efforts, our country is growing increasingly divided when it comes to confronting the immense challenges that we face.  So the question then becomes why the sharp division?  Why are half of Americans optimistic about the country’s future and why does the other half feel that the country is continuing down a fast track of decline?

Why is it that all Americans want to see unemployment rates go down, would like access to quality, affordable health care and hope to see our nation and those who defend it kept from harm, yet there remains such a deep, profound divide over how to best achieve those goals?   The exchange of opposing ideas, engaged in by our elected leaders, can lead to the creation of effective public policy that makes a positive, significant difference in people’s lives, but when the debate about the substance of those policies has become partisan to the point of complete gridlock, when the use of the word ‘compromise’ is viewed as the equivalent of waving a white flag of surrender, and when policy is attacked merely because the other party produced it, a serious evaluation about how our nation’s business is being conducted is in order.

Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner, have indicated very limited willingness to yield on the issue of increasing tax revenues.  Insisting that any tax increases, even on the wealthiest of Americans, will have damaging consequences for all, is a baseless and irresponsible claim, designed to incite fear, derail the Obama administration and further divide the American people.

In addition, Republicans who supported the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq are now loudly criticizing the drone strikes ordered by President Obama.  While it is crucial that Congress checks the power of the executive branch, especially in matters of war and national security, based on their unwavering support for President Bush’s unilateral actions, their opposition to the President’s foreign policy can only seem as politically motivated and tainted by partisanship.

Rallying the nation to confront the challenges that lie ahead is the responsibility of our elected leaders and in recent years they have simply paid lip service to pragmatism and compromise and continued to focus on political point scoring.  For Congressional Republicans, in particular, implementing legislation upon which the nation depends has become secondary in importance to derailing Obama’s presidency.

However, just as families can come together for Thanksgiving despite the political differences that we have, so too can our political leaders, because in reality the values that we have in common are much stronger than the political differences that divide us.  Our political leaders could take a hint from grandma and try to bring some pumpkin pie to the table.  It is time for them to refocus their rhetoric to actively encourage the American people to come together, find some common ground and end this era of bitter, unproductive partisanship.