Advertisements

The Abortion Debate Resumes

Even after all the decades since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court the abortion debate still rages, but we’ve noticed in recent years that it rarely shows up on the front pages of the newspapers or the top of the cable and network news broadcasts. The upcoming battle over the appointment and confirmation of a replacement for retiring Supreme Justice Anthony Kennedy is bringing the long-simmering battle back to the figurative front-burner of American politics, however, and we’re already dreading what will ensue.
Here in our usually placid hometown of Wichita, Kansas, the abortion debate has always been especially acrimonious. The very interesting mother of a very interesting high school friend of ours was picketing on the sidewalks outside a local Wesleyan hospital even before the Roe v. Wade decision was passed, and the abortion debate has played an outsized role in local and state politics ever since.
Although Wichita and Kansas are unusually church-going and conservative places by modern secular standards, the state somehow wound up with the most permissive abortion laws outside of China and its one-child policy, and the city was long home to one of less than a handful of doctors in the entire world willing to perform the third-trimester abortions that even the Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict, which our many years of Republican legislatures and Republican governors somehow never got around to restricting. The massive gulf between public opinion and public policy enflamed passions on both sides even more than in the rest of the country, and things got unpleasantly heated around here.
Back in ’91 the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue came to town for a “Summer of Mercy” that involved physically blocking access to the city’s three abortion clinics, all owned by the doctor who performed those internationally controversial third-trimester abortions, and we still remember it as the hottest summer ever around here, notwithstanding the higher temperatures of other summers. Hundreds of church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens willingly went to jail the cause, hundreds of other church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens stopped talking to their neighbors and longtime friends as a result, and we know of at least one marriage because of all the acrimony, and countless Wichitans with no strong feelings about abortion were inconvenienced by the traffic tie-ups next to the main clinic along the crucial Kellogg Avenue freeway on their way home from work.
We were reporting for the local newspaper at the time, which still had a wide readership at the time, and despite our best efforts to be objective and factual about what was going on the sidewalks of Wichita we and our equally objective and factual colleagues wound up incurring the wrath of people on both sides of the debate. Journalists from around the country and the entire world wound up sharing a beer with us at a tavern next door do the clinic on Central Avenue, as the protests brought unexpected attention to Wichita from pretty much everywhere, and they all had the same complaints about how their determinedly objective and factual accounts were received.
In the end, though, Operation Rescue’s radical stand against abortion and its civil disobedience tactics got the worst of it both here and around the world. The most enthusiastic supporters of abortion rights were predictably outraged, the more mainstream anti-abortion groups distanced themselves from Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics, and Congress wound up passing and President Bill Clinton wound up signing some tough laws about access to abortion clinics that those church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright Wichitans did not dare defy. Despite Republican legislatures and Republican governors, that internationally controversial Wichita abortionist continued to perform third-trimester abortions next to Kellogg Avenue in Wichita.
The anti-abortion forces did succeed in making opposition to the practice a litmus test for any Republican candidate seeking any sort of office, no matter how he strident he might be about a tax cuts or deregulation or any other Republican position, but despite Republican majorities in the legislature and Republican governors they somehow never did succeed in imposing the constitutionally permissible ban on third-trimester abortions. That matter was instead settled when a radicalized anti-abortion activist came down from Kansas City and shot Dr. George Tiller in the head during a worship service on a sunny Sunday morning in ’09 at a lovely Lutheran church way over on East 13th Street.
All of the mainstream anti-abortion groups denounced the assassination, and all of the world press we met while covering the trial on a freelance basis seemed slightly disappointed that a church-going and conservative Wichita jury found the assassin guilty after an hour’s deliberation after a trial where the defendant freely admitted his guilt, and since then there have been no third-trimester abortions performed in Wichita. State law somehow still allows any doctor to do so, but no one has dared to do so, and since then Kansas has been more involved in debates about tax cuts and voting regulations and trade policies and other desultory matters.
Since then a majority of Ireland has voted to repeal that very Catholic country’s strict anti-abortion laws, and Mississippi and a couple of other proudly Protestant southern states have passed restrictive anti-abortion laws that press against the limits of the Roe v. Wade decision, but here and around the world the the abortion debate has gotten less ink and airtime than those desultory debates about tax rates and trade policies and the “Russia thing” and the latest outages about President Donald Trump and all the rest of it. As maddening as it all is, we preferred it to the abortion debate.
Justice Kennedy’s retirement and Trump’s power to appoint his replacement brings all the abortion issue acrimony back to the front burner of American politics, though, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Back when Trump was a Democrat he was staunchly in favor of abortion rights, even unto that third trimester, and our guess is that the first abortion bills that passed Trump’s desk were quickly paid, but ever since he decided to run for president as a Republican he’s been even more stridently anti-abortion than even the mainstream anti-abortion groups, and by now one side is hopeful and the other side is fearful that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The contrarian Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is somehow a conservative hero for defending Trump in the “Russia thing,” but he’s worried that five-to-four Trump majority on the Supreme Court will result in an opinion banning all abortions on the grounds of a constitutional right to life at the moment of conception, and the better bet is that Trump’s pick will result in all 50 states arguing about abortion without any constitutional restraints.
We don’t see that ending well for anybody, and especially the Republican party. To this day we’re too objective and factual to declare any moral stand on the abortion issue, although we’re still guilt-ridden about the third-trimester abortions of viable fetuses that occurred in our hometown and the cold-blooded  murder of the doctor who performed them, but we can’t see how it’s a winning play for the proudly adulterous Trump or his family values Republican party. Our long and desultory experience of the abortion debate around here tells us that nobody is ever persuaded by any argument the other side might make, that the debate is inevitably murderous no matter which way you look at it, and in the end most of America is just hoping for an easy drive home from work.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Doing the Continental

Everyone who has ventured on a European trip has some embarrassing story to tell about it, but President Barack Obama’s recent continental tour could top them all. The president’s recent trip to Ireland and Germany featured enough gaffes, big and small, to fill two or three sequels to “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
One of Obama’s smaller gaffes was repeatedly mistaking United Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne for rhythm and blues singer Jeffrey Osborne. The confusion prompted much hilarity among the British press, which seems to believe that the old school rhythm and bluesman would do a better job of managing England’s red-ink-soaked finances than the Oxford-educated bureaucrat, but George Osborne politely laughed it off. Obama’s mistake was also laughed off by the American press, which would likely have been more appalled had a Republican president made the same error, and eventually it will be offered as proof of the president’s up-to-date tastes in music. Had he been more of a heavy metal enthusiast Obama might have called the Chancellor “Ozzy,” arguably a more insulting error, but at least he would have been getting the nationality right.
A more significant and deliberate error occurred when Obama lectured an Irish audience that Catholic schools are “divisive.” The remark offended many Catholics throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, and was widely viewed as further proof of Obama’s animus toward religion. Although we are quite Protestant by temperament as well as theological conviction, we also found the claim offensive as well as bizarre. The Catholic church has been in the education business for many centuries and has become quite good at it, judging by the Catholic-educated people we know, and we’ve not noticed any divisive effects. Unless Obama was speaking for the benefit of pubic school teachers’ union members back home, or is still miffed by the church’s obstinate rejection of his views on contraception, or somehow prefers the Islamic madrassas of his own youth, we can not imagine why he should insult Catholic schools while in a majority-Catholic country.
A couple thousand die-hard fans still showed up to cheer Obama while he was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but like a fading rock star whose biggest hits are in the past he found that at every stop the crowds were conspicuously smaller than on past tours. When he returned to Berlin, where a Woodstock-sized throng of adorers were enrapt by his oratory back in the heady days of ’08, Obama found himself speaking behind a bullet-proof glass wall to a modest 4,500 or so polite listeners. He pulled out all the tried-and-true crowd-pleasers from his repertoire, reaching all the way back to the ‘80s for some nuclear disarmament rhetoric, but the speech was universally panned by a suddenly disgruntled European press and back home the media cheerleader Chris Matthews was reduced to blaming the poor reaction on the sun glaring too harshly on the presidential teleprompter.
All of which is embarrassing, but largely inconsequential. The more significant problem was that the European political leadership seemed just as unimpressed, and as a result Obama failed to achieve much of anything but another round of golf. Germany’s Angela Merkel publicly scolded the president about his National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering techniques, an issue of personal interest to a woman who grew up in East Germany under Stasi’s constant surveillance, and we expect that in private she also had a few things to say about his economic policies. Russia Vladimir Putin offered no concessions regarding the Syrian civil war, icily explaining to the press that “Our views do not coincide,” and his public encounters with the president demonstrated that Russo-American relations have not been reset to any positive effect.
The trip was bad enough that Obama should be glad to get back to the United States, where the stock market is crashing, scandals are mounting, the Obamacare train is wrecking, but a restful week of vacation in Martha’s Vineyard awaits. All the fading rock stars vacation there, and they could have a good time swapping stories about their European tours.

— Bud Norman