Last Friday, President Barack Obama gave a speech to Planned Parenthood in which he accused the group's opponents of trying to take away "a woman's right to make her own choices about her own health." He did this in stark contrast to his previous pledges to engage in civil debate.
Let me preface this discussion by saying that abortion has become the venue for some of the worst name-calling and caricature in the politics. That's truly unfortunate, because there's a profound debate to be had concerning whether a fetus or unborn child has the same rights as an adult, and how much of an obligation we have to aid and protect them.
Abortion involves more general moral questions: what sorts of things have rights? Animals? People who are irrevocably brain dead? How far does our obligation to help others extend? Must we donate money, blood, or even an extra kidney in order to respect the lives of others? These are difficult questions, and abortion combines them into a single, durable moral dilemma.
Which is why it's so disappointing that Obama criticized opponents of Planned Parenthood without ever using the word "abortion." That's what they oppose, but Obama made it sound like they don't want women to get health care at all. Opponents of abortion don't want their money going to fund a practice they believe is immoral.
Maybe abortion opponents are wrong to hold this position. Maybe the taxpayer dollars that go to Planned Parenthood are separated in such a way that no support goes directly or indirectly to abortion. But, even if they are wrong, do abortion opponents really want to keep women from getting screened for breast cancer? No, just like abortion rights advocates aren't supporters of infanticide.
Obama once claimed to oppose these sorts of caricatures. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he wrote about a pro-life doctor who had been offended by language on Obama's website describing pro-lifers as "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." Obama wrote:
I checked my website and found the offending words. They were not my own; my staff had posted them … this was standard boilerplate, designed to fire up the base. … Rereading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. … I had the language on my website changed … And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own — that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.
But now Obama is using exactly the "boilerplate" that he rejected as the work of an overzealous staffer. In his speech at Planned Parenthood, he derided those who treat Planned Parenthood as a "punching bag" as wanting "to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century … to roll back basic rights when it comes to women's health." He warned the audience to "check the calendar; you want to make sure you’re still living in 2013 … we've got to fight to protect a woman's right to make her own choices about her own health."
I don't doubt that some on the pro-life side will want to hit back and retaliate in kind. They'll use caricature and name-calling to misrepresent Obama's position — the pro-choice position — by saying that Obama wants to turn back the clock to when unwanted children were left to die of exposure, or something along those lines. That he wants to roll back basic rights when it comes to infants, to enact policies more suited to ancient times. This will just provoke more name-calling back and forth.
It's a shame: in his book, Obama didn't just talk about civility in the abstract. He gave a concrete example of how things go wrong and how they can be improved, even on the most hot button of issues. But he's clearly discarded the moral of that anecdote in favor of demonizing his opponents in the usual fashion. And, predictably, they're demonizing him right back.
This is too often the way our political debates are conducted: you try to win an argument by making your opponent out to be so horrible — they're Nazis, they hate women, they hate infants — that you, by comparison, appear saintly. You set up a straw man and knock them over. Occasionally, you make some comments lamenting how much name-calling there is in politics, but you quickly resort to exactly the behavior that you've just denounced.
We need better leadership than this when it comes to abortion and political debates in general. Which means we need to start voting for better leaders, leaders who dignify the causes we believe in by not demonizing those who disagree with us.