Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Super Bowl and the Contest of Life

Sunday’s Super Bowl is not just a contest between two football teams. This year, there is an undercard, featuring a clash of beliefs about life and choice.

Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the University of Florida, is set to appear in a pro-life commercial during the game, along with his mother, Pam. The ad tells the story of Pam’s difficult pregnancy, in which she contracted an infection and was advised to abort Tim. Pro-choice activists claim that the ad, paid for by the Christian group Focus on the Family, could lead to violence and have been pressuring CBS to keep it off the air. The broadcaster has said the commercial will be shown, but the imbroglio begs the question: Can the abortion fight ever be resolved?

In Canada and the United States, folks are fond of saying the issue of abortion is “settled,” pointing to rulings by each country’s Supreme Court, in 1988 and 1973, respectively. But the decades of turbulence over this matter have taught us that something so emotional and elemental is not “settled” by a few lawyers.

Other news from recent days proves the point. In Kansas, the trial of the man accused of killing late-term abortion provider George Tiller began on January 22, the 37th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling (Scott Roeder was convicted of Tiller’s murder one week later). At the same time, a new Marist poll shows a majority of Americans, and nearly 6 in 10 young adults, see abortion as morally wrong.

Meanwhile in this country, a recent Angus Reid poll finds, “Only one-in-five Canadians (20%) are aware of the current status-quo of abortion in Canada: a woman can have an abortion at any time during her pregnancy, with no restrictions whatsoever.” In addition, “Respondents are almost evenly divided on whether the health care system should fund abortions whenever they are requested.”

To be sure, whenever the topic of abortion is broached, people become angry almost at once. But before everyone gets their sticks up (to expand the sporting analogy), let’s suppose for a moment that there is, in fact, common ground on this issue. One finding of the Reid poll gives us a starting point:

"A large majority of Canadians (79%) would back an initiative in their own province that would make it mandatory for health care workers to offer information to pregnant women about alternatives to abortion."

It is often said that it is more effective to change hearts than to change legislation. In this case, while the finding speaks of a “mandatory” initiative, the underlying sentiment may, in fact, be most helpful. To wit, while abortion may never again be illegal, it is broadly undesirable.

Common parlance bears this out. Politicians who believe abortion should be available any time, for any reason, rarely speak in plain terms. They talk of “choice” and “reproductive freedom” and “women’s rights.” Indeed, it would take a hard person to say that abortion, as an act, is a good thing. If we can agree on that, it means most of our hearts are in the same place.

So, what if we agreed that, as long as public money subsidizes abortion, an equal or greater amount should go toward a mechanism to find homes for unwanted babies? If you really wanted to be controversial, you could add a bit about preventing unplanned pregnancies in the first place – that is, letting young people know that abstinence isn’t only about Bible-thumping and promise bracelets – but that might be too big a leap right away. For now, let’s just suppose that citizens made it a priority that every little person gets a chance at life and no young woman goes through the misery of abortion.

This is less a function of writing laws than of changing priorities. Nothing gets banned in this scenario, but possibilities are opened. If we shift our default response to an unwanted pregnancy from contemplating abortion to offering support, great things could happen.

Add incentives for religious and private-sector organizations to provide money and means for young mothers who want to raise their babies themselves, and we’re starting to get somewhere. Again, if we stipulate that abortion itself is a tragic act, wouldn’t a robust and ubiquitous network of alternatives be helpful? When you offer people good choices, bad laws become irrelevant.

The hardship of anyone contemplating an abortion is something that cannot be denied. Pam Tebow knew this fear all too well. And the perspective from which the decision is undertaken makes all the difference.

Ironically, one of the world’s foremost experts on death, the late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, provides a quotation applicable to this fundamental question of life: “Mankind's greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.”

Folks can always choose, but with love and support, it becomes easier to choose wisely. What a wonderful thing that would be for women and families. And, not for nothing, millions of little people would get a chance at life, with all the choices it has to offer.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.