As the presidential election approaches we will likely hear more and more political grandstanding that simplifies complex issues and attempts to force us into ideological categories. We are never encouraged to take complicated, nuanced positions, but simply to make decisions based on flat, black-and-white thinking that requires very little of us or of our political leaders.
One of the most recent examples of this oversimplification of politics and values is the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. Politicians, pundits, and citizens are taking up ideological positions on both sides of the issue; positions which do not require them to think about or explain the complexities of Planned Parenthood funding. Republicans (for the most part) are threatening to reject any budget that does not defund Planned Parenthood. Democrats (for the most part) are taking the position that they will not accept any budget that does not support Planned Parenthood.
Those who object to the funding of Planned Parenthood do so because they morally object to abortion, which Planned Parenthood provides. It is easy to take a stand either for or against Planned Parenthood. It is easy for politicians to rally support by drawing hard lines around the issue. If we want to be intellectually honest, though, we have to admit that the issue does not fit neatly into the polarization in which many people are happy to place it.
Planned Parenthood receives government funds in two ways: Medicaid and Title X, both programs which primarily serve low income individuals. These programs are already restricted from paying for abortions. Planned Parenthood says that only 3% of its activities are related to abortion. This means that “defunding” Planned Parenthood would make women’s health services (the vast majority of Planned Parenthood’s services) very difficult, or even impossible, for many low-income women.
Statistics on abortions also tell us that most women who have abortions do so for financial reasons. Women feel that they simply cannot afford to have a child. A woman who is barely making enough money to afford a place to live and food for herself is not choosing an abortion because she finds the idea of a child inconvenient. She is trapped by poverty. The services that this woman might receive for free at Planned Parenthood enable her to stay healthy. If that were to end, even more pressure would be placed on her.
This is rarely part of the discussion as Republicans beat the “defund” drum.
We also rarely hear the deep, heartfelt feelings of those who object to abortion. Pro-lifers are often characterized as religious zealots who insensitively want to impose their religious beliefs on others. If a person believes, though, that abortion is taking a life, how can anyone expect them to stay quiet. If an unformed fetus is indeed equivalent to the fully-formed adult human, then abortion has to be seen as a moral crisis. Even if we disagree with the stage at which society should assign personhood, we should have sympathy for the pro-life person who’s heart is broken when they think about abortion.
The issue of funding Planned Parenthood is not one where we should assign a clear delineation between good guys and bad guys. There are not white hats and black hats in this case, but people who genuinely want to do the right thing, but disagree about how to accomplish that right thing. There are no clear moral lines that we can stand behind. If Planned Parenthood were to be put out of business, as some would wish, young women would suffer and abortions might actually increase. Taking an ideological stand on this issue will not help the individuals who are most affected. We must do the hard work of thinking through all angles of the issues.
The case of Kim Davis, the clerk in Kentucky who has tried to stop same-sex marriage in her county, is another issue where battle lines have been drawn around moral ideologies. For some, Ms. Davis is a hero who has stood up for truth despite public pressure and jail-time. For others, Kim Davis is a villain who is using her position to illegally discriminate against people who have been historically marginalized. Taking either position can be a dangerous oversimplification.
Elevating Kim Davis’ actions as a heroic stand for morality and religious freedom actually risks that very freedom. Religious freedom means that no religious conviction is preferred by the government. When we demand that government offices uphold our beliefs, we are weakening the very freedom that allows us to hold those beliefs.
There is also danger in taking the stand against Ms. Davis’ actions. Demanding that she participate in activities that violate her closely held beliefs may also weaken religious freedom in America. Government offices are typically able to make adjustments for those who have conscientious objections. If one individual cannot participate in a task because of a religious objections, but another person in that office is able to complete the task just as effectively, rearranging those responsibilities should be the solution. If Kim Davis was unwilling to make this kind of adjustment, then she should resign her position. Even if we find Kim Davis’ beliefs objectionable, she does have the right to hold them, even if she holds public office. She does not have the right to impose those beliefs on the law.
Whether it is the issue of Planned Parenthood, Kim Davis, Syrian refugees, or Cecil the Lion, when we reduce these discussions to black and white we risk running over people and losing important nuances in our defense of ideology. We can also end up throwing our support to particular politicians without requiring them to work through the complexities of the issue and without requiring of ourselves that we think deeply and thoroughly. It is easy to take ideological stands, but it does not lead us to be better people or a better society.
Don’t be an ideologue. Don’t jump on the bandwagon. Don’t follow the crowd.