April
15th 2008
A front-row seat at the “Compassion Forum”

Posted under: American history, Gender, women's history

John Fea, an Associate Professor of History at Messiah College, has an interesting overview of the “Compassion Forum” held there on Sunday night at Religion in American History, a group blog to which he is a contributor.  (Fea’s book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home:  Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America is hot off of presses.)  He’s got some interesting observations, especially about the shallowness of the news media generally (and John Meacham in particular!  What a shallow jerk–it’s good to know that Historiann is not the only one unimpressed with his so-called erudition on the subject of, well, religion in American history.)  Fea writes, “Meacham had a particular fascination with asking strange and quirky questions and then chuckling like a giddy little kid who just stumped his fourth grade teacher.”

Bottom line for Fea:  “When faith and policy questions were addressed, Obama seemed to offer insights that were deeper and more theologically informed than Hillary. Clinton at times seemed to ramble on endlessly without making any real point.”  However, he admits that the college kids crowd seemed very pro-Obama, and writes that “it is hard not to get caught up in the traveling rock star spectacle that is the Obama campaign. The guy has charisma.”  Nevertheless, he notes that “[t]here were also many students who were disappointed with the candidates’ pro-choice answers to questions about abortion. This issue is still very important, even to younger evangelicals who are tired of the culture wars.”

I don’t question Fea’s assertion that anti-choice politics are still important to his students, even as they’re apparently energized by the appearance of pro-choice Democrats on their campus, and even as many of them are apparently excited in particular about Obama’s candidacy.  But, I wonder if overturning Roe v. Wade is also something that evangelical women in their 20s support more than women in their 30s or 40s, who may have had unwanted or complicated pregnancies and either sought an elective abortion or had to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons.  Just as many younger women today don’t identify themselves as feminists because they’re confident (up to age 28 or so) that feminism is unnecessary because of its victories, it may be easier for younger women to believe that abortion is uncomplicated and only about fetal death.  Women in their 30s and 40s tend to have more complicated lives–and thus, the decision to get an abortion is usually done in a context that considers the living child or children they have already, their health and future fertility, the prognosis of the fetus, and the effects of continuing with a complicated, dangerous, and/or futile pregnancy on their families as a whole.

Before she moved out of state, one of Historiann’s best friends here was a woman who performed abortions at one of the few places in this state that provide abortions.  It was a revelation to me to learn that, in her estimation, about one-third of her patients had recorded moral or religious objections to the procedure they were seeking.  (Contrary to anti-choice propaganda, abortion clinics put patients through extensive counseling to ensure that an abortion is indeed what they want.)  So, it’s clear that evangelical women and Catholic women are seeking out and getting abortions–even though they still believe abortion is wrong–and that has got to have an effect on the way they view abortion politics.  If not–if they and their husbands or partners return to their parishes and megachurches and take up the banner against abortion–that’s got to be the most cowardly and morally offensive position:  safe and legal abortions for me, but not for thee. 

10 Comments »

10 Responses to “A front-row seat at the “Compassion Forum””

  1. ej on 15 Apr 2008 at 8:51 am #

    I also wonder if these younger women, who have never been pregnant, have considered that having an abortion may not just involve an unwanted pregnancy, but may become an issue in a wanted pregnancy that proves extremely problematic. I have to think that with all our advances in medical technology, the ability to diagnose problems with a fetus very early on will present women with difficult choices that they may not anticipate yet. I’m sure that they’ll want to have the option of terminating a pregnancy, which they may not consider the same as abortion. Yet overturn Roe v. Wade, and these options may no longer be available.

    On a related note, I was accosted outside of King Soopers last week by a woman attempting to get new legislation on the ballot to say that life begins at conception. Her rationale was that her friend was murdered when pregnant and she only “counted” for one life. When I refused on the ground that I was pro-choice, she said that had nothing to do with her mission. Genuine confusion or an attempt to undermine abortion rights, I don’t know, but disturbing nonetheless.

  2. Historiann on 15 Apr 2008 at 9:01 am #

    Hi ej–thanks for the front-line report on the conception initiative. For people who don’t live in Colorado, here’s the ballot initiative defining life as beginning at conception:

    http://www.campusprogress.org/fieldreport/2406/complications-at-conception

    Of course, the signature-solicitor is lying when she says that this isn’t about Roe v. Wade. But, in my experience, people working to get signatures will say anything to get you to sign. (Many of them are paid by the signature, they’re not even volunteers, so I’m doubtful about her claim that she’s working to avenge her dead friend.)

  3. James on 15 Apr 2008 at 10:15 am #

    Life is breath, according to the Bible (Genesis 1:1). Bible based pro-life politics is not inherently anti-abortion, despite what most Americans have learned from pastors and pundits that also support the death penalty and a religious war in the Middle East.

    Maybe I should keep my mouth shut.

  4. Historiann on 15 Apr 2008 at 11:11 am #

    James–I can agree with that definition of life! I just thoroughly resent the notion that a being that needs my body to live has interests that somehow supercede mine. And, I truly resent people who have abortions and still align themselves as “pro-life.”

  5. David on 15 Apr 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    Nice, perceptive post, Historiann. It was nice to read something that dovetailed with the campaign that had nothing to do with “bitterness.”

    My take on the abortion and generation issue is that the pro life movement has been extremely effective in shaping the argument for my generation. We grew up in the 1980s, when anti-abortion rhetoric seemed to be everywhere, but we weren’t around in the 70s when lack of access to abortions was a political issue. So we’ve really only seen one side of the issue, I think.

  6. Historiann on 15 Apr 2008 at 8:18 pm #

    David, I think that’s right. I’m a little older than you, but I was still a preschooler when Roe v. Wade was decided, so I have no real memory of life before Roe.

  7. Indyanna on 15 Apr 2008 at 8:40 pm #

    One of the things that may have shaped the imaginations of some of the undergraduates at Messiah–generationally-speaking–is the “abstinence” movement. Which, whatever its origins in a 1980s Nancy Reaganite “just-say-no” sensibility, and its embrace by the religious right, must have gotten some broader cultural traction, judging by a recent news piece I read about an “abstinence” peer-group at Harvard. So perhaps some meaningful fraction of the audience Fea reports on may think this question wouldn’t be likely to intrude on their own (at least pre-marital) lives, and thus that it can be considered categorically, rather than in the nuanced way described in the body of the post for 30/40ish women. Just a guess.

    I’m looking forward to reading Fea’s book. I attended a seminar he gave some years back as a dissertator and it’s a very interesting project. Plus, how often do you get something set in the deepest wilds of early New Jersey? A famous early American historian at an unnamed college in Providence, Rhode Island, once counseled an advisee that no one writing a dissertation set in New Jersey would ever get a job or eat lunch in that profession. Seemingly an exaggeration, I suppose.

  8. David on 15 Apr 2008 at 9:30 pm #

    Indyanna,

    That’s an interesting possibility, although I should say that, having attended Catholic schools growing up for 12 years, and being exposed to tremendous amounts of abstinence education, the practice never really took hold, at least for the people I knew. The religion and the schools could deemphasize contraception all they wanted, but we knew better.

    The resistance to contraception is one of the main reasons that I can’t take the pro-life movement seriously. If these people supported policies that were most likely to reduce the number of abortions (whether legal or illegal), I think there would be more common ground to tackle abortion as a social issue, rather than a moral one. Nobody looks forward to getting an abortion.

  9. Nicole on 16 Apr 2008 at 6:46 am #

    David is right- no one dreams of the day that they too can have an abortion. I find these questions useless of candidates, to a degree, unless they are followed up by more substantial questions. Is it a surprise that Clinton is Pro-Choice? She had an interesting way of putting it but I’m not surprised. What I’d like to know is what she feels our moral responsibility is, as a community, to those women who find themselves in situations where an abortion seems like the only way. More so, what is our community responsibility to folks BEFORE an abortion seems like the only way? But- I’m not the target audience for these types of forums so my agenda doesn’t influence the types of questions that are asked.
    I do think it would be great for a candidate to be really blunt at these kinds of sessions. Forget black or female president- could America handle an atheist in the Presidency?

  10. Rad readr on 16 Apr 2008 at 9:24 am #

    I thought the compassion forum was hilarious. Hillary dovetailed into abstractions most of the time. She couldn’t really answer when she has felt “the holy spirit,” even though apparently she said she has felt it. Obama was a little more thoughtful and answered some questions with more depth. But he stumbled on the abortion issue in a way that she did not.

    Interestingly, I thought the compassionate forumites did bring up issues that others usually do not: AIDS in Africa, eradicating poverty, Darfur. Given the historical connections of religious missions and imperialism, it’s no surprise that mega churches want to help the little brown ones oveseas. Of course, it would be nice if we went international in another way: abortion rights. How many countries in the Americas (to think locally) even have legal abortions? The right wingers have managed to create a fight in the US over something that is guaranteed by Roe v. Wade and, as a result, I wonder if abortion rights has remained largely a domestic debate.

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