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Matthew Stokes: Lord, have mercy

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Alabamians are accustomed to our state drawing bad press.  Sometimes it is well-deserved, as in the case of corruption in high office.  Sometimes it is blown out of proportion, sort of a “some guy said a thing one time” story that made its way into late night television.  Most of us have learned to take it in stride; we deserve our lumps at times, and the rest of the time, it’s best to take a joke and keep focusing on everything that makes Alabama great.  This past week another Alabama politician drew national attention for his comments, but oddly enough, they were mostly overlooked by late night comedians. The comments from state representative John Rogers on pending abortion legislation – “kill them now or kill them later” – was hardly the stuff of comedy.  Instead, it was a work of horror.

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I recently wrote in this space that I was tired of the abortion debate.  I suggested that Alabama Republicans join with their colleagues in other states in pushing ahead legislation designed to face a Supreme Court challenge.  If a new Supreme Court decision reimagined the nation’s abortion laws by giving states some flexibility in how they crafted their abortion legislation, terrific.  If the Court chose to upheld Roe v. Wade in its entirety, then it was time to move on to reducing abortion by other means.  While I understand the deep passion my fellow pro-lifers have over abortion, I still believe the issue has made our politics worse by allowing too many bad politicians to ascend to office on the basis of their pro-life bonafides.  If Democrats are honest with themselves, there have been bad politicians on their side whose support for abortion upheld an otherwise mundane career; this is a bipartisan malady.

So I admit to being anxious for a time when abortion is a settled political question; I want men and women in office who can hold their own on health care and education as much as they grandstand on moral issues.  Yet sometimes our leaders let their guard down and show us what they really believe. As Alabama’s state House debated Representative Terri Collins’ The Alabama Human Life Protection Act, John Rogers’ argued that the bill was an attempt to avoid confronting the realities of poverty, but he showed an amoral indifference to a dignity that supersede any status as a citizen or a ward of the state.  Rogers’ comments drew justifiable criticism from all corners, from Democratic Senator Doug Jones to any and all Republicans in the state.

One of the chief criticisms of the bill, and an odd, what-he-really-meant-was defense of Rogers, is the argument that if Alabamians were really pro-life, they would support various and sundry policy measures designed to improve outcomes for mothers and their children.  There’s some merit to this argument. Poverty is a real thing, with serious consequences for communities, and desperation makes people do serious things. Improving health care and education in impoverished communities, both rural and urban, are worthy goals, and there’s reason to believe that would improve rates of out of wedlock births.  All that is a different question from which policies will do the best job solving specific public problems.

For now, let us pose a question.  Suppose Alabamians were willing to support very high levels of taxation, with plentiful government subsidies in all areas; health care, education, improvements in diet, workforce training, and even direct payments to individuals to provide a baseline income.  In exchange for this, the state would pursue a tighter abortion policy. We’ll create a social democratic state that tends a citizen’s every need – Denmark on the Gulf of Mexico – but after the first trimester, no abortion for any reason. For my own part, I would likely take that offer.  Would John Rogers? Would majority of the state’s opinion makers, who once again failed to miss an opportunity to express grave concern over the state of Alabama politics? If I shared a pizza with everyone claiming abortion should remain untouched because we don’t do enough to support unwed mothers, I think I’d have a few slices left.

But what critics of this bill fail to realize is that policy will always shift.  The economy will move in a particular direction. Education needs will evolve. Innovations in healthcare will make a particular policy obsolete.  Even social trends over time will affect behaviors over time, such as the decline in teen pregnancy that is being attributed to the fact that teens aren’t fooling around as much these days because they spend more time online and less time talking to one another, which is usually the first step towards the song and dance that ends in pregnancy.  Even as we explore various policy options, however, it is curious that we are asked to put concerns about the act of abortion aside. Can a responsible polity not do both? Can we not address the moral question of abortion while likewise addressing the worst material conditions that surround us? Is it possible that dignity of life exists prior to its recognition by the state in the form of funding for another well-intended program?

Skeptics of the pro-life movement paint with too broad a brush.  Our political alignments have broken down significantly over the last decade.  If abortion went away tomorrow, that trend would almost certainly accelerate. There are plenty of arguments and counterarguments to be had over policy in healthcare and education.  What abortion opponents cannot countenance is the idea that because children are unwanted, it is therefore permissible to discard them. That is what Representative John Rogers revealed with his callous remarks on the floor of the State House this past week.   That is the hold up in our politics; the idea that personal liberty is so expansive that one must be free to dismiss with a life that is undesired, that without support from the state in one form or another, life has no meaning. Until we reckon with that, it will be nearly impossible for our politics to take a different shape.

Maybe we need to address new policy solutions to care for the impoverished and underserved communities around us.  Maybe there is a need to reexamine the relationship between sex and reproduction in our moral imagination. Maybe we are at a cultural impasse, and we cannot decide if abortion is a positive good or a grave evil; it is certainly not a neutral act, like choosing red wine or white, the beach or the mountains.  Maybe we have much further to go, because all the funding and subsidies in the world will not save us until we can, without any qualifications, express moral outrage at words like those spoken this past week.

In the meantime, perhaps John Rogers is right. Stripped of all inherent dignity, we kill kids now or kill them later, as though the benevolent hand of government is the only one that can save them.

Lord, have mercy.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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