Dr. King, the consistent life ethic, and Barack Obama

Last month, Marysia speculated about what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought of the feminist consistent life ethic. (part one, part two) Whatever the answer to that question may be, one thing is clear: if Dr. King’s message of equality, dignity, nonviolence, and empathy were to truly take root in our society, we would become consistently pro-life.

If we believed in equality for all human beings, we would not single out the youngest members of our species as killable non-persons. We would value women’s full humanity, not just their sex appeal or ability to bear children. We would honor women’s sexuality and motherhood. We would not accept a racially biased criminal justice system. We would not see the loss of lives in other countries as an acceptable price to pay for our national goals.

If we believed in dignity for all human beings, we would not allow people to die of treatable diseases because they’re poor or uninsured. We would not allow the neighborhoods of the poor to be poisoned with pollution. We would not refer to human beings as “products of conception” or “fetal tissue”. We would help the sick and disabled live their lives as well and fully as possible — no matter how short or how different from ours those lives may be — rather than trying to eliminate them before birth.

If we believed in nonviolence, our candidates would not compete with each other to prove who would kill more people in other countries, who would kill more prisoners, who would restrict the killing of unborn human beings the least. Our electorate would find such contests repugnant instead of galvanizing. We would have to be more creative in finding ways to solve problems instead of reflexively reaching for the violent solution. We would be brave enough to sacrifice a bit of safety and security in the short term for a better future.

If we had empathy for all human beings, we would accord all people of the world the right to self-determination that we claim for ourselves. We would not let pregnant women feel that they have no choice but abortion. We would recognize ourselves in every human being, even those most unlike us. We could not torture.

In a speech marking the 79th anniversary of Dr. King’s birth, Barack Obama invoked the words of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: we are all tied together in “a single garment of destiny.”

Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s the same imagery that consistent life ethic proponents have used for 25 years to argue that it’s not enough for fight for the rights of some people while ignoring others. All our lives are intertwined.

Unfortunately, Senator Obama’s garment is full of holes. Although I believe he would personally prefer a lower abortion rate, he would allow for essentially unrestricted destruction of human beings before their birth. Although I believe that he would be less aggressive than his opponents, he favors a buildup of a military which is already larger than the militaries of the rest of the world combined. Although I don’t believe he’d be a great proponent of it, he does not repudiate the death penalty. He isn’t the one who’s going to tear down the anti-life society in all its forms; he’s going to uphold much of it.

I voted for him today anyway. Because the society Obama describes, the one King fought for, is pro-life. And he alone among the candidates appears able to inspire hope and courage and confidence among the people in the grassroots who have been so beaten down for the past seven (or twenty-seven) years. The grassroots leaders he inspires and gives breathing room and may possibly even listen to a little bit are the people who can strengthen that single garment. Yes, even to include the unborn. Once people believe in the equality and interconnectedness of all human beings, they’re 90% of the way there. Our job then is to convince them to expand their vision of humanity.

As Patrick says:

He’s not an insurgent; he’s the standardbearer for a faction of the country’s political elite. I believe that, on balance, this particular faction happens to comprise many of the the smartest and most conscientious individuals from within that elite. So I’m supporting Obama and his train, people like Samantha Power and Robert Malley and Lawrence Lessig, just as a peasant might cheer for an aristocratic faction made up of reasonably decent individuals against other factions made up of out-and-out thugs. Not because the peasant doesn’t know the game is rigged, or doesn’t have the wit to imagine a better world. But because incremental change matters, and because the right incremental changes can lead, like water flowing downhill, to bigger and more profound ones.

And frankly, in the end, nobody better is in a position to win. Perhaps someday, if we peasants work hard enough and change enough minds, the leaders will have no choice but to follow.

4 thoughts on “Dr. King, the consistent life ethic, and Barack Obama

  1. Marysia

    Well said. Although I do think that Obama’s vision is a bit more radical and countercultural than you apparently think. Because of his own life experiences and ancestry, he has the perspective of a global citizen, not a Parochial-American. And that is something uncommon in US politics as usual, and potentially quite transformative.

    I would have voted for him, too–had I voted. I did not, even though I really wanted to. Find out why here.

  2. Jen R Post author

    I read about that! I’m really sorry that happened to you.

    I agree with you about Obama’s upbringing having the potential to make a great difference. I fear that, given his intention to increase the size of the military, he’s still stuck in the mode of thinking that says the U.S. needs to dominate the rest of the world. I hope you’re right, though, and I do think that if nothing else, he will be more willing to use the “soft” power of negotiation and cooperation and less eager to use “hard” power than his opponents.

  3. Kay Hardesty

    For years I’ve carried the banner for Consistent Life, but your flimsy rationale for your support of Obama makes me ashamed of Consistent Life. Here is a man who, alone among the entire Senate, embraces infanticide.

  4. Jen R Post author

    I’m sorry you feel that way. This election, like most, has been extremely difficult for all of the consistent-life-ethic supporters I know. While I believe (and have stated many, many times) that Senator Obama is tragically wrong on abortion, the phrase “embraces infanticide” is a gross distortion and has no place in a serious discussion of this topic.

    I don’t quite understand why my blog posting would make you ashamed of Consistent Life, as I don’t speak for them and am not on the Board anymore except in an advisory position (I mostly advise on technical matters related to their Internet presence). Surely your view of Consistent Life should be based on their actual positions.

    If you’re interested, I explain more about why I’m voting for Obama (albeit with a heavy heart about his abortion stance) here. I doubt that you will find it satisfying, but I would welcome a respectful dialogue.

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