The Limits of Open Mindedness in Debates on Same-Sex Marriage and Abortion

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) now supports same-sex marriage, a reversal he made public in 2013. He was the only Republican senator holding that position. He publicly welcomed the Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. What caused the turnaround was his son coming out as gay two years earlier.

Portman’s record against homosexual issues had consistently followed the traditional Republican position. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, he supported the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and he voted to prohibit same-sex couples in Washington, DC from adopting.

He said about his change of heart:

[My son’s homosexuality] allowed me to think about this issue from a new perspective, and that’s as a dad who loves his son a lot.

Dick Cheney had been a closet supporter of same-sex marriage for years because of his lesbian daughter but in 2009 he also came out on the issue.

Why the delay from realization to public position? Are Republicans hesitant to do the right thing on same-sex marriage because it’s politically inconvenient? Since when do you put what’s best for the party in front of what’s best?

Frustrating though the delay is, they have company. I’m guessing that was behind the Catholic Church pedophilia cover up—doing what’s right for individuals took a back seat to what was best for the Church. But that’s a side issue. Portman’s change was a step forward, and let’s celebrate politicians who take a potentially unpopular stand.

Imagining it vs. living it.

Here’s my question. I see that having a homosexual relative makes the issue one you can’t just push away, but why does it take that? Isn’t one of humanity’s super powers the ability to imagine themselves in new situations? Why couldn’t Portman or Cheney wonder, “Gee, what if this issue hit me directly? What if my own child was homosexual? Would I still not budge on ‘traditional marriage’?”

The tide has turned, and many conservative legislators who are now against same-sex marriage will change their minds in the next decade, but why must it take so long? Why can’t they imagine themselves in Portman’s position and change their minds next week? (And when they finally do change, will they think back on Portman’s example and wonder why it took so long?)

This kind of empathy must be harder than it looks, like only vaguely knowing what hearing a doctor’s diagnosis of cancer feels like from having friends tell of their experiences. Speculating about something is a poor substitute for it actually happening, and Portman and Cheney would probably still hold their old positions if not for the push from their children.

Applying this thinking to abortion

Let’s broaden this observation. One of my posts on abortion received nearly 1000 comments, and I argued there with several pro-life advocates. I’m guessing they were older men for whom abortion could never affect them personally (related post: Why is it always men advancing the pro-life position?). Their positions were simple: a fetus is a human life, and it’s just wrong to kill a human. That’s it—no nuance, no exceptions, no consideration for the harm of not having an abortion. And why should there be? It’s murder—end of story.

I see these antagonists as the pre-enlightenment Portman or Cheney. They’re smart, they can marshal arguments to support their position, and their position isn’t insane—abortion does kill a fetus.

It’s the tunnel vision that’s the problem. Let’s broaden the view, Senator Portman, and imagine that your own son were gay. Let’s broaden the view, Mr. Pro-Life, and imagine that your own 15-year-old daughter had an unwanted pregnancy. All the plans that you and your wife have for your daughter—graduating from high school, then college, and then a satisfying career and a family—are in jeopardy. How much school will she miss? What teams or clubs must she withdraw from? What commitments will she have to cancel for decorum or out of embarrassment?

It will be an enormous bump in the road if she places the child for adoption. But girls in that situation almost never do—just two percent of premarital births in the U.S. are placed for adoption. Now we’re talking about, not a bump in the road, but a fork to a completely different life, a life with her as a 16-year-old single mom living at home trying to make a life from the constrained options available.

Problem one is that Mr. Pro-Life can’t put himself in this situation, or at least can’t do it successfully. Imagining it is a poor substitute for actually hearing his daughter sobbing in her room and finding out what the problem is.

Problem two is where the parallel to the gay rights lesson from Sen. Portman fails. Portman understands that he can’t make his son un-gay, but Mr. Pro-Life can assist or even encourage his daughter to become un-pregnant. He could cite extenuating circumstances in his situation, take care of the problem, and then return to his pro-life dogmatism.

We see this situation in the stories of women picketers of abortion clinics who, being human, have their own unwanted pregnancies. Or their daughters do. They’ll slip in the back door, have the abortion, and then be back on the picket lines days later. When asked about the hypocrisy, they say that other women are the sluts. They, by contrast, had a good excuse.

For this reason, pro-lifers may never be able to understand the difficulty facing the nearly one million American women who choose abortion each year. And perhaps we will never have a reasoned conversation on this divisive issue.

I was always looking outside myself 
for strength and confidence, 
but it comes from within. 
It is there all the time.
— Anna Freud

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/18/13.)

Photo credit: Denis Bocquet, flickr, CC

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  • Bob Covey

    When I’ve had discussions with pro-life proponents, I’ve presented a similar scenario: A young woman comes home during spring-break during her second year in college. She tells her parents and the discussion ensues. I typically add more detail, but the gist of the story is the same.

    Each time, regardless of the decision the young woman makes, regardless whether her parents agree or disagree, support her or not, and regardless whether she seeks advice or counseling from others, I tell my interlocutor that there are at least two people whose opinion is irrelevant: “Yours and her congressman”.

  • Dannorth

    I’ve heard such stories and that of a forced-birther politician who had his wife and his mistress get abortions.

    Troubling as they are is there any way to know how many of the forced-birthers are of the do as I say not as I do persuasion?

    • Greg G.


    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Assume they all are hypocrites until proven otherwise. Any other position ignores evidence and human nature.

  • L.Long

    They are all still bigots!!! Yes they changed their mind when their kids are gay, but so many more don’t. These same people will condemn abortion but when their daughter is raped by some UNACCEPTABLE person, abortion is now OK! But they will still vote to outlaw places like Planned Parenthood cuz – POOR PEOPLE!!!!
    They are not only still bigoted but hypocrites, And do not trust them!
    “…it is a human life so it is murder…” Really? Can the fetus walk-talk-and all the rest? NO!!! Just cuz it MIGHT turn out to be able to someday does not make it so now. Murder has a very strict definition. In fact the cancer is a group of cells growing and has all the DNA of a real human, is it murder to kill cancer?? How about sperm? Or an egg? Its an old argument and I prefer this solution….Do you have a uterus? No! Then shut up and go away!!! If you have a uterus and don’t like abortions then don’t get one!!!
    Why can’t they put themselves into the situation!!! What you expect a common male (he aint no man!) to put themselves into the soul of a sin filled slut, who caused the downfall of man!!!???!! My observations show most males are not even capable of sympathy towards their own friends!!!

  • Rudy R

    For Portman, et al, I’m willing to bet that their frame of reference was from a sin perspective when it came to supporting anti-gay legislation. When Portman had to choose between the love for his son and his religion, he chose his son and accordingly, changed his moral position on gay issues. Funny how morality works. For most Conservatives, legislating Christian values is a major focus in the Republican party. If they have to be repressed by the Bible, everyone else has to be punished too. But when there is a dilemma between a loved one or the Party, most, at least secretly, side with loved ones. For some reason, Liberal’s think differently. They look at issues on how it will impact other’s loved ones, not just their own.

    • TheNuszAbides

      i’ve been pushing Haidt’s work for a few years now; still highly recommend The Righteous Mind. here’s a nutshell that’s relevant to your comment:

      On the two values that conservatives and liberals both value (care and fairness) they do not define those terms the same way, although they both value them according to their different definitions.

  • ningen

    It is very easy to justify behavior if you deal in abstractions than if you have to confront the full reality of a situation. It is much easier to say “Gays are an abomination” than it is to say “my gay son is an abomination.” Thinking in abstractions allows us to create a mental image according to our own preconceptions and desires that often don’t match very well with reality. Ask someone to think of the typical welfare recipient, and they will conjure up a picture of an overweight (usually black) person who collects their check and spends all day watching Family Feud. They don’t think of their neighbors, John and Francis, who both work in retail and need welfare to help pay their rent and grocery bills.

    • I’ve written before about listening to a podcast in which a panel of pastors were wrestling with the dilemma of a man who’d sent them an email. The man’s 20-ish son had just died. That’s tragedy enough, but the man’s theology placed the son in hell (somehow he wasn’t properly saved according to his church).

      The correct answer, of course, would be for the panel to offer comfort for the guy’s first problem and dismiss the second one as bullshit. But they were bound by the theology as well.

      I think back on this example when I hear people talk about how sad being an atheist must be because of all the easy answers they don’t have.

  • Pofarmer

    Off topic. Sometimes I want to despair. Last night there were pictures on my facebook feed of kids getting inducted into the National Honor Society. Today my oldest son is having lunch with some of these kids and they are discussing evolution and why is not true. These are high school juniors with high academic mark. My son said after a while he got tired of defending and just listen. I know why Neil deGrasse Tyson is so afraid of religious fundamentalism.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I do not consider abortion to be a form of killing. A fetus is living tissue, but there are many forms of living tissue that do not constitute a living being.

    • Pro-life people tend to, bizarrely, place any human life, down to a single cell, above all others. OK, I might agree given some parameters of “better” than the cell is better than a pest (cockroach, slug), but what about a calf? An eagle? A pet? Y’know, fully formed creatures that can feel pain.

      • Otto

        I saw where a Catholic official ‘explained’ this by saying that the fetus is literally innocent, more innocent than a fully formed human, so his argument was that therefore the killing of a fetus is worse than the murder of an adult since the adult is not completely innocent anymore.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          how long was said churchman in traction for twisting himself around that way?

      • Sophia Sadek

        Catholics make a distinction between humans and animals rather than between humans and other animals. This is one of the roots of their delusion.

      • “Any human life” except the woman’s…

    • Many forms of killing aren’t murder anyway.

      • Ol’ Hippy

        If it was murder we’d all be vegans.

        • Yes, good example.

        • MNb

          If it was murder we wouldn’t eat at all. Plants also do live.

        • TheNuszAbides

          indeed, even eating only windfall is still aborting matter that would have nourished the next generation!

  • Leyla1001nights

    Very timely article. Over on the Catholic Channel is a story that the Church’s “bioethics council” does not endorse the use of artificial birth control to prevent microencephaly. No empathy at all.

    • The Catholic Church has had a recent morality test, the priest pedophilia scandal, and they failed. They no longer have credibility in the morality department.

      Of course, their “Ah, but we can still put you in hell if you don’t follow our rules!” is still a viable threat for millions of people, but the fact that they can’t figure out the morality thing is pretty good evidence that their supernatural world doesn’t exist.

      • Otto

        The Catholic Church failing so miserably on morality is a big reason I started asking the questions that lead to atheism.

        A perfect example is the girl (11yrs old I believe) in Brazil who was raped by her Catholic Step-Father. The Catholic doctor recommended and performed an abortion with the approval of the Catholic mother of the girl. It was done because of the risk to the health of the mother carrying a fetus to term in a body that was not ready, (she was pregnant with twins). The RCC excommunicated the Mother and the Doctor, the Step-Father is free to practice Catholicism and receive absolution for his sins.

        I pointed this out to one of the Catholic blogger (who claimed to be open to criticism) on the Catholic channel with a link citing the story. His response was to ban me. I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

        • Otto

          I thought maybe she was 9 but I wasn’t sure and was too lazy to look it up, didn’t want to come off as misrepresenting the situation.

          What pisses me off is the Catholic Church wants to pretend they care about the unborn and life when in reality they could give a rats ass about people UNLESS it has something to do with their theology. Theology is their main concern on any issue, the people involved are secondary at best. And the reason theology is so important is it gives the RCC their power. They carp all day about how they are concerned with God’s law but God’s law can’t even get them to understand the wrongness of a basic issue like raping children.

          So that is the point I made to Armstrong over at the Catholic blog, that theology overrides people. I gave examples and provided citations. Rather then address my point he banned me which I took as admission that he had no argument to the contrary.

        • It’s like Abraham killing Isaac. It was a test–a morality test–and it wasn’t a test of Abraham. It was a test of Yahweh. And he failed. You don’t fuck with someone like that just for laughs, especially when you know the outcome (Yahweh being omniscient and all that).

          The Church didn’t stop slavery when it could, it drags its heels on moral issues today (same-sex marriage, say), it gets the sex thing wrong (condoms are less bad than HIV–how is this hard?), and it continually got the “don’t shuffle pedophiles around between parishes” test wrong.

          They’ve been tested and found wanting. They’ve abdicated their moral position. Their morality clearly comes from men rather than the Almighty. The Church is now morally irrelevant.

        • Otto

          Thou shalt not commit murder is fine… but ‘thou shalt not own people as property’ was too much.

        • Greg G.

          Thou shalt not commit murder is fine… but ‘thou shalt not own people as property’ was too much.

          It was OK for your neighbor to own people, but coveting your neighbor’s slave made the Top Ten Sins list.

          Exodus 20:17 (NRSV)17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

          Deuteronomy 5:21 (NRSV)21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          I got banned for comparing the destruction of Sodom to a mass shooting. The main argument before that was about how informed consent means nothing to him because he supposes animals could make “consenting” sounds. Armstrong is undoubtedly a dishonest bag of dicks.

        • JustNTyme

          Trashy little fggot

        • thatguy88

          My, how “peaceful, just, loving, compassionate, and tolerant” of you!

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          Hey, you were that zer on the float!!! *HUGS* to you, lovey <3

        • Michael Neville

          It’s not surprising the Archbishop didn’t excommunicate the stepfather. As shown by their past and present conduct, the Catholic hierarchy approves of child rape.

          Saying that got me banned from a Catholic blog.

        • Susan

          Saying that got me banned from a Catholic blog.

          Sometimes, they go to the trouble of blaming our sinful nature (aka the sixties, the pyschiatrists, the liberals, the devil, the feminists, and above all… teh gayz).

          Mostly, they are just trained to call that an unwarranted attack on the RCC and ban you on principle. You get banned sooner or later.

          Not surprised to see you picked the ‘sooner’ route. Well done.

          Moral authorities, my ass.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    The point is the so called conservatives are all about what is wrong for OTHER people. Throughout my life I have heard people that can barely read tell me the books i read should be banned. People that could not carry a toon with a forklift tell me my music is evil. People who lack the imagination to play chutes and ladders tell me the games I play are evil. And supposedly celibate men (who in reality are raping little boys) tell me my sex life is wrong. But the MOMENT they are affected by one of these rules, see how quick they change. One of the examples that springs to mind is stem cell research. For years Nancy and Ronnie Raygun were 100% against stem cell research, who cares that is could save lives, nuh uh, somehow the bible or god or something said it was wrong. Then all of the suddeny Ronnie get alzehiemers. BAM complete fucking 180 turn around on Nancy’s part. Suddenly because St. Ronnie was sick, well WTF we need that research.Hypocrisy pure and simple.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      hmmm, *could* be sociopathy?

    • That collision is inevitable, but I’d never seen an example (like Nancy Reagan switching on stem cell research once she realizes its benefit in curing Alzheimer’s). That’s interesting.

      It’s like female abortion clinic picketers who get an unwanted pregnancy and get an abortion. The problem with the anecdotes that I’ve heard, however, is that they ignore the hypocrisy. They rarely get a clue but think, “OK, I had a legitimate issue there. I’m no slut. Abortion is still wrong” and they’re back protesting.

  • Pro-lifers don’t care about woman making decisions about their body! They just want to be the morality polities.

    • MNb

      For his reason I for quite a while mistakenly thought “pro-life” meant pro legalized abortion. Until today I think self-proclaimed pro-lifers actually anti life.

      • TheNuszAbides

        certainly anti-choice, and frequently concomitant with support of capital punishment.

  • mashava

    I think I’ve heard before that conservatives often have less empathy than liberals. It was years ago, but something about Five Moral Pillars and conservatives are usually high in two categories (family is one I think) whereas liberals’ morals are spread evenly over all five?

    • This is Jonathan Haidt’s work. I wrote on that here.

    • TheNuszAbides

      other way around–liberals are primarily concerned with two of the five, and conservatives and liberals define both of those (care and fairness) differently. which is why Haidt concludes that conservatives have a political edge in appealing to a wider range of moral “taste buds”.

  • Bobby English



    by Roger Price

    February 1, 2013 | 11:09 am

    Note: Another version of this post was published previously at


    The German Supreme Court refused to recognize Jews living in Germany as legal “persons”. From that point on they had no rights or protection under the German Constitution. Shortly thereafter the Nazis began their “final Solution” – putting over 6,000,000 Jews to death.


    “The sub-human, that biologically seemingly complete creation of nature with hands, feet and a kind of brain, with eyes and mouth, is nevertheless a completely different, dreadful creature. He is only a rough copy of a human being, with human-like facial traits but nonetheless morally and mentally lower than an animal… For all that bare a human face are not equal. (Pamphlet published by the Race Settlement Main Office, Germany, 1942)


    “The Jew was always only a parasite in the body of other peoples.” (Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 419.)


    “It had nothing to do with humanity, it couldn’t have; it was a mass – a mass of rotting flesh.” Franz Stangl, Treblinka commandant explaining how he viewed his part in the destruction of almost 1,000,000 men, women and children. (In interview with author Gitta Serenny which later appeared in the book Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (1983).


    An official Nazi report of the fate of 15,000 Jewish women and children killed in the area of Serbia in mobile gas vans was discovered. Jews were locked up in the air-tight rear container while exhaust fumes from the truck’s engine were fed in to suffocate them. The report simply stated that they had been “evacuated to the East”, just one more in a long list of euphemisms for “killed”.


    To left the concentration camp experiments Dr. August Hirt supplied this rational, “These condemned men will at least make themselves useful,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous to execute them and send their bodies to the crematory oven without giving them an opportunity to contribute to the progress of society.”

    (Aziz, Doctor of Death, 3, 305)

    AMERICA 1973

    The U.S. Supreme Court in its Roe v. Wade decision ruled that unborn babies are not legal “persons”. From that point on they have had no rights or protection under our constitution. Since that decision, over 45,000,000 babies have been put to death by abortion in this country.


    “Fetuses, especially those as old as five or six months, elicit our sympathy… because they look disconcertingly like people… But, this sympathy is misplaced… While [it] may, perhaps, possess some flickering of sensation, or some capacity to feel pain, this is equally true… of creatures like fish or insects… a proper respect for the right to life requires that it not be respected where it does not exist.” (Commentary on “Can The Fetus Be An Organ Farm?”)


    “A woman would have the right to abortion just as she has a right to remove any parasitic growth from her body.” (Gloria Steinman, author and feminist leader, on CNN, Sept. 9, 1981.)


    “What is aborted is a protoplasmic mass and not a real, live, grown up individual.” This statement was made by Drs. J.F. McDermott and W.F. Char in an effort to pacify nurses at a Hawaiian hospital when they became extremely upset by “dead fetuses and pieces of limbs, fingernails and hair” in the operating room.” (Sereny, Into that Darkness, p. 201.)


    Between 1970 and 1977, California millionaire-abortionist Dr. Edward Allred was personally responsible for destroying 35,000 human lives before birth, including some 7,000 mid-trimester abortions by salt poisoning. When asked by a reporter what happens in an abortion, Dr. Allred said: “the contents are evacuated.” (Assignment Life, New Liberty Films)


    In 1980, Dr. Martti Kekomaki justified conduction experiments involving slicing open the stomachs and cutting off the heads of live late term aborted babies, “An aborted baby is just garbage and that’s where it ends up,” he declared, “Why not make use of it for society?” (National Examiner, 8-19-80 pp. 20-21.)


    Not everything a government allows is moral, ethical, or right. Sixty years ago the Nazis tried to change reality by changing words. With new words, they were able to put 6,000,000 Jews to death. With new words, we in America are killing our unborn at nearly the same rate that Hitler killed Jews – only we have killed 45,000,000 in our brazen efforts to exterminate unwanted babies.

    Judge for yourself. Are we killing babies? Or is this just some unwanted piece of garbage? Reality cannot be changed because we call abortion a “choice” or if we make the debate about “woman’s rights” instead of what it really is.

    So, how are abortions done?

    1. In the Suction-Aspiration method, the cervical muscle ring must be paralyzed and stretched open. The abortionist then inserts a hollow plastic tube with a knife-like edge into the uterus. The suction tears the baby’s body into pieces. The placenta is cut from the uterine wall and everything is sucked into a bottle.

    2. RU-486 abortions are done after the mother misses her period. It can be used up to the second month of pregnancy. It works by blocking progesterone, a crucial hormone during pregnancy. Without it, the uterine lining does not provide food, fluid and oxygen to the tiny developing baby. The baby cannot survive. A second drug is then given that stimulates the uterus to contract and the baby is expelled.

    3. Prostaglandin is a hormone that induces abortion in mid to late term pregnancies. The baby usually dies from the trauma of the delivery. However, if the baby is old enough, it is born alive. This is called a “complication.” To prevent this, some abortionists use ultrasound to guide them as they inject a drug that kills the fetus into the unborn baby’s heart. Prostaglandin is then administered and a dead baby is delivered.

    4. Dilatation & Curettage (D & C). This is similar to a suction procedure except a curette, a loop-shaped steel knife, is inserted into the uterus at 6 to 12 weeks of pregnancy. The baby and placenta are cut into pieces and scraped out into a basin. Bleeding is usually very heavy with this method.

    5. Dilatation & Evacuation (D & E) is done after the 3rd month. The cervix must be dilated before the abortion. Usually Laminaria sticks are inserted into the cervix. These are made of seaweed that is compressed into thin sticks. When inserted, they absorb moisture and expand, thus enlarging the cervix. A pliers-like instrument is inserted through the cervix into the uterus. The abortionist then seizes a leg, arm or other part of the baby and, with a twisting motion, tears it from the body. This continues until only the head remains. Finally the skull is crushed and pulled out. The nurse must then reassemble the body parts to be sure that all of them were removed.

    6. Partial Birth Abortion or Dilatation & Extraction (D & X). This abortion is also used on mid and late term babies, from 4 to 9 months gestation. Ultrasound is used to identify how the unborn baby is facing in the womb. The abortionist inserts forceps through the cervical canal into the uterus and grasps one of the baby’s legs, positioning the baby feet first, face down (breech position). The child’s body is then pulled out of the birth canal except for the head, which is too large to pass through the cervix. The baby is alive, and probably kicking and flailing his legs and arms. The abortionist hooks his fingers over the baby’s shoulders, holding the woman’s cervix away from the baby’s neck. He then jams blunt tipped surgical scissors into the base of the skull and spreads the tips apart to enlarge the wound. A suction catheter is inserted into the baby’s skull and the brain is sucked out. The skull collapses and the baby’s head passes easily through the cervix.

    What do you think?