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

The Limits of Open Mindedness in Debates on Same-Sex Marriage and Abortion February 25, 2016

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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