By Kay Steiger
There’s been a lot of discussion about “culture wars” and how we might “end” them (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). I always found labeling things like abortion politics, gay rights, and evolution/creationism as “cultural” controversies is a way of trivializing them. By doing that, it makes it seem like decisions on these issues don’t have much to do with public policy. Except that they do. While many might like to paint things like abortion as something that reasonable people might agree to disagree on, there are real public policy implications to restricting abortion rights or not recognizing same-sex marriage. We so rarely hear these issues actually discussed in this way. It’s as if them having anything to do with religion somehow eliminates the need to examine what is good public policy.
Take, for example, funding for abstinence-only programming. In Congress this is largely seen as a means of compromise; Democrats will allow funding for such programming as long as they get something in return. Last time around, it was matching funds for comprehensive sex education. But decisions about whether to teach abstinence or not has huge implications. It can affect teen pregnancy rates, which have been on the rise as long as we have been funding these programs. Rising teen pregnancy rates have implications about poverty, health care, and overall employment. When you think about a “cultural” issue in this way, the liberal stance on issue becomes good public policy.
Abortion politics can be examined in the same way. It’s dangerous to involve the government in doctors’ decisions about their patients’ health and any restrictions on abortion, even the “minor” ones that Damon proposes, would result in situations where a doctor would be forbidden by law from doing what is in the patient’s best interest. Similarly with same-sex marriage, the way we legally identify families has real implications on inheritance and visitation rights. When you start tallying the real implications of letting conservatives win on these issues, it becomes about making decisions based on evidence rather than a religious ideology. Furthermore, public opinion remains largely on the progressive side of these issues.
It may be tempting to push aside debates about abortion, access to contraception, and civil rights issues of GLBT people in favor of more “serious” issues. After all, the debate has sounded more or less the same since Roe v. Wade. But ranking “cultural” issues as less important concedes to the right and opens up room for negotiation where none should exist. The government should be working toward making policy that is in the best interest of its constituents. When it comes down to looking at evidence, that means increasing access to abortion and contraception, creating a legal framework for same-sex partnerships, and teaching science-based reasoning and theories in schools.
It also helps that Scott Lemieux is right and that any sort of concession to the religious right on these issues would do nothing to end culture wars but only encourage them further. We can see that models of places with liberalized “cultural” policies like much of Western Europe and have made these issues less, not more, controversial.