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The choice in choosing

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My sense of the selection of Sarah Palin as running mate for John McCain has always been that she is on the ticket, not for what she might say or do as Vice President or as a potential President, but for what she represents. Don't get me wrong, she deserves respect of a politic sort. She's shown an ability -or at least a lack of compunction- for attacks; and that is a familiar role for the VP on a ticket. Sarah Palin can openly muse about Obama's patriotism and the dark colorings of his past and John McCain can shrug and grin, as if to say, what a pistol -that gal, and still distance himself (somewhat) from the slinging. But any number of candidates could have filled that role as designated attack dog for McCain. What made Sarah Palin the choice is what she, in all her tabloid storied glory, represents -what she is an emblem of when it comes to the social issue hot buttons, like God and guns, and like the question -of choice. This past Saturday at a rally in Pennsylvania she chose to remind us of what she symbolizes:
"In times like these with wars and financial crisis, I know that it may be easy to forget even as deep and abiding a concern as the right to life, and it seems that our opponent kind of hopes you will forget that. He hopes that you won't notice how radical, absolutely radical his idea is on this, and his record is, until it's too late."
A CNN report on the rally appearance points out that "Palin has mostly avoided raising her opposition to abortion rights on the campaign trail since she was tapped as Sen. John McCain's running mate, a fact she readily acknowledged in her remarks." And, indeed, Palin might seem to have turned a leaf with these comments this past Saturday. Yet her attacks on Obama's "radicalism" aren't accompanied with any real clarity or contrast, any specifics as to what a McCain/Palin policy would be on abortion rights -or the lack thereof. In Palin's infamous early interviews with Katy Couric she avowed her stance on choosing life over abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, but brushed aside the question of any real implication to criminalizing abortion. She would "counsel choosing life," she said when pressed -as if the role of government (and her potential place in it) weren't law and policy, but maternal advice. As is her wont, she simply did not answer when asked if this meant she advocated prison time for women seeking abortion or doctors providing them. She would "counsel choosing life," she repeated. Even as she has now chosen to broach the subject more directly, Palin does not contrast specific proposals on abortion law. She only complains of what a vote for Barack Obama supposedly represents:
"A vote for Barack Obama is a vote for activist courts that will continue to smother the open and democratic debate that we deserve and that we need on this issue of life."
I have to ask, have we really been lacking debate on this subject? Or is it candor we've been lacking? Barack Obama's votes on an Illinois State Senate bill addressing viable life surviving abortion procedure, during his tenure there, have been the prime subject of this talk of "radical views outside the mainstream" that Palin is now taking up. Though his three opposing votes on the bill were with the majority in each case, Obama's position is caricatured as "extreme" and "beyond the pale" because an amended version of the bill eventually passed after he left the Illinois Senate; and a similar federal bill passed with bipartisan support. Obama has stated that, were he presented with the Illlinois bill as amended today, he would vote in favor. (He helped write the amendment before leaving his seat.) The rhetoric of these complaints about "Obama the radical" is always that "it is hard to understand" the motives of someone who would oppose such a bill. It is just such an understanding that is needed. Obama supports a woman's right to choose. His votes were premised on that support and concern that language within the bill might, without "open and democratic debate" on the subject, serve to undermine or erode the legal protections of that right. For years now, the debate on Roe v. Wade, or "Choice v. Life," has been going on -and decent people of differing views have said their piece. Many of us understand that. We understand that these debates continue and that there are ways we might indeed move policy forward -to make abortion a rarer circumstance, to see it as a sad and sorry choice our children need never make with the right resources and education. There may even be a way we can reconcile a belief in the fundamental right of a woman to choose her own body's destiny and a profound affirming reverence for life. We might advance such goals as these with respect for each other and genuine candid debate. We won't do any such thing with encoded terminology about "activist judges" and "radical views" -when speaking to some of the people some of the time -and disingenuous language about "counsel" and "choosing" when speaking to the rest of the people the rest of the time. For the the purposes of this election, Sarah Palin might want herself to represent the country she loves, the God she believes in, and the personal choices she has made. These are all laudable things. She might want to present the decision we are faced with as a simplistic one about broad sentiments, the obvious choice between patriotic fervor and some sort of weak terrorist sympathy, between forthright freedom and creeping socialism, between God and evil doings, between a culture of life and another one of death. But there is more to citizenship than sentiment and the "open and democratic debate" she speaks of demands more -things like understanding and respect, and candor. Barack Obama has stated his position on reproductive choice plainly. There is nothing mysterious or radical about it. His policy outline on women's issues (available on his website) unequivocally states his support for a woman's right to choose, while acknowledging his respect for those who disagree with him on the issue. In the same policy brief he describes his support for specific Federal legislation "to expand access to contraception, health information and preventive services to help reduce unintended pregnancies." The Prevention First Act will also "increase funding for family planning and comprehensive sex education that teaches both abstinence and safe sex methods" as well as "end insurance discrimination against contraception, improve awareness about emergency contraception, and provide compassionate assistance to rape victims." I suppose if you want to characterize this position as "absolutely radical" -that's really your choice.


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Tom driscoll is an opinion columnist, poet, performiing songwriter (let's just say he writes).
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