Some years back, a classroom instructor advised us that an audience would always be interested in sex. ‘Find a way to bring sex into it’, he promised, ‘and your audience will stay focused and enthusiastic’. Looking back, I would say that the poor gentleman probably had some wish fulfillment issues in that area, but even so I have to admit that many of today’s top issues have a clearly sexual component, particularly the volatile issues of Abortion, Homosexuality, and Marriage.
It seems very clear to me that the issues of Abortion, Homosexuality, and Marriage are heated because each side not only believes its position to be right, but that any other position is heinously immoral. This leads to the inevitable accusation that “they” must not even be human if they believe what they claim. Being compared to infernal monsters or sadists tends to make civil discussion difficult. For these issues, people seem to fall broadly into one of three camps – the liberal position, the conservative position, and the people who refuse to take a position and just want to be left alone. As a result, a few people end up speaking for everyone, and their positions are almost always extreme to one end or the other of the spectrum.
Abortion is a horrible thing to contemplate, the deliberate killing of a – what? For liberals, the woman concerned is the focus, pregnancy being a difficult process even when you are healthy and financially secure, and bringing up a child a long and arduous ordeal if you are not prepared for it and desire to be a mother. This is further complicated by a society which, let’s be honest, does not do much to compel biological fathers to meet their responsibilities. Aborting the fetus, to a liberal, is a difficult decision but a necessary option for women facing the burden of having and raising children they do not want and cannot care for. But for conservatives, the matter is not of removing a fetus, but killing a pre-natal infant, murder by any reasonable definition. For conservatives, people have rights according to their merits, and no one can hold a higher moral claim than a baby. So liberals focus on the woman, conservatives on the baby-to-be. Both sides believe the other is ignoring the proper balance of interests.
The biggest problem I find in trying to consider this issue, is the extremely personal nature of the situation. No one is likely to think through the decision to have an abortion or go through a pregnancy, until they are faced with the reality of a pregnancy. Therefore the matter is compounded by the emotions and stress of crisis, multiplied by the family and relationship conditions in place. Is the father ready to be a dad? Is the mother prepared to become a mother? Are the families supportive or critical? And then there are additional complications to consider. I leave off the ‘rape victim’ or ‘having the baby might kill the mother’ scenarios because they are really very uncommon, but it needs to be said that pregnancy is full of unforeseen conditions and risks. This is also one of my strongest complaints against abortion. Abortions are surgical procedures, which always carry a degree of medical risk to the woman having the abortion, in addition to a certain psychological trauma. Women have died having abortions, and others have committed suicide after having abortions. This is not to equate having an abortion to becoming clinically depressed, but the risk in such an operation must be recognized as well.
Homosexuality has long been treated socially and legally as unacceptable behavior. It has been grounds for dismissal, divorce, even incarceration, yet after thousands of years it still occurs in every sort of society and culture, even where efforts to eradicate homosexuality by force, like in Iran, are promoted. The plain fact is, on the one hand homosexuals will always be a small minority of the population, but on the other hand homosexuals will always exist in any substantial population. Conservatives would argue that personal conduct is a choice, and so homosexuals are not entitled to any special benefits simply for being homosexual. Liberals argue on the other hand that homosexuals are a demographic minority, who have rights like anyone else which are infringed by a majority society which marginalizes homosexuals. Both sides believe the other is trying to impose an intolerable social order.
It seems strange to me, sometimes, that conservatives should be unduly offended by homosexuality. That is, when it is practiced in the same way that most people practice heterosexual sex. So long as I am not the object of homosexual advances, what should I care what someone does in private with another consenting adult? Yes, there is the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, but that exists when someone is sexually promiscuous in any way, so it seems not to really be a problem on the personal level, stay out of risky behavior and you’re fine. Sure, some gays get into protests and such, but this is the same nation that allows Nazis to march and someone keeps paying money and giving TV shows to Rosie O’Donnell.
At the same time, I do think it’s inappropriate for gay special interest groups to try to influence kids in grade school. Look, I want my daughter to be tolerant and make her own decisions, but an 8-year-old does not to be indoctrinated in sexual conduct. Those discussions belong to the family, not the government anyway.
Marriage is in some ways a new battlefield, but in others an old one. Not so long ago, pretty much everyone accepted a definition of marriage that, more or less, was the same everywhere for everyone. Since no one was required to get married, it was a low-priority issue. That’s changed, with the push to grant first civil unions, then religiously-sanctioned marriage ceremonies, for same-sex couples. The problem comes from the question of who has the greater right, couples to be married if they decide to do so, or religious institutions to stay true to sworn ideals. The reason that the battlefield is in some ways an old one, is that the moral boundaries began to decay with the liberal advocacy of casual sex a generation ago. Sexual conduct has been a factor for half a century in changing attitudes about marriage. Remember the “open” marriage, wherein the vows were apparently optional when one partner so desired? Remember when they introduced the “no-fault” divorce, a ‘limited’ measure designed to remedy the bitter court fights and post-marriage feuds? The sanctity of marriage has been under attack for quite a while now, and it’s no accident. So now it should be no surprise that liberals want to redefine what a marriage is in the first place. That said, however, it is impossible for conservatives to compel the country to abide by the standards used in 1950. The question therefore, stands at hand – what makes a marriage, and who has the right to define its terms? For here and now, the best first step would be civil discussion with consideration of all reasonable perspectives. I have little confidence, however, that we are ready for that discussion as a nation.