Sunday, February 08, 2009
Lies, 'Danged' Lies and Abortion
This is Mr. Weber's address to the student body on Monday, February 9, 2009.
Mark Twain once said: “There are lies, danged lies and statistics” (or words to that effect). He means, of course, that statistics can be manipulated to say whatever we want them to say.
Nowhere is this truer in our public policy debates than over the question of abortion. It is widely assumed that the majority of Americans favor our existing laws regarding abortion, but that all depends on how the question is asked.
Here’s an example:
Lake Research Partners conducted a poll in July of 2006 of 1,000 registered voters nationally and concluded that: “77% of Americans agree that the government and politicians should stay out of a woman’s personal and private decision whether or not to have an abortion. “
So 77% of America is in favor of abortion? Any statistician worth a nickel will tell you the language of that question is so biased as to make the data meaningless—once you load up the question and use phrases like “personal and private decision” or “keeping government and politicians out” of a woman’s decision, you get predictable results.
In fact, that question is so poorly worded I wondered what self-respecting statistician would stand behind it, so I did some research and found out two things: First, that the poll was sponsored by NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, a political lobbying agency representing abortion clinics and the abortion industry in this country. But even more revealing, if you read the actual study by Lake Research Partners, it wasn’t designed to be a neutral study to measure what America truly thought about abortion, but as a marketing survey designed to measure the most advantageous way to frame the debate on behalf of pro-abortion candidates. Framing the debate in terms of freedom, privacy, choice, government intrusion into the private lives of women provides, in the study’s words, “an opportunity for pro-choice candidates to capitalize on the public’s opposition to divisive attacks on a woman’s right to choose.” So this was never meant to be a neutral study on what Americans believe about abortion—but it was presented as such by NARAL, who knew better, but figured most of America would not.
There was a more scientific study conducted this fall by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, which asked this question:
"Which comes closest to your view on abortion: abortion should always be legal; should be legal most of the time; should be made illegal except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life; or abortion should be made illegal without any exceptions?"
Here were the results:
• 25% said it should be “always legal”
• 24% believed it should be “legal most of the time”,
• 37% said it should be illegal except for cases of rape, incest or threats to mother’s life,
• 10% said it should be illegal without exception, and
• 4% were unsure. (September 6-8, 2008, with a margin of error of 3.3).
As balanced as that survey is, note how easy it would be to manipulate results for either side: the anti-abortion side could say that “75% of Americans are opposed to abortion on demand without restrictions”, whereas the pro-abortion side could say “90% of Americans are opposed to restricting all abortions”—two ways of twisting the data to make the results sound as if they conclude exactly opposite positions.
The most balanced, honest conclusion would be the following:
• 49% of Americans believe abortion should be always or mostly legal, whereas
• 47% of Americans believe abortion should be always or mostly illegal
Because the margin of error is 3.3 points, that means that Americans statistically DEAD even on the question about abortion in this country.
So what is our responsibility as members of a democracy that is so evenly divided on such an important social issue? I think we can do three things:
First, we need to be a people who honor and respect children so much that the idea of an abortion becomes nearly unthinkable. When I was younger, I lived next door to a municipal policeman and his wife, a nurse, with no children. He was a big burly guy—almost the stereotypical southern policeman—tough, not one to become emotional, someone that would evoke respect. By then, my wife and I had two children, ages 4 and 2. One afternoon, as we were both doing some yard work, he told me that he and his wife were having their first child. I stopped what I was doing, went over to shake his hand and congratulate him, and told him what a great thing it is to have kids. Much to my surprise, his eyes got a little watery and he said: “You know, I’ve been telling people all day and you’re the first one to congratulate me and tell me it’s a good thing. All I’ve been getting is ‘you thought MARRIAGE was the old ball and chain—well, now your life is over!’ Thank you”.
We joke like that about children, as if they’re a curse, but nothing is further from the truth. The best thing that will ever happen to most of you, after getting married, will be to have children. They’re work, but they’re a lot of fun, and they will make you a better person—not just because they will call you to responsibility—but because they will help you see the world again through their eyes, and thus re-create in you a sense of wonder. Let’s be a people who so love kids so much, who celebrate them so much, who esteem large families so much (and not snub mothers with many kids as if to say, “Geez, how ‘bout a little self control?” as some stranger once told a pregnant woman I knew with 8 kids), that abortion is unthinkable.
The second way we can help to limit abortions in this country is to support unwed women who are pregnant. It’s very difficult time for these women—they must endure the raised eyebrow, the whispers, the gossip. At a time of their greatest need, we need to be supportive of them, whether that’s through financial support as a Church, or simply the support of friendship. It’s seemingly so much easier to abort a child before the woman begins to “show”, and then nobody would know, but the strong woman, the woman of faith, honors the life within her. We need to honor these women and support them.
Finally, yes, within a democracy, we have a responsibility to lobby for laws that promote justice for all peoples, that defend the civil rights of our most vulnerable members, be they unborn children, the poor, the aging, or those with mental or physical disabilities. It’s not enough to say we’re “personally opposed” to abortion but “support a woman’s right to choose” any more than it’s OK to say we’re personally opposed to rape, or theft, or murder but support their sanction in law. We must protect the civil rights of others, and especially children. The function of a democracy, understood clearly by our founding fathers, is not to create license to do whatever we want, but to support a “common good” within which all members of the democracy flourish.
In the mean time, let us be as “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” –wise, in that we’re not misled by those who would misquote statistics to manipulate us, but gentle in the way we conduct ourselves in this important debate, mindful that the respect we give those who disagree with us usually has more power to persuade than our arguments.