Principled Choices

I know President Obama isn't looking forward to starting in-depth public conversations on contentious cultural issues, but when the subject comes up, we have a leader who can help us move forward.
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There has been a surprising amount of chatter about what President-elect Obama should, or more often should not, say and do when it comes to the "hot button" issue of abortion; namely nothing. That's a shame because I believe President-elect Obama can teach us all a thing or two about respecting the choices that other people make in their lives and carrying that respect through into our public policies.

I don't know what decisions the incoming administration will make when it comes to health care policies, but the principles that will inform those choices are clear. The President-elect's choices will demonstrate a grasp of the facts as we know them and not just as we wish them to be. They will be grounded in his faith in people's ability to make change in their lives. And they will be infused with a vision for change that asks people to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

What could this mean for policies related to abortion, pregnancy, parenting and prevention? At the least, we can expect to see a greater national and international commitment to information and services that help individuals prevent unwanted pregnancy or disease. An emphasis on education that helps young people develop respect for themselves and cultivate healthy relationships with others. We can expect to see nomination of justices who respect individual autonomy and privacy. We can expect proposals for health care reform to include the full range of reproductive health care services a woman might need throughout her life. We may even see policies that expand opportunities and resources for women who want to carry a pregnancy to term but need to heal from the injuries of violence, trauma or addiction.

And we can expect something more. Throughout his campaign, Senator (now President-elect) Obama demonstrated his ability to use the bully pulpit to reshape the discourse of political "wedge" issues. This election season showed the public is ready for a conversation that respects their intelligence, provides vision, and helps us all move past the old divisive and frankly tired arguments. Among voters and advocates alike, there is a weariness of the same old contentions that get us nowhere, make enemies out of those who may disagree, and don't represent the real individuals who are most affected by our policies.

For a start, what if we -- as policymakers, advocates, and the electorate -- took seriously President-elect Obama's challenge to purge the condescension and judgment from our political and public discourse? What if we stopped the name calling, stopped belittling deeply held beliefs about life, marriage, commitment and what it means to be human; stopped shutting our eyes to the fact that sometimes life doesn't turn out like we planned and we struggle to live up to our own ideals?

When it comes to the complex issues of abortion, sexuality, pregnancy, and parenting, we could have a debate that acknowledges that each one of us wrestles with making sense of these intricate subjects. We could have a debate that recognizes it is not just "those women" who have abortions, but that any woman who is pregnant may be faced with circumstances that lead her to conclude she cannot have another child and that she is unprepared to place a child for adoption. We could have a debate that moves beyond the question of whether abortion should be legal and instead tackles the persistent and troubling disparities in birth outcomes for African-American and Caucasian women.

We can only do this if we uphold what one of my colleague calls the "sacred authority" of an individual to make his or her own decisions at the center of our policymaking. But, as President-elect Obama reminds us, we cannot afford to rely only on a libertarian or individualist world view. To realize and truly respect decision making, we have to work together to create more opportunities and options for people to aspire to change their circumstances and live with health and dignity.

Our dire economic reality may allow only limited progress on some of our most pressing domestic policies. But this is a time when changing our attitudes and our discourse will lay the groundwork for a generation of policy change. We can't afford to judge each other, and if we truly want to "look out not only for ourselves but for each other," let's foster respect and support for a woman's decision making, and further our understanding of the role each of us and our institutions can play to help individuals live up to their own beliefs and ideals. I know President Obama isn't looking forward to starting in-depth public conversations on contentious cultural issues, but when the subject comes up, we have a leader who can help us move forward.

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