Ross Douthat on the personal and the political

I just encountered today’s column by Ross Douthat:

Today, we are less divided over race, but more divided over sex and reproduction. In a country that cannot agree whether fetuses are human beings, even questions like how to mourn and bury a miscarried child are inevitably freighted with ideological significance. Likewise, in a country where the majority of Down syndrome fetuses are aborted, the mere act of carrying a child with a genetic disorder to term — as both the Palins and the Santorums, whose daughter Bella has Trisomy 18, have done — feels like a political statement….

When Palin wove special needs children into her 2008 speeches, or when Santorum featured his daughter Bella in a campaign video, they were implicitly acknowledging these personal-is-political realities.

I’m sure that some parents regard this as a political statement. It is, unavoidably, a personal and moral one, too. And, yes, liberals should give the Santorum family greater space to mourn in accordance with their own beliefs. Yet there’s an underlying assumption in Douthat’s passage that bears demands greater scrutiny.

Some social conservatives assert that liberals look down on or disapprove of parents who choose to carry a fetus to term after receiving unfavorable prenatal genetic test results. Others assert that a pro-choice perspective brings an accompanying callous attitude towards the disabled. This was, for example, an undertone in the discussion of Governor Palin’s pregnancy during the 2008 campaign.

I know of no evidence for either assertion. I was very involved with the Obama campaign in 2008. All of us were pretty or very partisan Democrats. Many of us came to deeply oppose Governor Palin as the campaign progressed. None of us had any interest in attacking Governor Palin over her family issues or her pregnancy. That just wasn’t what the campaign was about. A surprising number of us were caregivers for relatives and friends living with genetic disorders or other disabilities. Core to the pro-choice position is—and certainly should be—profound respect for parents who choose to continue a pregnancy knowing that this choice may bring particularly challenging implications and responsibilities.

My reading of the polling data is that people’s attitudes regarding abortion are not correlated with people’s willingness to provide practical help to people living with disabilities, or with people’s attitudes towards families such as the Palins or the Santorums who have faced adversity or tragedy connected with genetic disorders. The poisonous terms of the culture wars have been mercifully absent in the world of disabilities.

Many of us on the left also believe that our preferred policy choices—universal health coverage, expanded educational services, expanded services and legal protections for the disabled, for example—are especially important to protect and nurture children who are born with conditions that prevent their bodies or their minds from properly working as they are supposed to do.

I have no problem with conservative politicians such as Santorum showing moving pictures of their own children. There’s a responsibility that comes with that. These same politicians should consider what’s happening around the country today as states—especially red ones—curb optional Medicaid and intellectual disability services in response to both a deep recession and congressionally-mandated budget cuts.

Douthat at times writes beautifully about these issues from what might rightly be called a “compassionate Catholic” perspective. Yet many of the moralizing politicians he admires are failing to step up. As someone once said, “Whatever you neglected to do unto one of these least of these, you neglected to do unto Me.”