Cynthia M. Allen

Abortion debate has become circus at clinics, on cable, in Texas Capitol

No one who pays attention to politics and culture would deny we live in particularly contentious times. But it seems, in recent months, even our policy “debates” have sunk to new lows.

When it comes to discussing issues that matter, too many of us have become less serious, more susceptible to extreme and absurd arguments and drawn to increasingly unhelpful tactics. This is especially true when it comes to already divisive issues like abortion.

Consider the recent comments by Alabama representative John Rogers, who argued in opposition to an abortion ban that “some kids are unwanted, so you kill them now or kill them later.”

Or the now viral “debate” on Chris Cuomo’s primetime show on CNN during which former New York City Democratic politician Christine Quinn made the laughable and wholly unscientific assertion that, “When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her.”

Still, the most unfortunate and illuminating example of the utter collapse of civility and rationality in the debate over abortion comes courtesy of Brian Sims, a state representative from my hometown of Philadelphia.

Last week, the self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights, who quite ironically represents a district in the City of Brotherly Love, proudly filmed and then broadcast on social media his unrelenting harassment of a peaceful protester — an elderly woman — outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

That protester did not appear to be an outspoken activist like Sims; she didn’t carry signage or engage people entering the clinic — at least no such behavior was caught on video or described by Sims. Instead, she paced the sidewalk quietly praying, a rosary clasped in her hands.

To any reasonable person, even one unopposed to abortion, she was not a threat to anyone attempting to enter the clinic. But to Sims, her vulnerability and peacefulness made her an easy target.

“An old white lady,” the representative assailed her, “telling people what is right to do with their bodies. Shame on you. Shame.”

Sims proceeded to mock her race, age and religion and encourage anyone watching who recognized the woman to provide her name and address so that he could stand outside of her home and protest. Exactly what he’d protest remains unclear.

“You’re out here shaming people for something they have a constitutional right to do,” he continued, a rather dubious claim from a civil rights attorney who most certainly knows that abortion is not an enumerated right in the Constitution. Free speech on the other hand ...

Most bizarre about Sims’ verbal assault was his decision to publish and share it. What worthy cause could he possibly advance by exhibiting such utter disdain for a person — likely a constituent — peacefully exercising her right to express a perspective shared by half of Americans?

In fairness, the same might be said of Arlington Rep. Tony Tinderholt, who earlier this year proposed a so-called “pro-life” bill that would have criminalized abortion, classified it as homicide and made a woman who received an abortion eligible for the death penalty.

“I’m not specifically criminalizing women. What I’m doing is equalizing the law,” Tinderholt argued, comparing abortion to the murder of a pregnant woman. But Tinderholt failed to recognize what most pro-lifers readily accept — that many women seeking abortion require empathy, care and viable alternatives — not prosecution.

Indeed, not all of the unhelpful behavior, rhetoric and policy proposals occur on the side of so-called reproductive rights.

In this case, the bill was roundly criticized by conservative pundits and even some pro-life organizations, recriminations that probably helped ensure its demise in the Texas Senate. That’s more than can be said about the antics of Rogers, Quinn and Sims, who appear to have endured relatively little criticism from fellow Democrats. Even Sims’ response to outrage from pro-lifers fell short of an actual apology.

More and more states are considering and enacting legislation to address so-called abortion rights — some to expand those rights and others to restrict them. Neither cause is well-served by extreme policies, rhetoric or tactics.

If we want to participate in the debate, we must do so with rational arguments, respectful behavior and condemnation of those who do not act accordingly.

Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Editorial Board and writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.
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