Saturday, January 19, 2013

40 years after Roe

Forty years ago we got Roe v Wade. And the battle has waged ever since. Forgive the length of this post, but I want to share my thoughts on this divisive topic. And while my thoughts are not necessarily "Buddhist" in construction, how I feel about this topic is guided by my Buddhist understanding of how the world works.

First, I must clearly state that personally I believe that taking another person's life, including that of an unborn person, is simply wrong in any and all circumstances -- even in self-defense. I believe that way because killing another person represents an outcome one has hurled him or herself toward through a series of extraordinarily poor decisions that could have been interrupted just about anywhere along the way.

Having said that, should I find myself in a situation that defending my own life means taking another's, I suspect I will fight to the death. But if I should emerge from such a fray victorious, there will be consequences for my actions. Even if I am found legally innocent of any criminal act, I will nonetheless face the karmic consequences of my actions, consequences that may manifest themselves in any number of ways, not the least of which will be an unsettled mind that will on a daily basis struggle with what I did and how I might have avoided it.

I cannot foresee every situation, but I can take steps right now to avoid potential situations that may put me in a position of behaving in a manner contrary to the way I believe. And on occasion, despite my intentions, I do act unskillfully and find myself in awkward situations.

But I got there because of the choices I made, even when I thought the choices I was making were good ones.

Which is a long, round-about way of explaining why, despite my personal belief that taking someone's life, including that of the unborn, is always wrong and never without consequence, I will fight to ensure that abortion is kept legal and easily accessed.

To impose my personal belief on another person about whom I know nothing, about whose life challenges I know nothing, strikes me as a supreme form of righteousness that frankly makes me sick. Yes, perhaps that person made a series of poor decisions, but they were his or her decisions and to suggest that I know what consequences he or she should suffer and how these consequences out to be delivered when my own life is far from perfect - well, I'm not a Christian, but it seems to me that Jesus said something about fretting over the speck of dust in another person's eye while ignoring the rock in my own.

The Buddha taught us also that all our actions have consequence and that we cannot always predict the outcomes of our actions. Besides, there are some things, the Buddha taught, that we really don't need to know. Despite that he gave us tips, such as his guidance to his son Rahula, to avoid making unskillful choices, and with the simile of the salt crystal he explains that we have the ability to mitigate future consequences via our current actions. The Buddha is also quite clear with the story of Angulimala that while we have the option to renounce our past completely and pick up a new, more virtuous life - sort of like being 'born again' - we can never escape our past and the consequences we have set in motion.

Believing this, I know that anyone facing the ominous decision of abortion has been through a series of events leading her to that choice and that she will experience consequences unknown to me - and frankly none of my business - that she may or may not be able to resolve in her current life.

Even if you don't believe as I do, there are societal benefits to having legal access to abortion, and one of these benefits is not always part of the public discussion: The impact legal abortion has on crime.

What raised this connection was a 2001 study that is highly cited within the scientific literature and at the time of its release got a fair bit of attention in the popular press. But since then it has oddly disappeared from the primary discourse. The study notes that crime rates in the U.S. began a decline roughly 18 years after Roe v. Wade, and in states where abortion was already legal and widely available as early as 1970, crimes rights there began a similar decline much earlier than the rest.

While purely correlative, it does strongly suggest a causative relationship when you consider certain key facts about crime: who commits the most crime, and what environmental circumstances are more likely to lead a person to crime than others. Let's start with the last and work backwards.

For starters, it's pretty well established that low income areas have higher crime rates than more affluent neighborhoods; that low-income households produce more members who commit crime; that substance abuse is strongly connected with crime. In my journalism career I've worked with many police chiefs and sheriffs who repeatedly said that if we, as a society, could get a handle on substance abuse, crime would drop out of sight - especially alcohol abuse. While things like meth and crack and other harder drugs certainly are connected with crime, the law enforcement folk I worked with universally said alcohol abuse is the number one problem.

It is also pretty well established that those who regularly commit crime are individuals with a number of behavioral and character flaws. Often these flaws develop in childhood while being raised in highly stressed households, either economically or emotionally. For about 15 years I worked with delinquent and emotionally disturbed children and not a single one of them was unable to sense on some level that their parents just really didn't want them. As one boy told me, "My mother had a choice to keep me or the dog. She kept the dog."

Growing up in that type of environment frequently leads to substance abuse, which law enforcement will universally will say is the sin quo non of most crime. Substance abuse impairs one's decision making skills, and criminal activity is the result of flawed decisions.

Next, who commits the most crime? Crime statistics year after year report the same thing: most crime is committed by young men between the ages of 18 and about 26. In fact, it is mostly young men of color.

Maybe it's starting to become clear how abortion plays into this. Because a reasonable hypothesis to make based on the above information is that there ought to be a decline in the population most likely to commit a crime roughly 18 years after abortion becomes legal, which in turn should result in a decline in the number of crimes committed.

And that's exactly what this country saw. Just take some time and look at this chart. Starting in 1960, the data shows crime continuing to rise along with population. But low and behold, beginning in 1991, we see that trend reversing! And when we look at the specific types of crimes more likely to be committed by a young male - property crimes, robbery, and vehicle theft - the reversal in trend is even more pronounced despite a few stutters between 1991-93. There's even a reversal in murders committed started in 1993.

Granted, this does not on its own suggest a causative relationship, but it's nonetheless worth noting and worth further study. It's quite reasonable to conclude - and Occam's razor would suggest this as well - that with abortion legal and widely available, you have fewer unwanted children born and being raised in highly-stressed conditions that are very closely associated with anti-social behavior such as substance abuse and criminal activity.

In Buddhism, virtually all unskillful behavior arises out of either greed, hatred, or delusion. As a man, let alone a gay man, imposing on women this notion that they must carry to birth all pregnancies no matter how conceived is far more evil than terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

Any woman who faces that choice is facing a terrible decision, and not all of them do so with caprice. In fact, I firmly believe that most do not look at such a choice without it weighing heavy on their hearts and minds.

It is their choice and should remain so.