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A Civil Public Debate?

The Test Cases of Abortion and Homosexuality

By Greg LaNave

Every now and then a commentator will say, about some politician's display of invective, "He must not have gotten the notice about the 'new civility.'" It is easy to deride the president's call for civility in public debate, either when the president or politicians supportive of his policies demonize or otherwise unfairly characterize their opponents (there is no easier charge to make in politics than that of hypocrisy), or more generally because it may seem strange to exalt civility as a supreme value when extraordinary issues of life and death are at stake.

However, there is a legitimate point in the call for civility: in a democratic society, when there are contentious issues of public debate, and when it really matters that we move forward as a country (and not simply endure the pendulum swing between the ascendancy of one party and the ascendancy of the other), really having a dialogue, really trying to find common ground, really trying to find and incorporate all that is best in different positions is important---really recognizing that we belong to the same polity, the same "civitas."

Really, there are at least two applicable meanings of "civility" here: (1) recognizing that we disagree, even fundamentally, but trying to find a way to live together anyway; (2) trying to move forward constructively in a public debate. In the first case, there is no real public debate. This, it seems to me, is the situation we face right now with the issue of abortion. I found President Obama's call for civility in "the debate" over abortion (in his commencement address at Notre Dame) to be disingenuous: there is no debate in this country right now over abortion. There is a deep divide between those who think that the child in the womb is a fully human life, and those who do not. To be sure, there are occasional "debates" about reasonable restrictions on abortion, but these are not debates about abortion: they are effectively tugs-of-war between the two sides.

The case is different, I think, when it comes to various issues concerning homosexuality, perhaps especially "gay marriage." The situation is like that of abortion in that there is a deep divide between those who regard homosexual activity as intrinsically disordered and those who do not---and I am not sanguine that natural-law discussions will get any better hearing here than they do in the case of abortion. But there are in fact points of debate: for example, what is society's interest in defining marriage? what would be the basis for a "right" to gay marriage? should society concern itself with the matter at all, or leave it up to religious communities? what are the likely societal outcomes of permitting gay marriage? There is no reason at all there cannot be a public debate on these and other such topics. Without that, all we will get will be an ongoing tug-of-war. And I fear that the libertarian ethos of our society will get the better of it here; younger generations---the future voting majority---seem not to regard homosexuality as a big deal.

Civility in public debate? Yes. But let's be honest about what is a debate and what is not. When the Washington Post lauds the president for calling for civility in the "debate" about abortion and demonizes political candidates who are firmly opposed to gay marriage, it gets the situation exactly wrong: there is no debate about abortion, but there needs to be one on issues related to gay marriage.

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