The war metaphor, a staple of electoral rhetoric, is again at full blast on American soil. There are strategies and stratagems; retreats, regrouping, and capitulation. This rhetoric summons supporters, rallies troops, and props up the leaders’ boldness. The Democrats’ “Forward” battle cry, though indeterminate (forward to where?), is unabashedly combative. The Republicans’ “We Believe in America” is substantial and affirming, a reveille of defining values. Battleground states are relentlessly fought over. On November 6 there will be victors and vanquished.
War rhetoric, expressive of conflicting views, may become insidious. This is the case with the so-called “war on women” brandished against pro-life Republicans by pro-choice Democrats and their allies, such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League). Obamacare’s HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate requires that every employer health plan provide free sterilization, abortifacient drugs, and contraceptives. Refusing on religious or conscience grounds triggers stifling fines. The Blunt Amendment, which would have offered some accommodation in these cases, was defeated at the Democrat-controlled Senate. So-called Abortion and related reproductive rights are, pro-choicers contend, a stronghold at risk of usurpation.
Besides being a vilifying ploy, the “war on women” rhetoric is demeaning and inconsistent. It assumes that women’s votes are driven solely by sex-specific issues, overlooking those that affect everyone. Another questionable assumption is that contraceptives and sterilization are necessarily “preventive health care” and, therefore, health insurance must always cover them. Is the government waging war against its citizens because it does not exact coverage of their aerobic classes? Of their toothpaste and multivitamins? Aren’t these, too, preventive health care services and products?
How can illusory rights be confiscated? Basic human rights are inalienable and universal. Every human being is so entitled. Grounded in the reality of the human person, fundamental human rights protect core human goods and enable human flourishing. The rights to life and to freedom of conscience and religion are thus not reducible to choices or individual preferences. The right to freely exercise our religious faith is essentially different from a choice between chicken or beef. Just as our right to freedom does not imply that we may choose to kill our teenager or spouse, it does not imply that we may choose to kill our unborn baby.
The “war on women” battle cry conveniently overlooks practices that are quietly accepted, or even actively promoted, by pro-choicers’ positions. These practices, if not altogether war, certainly resemble it. With the White House’s blessing, a House of Representatives bill that would have made performing or coercing a sex-selective abortion a federal crime was recently defeated. Isn’t sex-selection abortion, whose victims are mainly baby girls, an assault on women? Isn’t abortion, no longer tolerated as “rare” but touted as “safe,” in spite of its negative physical and emotional effects, such as increased risk of breast cancer, infertility, hemorrhages, future miscarriages, depression, and even death? Aren’t on-demand sterilization, the morning-after pill, and other abortifacient contraceptives, even for minors? In all of these cases, women (and men) suffer serious physical, social, and psychological wounds.
Furthermore, the underlying socialistic oppressor vs. oppressed narrative clashes with democratic values. It approaches issues in terms of class or power struggles between social groups. The polarizing and reductionist “class warfare” tactic profits from the old divide and conquer rule. This pitting of human groups—men vs. women, rich vs. poor, bourgeoisie vs. proletariat, whites vs. nonwhites, public vs. private sector, secular vs. religious, humans vs. nonhumans—expects to gain from dwelling on class conflict, rivalry, and hostility, rather than from building upon the complementariness, cooperation, and commonalities of persons in a human society. It may too be devastating, as witnessed by that other infamous Great Leap Forward (1958-61)—the People’s Republic of China’s radical socioeconomic transformation that cost countless lives and unspeakable misery.
In spite of its early promises of enlightened bipartisanship, the war rhetoric seems to be a favorite of the Obama administration. The President’s “We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will” heads the White House’s website. In 2011 Obama decreed that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman) was “unconstitutional” and instructed the Department of Justice not to defend it. Vice President Joe Biden admonished a group of southern Virginia followers that “[Republicans and Wall Street] are going to put y’all back in chains.” At a NARAL Pro-Choice America fundraiser, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said “We’ve come a long way in women’s health over the last few decades, but we are in a war,” referring to critics of federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the health reform law. This war rhetoric pits executive vs. legislative and judicial powers, government fiat vs. religious and conscience rights, capitalist vs. working class. Moreover, donning the mantle of justice, it disturbingly legitimizes illicit intrusion.
Just wars are prudently waged against oppressive, unfair systems, not against the human person. So too the war metaphor is best employed when there is just cause and moral means. Let us judiciously combat policies that undermine the respect for human life and dignity and the inalienable human rights that protect and affirm them. Let us also oppose those policies that subvert democratic and constitutional tenets. Let the just war be waged and won.
Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.