A Father Acts
By Stephen Baskerville, Free Congress Foundation, August 15, 2002
A Pennsylvania father recently obtained a court order preventing his girlfriend from having an abortion. John Stachokus said he would raise the child alone.
His victory was short-lived. This week Judge Michael Conahan lifted the order and allowed the abortion to go forward.
Yet his brief success sent shock waves through abortion rights groups, who uniformly expressed astonishment that such a thing could happen, even for a few days. That it could raises troubling questions about today's politics of the family.
Conservatives often excoriate liberals for their obsession with group rights and the strident political activism in pursuit of them. Allan Carlson has criticized what he calls a politics of "abstract or imaginary 'rights' that are divorced from a sense of duty and from the authentic human affections toward kin and neighbors."
Yet conservatives in recent years have, perhaps by necessity, imitated this style of politics. They invoke "the rights of the unborn" against the feminist "rights of women" and form nonprofit organizations that consciously adopt the methods of liberal "public interest" groups. To a point, this is natural and inevitable; as de Tocqueville pointed out, organizing political associations is as American as torchlight parades.
In recent decades however we have gone further, largely abandoning the politics of citizenship and civic duty in favor of a politics of activism and ideology.
An indication of how ideologically infused our politics (and our families) have become is indicated by a poll conducted by World Net Daily, asking readers, "Should a man be able to prevent his ex-girlfriend from aborting their unborn child?" The possible answers on both sides seemed to proceed from abstract ideological absolutes rather than simple principles of parenthood: "Yes, abortion in most or all cases is wrong." "Yes, otherwise it's discrimination against men." "No, it's completely up to the woman what to do." "Yes, as men are often forced to pay for kids they'd rather abort." The one option not available was simply, "Yes, because he is the child's fathers, and it is his child too."
Yet John Stachokus departed from today's norm. He did not organize a political action committee or call on his comrades among the oppressed to man the barricades. He simply acted, in Carlson's formulation, from "a sense of duty and from the authentic human affections toward kin." In doing so, he almost accomplished what numerous organized groups could not: He almost prevented an abortion.
His suit inspired the Family Research Council to speak out for fathers' "reproductive rights." One of the puzzling ironies of today's family politics is the strange silence of "pro-family" groups on the separation of born children from their fathers by family courts - what amounts to government forcibly ripping families apart. "The current abortion regime ignores completely the rights of the father and the rights of the child," said FRC president Ken Connor. The same may be said of government policy across the board.
But the most appropriately succinct comment may have come from Erik Whittington of the American Life League: "As fathers, I think we have the right to protect our children."
It is now a cliché that the family is the building block of "civil society," and conservatives argue that it is the basis for civil freedom as well. Yet some conservatives seem to have acquiesced in the civic displacement of families by interest groups.
Political organizations can do much good. But however sound their principles, ultimately they cannot be the ones to save the family.
In the end, the only people who can save children are their parents - citizens acting out of responsibility for their own children. Today cadres of political activists claim to know what is best for other people's children. Some are sincere. Many are charlatans, exploiting children for an ideological agenda. But right or wrong, what is more important is that none of them is responsible for the children they claim to be defending. If what they advocate is wrong, they can walk away from the consequences with impunity. Parents cannot do that. Imperfect as they may be, parents alone are by definition responsible for their children.
This in turn suggests that parents may carry untapped potential in confronting a larger problem of our politics by helping to restore something this country badly needs: a civic culture based on personal responsibility rather than ideology.
We who earn our living by politics tend to politicize everything, and this may happen whether our politics are left or right. The politicization of the family is the most frightening manifestation of the brave new world we have created. In this respect, our political methods may be more significant than our professed ends. We feel threatened when a private citizen makes an end run around the clash of interest groups and ideologies.
John Stachokus may not be an ideal role model; he did father a child out of wedlock, and his moral authority (though not his legal rights) would have been greater had he been married to the mother. But his lone gesture, and how we receive it, may say more about the health of our political culture than the most eloquent of our pols, pundits, and spokespersons.
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Dr. Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University and A Special Contributor to FCF News on Demand.
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The column below on the Pennsylvania abortion case is published by the Free Congress Foundation in Notable News Now.
NNN is circulated by e-mail and posted at: http://www.freecongress.org/commentaries/020815SB.asp.