The Importance of This Year’s Elections for Secularists

    Climate change, reproductive choice, and saving public education may be the most crucial issues in this election season

    By Edd Doerr | April/May 2016
    Free Inquiry

    This year’s elections may be the most crucial since 1860. Foreign policy, the economy, social justice, tax policy, the appointment of Supreme Court justices, and the stagnation/retrogression of the middle and lower classes are just some of the many issues that our under-informed, distracted electorate will be asked to consider when choosing among the candidates. But in this column let me just highlight three of the most important ones.

    Climate change

    While the Paris agreements of late fall 2015 are a small step forward, it is fair to say that most American voters have yet to wrap their heads around the climate-change problem in all its depth and complexity. In addition to the global-warming effects of atmospheric carbon-dioxide buildup caused by burning fossil fuels and consequent sea-level rise, which poses threats to the 40 percent of the world’s population living in coastal areas, there are at least these other serious concomitants: environmental degradation; resource depletion; soil erosion and nutrient loss; deforestation; desertification; biodiversity shrinkage; toxic waste accumulation; growing freshwater shortages; decreasing access to rare minerals essential to modern manufacturing; rising consumer demand and consumption; and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence. Much of this was detailed in Michael Klare’s 2001 book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, and many other books.

    Though too rarely mentioned, all of this is fueled by human population growth, tripled since World War II to well over seven billion. Scientists have been warning that this would happen since the 1950s. In 1974, the U.S. government produced the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) report, signed by President Gerald Ford and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, which spelled out the problem and recommended universal access to contraception and abortion. Mysteriously, however, the NSSM 200 report was “classified”  and buried until shortly before the 1994 United Nations population conference in  Cairo. When the report was finally published in 1996 in The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy by Stephen Mumford, I was one of the very few writers who published reviews of it, in several forums. Meanwhile, reactionary Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Henry Hyde succeeded in getting Congress to pass legislation designed to interfere with broad domestic and foreign access to reproductive health aid. As I pointed out a year ago in the National Catholic Reporter, were it not for the 1.5 billion  abortions performed worldwide since 1974 (far too many of them illegal and dangerous), world population today would exceed a mind-boggling, unsustainable nine billion!

    This brings us to the conservative religious and political leaders who have gone all-out to deny the dangers posed by overpopulation and to obstruct efforts to deal with the problem. Pope Francis may be commended for his good words on  climate change and social justice, but if he fails to reverse the Vatican’s absurd ban on contraception, ignored by most Catholics but all too influential with politicians, those good words will fall well short. Opponents of  universal access to contraception and safe, legal abortion must be seen as inimical to our species’ surviving, much less thriving.

    Reproductive choice

    Who by now is not aware of the massive Republican effort, in Congress and state legislatures, to defund Planned Parenthood on the phony charge of selling fetal tissue? Only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget is devoted to abortions, while the rest is used for a variety of women’s health issues, particularly those of women of more limited means. Then there is in recent years the massive Republican flood of  state laws clamping down on clinics that perform abortions, thus denying an increasing number of women—mostly poor women—access to various forms of health care.

    Religion is inserted into the issue by conservative religious leaders and politicians who insist that the Bible is on their side, a claim that is clearly phony. The Bible does not really deal with abortion. Anyone who bothers to look into it would see that the Bible actually supports the science side of the argument. Here is how: Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 state that “God created man in his own image” and humans became persons at their first breath. To cut to the chase, if “God” is not flesh and blood and DNA, then the Bible authors must be referring to some other qualities, such as consciousness and will, which modern science shows are not possible until sometime after the fetal brain is sufficiently wired to permit consciousness, after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. About 90 percent of abortions are performed by thirteen weeks and over 99 percent by twenty weeks. The small percentage that occur after “viability” at twenty-three to twenty-four weeks are due only to serious medical problems, such as threat to the woman’s life or severe fetal abnormality. This point was made in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the 1988 case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, signed by 165 distinguished scientists including twelve Nobel laureates, one of whom was DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick. (Note: I engineered the brief, which grew out of an Americans for Religious Liberty conference of scientists, lawyers, and theologians on “Abortion Rights and Fetal ‘Personhood.’”) Judaism, we might note, has always generally regarded personhood as beginning at birth.

    Of course, readers of this column may well be indifferent to what the Bible says on this matter, but it is useful to know that one of the main arguments against women’s rights of conscience and religious freedom on this issue is essentially groundless. Opposition to abortion rights, if not based on what the Bible actually says, must be based on something else. That something else is the misogyny found throughout the Bible (and the Qur’an) and deeply rooted in most societies today. Official Catholic opposition to women priests and assorted evangelical forms of misogyny, not to mention Orthodox Jewish and Muslim forms of it, are among the many manifestations of that worldwide ailment.

    Public education

    Mostly under the public radar (unless you live in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, or poorer parts of California and other states) are the endless, ever-rising assaults on public education, teachers, and teacher unions, the subject of my last two columns. As I write, the news has just broken that Senator and presidential aspirant Ted Cruz has introduced a twenty-three-page bill “to expand school choice in the District of Columbia” through voucherlike “educational savings accounts” (ESAs). D.C.’s elected but nonvoting delegate immediately voiced her opposition. Cruz disdains the fact that D.C. voters in 1981 rejected a similar plan in a referendum by 89 percent to 11 percent. (Jeb Bush bragged about his support for school vouchers in one of the debates but neglected to mention that Florida voters rejected his voucher plans at the polls in 2012 by 55 percent to 45 percent.) Earlier in January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association which, if the court upholds the plaintiff’s opposition to paying “agency fees” for the benefits they receive as a result of collective bargaining, could devastate teacher (and other) unions while severely damaging the teaching profession and harming the nearly 90 percent of students in our public schools.

    Also in January came the announcement that the Walton Family Foundation will pour $1 billion over the next five years into efforts to push various “school choice” initiatives, meaning school vouchers and charter schools. The Walton Foundation, of course, is the beneficiary of the Walmart retail colossus, noted for exporting American jobs to foreign sweatshops, underpaying its employees (many of whom augment their slim paychecks with food stamps courtesy of Uncle Sam), and funneling piles of money to campaigns to divert public funds to sectarian and other private schools.

    The hottest new book on this huge problem, just off the press, is The End of Public Education: The Corporate Reform Agenda to Privatize Education by Davic W. Hursh (Routledge, 2016). Hursh’s short (123-page) opus goes well beyond just vouchers and tax credits for private schools to public funding of for-profit charter schools, management companies, and suppliers of services. Most of the besiegers are people who have little or no experience as actual classroom teachers but would like to turn teachers into something like factory assembly-line drones producing widgets. This is not a criticism of properly run charters that play by the same rules as public schools—though we need to keep in mind the respected 2014 Stanford University CREDO study, which found that nearly 40 percent of charters are  worse than regular public schools, while fewer than 20 percent are any better, due mainly to their selectivity in admissions.

    Missing from the grandiose plans of the pseudo-reformers or “reformists” and privatizers: consideration of what real, experienced educators know is needed to improve public education, including more adequate and more equitably distributed funding; smaller classes; richer curricula; universal pre-K; wraparound medical and social services; more serious efforts to alleviate the poverty and racism afflicting a quarter of our kids; strong teacher unions; an end to overtesting and teaching to the test; and an end to the diversion of public funds to nonpublic schools not answerable to taxpayers. Hursh, professor of Teaching and Curriculum at the University of Rochester, names names and pins tails on donkeys. He concludes that the reformists’ efforts, if not derailed, will wreck public education in the United States and send the teaching profession down the drain. His book rates five stars.

    These three priority issues and many others demand serious efforts and prioritizing this election year by American voters of all persuasions. Divisive matters and other distractions need to be put off until after November.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.

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