Phil Gyford’s website

New York Review of Books, 9 February 2006

I circled a lot of ‘Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death’ by Garry Wills, a review of Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter. I keep finding myself getting intriguied by morals and ethics and would like to read more about them (so at least I could tell if there’s a difference between morals and ethics). On with the lengthy quoting.

Carter rightly says in Our Endangered Values that the norms of religion and politics are different. His religion, at any rate, places its greatest priority on love, of God and one’s neighbor, even to the point of self-sacrifice. But a president cannot make his nation sacrifice itself — that would be dereliction of duty. The priority of politics is justice, and love goes beyond that. But love can help one find out what is just, without equating the two. That is why none of us, even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers — the great majority of Americans — derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.

And further on, a chunk about how the “pro-life”/anti-abortion movement ends up causing more abortions:

The most common abortions, and the most common reasons cited for undergoing them, are caused by economic pressure compounded by ignorance.

Yet the anti-life movement that calls itself pro-life protects ignorance by opposing family planning, sex education, and informed use of contraceptives, tactics that not only increase the likelihood of abortion but tragedies like AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The rigid system of the “pro-life” movement makes poverty harsher as well, with low minimum wages, opposition to maternity leaves, and lack of health services and insurance. In combination, these policies make ideal conditions for promoting abortion, as one can see from the contrast with countries that do have sex education and medical insurance. Carter writes:

Canadian and European young people are about equally active sexually, but, deprived of proper sex education, American girls are five times as likely to have a baby as French girls, seven times as likely to have an abortion, and seventy times as likely to have gonorrhea as girls in the Netherlands. Also, the incidence of HIV/ AIDS among American teenagers is five times that of the same age group in Germany…. It has long been known that there are fewer abortions in nations where prospective mothers have access to contraceptives, the assurance that they and their babies will have good health care, and at least enough income to meet their basic needs.

The result of a rigid fundamentalism combined with poverty and ignorance can be seen where the law forbids abortion:

In some predominantly Roman Catholic countries where all abortions are illegal and few social services are available, such as Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, the abortion rate is fifty per thousand. According to the World Health Organization, this is the highest ratio of unsafe abortions [in the world].

A New York Times article that came out after Carter’s book appeared further confirms what he is saying: “Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, the United Nations reports, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions.” This takes place in countries where churches and schools teach abstinence as the only form of contraception — demonstrating conclusively the ineffectiveness of that kind of program.

A paragraph on, more stuff about disastrous unintended consequences, this time of pro-gun and pro-capital punishment policies:

Carter finds the same rigid and self-righteous — and self-defeating — policies at work across the current political spectrum. The pro-life forces have no problem with a gun industry and capital punishment legislation that are, in fact, provably pro-death. Carter, a lifelong hunter, does not want to outlaw guns and he knows that Americans would never do that. But timorous politicians, cowering before the NRA, defeat even the most sensible limitations on weapons useful neither for hunting nor for personal self-defense (AK-47s, AR-15s, Uzis), even though, as Carter shows, more than 1,100 police chiefs and sheriffs told Congress that these weapons are obstacles to law enforcement. The NRA opposed background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists and illegals, and then insisted that background checks, if they were imposed, had to be destroyed within twenty-four hours. The result of such pro-death measures, Carter writes, is grimly evident: “American children are sixteen times more likely than children in other industrialized nations to be murdered with a gun, eleven times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die from firearms accidents.” Where are the friends of the fetus when children are dying in such numbers?

Carter observes that “the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research reports that the rate of firearms homicide in the United States is nineteen times higher than that of 35 other high-income countries combined” (emphasis added). In the most recent year for which figures are available, these are the numbers for firearms homicides:

Ireland 54
Japan 83
Sweden 183
Great Britain 197
Australia 334
Canada 1,034
United States 30,419
[emphasis added]

Once again, Carter finds no support for the policies that make such a result possible in the US, in terms of either a loving religion or a just society.

Capital punishment is also a pro-death program. It does not protect life. It aligns us with authoritarian regimes: “Ninety percent of all known executions are carried out in just four countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia — and the United States” (emphasis added). Execution does not deter, as many studies have proved. In states that abolished it, Carter writes, capital crimes did not increase.

None of this is probably news, but every time I read statistics like these my brain is amazed anew, so I should at least keep a copy of this around for once.

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