In the last few days the hot-button issues of sex education and abortion have been prominent in the news. In the first case, we learn that in California, elementary school teachers have been issued new guidelines on how to discuss sex education in the classroom. These guidelines, comprehensively known as the California Health Framework, include discussing gender identity and gender-neutral and LGBTQ-inclusive language, with children as young as kindergarten. In addition, the teachers are encouraged to discuss masturbation and the promotion of safe sex practices for both straight and LGBTQ students. Again, this is addressed to children as young as 5 or 6.
The new guidelines were adopted and disseminated because such knowledge is considered to be potentially life-saving. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people identifying as LGBTQ or transgendered. There are other reasons as well: “It saves lives. It levels the information playing field for every student. It links students to resources. It dispels myths and stereotypes. It affirms everyone’s membership in the classroom, school and greater community. It creates safer spaces.”
Naturally, since the subject is always a delicate one, it has stirred up controversy and protest, this being a fairly representative sampling of reactions:
“I am Glad My kids are 35 and 33 Years old. All I want it is for Schools to teach Math, English , History, Science, Biology, etc.”
“Overstep—schools teach, parents can impart values around this.”
“Forcing this subject on children is abhorrent, misguided, and quite frankly disturbing”
The other subject concerns abortion. We all know that this issue stirs up powerful reactions, indeed, some misguided people feel strongly enough about it to commit murder—most often at abortion clinics. People committing this violence are seemingly unaware of the irony of a Pro-Lifer killing an opponent because of his/her views on abortion. These issues, however, become especially contested when election campaigns rev up and candidates are expected to state their position, usually one that is consistent with their party affiliation, and one that frequently becomes a litmus test for a candidate’s viability.
So it is no surprise that, as the 2020 election approaches, Alabama’s governor Kay Ivey, signed into law on Wednesday a measure to ban most abortions in the state. Alabama has been followed by Missouri and Georgia, strongly suggestive of a growing movement that is bound to spread to other states as well now that it has started. Ivey’s statement, “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God” flirts perilously with the boundaries separating Church and State, but appeals greatly to the conservative element of her state. Indeed, it is hardly worth noting once again that Trump’s election to the Presidency has widened the distance between the Democrats and the Republicans, between the Liberals and Conservatives. The Alabama law has been called, “the most restrictive abortion legislation in the country”, one that makes no exception even for conceptions resulting from rape or incest and that would outlaw abortion after 6 weeks from conception. The reality is that most women don’t even know that they are pregnant at that early stage, so this is virtually total ban on abortion. Numerous critics and pundits have commented that this new-found impetus for the passage of such an oppressive anti-abortion law can be attributed to Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment as the fifth conservative vote on the Supreme Court.
The polarization revealed on these two issues only serves to underscore the seriousness of the ideological division currently tearing this country apart—a division whose aim, on the conservative side, is to turn back the clock to former times in American history. Indeed, Alabama architects of the anti-abortion legislation have frankly admitted that its purpose is to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to end a pregnancy.
The issues of sex education and abortion are important in themselves, of course, but they are embedded in an even bigger issue. What exactly are the responsibilities of the government vis a vis the citizens? Who gets to make the big decisions that define our morality and shapes our lives?
It is not my purpose here to argue for or against sex education and abortion. In fact, that would run counter to the whole point that I am making: how you and I feel about these issues should be our personal business. The question is, does the government have the right to take away our decision-making process and legislate these choices for us? What is the nature of government and what exactly is its relationship to its citizens?
The Social Contract, originally published as On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Rights, by Swiss philosopher and educator Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a seminal text frequently quoted when discussing the theory of government and the rights of the citizens. Yet the definition of the “Social Contract” that regulates any society is murky at best: “The term ‘social contract’ refers to the idea that the state exists only to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power enjoyed by the state. The people can choose to give or withhold this power”.
Indeed, Rousseau himself embodied this ambiguity and paradox. As the author of Emile, or On Education, he is widely considered to be the father of modern education. Yet he fathered four children outside of wedlock and then abandoned them in an orphanage. This inexplicable incongruity reveals the chasm that can exist between a theory and its practice, between philosophizing about morality, and practicing it.
The truly interesting part about these two issues is that one is Liberal and the other Conservative. People from both ends of the political spectrum are equally outraged and protesting. The Liberals are up in arms about the criminalization of abortion and the potential overthrow of Roe vs. Wade.
The Conservatives are enraged by the idea that children could be swayed by educators to become gay –as is their mistaken belief. The fact that both sides are unhappy could be taken as an indication that government intervention may be seen by a majority of the population as unwarranted and undesirable—though for different reasons.
Anyone who reads my column will know that my purpose is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular position, I’m more interested in airing the problems that beset our society, looking at them from multiple angles, and trying to understand their deeper significance and how they do– or will– impact us as individuals.
So, how far can government go to regulate individual moral choices and what are our responsibilities? Because the ultimate point is this: democracy gives every one of us the theoretical right to choose and make our opinion heard. Our responsibility is to inform ourselves, make a decision based on the information gleaned and our moral foundation, and then make our voices heard through our vote. If we ignore our responsibility then we abdicate the power that democracy gives us—because in order to own that power, we must use it.