Monday, May 18, 2009

Iowa: Field of Dreams for Marriage Equality

In recent months, I have become increasingly proud of my adopted state of Iowa - "The Field of Dreams." For example, Iowa was instrumental in launching the candidacy of Barrack Obama at the caucuses in January 2008. Most recently, Iowa reinvigorated the movement for marriage equality with the monumental Iowa Supreme Court ruling in April (Varnum v. Brien) legalizing same-sex marriage.

The recent Iowa Supreme Court decision actually follows a long line of trendsetting decisions in the state on behalf of progressive causes and civil rights. For instance, Iowa abolished slavery in 1839 and banned segregation in public schools in 1869 - decades before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Iowa was also the first state to admit women to the bar to practice law and was one of the first states to allow married women to own property. The state also legalized interracial marriage long before most states in the country.


Remember how dismal things appeared to be for the marriage equality movement back in November when California - reputedly the most progressive state in the union - rejected same-sex marriage with Proposition 8? Iowa singlehandedly brought back a sense of national momentum to the issue, with other states soon following Iowa's lead. When the Heartland speaks, America listens.

Significantly, the Iowa Legislature refused to consider a constitutional amendment banning the practice, with Democratic legislative leaders actually declaring their support for the Court's decision. As Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal noted: "I see a bunch of people that merely want to profess their love for each other and want state law to recognize that. Is that so wrong? I don’t think that’s so wrong.” I was also very proud of my own state senator, Daryl Beall (D-Fort Dodge), who has publicly stated his support for marriage equality, noting that eventually same-sex marriage will be accepted throughout the state. ''Iowa's had a long tradition of ensuring the basic rights and protections of citizens,'' he said.

More recently, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) revealed that he had changed his mind on the subject and now supports same sex marriage. "It seems to me Iowa has always been in the forefront of extending civil rights to people, always in the forefront of this," he observed. "This, again, is just another step in that march that we've had in Iowa and I think now you see a lot of other states falling in line."

Such comments have clearly demonstrated that same-sex marriage is quickly becoming a mainstream political position for Democrats in Iowa and other states. But the fight for marriage equality is far from over in Iowa and elsewhere. It is important to remember why this issue is so important to millions of Americans across the country.


The current debate over same-sex marriage is the most recent battle involving the progressive evolution of marriage as a legal institution. It is not really a religious issue. Rather, it is a civil rights issue involving equal protection under the law, as expressed in Iowa's state constitution.

Significantly, there are hundreds of rights accorded to married couples including joint tax returns, inheritance rights, disability benefits, worker's compensation, spousal/child support, insurance benefits, medical leave, bereavement leave, retirement benefits, hospital visitation, divorce, etc.

To really understand this issue, it is first important to recognize that marriage is not an "unchanging institution,” as conservative Christians often allege. In reality, marriage has undergone many important changes over the years.

For example, marriage used to be completely male-dominated. Women had virtually no legal rights in marriage for centuries, often lacking the right to own or inherent property. Marriage has also changed in laws governing rape and domestic violence. Until the 1970s, most states did not have any laws protecting women from being raped by their husbands.

Probably the most relevant legal precedent is how many states used to have anti-miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage. It was not until Loving v. Virginia (1967) that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such laws. In this case, Richard Loving - a white man - and Mildred Loving - a black woman - had wed legally in the District of Columbia and then returned to their home state of Virginia in 1958. They were arrested in Virginia for violating that state's so-called "racial integrity act." Police actually broke into their home in the middle of night, hoping to catch them in the act of having sex - another crime. The Lovings were quickly convicted of the "felony" of interracial marriage. The judge sentenced them to one year in prison - but were instead ordered to leave the state in 1959.


After hearing the case, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses in support of its decision in overturning anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and other states. Nonetheless, opinion polls taken at the time found that approximately seventy percent of the general public disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision ending state bans on interracial marriage. Many fundamentalist Christians of the day - especially in the South - quoted from the Bible to condemn the decision, while characterizing interracial marriage as “sinful.”

The Virginia judge in the Loving case, for instance, invoked God and the Bible in defense of his original ruling. "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages," he proclaimed. "The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court did not simply affirm what was popular and ostensibly "Christian." Instead, the Court effectively expanded the legal definition of marriage to include a broader number of people. It is significant that MIldred Loving (the black wife of the white man in the Loving case) revealed her strong support for same-sex marriage prior to her death in 2008, noting:

"I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about."

I applaud the Iowa Supreme Court for a similarly humane and constitutionally correct decision in striking down Iowa's ban on same-sex marriage. This is an issue that relates directly to civil rights protections under the law – which should never be dependent on any kind of majority vote. Such a popular vote could easily lead to a tyranny of the majority that would trample individual rights - as we saw recently in California.

Though marriage can have religious connotations, it is primarily a governmental/legal institution that licenses and codifies relationships while guaranteeing attendant rights. To deny same-sex couples equal marriage rights is contrary to basic liberty. That's what America is supposed to be about: Liberty and equal opportunity for all, rather than mindless conformity to religious dogma or homophobic bigotry.

Hopefully, as goes Iowa, so goes the nation.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Liberal Manifesto for Discouraging Abortion, but Keeping it Legal

There is an emerging liberal consensus in this country that we should emphasize alternatives to abortion while at the same time not embrace any new abortion prohibitions. Like many liberals, I have struggled with this issue for years. Admittedly, I have ethical concerns about abortion particularly when it is utilized for reasons other than saving the life or health of the mother, rape, and incest. Yet, I am opposed to re-criminalizing the procedure or using the power of the state to compel women to carry a fetus to term. I am unwilling to have the state incarcerate doctors or women who have undergone the procedure. Common sense dictates that women must make this highly personal decision for themselves in consultation with their doctor – without any fear of prosecution.

I would hope that liberals, moderates, and conservatives would come together to find measures to discourage abortion short of its re-criminalization. In other words, rather than being pro-life in a legal sense, I think it is time for a new agenda that presents birth as an ethical alternative to legal abortion. Here are steps I would recommend to make abortion rare while keeping it safe and legal:

1. It is time to end abstinence-only sex education in public schools and instead provide for comprehensive sex education. Studies have shown that young people undergoing abstinence-only programs delay sex a bit longer than their cohorts, but once they start having sex are much more likely to do so without protection. Thus, abstinence-only programs ultimately result in more teen pregnancies and abortion. If we really want to limit abortion, then we should have comprehensive sex education that emphasizes the importance of effective birth control measures.

2. It is time to streamline the adoption process for couples seeking children. Currently, the adoption process in many states is incredibly cumbersome and financially burdensome. Why should adoption be so difficult? Laws or regulations should be enacted that make adoption easier, quicker, and less expensive. Hopefully, as a result of such reforms, more pregnant women will embrace adoption over abortion and more couples will opt to adopt.

3. It is time to remove any legal barriers to single parent adoptions and gay parent adoptions. If we really want to present adoption as a viable choice for unwed or poverty-stricken mothers, then we must dramatically expand the pool of potential adopters.

4. It is time to provide universal health care that includes state-funded prenatal care for uninsured women. Pregnancy is often financially burdensome for impoverished and single moms. If we are really serious about reducing the incidence of abortion and infant mortality, then it only makes sense to involve the state in providing medical assistance for uninsured women and their children.

5. It is time to emphasize preventive care in medicine, with doctors providing comprehensive advice to women about pregnancy in a timely manner. With universal health care instituted, women who had been uninsured will no longer abstain from regular visits to their physician. This will provide more opportunities for doctors to advise women on the best ways to avoid pregnancy.

6. It is time to mandate that all abortion clinics and family planning centers provide all women inquiring about abortion with information on the issue of adoption, government assistance for prenatal care, and potential risks in abortion procedures. Such information must be strictly factual and not advocate any particular viewpoint or course of action. It seems only appropriate that women should be fully and completely informed about any and all of their legal choices prior to consenting to an abortion.

I realize that this agenda is controversial and may provoke some dissent on both the left and the right. But it is one way in which many pro-life and pro-choice supporters might be able to find some common ground.