Last week I tuned into the third and final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. I didn't watch it to inform my upcoming vote. I'd already decided who I was voting for (I'm not with her. But she's the strongest way I can stand against him). I watched for one reason: I was going to be one of the Americans who years from now could say, "I was there when the Commission on Presidential Debates officially merged with and subsequently revived the World Wrestling Federation."
The first two debates left a lot to be desired in terms of identifying where Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton stood on policies, but they made one thing undeniable: these two candidates have about as much mutual admiration for one another as Rocky Balboa and Clubber Lang did in Rocky III.
So, popcorn and drink in hand, I settled in.
Who's going to land the first punch?
Who mistakenly thinks I write that in jest?
Funny thing, tough. In the midst of unpredictable in its most unpredictable state - the unpredictable happened. Completely removed from the character of the previous two debates, Chris Wallace, the debate moderator, threw the punch heard around the world. He actually opened the debate by asking the candidates about real policies and pressed them for real positions. My popcorn ejected and sprawled across the floor beneath me.
The candidates first talked about supreme court appointments. Then about the second amendment. And then came the granddaddy of them all:
Chris Wallace said, "Well, let's pick up on another issue which divides you, and the justices that, whoever ends up winning this election appoints, could have a dramatic effect there. That's the issue of abortion. Mr. Trump, you're pro-life. And I want to ask you specifically. Do you want the court, including the justices that you will name, to overturn Roe v. Wade, which includes, in fact, states a woman's right to abortion."
When it comes to demonstrating just how polar opposite our two parties stand on issues - their determination to move as far away as they can possibly get from the other party's stance on anything - I do think abortion is the granddaddy of them all.
And in abortion, I think you find a perfect example of how passion for an issue can lead people to ultimately forget what the issue really is.
So Wallace throws out the abortion prompt. If you want to read word for word the responses both candidates gave, you can read the entire text of the third debate here: (Full transcript: Third 2016 Presidential Debate). But I'll summarize.
First - and do read and interpret for yourself - Trump never did answer the question "do you want the court to overturn Roe v. Wade." He said it's his opinion that is what would happen, but even after pushing, he never would answer straight up that's what he wants. This might not be concerning to some on the right who are pro-life. If not, you probably find it easier to dismiss the fact that Trump was once ardently pro-choice. He even hosted fund-raisers for the cause. You might find it easier to dismiss that Trump early in this campaign said women should be punished for abortion only to turn around and they should not. You might find it easier to dismiss that Trump has gone back and forth on his commitment to granting exceptions to abortion laws for rape, incest, and risk to the mother's health. Like back and forth monthly. And you might find it easier to dismiss how enthusiastically Trump applauds what Planned Parenthood does for women, yet clings to the promise to answer the Republican leadership's call to defund them if they don't stop offering abortions.
I don't completely fault Trump for his shaky stance. I personally don't think he's been in the pro-life corner long enough to memorize the pro-life lingo he's been coached to offer potential voters.
The only area where Trump did offer a strong stance on abortion was with later term partial birth abortions:
"If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that is okay and Hillary can say that that is okay, but it's not okay with me. Because based on what she is saying and based on where she's going and where she's been, you can take baby and rip the baby out of the womb. In the ninth month. On the final day. And that's not acceptable."
So I guess I stand corrected. Trump has memorized at least part of the lingo.
I will give Mr. Trump credit for one thing in that particular exchange. It was the only time all night the word "baby" was used. I'll draw on the importance of that in a minute.
Trump's response highlighted my growing concern with the Republican party's stance on abortion. It's a stance that really is far more "anti-abortion" than it is "pro-life". Trump was very dramatic in describing the brutality of the act of abortion itself, but never once addressed the often contributing circumstances that lead a mother to make that decision.
Let me be clear. I'm not suggesting any of the reasons above justify abortion.
I'm saying Republicans seem to have a far better understanding of abortion procedure than they do for the life forces weighing on the mother facing the abortion choice. They are also the party that is quick to criticize our government for providing assistance to mothers once they've made a pro-life decision and have multiple children they can't afford. It's the party that has a platform that doesn't want kids educated about family planning and counseled on abortion decisions or contraception - fully aware the teens most at risk for abortions won't be getting this education or counsel in their homes - where Republicans suggest they should be receiving it.
Policy after policy would seem to suggest Republicans are indeed strongly and consistently against aborting a human life. As for raising, nurturing, rooting for the success of that life outside of the delivery room. Let's just say I see inconsistencies, prejudices, and biases beyond the birth day.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton did a great job of presenting the agony a mom goes through when considering an abortion:
"You should meet with some of the women I've met with. Women I've known over the course of my life. This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. "
Mrs. Clinton seemed genuinely moved by the emotions a woman most certainly experiences when considering abortion. What Mrs. Clinton didn't address, what Democrats refuse to address, is why this decision is the worst possible choice. So I'll tell you why.
No matter what science says about when life "officially" begins. No matter what the constitution says about who has rights and when they "legally" collect them. No matter what a supreme court justice says about a woman's right to choose. And whether you want to call terminating a pregnancy an abortion, murder, or a medical procedure. Everyone knows or should know the following to be a fact.
An overwhelming majority of the time, a pregnancy that is not aborted results in the birth of a baby. A baby that becomes a human being that looks and talks and acts like the people in your family, in your office, in your community, in your church, in your school. These uninterrupted pregnancies produce our lifelong relationships, our world's diversity.
You know who knows this fact better than anyone? Mom's carrying babies and facing the worst decision of their lives.
The Democratic party used to acknowledge this present and future value of life by including words like "rare" and "only when necessary" in their platform when outlining their abortion stance. Today, that language is gone. They fight solely for the woman's right to choose and for her safety when she so chooses abortion. No longer is there any publicly stated concern, regret, or sadness that an opportunity for life had to be denied. They no longer recognize sad consequences can result from what one might suggest is the right choice.
Here's the reality - in my eyes. I believe abortion has become a very opportunistic political chess piece. For one set of party leaders it's an opportunity to say "Christians, we're with you" - for the other side - "Women, we have your backs". I say that because the number of abortions has been dropping dramatically over the last decade. But does either side celebrate that trend? No.
Democrats refuse to even make it a goal to reduce abortions - so why would they celebrate that trend at the risk of alienating someone who might contemplate an abortion in the future?
For Republicans, who do have a goal of reducing the number of abortions, celebrating that trend would risk giving credit to an administration they've publicly bashed for 8 years - and we know that's not going to happen.
As for me, I celebrate that trend. I'm pro-life. I believe every pregnancy should have the opportunity to become a walking, talking person. I believe that's God's desire as well. But God's desire is tied to his admiration of a baby, not a law. I believe God counts on us to influence the abortion decision with unconditional love and a pursuit of understanding and compassion, not legislation and supreme court justices. The former leads the world around us to see life as God sees it - beautiful and in his image. It builds a thirst for life, not the termination of it. The latter, well that's politics. Yes, politics can legalize and outlaw. It wins elections and loses them. But in politics, at least it seems to me when it comes to the abortion battle, our passion for the fight often leads us to forget what the fight is all about.