Immigration, abortion and the next president

The struggle for equality has defined the United States from its earliest days, when its declarations of liberty clashed with its embrace of real-world inequities. More than two centuries later, we continue to debate the full meaning of equality in American life.

We have seen great progress -- no longer does any serious person question the promises of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which extended the rights to due process and “equal protection of the laws” to all inhabitants of all the states. Yet many of the social issues that divide us reflect a still-unrealized commitment to equality for all.

John McCain and Barack Obama mostly hold opposing positions on such issues. For example, Obama would allow gays to serve in the military; McCain would not. Obama left the campaign trail to fly back to Washington and vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that restricted the rights of workers to sue for pay discrimination; McCain skipped the vote, saying that women would be better served by training and education than by expanded access to the courts. In this week’s debate, McCain described the act as a “trial lawyer’s dream.” Still, there are some areas of agreement: Both candidates, regrettably, oppose gay marriage, and both, happily, support stem cell research.

Today we examine their positions on two issues that generate extreme rancor and division: immigration reform and reproductive rights.

Immigration is one subject on which McCain and Obama broadly agree. Both acknowledge that the system is broken and favor securing borders, creating a guest-worker program and providing a path to citizenship. As a sponsor of two comprehensive reform bills, McCain should be unbeatable on this issue. Standing up to fellow Republicans (and some Democrats), he declared that the nation could not turn its back on the impoverished millions who have come here to work and prosper. Unfortunately, the free-thinker has become a follower, trailing behind the worst instincts of his party. Abandoning problem-solving for politics, McCain has made border security and employment enforcement his new mandate. That may be good Republican politics, but it’s not sound policy. An estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants arrived in the United States last year -- down from about 700,000 the year before -- and about 280,500 people were deported. Those expulsions too often took their toll on families and businesses and did nothing to address the wider consequences of a large population of illegal immigrants within our borders.

Obama acknowledges the importance of border and workplace security but does not make it a prerequisite for solving the problem in its entirety. Also, his proposal to increase economic development opportunities in Mexico offers hope for addressing the causes of illegal immigration, not just the symptoms. He does not have McCain’s impressive record in support of comprehensive reform, nor does he have McCain’s cynical abandonment of that position.

Regarding abortion, McCain believes that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned. Obama does not; he maintains -- as does The Times’ editorial board -- that the Constitution protects the private choices of women. The next president may well have several opportunities to alter the balance of the Supreme Court. Because the justices most likely to retire are on the liberal wing, their replacement by conservatives could shift the court’s approach in abortion cases. Moreover, a president can shape abortion policy -- for better or for worse -- through programs relating to healthcare, contraception and child care.

Many Americans are uncomfortable with abortion -- they are uncomfortable with permitting it and with the idea of doing away with it. Such qualms must not substitute for clear reasoning: Rolling back the right to an abortion would strip women of constitutionally protected reproductive freedom. We do not restrict the right of children to attend integrated schools or of minorities to vote. We must not sanction the curtailmentof women’s right to control their bodies and their futures.

Despite conflicting sentiments, this country has made progress in reducing the number of abortions. Although the rate is two to three times as high as that of Western Europe, it is at its lowest level since 1974, having declined 33% over that period. But poor women -- especially poor women of color -- remain far more likely to have abortions. Addressing the healthcare needs of this demographic would see the rate decline even further.

If the goal is to create a culture in which abortion is a last resort -- because even if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, the procedure will certainly be legal in some states -- then Obama offers the better vision to safeguard the health of women and children. He places reproductive health on a continuum of care from gynecological screenings to high-quality day care. This too is a culture of life.

McCain is succinct in his opposition to abortion and says that life begins at conception. But this position is ideologically inconsistent with others he maintains, such as his support for federal funding of stem cell research. According to his definition of life, couples who create embryos during fertility treatments and then discard them also are having abortions.

Every president faces new claims to equality in our evolving nation. The next will be no exception. McCain does not share our view of the fundamental rights of women in this society; he has occasionally been right and brave on those of immigrants and perhaps, if elected, will be again. With respect to equality, Obama is more committed and more consistent.

This is the sixth editorial in a weeklong series on the issues and challenges facing the next president. The full series is available at