Social issues are of very major concern to all Americans, so let me lay out my views in quick order.
Women’s Right to Choose
I support a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate an unwanted pregnancy within the limits established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade as modified by Planned Parenthood v. Casey. These decisions are the law of the land, and as President I would vigorously uphold this right.
The U.S. Constitution was designed to balance competing rights and conflicting and often strongly held views, in this case over morality. Roe v. Wade balances a woman’s privacy rights against the right to life of a fetus, which is initially unviable outside the womb but reaches the point of viability in roughly 24 weeks. The Supreme Court reached its Solomonic judgment in Roe v. Wade – that abortion was legal prior to the point of viability — with a majority of justices who had been appointed by Democratic Presidents supporting the ruling. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. In that decision, the majority of justices were appointees of Republican Presidents.
Although I strongly support a woman’s right to choose subject to court-ordered legal limits, there should be no doubt about my feelings about abortion. Abortion, of which there are roughly three quarters of a million preformed annually in our country, is a tragic event. A newborn baby is God’s gift if ever there was one. When my former wife and I lost our son Henry at full-term, it was and remains the most devastating experience of my life and hers.
The issue for many is whether life begins at the very instant of fertilization. For those who believe unequivocally that it does, abortion is immoral, plain and simple. For those that believe viability outside the womb marks the attainment of and right to life, abortion before that point is moral, yet terribly tragic. The strongest advocates of the right to choose do not extend that right beyond the period of viability. In that sense they are right to lifers. And the strongest right to lifers would not compel two people to procreate. In that sense, they too believe in the right to choose. Put this way, we are all in both camps and are all struggling individually and collectively to draw a line. Each of us is entitled to his or her own position, but we need to respect the courts in adjudicating our conflicting views within the strictures of the Constitution.
As for my nominee to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court, I would start my search with President Obama’s nominee, Justice Merrick Brian Garland, assuming he is not confirmed while the President is in office.
Do black lives matter? Of course they matter. They are as precious as the lives of any other American. The fact that one need raise such a question a century and a half after the end of slavery and when our President is African American is, again, passing strange. It is testimony to the transformation of the Peculiar Institution into the Persistent Institution – the stubborn failure to imagine ourselves as someone else or, as President Kennedy put it, stand ready to change the color of our skin.
While in graduate school, I wrote several papers about the economics of slavery, including one on manumission – the freeing of slaves by previously freed slaves. By an accident of timing, I was the first person to systematically examine the bills of sale of thousands of slaves at the New Orleans slave market throughout the first half of the 19th century. Looking at these data, even via computerized tape, always made me queasy. To this day I wonder if studying this market was morally appropriate. You could use the data to answer all manner of economic questions that you might ask about any market. But you also knew that each record was one of horror for the slave, disgrace for the seller, and degradation for the buyer.
The only way persistent, pernicious institutionalized racism will change in our country is via education. As President, I would establish the United States Slavery Museum in our nation’s capital. I would hope that every American child would visit this museum to learn about slavery, which has left such a deep, painful, and permanent scar on our nation’s history. Slavery is racism in its most in its most apparent as well as terrible manifestation.
The United States Slavery Museum will not eradicate modern-day racism. It will, however, make a public confession of our country’s sin of racism and teach our children that racism, whether historical or current, is a disgrace that has no place in our country.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, gay marriage is now legal throughout our country. I strongly support this decision and, indeed, have supported gay marriage for as long as I can remember. No one has the right to tell others who they can and cannot love. Nor does anyone have a monopoly on the choice of language. People who are in love and want to declare their love by describing themselves as married and affirming that choice of words officially, extending all private and public legal benefits of marriage, should be and now are freely able to do so.
The Legalization of Drugs
The use of powerful, addictive drugs, like the use of cigarettes, and the overuse of alcohol should be strongly stigmatized by society. In addition, I think there should be criminal penalties for distributing any type of drugs in any quantity to those under age 18. This said, I believe that states should be free to legalize, regulate and tax the sale and distribution of marijuana for medical and recreational use. I also believe that the use of drugs that entails neither distribution to those under age 18 nor harm to anyone with the exception of the user himself or herself should be legal. The sale and distribution of drugs other than marijuana should be proscribed and criminally sanctioned.
I’ve reached these views about criminalization of drug use and its distribution from observation of our country’s long and failed war on drugs. The facts make this failure irrefutable. Heroin use has risen 50 percent in the past decade. The death rate from drug overdose has risen almost twelvefold since the early 1970s. The non-prescribed use of opioid painkillers has also risen dramatically.
It’s time to reorient our war on drugs. We should immediately stop incarcerating non-violent drug users whose use did not involve distribution to minors or sale to adults. Instead, we should use the resources we’d otherwise be spending on incarceration to treat the users’ drug dependencies.
Our home of the free has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, and our drug laws have a lot to do with that. Among developed countries, nobody else comes close. Our imprisonment rate is six times that of Britain, seven times that of Germany and nine times that of France. We have only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
America’s lockup rate is not only miles out of line with that of other countries. It’s completely out of line with our own past practice. Today’s rate is five times what it was in 1970. Much of the increased incarceration is concentrated among drug offenders who engaged in non-violent conduct. Their numbers have increased twelvefold since 1980. Among groups disproportionately involved in trafficking drugs, incarceration rates are staggering. Fifteen percent of white male high school dropouts and 69 percent of black male high school dropouts will spend time in jail by age 35. These figures are four and five times higher, respectively, than they were in 1979.
In 2008, more than 2.3 million Americans — roughly the population of our fourth-largest city, Houston — were locked up. China, with about four times the U.S. population, has 1.5 million people behind bars. Tally the number of Americans in jail, on parole or on probation and you’re talking close to the populations of Los Angeles and Chicago combined. The cost of putting so many people away or under surveillance is huge. Half of these expenditures are made by state governments, many of which are in terrible fiscal shape.
Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont now spend more on prisons than on higher education. For those released from jail, legitimate jobs, let alone well-paying ones, are very hard to find. More than half of prison inmates have minor children. Consequently, millions of our kids are now growing up with at least one parent incarcerated, which helps explain why our country leads the developed world in the rate of child poverty.
The incarceration of African Americans for drug-related offenses is particularly disturbing. Today the number of African Americans under control of the criminal justice system exceeds the number of African Americans who were enslaved in 1850.
Those selling drugs to minors, which is outright child abuse, should be locked away for a very long time. For those who use drugs that involve no provision to minors or sale to anyone and no violence, there should be medical treatment, not incarceration.
Our country has an enormous problem with gun violence. Every day, 48 children and teens are shot, seven of whom die and 41 of whom are injured, often severely and for life. Add in adults shot by guns and we’re talking almost 300 shootings of Americans day in and day out across our country. Of these, a total of 89 die.
We are now well attuned to the near daily bombings in Iraq. Our 300 daily casualties from guns is no different from a huge daily bombing occurring in a major city of the United States. Imagine, if you would, a daily Boston Marathon bombing. That bombing killed 3 people and injured 264. What we are experiencing every day across the country from guns is the equivalent of this horrific episode, actually far worse since it involves so many more deaths.
Whether you are a member of the National Rifleman’s Association (NRA) or not, you need to admit that America has to do something major to reduce gun violence. The problem is not, however, the legitimate ownership and use of guns by sportsmen and sportswomen. The problem is permitting guns to fall into the hands of criminals, terrorists, the mentally deranged and children.
I think it’s time for the NRA to help us formulate a new gun policy that stops the carnage. As President, I would work with the NRA to achieve such a policy – a policy that does not undermine the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment, which I strongly support, clearly protects our right to bear arms. But does it permit us to own tanks and drive them around town or, for that matter, jet fighters? The founders had no idea that man would ever fly. Consequently, the Second Amendment is not going to help us resolve the right to own and operate an F-17. As a society, we’ve drawn lines as to which guns (broadly defined to include anything that delivers munitions) are and are not covered by the Second Amendment. F-17s are out and hunting rifles are in. I’d lump semi-automatic assault rifles together with F-17s.
The point is that each “gun” needs to be considered on a one-off basis to determine whether or not it represents a grave threat to society if possessed by a criminal, a terrorist or a lunatic — a threat that overrides its recreational value and value as a legitimate means of self-defense.
The question of what weapons should be legalized for private use should and can be separated from the question of whether a given person should receive a permit to own and operate particular legal weapons. No one, not the most ardent Second Amendment advocate, would argue that those convicted of a violent crime should have a right to bear arms.
I believe we should be extremely careful to conduct thorough background checks prior to issuing gun permits. We need to make the instant background check fail proof and fully enforce the background check system. Gun sellers that fail to use the system should be legally prosecuted. The gun-show loophole needs to end immediately, and straw man purchases of weapons needs to be a federal crime. I’d also ban semi-automatic assault weapons and come up with a system to prevent the mentally ill from purchasing guns. Finally, I’d require thumb print trigger locks to prevent the theft and use of guns and dramatically limit accidental gun deaths. But all this said, I’d begin the discussion of new gun legislation with the NRA and challenge that organization to come forward and help the country stop the daily gun carnage that is threatening their own children as well as everyone else’s.