Karl Kleinschmidt, mayor of Chapel Hill, fears the abortion debate
that is taking place in the State Capitol may endanger the city brand

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American abortion debate characterizes the
relationship between city, state and the Union

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

1 November 2011: Few issues in the United States are more polarizing than abortion - President Obama once called the opposing camps on abortion “irreconcilable” - yet it is difficult to find a mayor of a large American city that is entirely against abortion. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents usually disagree about taxation, policing, housing, social welfare, and other policies. But the right of a woman to choose her own method of reproductive health is something upon which, say, Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego, Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray of Washington, DC, and Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City all agree.

• Integrity of local authority
• Individual responsibility
• Brands as compacts
• Public philosophy

Former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani famously tried to appease both sides of the abortion debate. “I oppose abortion,” Giuliani said, “but let the woman decide.” Almost all current big-city mayors display no such pandering; they fully support a woman’s right to decide. This convergence of beliefs on a deeply sensitive issue suggests that the abortion controversy in America — despite its moral overtones and political risks — hits a deeper nerve among mayors about how their cities are, and should be, governed.

Integrity of local authority
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt of Chapel Hill recently called a state of North Carolina bill to ban elective abortions in local public employee health insurance plans “an imposition by the state of an ideological position that they’re forcing down on us... they [state legislators] talk about local control when they want to push the cost of doing good government down to local authorities, but they want to take away decision making power from the local authority.”

American cities are creations of the states in which they are located. Cities derive their powers entirely from state constitutions and laws, and thus have no independent constitutional stature. In addition, there are numerous areas where responsibility is shared and authority overlaps between the federal, state, and local governments.

Political theorists sometimes explore the relationship between the different levels of government in terms of “subsidiarity”. A rich body of literature argues that the federal and state governments should act as subsidiaries and as many responsibilities for governance as possible should be allocated to the local level.

Subsidiarity in the United States has been taken to the point where functions are decentralized right out of government. Responsibilities that traditionally have been the role of the federal and state governments were moved to nonprofit and private organizations, bypassing local governments entirely. Or else functions are downloaded to local governments unaccompanied by sufficient funding to deliver them.

As a result, urban mayors are limited in their ability to both set policy and deliver the best outcomes to taxpayers in many important areas such as affordable housing, mass transit, education, community development, and welfare.

Mayors have had to become very creative, and their innovative approaches to delivering services with dwindling resources have actually driven national policy in many important areas, especially public safety and environmental sustainability — but the trend is towards the erosion of mayoral powers.

Abortion, then, is viewed by mayors as another assault on their ability to govern effectively, and defending the integrity of local authority outweighs the potential political consequences of taking a stance on abortion.

Individual responsibility
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt continued his remarks to the North Carolina General Assembly by arguing that eliminating insurance payments for elective abortions would hurt primarily poor women. “In the future, those who have the means are going to find a way to get the cost covered... For those women whose incomes are lower, they are not going to have those options. They’re [state legislators] in effect taking choice, reproductive choice, away from people based on their income”.  

According to the Gottmacher Institute, a sexual health and reproductive rights advocacy group, 19 US states enacted a total of 80 restrictions on abortion in the first half of 2011, more than double the previous record of 34 in 2005. Many of the restrictions strip cities of the ability to use their locally-raised taxes to fund abortion for low-income residents.

According to the US Census Bureau, the overall poverty rate in the United States climbed to 15.1 per cent in 2010, but for urban minorities poverty exceeds 27 per cent. The top 10 per cent of wage earners make as much money as the bottom 90 per cent. Fifty million Americans do not have health insurance.

The national abortion debate has meaning for mayors beyond reproductive choice or personal income, however: it questions what is required to make a complex and pluralistic society run smoothly.

Mayors understand that choice and income are inextricably linked in American society. In essence, money buys choice. In the United States, choice is elevated to a human good, and the best life offers the most individual choice. Consequently, social relations quickly become stripped of any meaning except what the individual chooses to give it, and there is less and less room for a public sphere, for community. In other words, the role of government shrinks, and the market fills the gap. Medical care, for example, including abortion, is increasingly perceived as a commodity. Abortions have become one of the most common medical procedures in American hospitals, yet those without financial means may have difficulty accessing safe, medical abortions.

Mayors are responsible for their poor and powerless residents, but have fewer resources to protect them. At the heart of the abortion debate for big-city mayors are distinctive understandings of the role of government and citizens in society. What is the responsibility of government for its citizens?  What are citizens’ responsibilities to one another? Urban mayors often seem to be the only prominent public leaders in the United States answering these questions by affirming government’s obligation to try to assure a secure future for everyone.

Brands as compacts
Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt continued his scolding of the North Carolina General Assembly by noting that banning public employee insurance coverage for abortions would, “ultimately send a signal to those who might want to locate, either personally or have businesses located in our community, [that] we are a community that is not going to be respectful of workers.”

American cities compete with each other, their suburbs, and other cities around the world for residents, economic development, educated workforces, tourists, and events. Mayors are acutely sensitive that their cities are perceived positively.

Mayors work hard to convey a compelling message about their cities’ attributes — effectively “branding” their cities — in order to differentiate their cities from others and thereby enhance their cities’ competitiveness. Chapel Hill, for example, has strong national brand recognition as the home of the University of North Carolina, with the openness, tolerance, and capacity for innovation that the presence of a major university implies for a city.

A city “brand” has been referred to as a “promise of value”, that is, an assurance that residents, visitors, and investors will be guaranteed a certain level of experience. A big-city American mayor, as the public face of a city, tends to treat his or her city’s brand almost as a binding compact between the city and the rest of the world. With any public compact, who participates is of profound importance. A city that wishes to be viewed as tolerant, for example — and what city doesn’t? — welcomes broad participation in all aspects of the city’s life.

The abortion debate, however, is intrinsically divisive. Big-city mayors, therefore, seem to consider it a serious risk to their ability to knit diverse elements together in productive partnerships and create a competitive edge for their cities.

Public philosophy
For US mayors, the abortion debate is not simply a moral controversy about when life begins. It is about the unwritten rules that structure American society and, therefore, make cities easier or harder to govern.

Most big-city mayors equate democracy with community and believe, generally, that effective leadership and governance can temper the forces that diminish public involvement and public spaces.

Mayors, in other words, are upholding a public philosophy based on vital public institutions. They want people to know that government is there to help them, and they understand that public institutions are most legitimate and most capable when they are most representative.

Today, it is hard to identify a dominant public philosophy — a set of mutually-accepted values — in the United States. An implicit social contract, like any organizational system, is viewed in the US as nonlinear: we should compete, but also collaborate, with one another; we have the right to demand both short-term and long-term benefits; we can respect, but also despise, government according to our interests; and we can embrace both religious and liberal moralities to satisfy our spiritual and physical needs.

When underlying claims such as these cover the entire spectrum of possibility, any action can be justified in one way or another, and debates, like abortion, become, as President Obama observed, irreconcilable.

A public philosophy changes every generation or so, and the United States is in a period of transition. The questions are: how it will change, and will the change benefit the society it serves?

Cities are complex organizations with many interrelated systems that must function together to function effectively. And the competence of a big city government depends on a congruence between the values its mayor claims as underlying his or her actions and those values the mayor actually uses to make decisions.  Otherwise, the city government struggles to gain trust, build support, and avoid unintended or counterproductive consequences.

In the abortion debate, at least, mayors of large American cities are “walking the talk”. They are espousing, consciously or not, a public policy centered on community responsibility. It is interesting to note that no mayor of a large American city has ever lost an election because of his or her support for reproductive choice. Mayors have driven national public policy in several important areas in recent years. Their solidarity in the abortion debate suggests that they may also have more influence than we can now recognize in establishing a new public philosophy for the United States.

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