It is campaign season and once again, the politics of abortion are taking center stage. To those who see no ambiguities, who condemn every abortion no matter what the circumstances, the issue is simple: right…
It is campaign season and once again, the politics of abortion are taking center stage.
To those who see no ambiguities, who condemn every abortion no matter what the circumstances, the issue is simple: right versus wrong. For most of us, however, it isn’t that easy. Rather than right against wrong, we see right against right -the right of a woman to self-determination weighed against the interest of the potential life she carries.
If we are uncertain about the morality involved — as many of us are — civil libertarians are quite certain that government ought not cast the deciding vote. Like most Americans, we believe that allowing government to dictate our most personal behaviors is the greater harm.
When government attempts to legislate in areas where there is widespread public disagreement, the law is not obeyed. There is no popular consensus about abortion, no mandate to outlaw or further restrict it. If such a ban were to be enacted, it would be widely ignored (at least by those who could afford
alternatives). Many advocates of such legislation acknowledge that it would be unenforceable, but favor passage as a "moral statement." Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Passing laws that are routinely flouted simply reduces respect for the rule of law. (Prohibition is a good example, if not the most
Government also isn’t very good at drawing moral distinctions. I have a friend who became pregnant with a child she and her husband desperately wanted. In her fifth month, tests disclosed hideous and fatal problems — the fetus had no brain, other organs were missing. She terminated the pregnancy and subsequently had a healthy little boy. Most people would view her situation as morally distinguishable from decisions involving viable fetuses. Some who oppose abortion generally might be willing to make an exception in my friend’s case- -but a law banning abortion would not.
In America, government must respect the beliefs of all citizens. Religious denominations disagree about the propriety of abortion, and the circumstances (if any) under which it may be allowed. Whose beliefs shall government "establish" in this contentious area? And what about the insistence of most theologians that compelled behavior is without moral content? Shouldn’t those who oppose abortion use their First Amendment free speech rights to persuade women to their point of view rather than using the coercive power of the state to impose the behavior they approve?
These are the questions that concern the great majority of Americans when they confront the issue of reproductive freedom. They are not the questions we will hear addressed by politicians who are pandering to voting blocs and interest groups. The debates will not be edifying; they will be polarizing. The candidates will not engage the issue; they will patronize the partisans. Civility will be a casualty of the campaign rhetoric, along with an opportunity to explore one of the thorny moral challenges of life in a free country.