“Can there be any greater test of the principle of the separation of church and state other than in the mind of a true believer elected to high office?”
Saturday, September 13, 2008
This posting isn’t about what you or I think about abortion rights. It’s not about whether you believe in a woman’s right to choose or if you are “pro-life.” It’s about why the disagreement is so profound and politically difficult to resolve. And yes, it’s about who we should elect to be President and Vice President – if this were the only issue that mattered, which it’s not.
We all know the debate is inherently intense by virtue of what’s on the line. This isn’t some City Council hearing about the wisdom of alternate street parking. No, this is about nothing less than life itself. We have debates about life all the time, about the war in Iraq, for example, and countless other instances when our involvement, or lack of it, may have caused or prevented the deaths of innocent people. We are a nation which, in some states, still sanctions execution to punish people convicted of certain crimes. We’re used to making these most adult of all decisions, it’s just that abortion – for those who believe that life begins at conception – involves the termination, some would say “murder,” of the most innocent of our species.
Presumably, we all believe that life is precious and must be protected. And so it follows that, if you believe that life begins at conception, and from then on deserves the same rights to life as all born individuals, then the circumstances of conception must be irrelevant. Rape, for example, cannot be an exception to the rule, cannot be an excuse to allow life to be aborted. The potential for birth defects can’t make any difference. Least of all, relatively mundane concerns about the future effects upon the living – “She’s too young to have a baby,” for example. – can’t possibly be a factor. In fact, there can be no exception other than the health of the mother, in which case the pro-life advocate has the most difficult of choices to make.
Because the debate is about life, it has a profound problem with reciprocity. While one side can tolerate its opponent’s point of view, the reverse isn’t true. For a right to choose person to tell a pro-life person, that, “…not having an abortion is your right, but what I do is up to me,” doesn’t work. A pro-life advocate can’t give you the right to terminate a pregnancy any more easily than you could give your neighbor permission to kill someone at his or her discretion.
Unfortunately, if these considerations I’ve just mentioned weren’t serious enough, there’s another factor complicating the abortion rights debate.
For the purposes of this discussion we’re having, I’m going to divide the population of people who have opinions about abortion rights into three categories: Those whose religion takes no position on the issue. (Atheists would fall in this first group.) Those whose religion takes a position which the individual considers advisory, not compulsory. And those whose religions are pro-life, and who are bound by that doctrine. These are the people, in this latter group, who I call “true believers.” It’s a caption that is in no way meant to be critical or demeaning, but only to emphasize that theirs is a faith-based commitment to this particular view. The problem is that, for true believers, this isn’t just an argument between them and advocates of a woman’s right to choose. True believers have God on their side.
After all, if what you believe is the word of your God tells you that life begins at conception and abortion is wrong, well then, to convince you otherwise is tantamount to arguing that your God doesn’t know what it’s talking about, that your faith is in error. That you might tolerate others acting in contradiction to your faith on this most serious of issues is to challenge your relationship with the God in which you believe. Mind you, I’m not trying to be the least bit cute here. Think about it. Consider what the pro-choice advocate is asking of the true believer who is pro-life.
What do you do if you’re, let’s say, President of the United States, contemplating a lifetime appointment, or two, to the Supreme Court? Your God tells you abortion is wrong, while a majority of the citizens who elected you are pro-choice. Sure, appointments to the Supreme Court need to be approved by the Senate, by a simple majority of only 100 men and women representing various personal and electorate points of view, but the nominees come from The Oval Office. Can there be any greater test of the principle of the separation of church and state other than in the mind of a true believer elected to high office?
We are a nation that believes in religious freedom, and in a government that answers to the people. Technically, the religious beliefs of our elected government leaders, whether in the Congress or the White House, shouldn’t make any difference.
This blog is about words, creative, true, and opinionated words, including words like, “And to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God…” and “In God we trust.” They’re words I’ve never taken too seriously, but lately I’ve begun to wonder. Will a President McCain or Palin answer to the people in the debate between pro-choice and pro-life points of view, or to a higher authority? It’s a question both sides of that debate have every right to ask. It’s not what the candidates believe that concerns me, it’s who they perceive to be the authority they serve.