Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Abortion: The Moral View (Part 1 of 3)

This is the first of a three-part series on abortion. The order of angles in which this topic will be addressed are The Moral View, The Legal View, and the Political View. There will be some overlap.

The Moral View

I decided to write these blogs after discussing Roe v. Wade and subsequent abortion-related cases in my Constitutional Law class. Of all the things I have studied in law school so far, this topic has stirred the most passion in me. I recognize that there are many who know a lot more about this topic than I do and probably have good insights. Please share them if you care to.

I also realize that since it is not even possible for me to bear children, I cannot fully appreciate many emotional, physical, or psychological aspects of this discussion. I can say that I feel I have empathy toward women who become pregnant and are overwhelmed by the prospect of having a baby or become severely depressed. To say that women bear a much heavier burden than men (literally and figuratively, of course) in bringing children into the world would be a pathetic understatement. Even so, I feel I have gained enough perspective on this issue to at least warrant an expression of my thoughts.

The Wrongful Taking of Unborn Life
Many people who talk about abortion are forced to spend their time and focus their attention on whether abortion is generally okay or generally not okay. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the question of whether abortion in general is wrong has been answered by prophets speaking in our day, which provides us with a huge advantage in talking about this important and delicate subject.

Elder Russell M. Nelson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote an excellent article last October called Abortion: An Assault on the Defenseless. The conclusion of that article is that abortion is almost never justified and is "consummately wrong." I agree 100% with the content of this article, in large part because I believe Elder Nelson is an apostle of Jesus Christ, and also because his arguments make sense to me logically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Elder Nelson points out that the Church has four exceptions in which it is sometimes okay to have an abortion: rape, incest, to protect the mother’s health (when it would be in “serious jeopardy”), and in cases where the baby cannot live beyond birth. As the following chart shows, these four categories combined represent only a fraction of all abortions. The great majority of abortions are performed for (at least it seems to me) shockingly mundane reasons.

In order to distinguish justifiable abortion from unjustifiable abortion, there are several terms we could use for the latter: “abortion on demand” or “the wrongful taking of unborn life.” Because justifiable abortion is so rare, however, I will talk about abortion in general terms while recognizing that the exceptions exist and are not applicable to this discussion.

I hesitate, as does Elder Nelson, to say that someone who has an abortion for the wrong reason is a bad person. In fact, I know that there are people who have had abortions who are good people, and Elder Nelson reassures us in his article that people who have had abortions for the wrong reason can be forgiven.

Still, it’s useful, I think, to compare the sin of abortion to other sins. I believe abortion, as a whole, is a despicable crime, akin in many respects to murder (perhaps even worse according to John Calvin).

Should Abortion be Illegal?
The question, and the point of this discussion, is whether making abortion illegal in the United States would solve the abortion problem.

I read an article the other day by a pro-choicer who made the claim that if abortion became illegal, the number of abortions would not decrease. From everything I can find, there is no real way to substantiate this claim, but there’s also no real way to discount it completely either. (If any of you find reliable data on this, I’d love to see it. I have seen reports that suggest that in places where safe or legal abortion is not available, the number of abortions per capita does not significantly decrease, but I can’t verify the accuracy of such information.) Regardless, the reasoning behind such an argument is that a wealthy woman who wants an abortion will fly out of the country to have the abortion; a poor woman will find an illegal and often dangerous way to have the abortion, possibly endangering her own life in the process.

If it’s true that the number of abortions does not decrease when abortion is illegal, I think pro-choicers have a very strong position. After all, if making abortion illegal would not save babies and would also lead to the deaths of more women, then abortion should remain legal because more lives will be spared that way. Common sense, however, tells me that this claim cannot be true, at least within the United States. The reason I say this is that many women who go to clinics to have an abortion do so because (1) they know it’s safe, (2) they know it’s legal, (3) they know there are people and organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, who support their decision, (4) for young women, they are not required to tell their parents, (5) for married women, they are not required to tell their spouses, and (6) it is easy. If abortion were illegal, except for cases in which it is necessary to protect the life of the mother (which is where I believe the law would eventually settle if we started to go down this road), many or all of these advantages to abortion would disappear.

What I hope would happen at that point is that more women would educate themselves after getting pregnant to see what their options are. I think more women would confide in people they trust; more women would reach out to adoption agencies; more women would find a way to prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place; and more women would listen to and be persuaded by the gentle and kind reasoning of good pro-life agencies.

On that note, is there evidence that a woman whose first inclination is to have an abortion may be helped to understand the value of the life inside of her? Yes, absolutely, and there are many help centers that have helped many women choose life instead of abortion through such education. See this Time article for a few inspiring examples.

But though I think legislation making abortion illegal would have a great chance of decreasing the number of abortions, and while I would support such legislation, I doubt abortion will ever be made illegal again in the U.S. Why do I doubt this? I will talk about it more in my “Legal View” blog (Part II of this series), forthcoming, but the short answer is that ever since Roe v. Wade, every Republican president has vowed to nominate Supreme Court justices who would help to overturn Roe v. Wade. Over the course of twenty some-odd years, presidents filled vacancies in the court with six or seven pro-life, Republican Justices. Everyone expected Roe v. Wade to be overturned in 1993 in a perfect test case. It wasn’t. Many of the new Republican/conservative Justices went turncoat. Actually, what they did was affirm that they were personally pro-life but felt that they had to respect the law, including the precedent of Roe v. Wade, and they decided against overturning Roe v. Wade.

Still, it’s possible that abortion might be made illegal again one day. I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m just saying I doubt it. How could it happen, though, hypothetically? Well, right now there are four justices on the court who swear that if they could they would overturn Roe v. Wade; they believe it was wrongly decided. Scenario 1: A Republican president is nominated again who is able to nominate a justice or two who actually follows through on a commitment to overturn Roe v. Wade. Scenario 2: Obama or another Democratic president nominates a Supreme Court justice that seems liberal but ends up siding with the conservative justices on this issue. (Supreme Court justices can be surprisingly unpredictable.)

One might ask (as have I) why God doesn’t pull a few strings to help fill the Supreme Court with enough Justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. God did seem to have a hand in at last one major Supreme Court decision of the past: the Brown v. Board decision. In that case, the issue was desegregation of public schools. Four justices were in favor of it, four were leaning away from it but were persuadable, and one was staunchly opposed to it. The one who was staunchly opposed to it died a sudden death and was replaced by another justice who was in favor of desegregation. That new justice rallied everyone else to make sure that the landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, was unanimous.

Was God really involved in that? I personally don’t have a problem with believing He had a hand in it. But if He would do it for segregation, why not abortion? Does this issue fall into the category of “bad things happening to good people?” If so, we know that God allows opposition in all things. Or is it more complicated than that? After all, these babies aren’t good people. They’re perfect people. They have no sin whatsoever. And while the Scriptures are silent on how God feels about unborn children, we know how God feels about little children. He loves them passionately. The scriptures use very strong language in condemning anyone who offends “these little ones.” If God says someone who believes in infant baptism must go to hell (since such a doctrine is void of faith, hope, or charity), how must He feel about someone who voluntarily ends the life of a soon-to-be-born child?

Who knows? Maybe God knows abortions wouldn’t decrease if abortions were made illegal; or perhaps He allows abortion to stay legal so that “His judgments will be just;” or maybe He allows it to remain legal because this is one of those key places where agency comes into play and he wants people to be able to choose. (I do not mean this in the sense that they have the right to "choose" whether to have a baby; Elder Nelson clearly dismisses this school of thought as flawed. I speak more in the sense of whether they have the right to choose good or evil, which they do. Elder Nelson focuses on the political meaning of the word choice, but it remains a fact that God allows humans to choose whether to commit sin or not; because there is opposition in all things, perhaps God allows the temptation to have easy abortions remain on the Earth so that His children can be tested in all things.)

Which brings us to a key doctrinal point. As Church members, we believe that abortion on demand is wrong. But we also believe that agency is an important part of who we are. By making abortion illegal, would we be getting one step closer to Lucifer’s plan, which was to force everyone to make the "right choice?" (Granted, just because abortion is illegal, doesn’t mean people don’t still have the ability to choose it or not; see the paragraph that starts with “I read an article the other day.”) Is it fair to think of lawmaking in such terms? It probably isn't fair to compare the spiritual principle of agency with the legal principle of agency. The two are really on different planes of thought. After all, obeying man’s laws is often necessary (since being a law-abiding citizen is a commandment), but never sufficient to ensure salvation. Perhaps God is not so concerned whether man’s laws change or not, because all men and women have the light of Christ, and with that light of Christ, we should be able to determine for ourselves whether abortion is okay or not.

For example, let’s imagine a hypothetical country where murdering a neighbor for revenge is legal. An act of murder purely for revenge’s sake would be okay legally, but would not be okay in God’s eyes. And God would likely hold such a man accountable if indeed he had enough of the light of Christ to prick his conscience into knowing that such an act of murder was wrong. God can never look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, even if the laws of a nation vary from God's laws.

Who does abortion harm?
Many people argue about when the spirit enters the body, and whether life begins at conception. While there is no doctrine I can find on when the Spirit enters the body, there is no doubt that life, scientifically defined, begins at the moment of conception. (See Elder Nelson's reasoning.)

Now, we don’t know whether aborted fetuses count as having their chance on Earth. If entering the womb is enough to satisfy the Earth-life requirement, then such individuals are much happier returning to heaven so quickly. If entering the womb is not enough to satisfy the requirement, then they will get another chance.

In either case, it seems the biggest harm remains with those of us here on Earth who have to grieve the loss and/or face the consequences of sin. With murder, it is the same, right? The victim, if it was a righteous person, goes to a place where he or she can “rest from all their troubles, and from all care, and sorrows.” But with murder, it is possible to take a person from the Earth before he or she has had the chance to fully repent (see 1 Nephi 15:32-33, 2 Nephi 9:38, Mosiah 15:26, and Moroni 10:26 for why this is significant). Abortion has only physical consequences to the victim, not eternal spiritual consequences. The most worrisome aspects of abortion, in my opinion, are the spiritual consequences to the perpetrator as well as perhaps the disregard for life that begins to affect the general populace as more abortions are performed over time.

Elder Nelson’s abortion article is not about politics, which is significant. Elder Nelson seems to be teaching doctrine, rather than advocating legislative action. His speech could have the most effect on people who are on the fence about abortion, or perhaps people who can make a difference by educating other people. For that reason, I believe we need to focus on helping individuals turn away from selfish abortion, and I believe that focusing solely on making abortion illegal will not lead to understanding; it will lead to anger. If making abortions illegal will help, that’s great; but it shouldn’t be the end goal. If we’re going to be proactive on this issue, let’s be proactive by spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because, as has been said eloquently by another apostle, “the study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than talking about behavior will improve behavior.” I believe this to be true in the context of abortion as well.

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