Religion Philosophy and Abortion
Americans are engaging in a partisan pitched battle over the place of religion in American law and society, a battle that our citizens have fought during the entire history of the United States. Yet, despite its frequent discussion, we still seem to misunderstand the place of personal religions in the public square.
I will attempt to help us think constructively and clearly about the issue. What is the place of religious authority and religious rights in American life?
First, Americans, like people everywhere, accept various sources of authority that enable us to explain to ourselves why our conduct is right and proper, meaning that we are acting morally. These sources of authority are not entirely separate, and they often conflict conceptually. They function to lend credibility to our actions.
Parents were our original sources of moral authority. Community culture and the law provide two other widespread sources that explain to us why our actions are correct. When we drive down the street and don’t run a red light or destroy our neighbor’s property, or even spread rumors about our neighbors, it’s because either the law or social conventions, or both, persuade us that is “wrong.”
But there are two other widely used sources, on a higher level often, which sometimes conflict: philosophy and religion.
Historical religions over centuries develop principles designed to guide the actions of adherents. Believers must confront the requisites of the faith, and decide whether they will voluntarily limit their behaviors according to the precepts of the religious group. We call this following their dogma. In a free country, with Church-State separation, following church dogma is an individual’s private choice.
We Americans are constitutionally guaranteed that such adherence is voluntary, and the State cannot demand actions or principles of any particular faith for the public at large. We are all free to believe and act as we will.
Sometimes religions conflict on both moral principle and practice. Catholics believe that life begins at conception. Jews believe that the fetus is potential life until the head and shoulders are born. The fetus has moral status, but inferior to its mother. These positions have been debated for centuries, the reasoning is clear, and adherents have the right to choose their positions independently.
The tradition in the United States is that one religious tradition may not be legally preferenced over another religious tradition. That is the conflict we are facing. Our different religious traditions come to differing conclusions about when life begins and the morality of abortion.
Happily, there is another player in public moral decision making: philosophical, principled reasoning. Many Americans hold the philosophy of individualism: that we can control our own bodies and are responsible for our own lives. In the Roe V. Wade decision in the Supreme Court, this individualist philosophy, allowing every American to choose the direction of her own life, prevailed. The law never demands an abortion. It allows an adult woman to choose an abortion when the person’s individual philosophy permits. It’s called free choice. No one is compelled to abort a fetus. It’s personal religious decision making.
In this battle of the philosophy of individualism versus a specific religion, one thing in particular has been omitted. There exists more than one religious approach to abortion. For instance, were a fetus’ existence to threaten the mother’s life, either physically or psychologically, the mother’s life takes precedence in Judaism. But in Catholicism the reverse is true. The solution in American society was to allow choice. Now, it appears, one religious tradition may be preferenced over both other religious approaches and philosophy.
Asking a candidate for the Supreme Court about the basis for her moral decision making is not religious persecution; it is smart public policy. Approaches differ, and Americans have the right to know the traditions, philosophical or religious, by which law will ultimately be decided. It’s not simply a matter of interpreting the Constitution. The Constitution is interpreted by the judge’s methodology, and we Americans have a right to know precisely what that is.
In our culture both philosophy and religion lead people to their moral conclusions. When we have an institution that determines our public morality, we must know and understand the basis on which the decisions will be made. If they are religious, so be it. But to refuse permission to ask questions is to enter blindly into the future. It’s not the way we
have operated in the past. Nor is it wise.
The decision as to whether abortion constitutes murder is neither simple nor trivial. But by our Constitution it cannot be decided on strictly religious grounds. It must be decided philosophically and independent of a specific religious tradition, because those traditions do not agree. To ignore the debate; to enter unseeing into the final verdict when the judges involved publicly practice and have their personal lives guided by a particular religious tradition is both misguided and foolish. It ignores and declares unimportant a fundamental component of national decision making that will affect our culture for decades. Calling the line of questioning anti-religious is quite simply ignorant, and we, the citizens of the United States, deserve better.