Wednesday, May 20, 2009

'Nuancing' the abortion debate

Yesterday on Minnesota Public Radio there was an hour-long discussion on the politics of abortion, and specifically on the new Gallup poll showing a majority of Americans identify as "pro-life," as well as on President Obama's Notre Dame speech.

The guests emphasized that the abortion views of most Americans are "morally nuanced." As in South Dakota, many people may consider themselves "pro-life" and strongly dislike abortion and think it should be regulated. But they are also uncomfortable with an outright ban on elective abortion, and they are especially sympathetic to the individual cases/stories of women who are in difficult circumstances and want an abortion.

It's true that a great number of Americans think this way. In effect, they take the old "personally opposed" position that is a favorite among pro-choice politicians: I may be personally opposed to abortion, but the government shouldn't impose that view on everyone. As one caller on the program put it, there is a difference between "personal values" and "social values."

This thinking is deeply troubling. At first blush, it doesn't make sense: Consider why people think abortion is wrong (why they are "personally opposed") -- because it kills an innocent human being. If that isn’t a reason for government involvement, what is? After all, the state’s most basic function is to protect its people from being killed. As philosopher Francis Beckwith once wrote, the "personally opposed" line is downright "perplexing" because "the reason [one] is probably personally against abortion is the reason why he should be against publicly permitting it."

So what accounts for the prevalence of the "personally opposed" attitude? I think it stems from the influence of an idea called moral relativism, which reduces moral claims to mere taste or preference. Saying "abortion is wrong" is kind of like saying "I don't like brussel sprouts" -- true for me, but maybe not for you. It's a matter of individual preference.

Rudy Giuliani, a pro-choice advocate, once said, "If a woman chooses that, that’s her choice, not mine. That’s her morality, not mine." The problem with moral relativism is that it leaves no basis for any kind of real moral evaluation, for saying that slavery and genocide, for example, are truly wrong. This rejection of objective morality is wildly counterintuitive. Imagine saying, "I'm personally opposed to slavery, but I don't want to force my view on others"!

Killing babies, like owning a slave or abusing a child, is very different than one’s taste in vegetables. That's something that Americans who consider themselves "personally pro-life" need to understand.