Saturday, June 11, 2011

Whether abortion is okay/wrong vs. whether abortion should be legal/illegal

The authors of a new abortion survey make this claim: "Majorities of Americans simultaneously say abortion is morally wrong and that it should be legal in all or most cases."

Apart from the question of whether the study is accurate (or misleading), it is certainly true that many people say abortion is wrong but also think it should be permitted by law. There is a very widespread sense that abortion is bad, but also a great deal of reluctance to enact legal restrictions.

Is this view coherent? If elective abortion is a serious moral wrong (i.e., unjustified homicide), then clearly it should not be permitted by law. For we all agree that the government should protect innocent persons from unjustified homicide. The proper role of government is not in dispute here.

What is in dispute, notes philosopher Francis Beckwith, is whether abortion is a "mere moral wrong" or a "serious moral wrong." Only the latter necessarily entails prohibiting abortion by law. Beckwith writes:
[B]oth in practice and public discourse many relegate abortion to a question of personal preference, something they do not do when it comes to behaviors they consider serious moral wrongs, such as spousal and child abuse, torture, and human slavery. For example, imagine the public's reaction to a politician who said the following: "I am 'personally opposed' to owning a slave and torturing my spouse but if someone thought it consistent with his 'deeply held religious beliefs' to engage in such behaviors it would be wrong for me to try to force my beliefs on that person." A politician having said that would be considered a moral monster. Yet, such language is perfectly acceptable when discussing abortion: "I am 'personally opposed' to abortion but if someone thought it consistent with her 'deeply held religious beliefs' to have an abortion it would be wrong for me to try to force my beliefs on that person." It is clear that even though a vast majority of Americans see abortion as morally wrong and believe that it is the taking of a human life, it is not clear that many in that majority actually consider it a serious moral wrong.
The educational task of the pro-life movement is to move people from seeing abortion as a "mere moral wrong" to recognizing it as a "serious moral wrong." We must show that moral relativism is false and indefensible, and that abortion is wrong because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent, rights-bearing human being, someone no different in nature or basic moral status than you or me. Abortion, in other words, is precisely the sort of practice that a decent society cannot permit.

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