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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Abortion, SCOTUS, And Roe v Wade–A Moral Issue Rightfully Returned To The People

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday (6.24.22) to overturn Roe v Wade thus returning the issue of abortion to where it belongs – the electorate.  After a review of complex legal and Constitutional issues, the Court decided that there was no right to abortion stated and defined in the Constitution, that Roe was improperly decided, thus enforcing for decades and by fiat a moral issues which by rights should have been debated and determined by the public.  The current ruling does not outlaw abortion; it just allows states on behalf of their electorates to determine the extent and type of abortions to be provided.  

The country has never been more divided than on the subject of abortion.  The Left has argued that a woman’s body is her own, inviolable and sacrosanct, and nothing can abrogate her fundamental privacy and dominion over it.  Conservatives have long contended that this position is untenable, narrowly focused, and dismissive of the moral, religious, and philosophical principles underlying the principle of the sanctity of life.   There is and can be no common ground between the two, and both have staked out their positions in the most uncompromising terms.

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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Katha Pollitt of The Nation engaged in a debate about abortion which clearly and reasonably outlined the debate. Douthat took a moderate pro-life position and Pollitt a radical pro-choice one.  The topics considered – illegal abortion, poverty, contraception, poverty, the role of men, equality, personhood, and murder – were all political; that is, they focused on women’s rights, equal access, gender, social equality, and justice.

Neither Douthat nor Pollitt raised what is perhaps the most important consideration of all – morality. This omission was not surprising since intellectuals and have consistently started from a secular premise and concluded accordingly.  Although there might be other considerations more profound than legality, they said, they have nothing to do with the formulation of public policy.  Moreover the Constitutional separation of church and state assures no influence of the one over the other.

Yet, the American Republic was founded on religious principles.  The Enlightenment, always considered the motherlode of political rationality, had a spiritual foundation.  Rationality, reason, and logical exegesis were not to be used willy-nilly, but in the pursuit of spiritual truth.  Jefferson, always mindful of the religious oppression faced by in Europe by the new colonists, was an ardent supporter of the separation of church and state.  At the same time, he felt that without a spiritual, moral foundation, the new nation would drift into contention and conflict; and he and the other Founding Fathers would be surprised at how the principle of separation has been distorted to mean an absence of spiritual and moral guidance.

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The Catholic Church has consistently condemned abortion, but the most telling criticism has been a moral one.  Pope Francis in his recent Encyclical focusing on environmental issues has said:

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.

This statement reflects a philosophy remarkably similar to Hinduism.

Hinduism teaches that the five great elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth) that constitute the environment are all derived from prakriti, the primal energy. Each of these elements has its own life and form; together the elements are interconnected and interdependent. The Upanishads explains the interdependence of these elements in relation to Brahman, the supreme reality, from which they arise: “From Brahman arises space, from space arises air, from air arises fire, from fire arises water, and from water arises earth.” (Pankaj Jain, Patheos)

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All life is interrelated.  No one living thing is disassociated from any other:

The one who loves all intensely
begins perceiving in all living beings
a part of himself. He becomes a lover of all,
He flows with the stream of happiness,
and is enriched by each soul.
(Yajur Veda)

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Whether or not life begins at conception is an irrelevant question when considered within this moral, Hindu framework.  The uprooting of a seedling before it has become a plant, the destruction of larvae, pupae, and grubs before they have matured into butterflies, plants, or bees are all acts of killing. Hindus make no distinction between the development of life or life itself.  A potential life is as significant in the Hindu world order as a fully-formed one.

Western logic demands absolute answers. If one is discussing biological life, it is important to describe what life is, when it begins, and when it ends.  Everything depends on the definition of life without which there can be no legal rights and protections, no law or justice, no civil rights.  Discussions remain procedural, far from the metaphysical.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Douthat and Pollitt have focused exclusively on the legal, social, and political issues related to abortion.

Hindu scholars and Western moral philosophers have less concern for these secular, procedural issues and more for universal principles. Theologians since Augustine have argued about the nature of morality and whether or not there is a universal, Platonic ideal; a God-given code of conduct; or simply a culturally and temporally relative concept of behavior.  Yet they all agree that a moral sense is a defining nature of human life.  A moral approach to life is the sine qua non of human responsibility.

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Within this context, it is not important to fix the moment of conception, track a fetus’ mental development to determine at what point mental synaptic activity produces consciousness, or to assess viability.  It is only important to accept that a fetus at any stage of development is a living, growing, emergent human being no different from a pupa, larva, or seedling; and that to destroy it is interrupting a life cycle which is universal.  As importantly, the concept of potentiality is essential.  Life once begun has the potential for a fully aware, cognizant, spiritual being.

Both Francis and Paul II and Hindu philosophers speak not only about the moral implications of preventing one life from emerging, but what that act means to all life. In other words, both religious traditions teach about the sanctity of life, and how the lack of respect for one life leads inevitably to an erosion of respect of all life.

Such moral principles are at the foundation of human society. If all life is not sacred, then exceptions can be made.  Justifiable homicide, socio-economic determinates of crime, historical imperatives, retribution, can all be used to excuse violence, assault, and murder.

Every time a life is demeaned – whether through abortion, violence, murder, or execution – the moral fabric of society becomes further unraveled.

A factor in moral decline is expediency. Women have abortions because it isn’t the right time to have a child; because career and profession are more important; because troubled relationships might come apart with a child.  Secular, practical, and temporal issues take precedence over procreation.  It is one thing to defer pregnancy; but another altogether to terminate it.

Recent popes have echoed the same sentiment.  John Paul II was perhaps the most unforgiving critic, stating in his Evangelum Vitae:

The encyclical states that today “in many people's consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured”. This is manifested in the everyday way of thinking, in people’s habits and also in the state legislation itself. All this “is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake”. This is a serious and really grave situation when “we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception....  (From Gaizler and Nyeky on Bioethics)

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Convenient compromises and self-deception’ characterize expedient decision-making concerning abortion.  Not only do women and men consider reproduction, procreation, and abortion within the same context as employment, finances, and sexual relationships thus making it easier to make decisions; they deceive themselves by thinking that procreation/abortion is indeed no different than career advancement.

Such expediency and self-deception inevitably lead to an erosion of all moral judgment. Once morality is characterized only as a variable in an equation, it loses its primacy and universality.

In other words if the decision to terminate a pregnancy is made on the grounds of expediency alone, it will have inescapable consequences for all decisions with a moral component.  It simply becomes easier and easier to ignore or dismiss moral responsibility.

It is significant to note how absent these moral issues have been from the debate on abortion in America.  Yet in some ways it is not surprising.  ‘Morality’ and ‘values’ have become politically-charged words.  The Left accuses the Right of using them to cover up for social backwardness, racism, and social inequality.  Conservatives blame liberals for the continuing erosion of religion, faith, and morality.

Sooner rather than later both sides will realize that morality far from being divisive, is common ground.  Moral principles form the foundation for society; and they are indeed universal.  Whether inspired by the Bible or reflected in the texts of moral philosophers, they cannot be ignored.

States will now take legislative steps to determine access to abortion, responding to moral concerns of their electorates.  Whether citizens have arrived at a pro-life stance thanks to an appreciation of Augustinian logic, Jeffersonian principle, Hindu philosophy, or the exhortations of the Popes; or at a pro-choice one based on a secular view of abortion with the context of civil rights, decisions on the availability, access, and conditions of abortion will be decided through the democratic process.  

This is the way it should be.  The issue of abortion, with far from consensus on its moral, legal, or social rightness, should never have been decided by fiat – an absolute, uncontestable, irreconcilable ruling that deprived the electorate of the chance to debate, consider, and decide the issue.

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