Saturday, March 20, 2010

Liberal Democracy

March 13, 2010

Lurking in the murky politics of healthcare reform is the question of abortion, and the determination of those for whom this is a critical moral issue to ensure that no federal funds support abortions in any way.

I have a friend who believes that all embryonic human life has the status of ‘human being’ and that therefore any abortion is murder by definition. He is a single issue voter by his own admission and talks of how what he identifies as ‘the genocide of abortion’ grieves his heart. He is utterly sincere and if I believed his premise I would have to agree with him. I am more inclined to go with what is and accord the moral status of human being only to those who have been born. That does not mean that I think abortion is ever within the intent and purpose of God for humanity, nor that a zygote or fetus had no moral standing at all, nor even that ‘viability’ is a distinction without merit. I do believe that sometimes abortion is the best choice a woman can make for her life without therefore proclaiming it ‘good’.

Michael J. Perry of the Emory Law School has written on The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy (Cambridge, 2010). He says that a liberal democracy is committed first to the proposition “that each and every human being has inherent dignity and is inviolable” and second is committed to “certain human rights against government…such as the right to freedom of religion.” (p.10) He examines in some detail a religious basis for morality and also (though with less success) asks whether there is or can be a secular basis for the morality of human rights. He looks at ideas of religious and moral freedom before moving on to the question as to whether religion can ever serve as a basis for lawmaking. His answer is that it may not when some kind of religious commitment is the only rationale for a particular course of action. Such a law, in effect, is discriminatory or coercive of those who do not share the religious point of view and is therefore not consistent with the axiomatic interest of liberal democracy. There may, however, be laws that have a clear additional or alternative rationale for government having a compelling and obvious interest apart from a religious premise.

And so he looks at two moral issues: same sex unions and abortion. With regard to same sex unions he asks what kind of interest a State might have in not extending certain civil rights to same sex couples. After looking at and dismissing some claims to State interest in banning such behavior, he looks at State interest in declining to encourage what religious belief might see as immoral behavior. He writes “State refusals to extend the benefit of law to same sex unions obviously succeed in serving the interest in not supporting or incentivizing same sex sexual conduct understood as immoral conduct. However, under the right to moral freedom, that interest is not a legitimate (or, much less, a weighty) governmental interest.” (p. 149)

With regard to abortion he reaches a different conclusion. He does not make a case for or against a particular view of when a life should be granted the moral status of a human being (with inherent dignity and inviolable). He does argue that a view that affords such status to unborn life is plausible and that liberal democracy can therefore make a legitimate decision to grant protection to unborn life on something other than a religious basis. He does not shirk attending to the great costs a ban on abortion can have on the lives of many women, but writes “However that the costs (of a ban on abortion) are undeniably great does not entail that one cannot plausibly conclude that unborn human life has the requisite moral status and that therefore the public benefit achieved is sufficiently great to warrant the costs.” (p.136)

In other words he thinks a case can be made for legislation which bans abortion, but not a case for withholding certain civil rights to same sex couples. I am not persuaded that the decision to accord the moral status of human being to the unborn is anything other than a religious belief and therefore should be ruled out on the same basis as his case against legislation which opposes same sex unions.

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