Seeing Clearly on the Abortion Issue

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We are in the midst of a major political realignment. A faction of conventionally conservative Latter-day Saints find Donald Trump’s rhetoric and personal conduct disturbing enough that they are planning to vote for Joe Biden this fall. I sympathize with them, and have no plans to vote for Trump either. Nothing I say here should imply otherwise.

We are more fundamentally tribal than we are ideological. Most of us think that we let our ideology determine our tribe. We imagine that we choose the party and candidate that best matches our political values and principles. However, the truth is more often the reverse. We tend to let our party and preferred candidate influence our ideology.

This is why we tend to defend and excuse the ideological positions of our own preferred party or candidate even when we don’t have to. There’s nothing that requires a social conservative to defend callous immigration practices, or a left-leaning centrist to defend the lefist position on abortion — yet we do it anyways.

No tribe or candidate will align 100% with our own values. We always vote based on a stack of competing priorities. Because we all know that, there’s no need to defend the errant positions of our favored party or candidate. We do it anyways because we are, as I said, more fundamentally tribal than ideological. The tribe-tail wags the ideology-dog, so to speak.

And this is exactly what’s happening right now: I’m observing traditionally conservative members justify and defend more permissive approaches to abortion. It’s natural to feel defensive, since many on the right are challenging their decision based on that issue. However, as a consequence, the shift in preferred party/tribe is leading to a shift in moral intuitions and moral reasoning.

I’ve heard a number of arguments advanced in the past several weeks in favor of the status quo on abortion. I wanted to address them head on, by simulating how they sound to me (and many other conservatives).

An alternate-universe thought experiment

Imagine that you borrowed a portal from a mad scientist, and used it to step into an alternate universe, a parallel dimension, where homicide (the killing of others) isn’t illegal — it was decriminalized half a century (or more) ago. For brevity, I’ll call the people who live here the Denizens. Most Denizens you talk to recognize homicide as something unfortunate and tragic. But it’s also something that happens with some regularity. Someone might kill a business rival to save their failing business, or a wife might kill her husband to save the costs of divorce.

The moment you express your shock and dismay, the Denizens respond, “But are you going to judge them? Who knows what silent hell that woman was experiencing to drive them to that point, trapped with her deadbeat husband. Maybe she couldn’t afford a divorce. We shouldn’t judge people until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”

There are groups who seek to criminalize homicide (in most cases). You express support for these measures, but the Denizens rebut you, saying, “That’s legislating morality. Keep your churchy morality out of politics. You may think it’s wrong, but that’s only because of your religious views. Don’t force your morality on everybody else.”

You argue, of course, that this is an issue that affects the innocent, and is thus well under the purview of the state. The Denizens respond: “It’s a complicated issue. Homicide is often wrong but not always wrong. What about self defense? What about accidents? You gonna put people in jail for an accident?”

Well, of course not, you reply. The law is perfectly capable of making distinctions between justifiable homicide and wanton murder. At home, you explain, there’s degrees involved — negligence, manslaughter, third degree, second degree, first degree. Self-defense successfully employed in court all the time. Prosecutorial discretion helps protect the unambiguously innocent. Even the most extreme and adamant advocates for self-defense don’t argue for decriminalizing homicide entirely back at home.

The Denizens argue back, “Yeah, perhaps willfully killing for personal convenience should be illegal, but who is going to decide the exceptions? Is a judge qualified to know when somebody feared for their life, or to differentiate between negligence and willful murder? You are really going to put this in the hands of juries?”

Well yes, you reply, we do that all the time at home. We have expert witnesses provide testimony. Judges decide hard cases. Juries hand down decisions. Sure, there’s hard cases that many consider to be wrongly decided, but even then, nobody in my universe uses that as a pretext to decriminalize homicide. That’s because we enshrine the right to life in our constitution. The state is tasked to protect us from the aggression of others.

The Denizens reply, “Yeah, people have a right to life. But in this case there’s other rights involved, like the right to self-defense. And what about adult children saddled with the care of their aging, dependent parents? They didn’t choose that. What other recourse is there for them, besides euthanasia? We must balance competing concerns.”

You explain that at home, the right to life is enshrined above all other rights. No other concern, except the defense of our own life (or the lives of others) against immediate aggression, is considered worthy of superseding the right to life held by others. The Denizens respond, “Even if all that is true, criminalizing homicide isn’t going to stop people from ever killing anyone. It is just going to drive it underground and into back alleys.”

Well, you reply, murder still exists in your own world, and yes, it does tend happen in back alleys and usually in secret. But you consider that preferable to a society in which it is openly tolerated, and it almost certainly happens dramatically less often than if it were outright legal. Laws don’t eliminate bad behavior, but they often reduce it.

“Even if that is true,” the Denizens respond, “We don’t have the moral consensus needed for legislating something like this. Passing a law isn’t going to change people’s minds anyways. People will believe what they believe.” You reply that this might be because the law plays a role in shaping our moral intuitions. Almost nobody at home openly admits to believing that wanton murder is morally acceptable.

They ask if you are a Latter-day Saint. Yes, you reply. “Well then,” they respond, “Don’t you believe in agency? We came to this earth to make choices. And to learn from those choices. How can we learn from our choices if we strip people of their agency to choose? Homicide is bad, yes, but criminalizing homicide is Satan’s plan. It’s precisely what he wants us to do: use our moral beliefs to abrogate the agency of others.”

Yes, we believe in agency, you reply. But literally nobody at home has used it as a pretext to decriminalize homicide. Certainly you have some laws in your society. Do those laws abridge agency? Freedom, liberty, personal autonomy are recognized in your society as vital human goods, and nobody at home thinks laws against homicide abridge those essential human goods. We celebrate the role of government in protecting the lives of the innocent.

To this, they respond, “Well, be that as it may, we prefer a more gentle approach. We should focus instead on the social and economic conditions that put people in that position. We can reduce the incentives to murder instead of just jailing murderers.” Well, do that too, you reply. There’s no reason not to do both. But it seems strange to you — bizarre, even — to prefer that approach to one in which homicide is also criminalized.

You step back through the portal to your familiar universe of home.

Abortion: an exemption in ordinary moral reasoning

In short, we’ve carved out a single issue (abortion/feticide) and clothed it with special arguments that become mostly nonsense when you apply it to any other comparable issue. I’ve heard all of the Denizen’s arguments from Latter-day Saints on the subject of abortion, in the last few weeks. And each and every one of those arguments would seem strange — callous at times — when applied to any other similarly fraught moral issue.

How did this happen? I suspect it’s because law helps us calibrate our moral intuitions. And for the past several decades, we’ve not only made feticide legal, we have enshrined it as a constitutional right. This has led to some serious distortions in our collective moral reasoning.

When you hear an argument in favor of permissive abortion laws, it is useful to ask, “Would this argument sound nearly as persuasive if we were talking about post-birth infanticide? The involuntary euthanasia of the elderly? Or any other vulnerable group?” The answer is almost always no.

Another useful approach is to explore how these arguments might sound in the context of slavery. For many conservatives, abortion is as grave a slight against the dignity of human beings as slavery is/was. I’ve heard that it is more preferable to decrease abortion through persuasion, humanitarian endeavors, and elevated economic conditions than it is to use the force of law. Of course, it is possible to do and support both (and we should).

However, this is precisely the argument used by some against using the force of law to free slaves. Some argued that we should work to phase out slavery through education, improved economic conditions, and other humanitarian approaches, rather than outright abolition. Today, we tend to look upon those who advanced these arguments as weak-willed advocates for the status quo who lacked genuine moral courage. I’m not saying that’s the case today, but I am arguing that we should be aware of how our arguments would (or wouldn’t) work in other contexts.

Roe v. Wade short-circuited legislative attempts at reasonable compromise. And that has sowed the seeds of tribal divisions that we are now reaping today. Imagine if right-wing candidates didn’t have a body count of tens of millions to use for a prop in their campaign ads, and if left-wing candidates didn’t see the Supreme Court as the last battleground for women’s rights. If abortion policy had been (and always was) a state matter instead of a federal one, I’m not sure there’d be the same rumorings of civil war that we have today. Roe v. Wade (and subsequent precedence) must go, and the sooner the better.

In rebuttal, some may bring up ham-fisted approaches by some states to outlaw abortion without much thought to legitimate exceptions or compassionate enforcement. Certainly that’s happened, just as some on the left defend partial-birth abortion! Nobody has to support the extreme proposals on either side of the issue. But surely we can understand why many would conclude that, if we must err, we should err in the direction that saves lives.

[Edit: added material.] And finally, there’s one argument I’ve heard frequently that I couldn’t work into the Denizen’s hypothetical above: The solution to abortion is better access to contraception. I’ve seen some people argue today even that this is the true pro-life position. I have no personal qualms with broad access to contraception, but consider how this sounds to many (especially Catholics, who by doctrine, can’t endorse birth control): the solution to feticide is to prevent the victims from having ever existed. Sure, widespread contraception may reduce the number of abortions. But we must not think that this is the pro-life position on the issue.


In conclusion, if you want to, vote for Biden! But as you do, please don’t feel the need to rationalize the leftist position on abortion. You don’t need to, in order to justify your vote. When your conservative friends challenge you on it, I hope you can say, “Yes, the Democrat position on abortion is flat-out wrong, and I don’t support it. It’s not the only issue I’m prioritizing this year, though.”

I suspect you will actually win more conservatives hearts with that response, than you will by minimizing/trivializing the abortion issue, or by employing any of the arguments above. Don’t let your new preferred tribe / new preferred candidate shift you from your principles on this matter. Your resolute example on this issue will soften the hearts of your conservative peers more than anything else.

And certainly, advocate for any proposed legislation to include reasonable exceptions and protections, just as any conservative would advocate for exceptions to other forms of violence, such as self-defense. But please don’t use those exceptions to justify a status quo where millions upon millions of innocents are killed, and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Compassion on this issue is important. Civility and respect towards those who disagree with us is vital. But let’s be clear-minded at the same time.

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