26 October 2004

Primary- and secondary-level disagreements: the case of abortion

My friend Marianne Scholte (whom I know from our grad student days at Notre Dame) asks:

Why is it that one's policy stance on abortion is an article of faith, but one's policies toward war, poverty, health care, the environment are matters on which persons of "good faith" can honorably disagree? How is this Reformed or even consistent for that matter?

As a matter of fact, I am not one of those who believe that abortion is the only or principal issue that should determine one's vote. Nor would I call it exactly an article of faith. However, I think there is a fundamental difference between abortion and the other issues Marianne lists above. The difference is precisely between the two words whether and how. With respect to poverty, health care and the environment (let's leave out war for the moment), one does not generally hear debates over whether poverty should be addressed in some fashion, or whether we should try to solve the health care crisis or whether to protect the environment. Disagreements take place on the secondary level of how such goods should be sought and secured through the ordinary political process.

With respect to poverty three possible positions might be articulated: (1) leaving the market to operate as freely as possible is the best way to help the poor; (2) collaborative efforts between governments and the private sector will help to alleviate poverty; and (3) government should undertake to redistribute wealth directly from haves to have-nots in order to equalize its possession. Although one might legitimately disagree with the advocates of one or more of these positions, one is unlikely to hear one's opponent arguing that poverty is a good, or even a necessary evil, whose continuation must be in some way legally facilitated. Similarly, although I am generally sceptical of the Acton Institute's market approach to protecting the environment as rooted in an inadequate understanding of the nature of the commons and of government's normative task to protect the commons, it would be unfair to accuse its members and supporters of opposing the protection of the environment as such.

Abortion is different. The current debate in the larger society is not about how best to protect the unborn. It is about whether we should protect the unborn at all. I think Christians can legitimately disagree about the former, but not the latter, given the numerous scriptural commands to protect the vulnerable.

For example, back in 1991 many Christians in Canada opposed the Mulroney government's Bill C-43 on the grounds that it did not go far enough in legally protecting the unborn. They worked to oppose the bill, and they were successful. The result? There is now a complete legal vacuum on the issue in this country and no protections whatever. I think those Christians were misguided to oppose the bill. I believe they acted in good faith, but I think they misunderstood what was possible to achieve in the current political climate and took a position that ended up further perpetrating an injustice. My disagreement with them is a secondary-level one.

Similarly, those acknowledging the reality of the current abortion licence might legitimately put their efforts into reducing the number of abortions through practical means rather than into changing the law, judging that the latter is unlikely to occur any time soon. Again, one's agreement or disagreement with this approach is a secondary-level matter, in my view.

That said, I believe there are other issues of a similarly grave nature that might legitimately prompt someone to vote for a candidate who is openly pro-choice on the abortion issue. If, for example, an incumbent presidential candidate, who is otherwise pro-life, claims to be above the law and to be exempt from international conventions proscribing torture, among other things, then that strikes me as being one of those first-level issues on which there should be unity among believing Christians -- and, one hopes, right-thinking nonbelievers as well. One can legitimately disagree on the implications of the assumption of emergency powers -- something the current US president has for all practical purposes invoked. But to assert that an emergency trumps the rule of law is a highly dangerous one. In my view the rule of law is far more important for the doing of public justice than even the mechanics of democracy. Any threat to this principle is a first-order threat to the functioning of the constitution as a whole.

Now when I argue that there are limits to what Christians can legitimately favour and oppose in the political realm, I must immediately make two things clear.

First, I am doing no more than others who would argue that, say, chattel slavery or racial segregation are out of bounds. No one sensibly argues that any and all points of view are legitimate, particularly for members of their own faith community. Everyone draws boundaries somewhere.

Second, even admitting this first point, we must nevertheless accept as fellow citizens those with whom we disagree at a primary level. We must further be prepared to accommodate their policy preferences within the political realm to some degree, lest we risk the breakdown of political order. This is simply in recognition that politics is the art of the possible, entailing the peaceful conciliation of diversity, as Bernard Crick famously puts it. We might wish for more -- much more -- but we will likely have to settle for a good deal less. If the policies pursued end up being bad ones and we were among the minority able to foresee this at the time they were adopted, we will nevertheless have no choice but to live with their consequences when they come, along with our fellow citizens. That's simply part and parcel of living in the real world of flesh and blood political communities in a sinful world.

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