Editor’s Note: The author is an active, believing member who has served and continues to serve in many callings in the Church. His political opinions and religious views are “all over the map, depending on the issue,” as he puts it, and he does not wish to be indentified as an LDS Lefty or be classified with any particular label that would imply things to others. In his own words, he says, “I'm not a classification; I'm an individual who supports the Brethren fully while trying to obtain and follow personal revelation.” With his permission, we are pleased to feature this brief essay that we think so eloquently outlines how to examine moral issues that enter the political arena.
Once a moral issue enters the political arena, it no longer is just a moral issue. It becomes a political issue, subject to different forces and obligations and stresses and interpretations ad infinitum than when it was “just” a moral issue. This is not the thread for it, but abortion is a perfect example of this. How I feel about it as a strictly “personal moral issue” varies radically from how I feel about it as a political, legal issue. That’s the core reason why the Church can and should comment on moral issues while not attempting to dictate political action.
This essay fleshes out that foundational claim – that once a moral issue enters the political arena, it is OK for Mormons to vote differently than they might preach.
My moral stance on abortion is, unsurprisingly, that of the Church: Abortion is not murder, and it is not inherently a sin in all cases, but it is a serious action that should be undertaken only in specific situations – like rape or incest, when the mother’s life is in danger, or when the fetus cannot survive birth. Furthermore, it should not be automatic even in these situations.(1)
When abortion enters the political arena, however, my stance changes radically. The same statement in the Church’s website Newsroom also includes a concluding statement, which rarely is quoted in these discussions:
“The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.”
Why not? As a political issue, there are three options:
1. Always prohibit abortions – not consistent with the Church’s moral stance;
2. Always allow abortions – not consistent with the Church’s moral stance;
3. Allow some and prohibit other abortions – can be consistent with the Church’s moral stance.
It would appear that I should support #3 as the basis for legislation. I don’t. I support #2 (even practices like partial-birth abortion, which I find simply revolting and barbaric in theory, but absolutely necessary in strictly limited instances) instead of #3, for the following reasons:
1. Exceptions must be decided through compromise among differing beliefs. Most who accept exceptions would support abortion in situations where the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, but many don’t. I think most would support exceptions for cases of rape and incest, but many don’t. Fewer support a doctor’s determination that the fetus won’t survive birth, since there is an element of subjectivity in some cases. Compromise that does not include the exceptions the Church allows would be in direct violation of my own moral code – forcing birth in situations where I believe the parents (including my wife and I) should be able to choose abortion, if necessary in their situation. I can’t support that.
2. It would be fairly easy for a doctor who is committed to abortion as an option for all to over-estimate the danger to the mother’s life if an abortion was desired. In order to address this potential conflict, the courts would be required to assign a second doctor to verify the initial diagnosis, but this doctor would be just as likely to be opposed to abortion as an option. If so, the verification might be withheld for many women whose decisions I would support otherwise. I can’t support that.
3. The most tricky situation legally is in cases of rape. Here’s what’s tricky about it:
• For abortions in these cases to be allowed, there would have to be a charge made of rape.
• Any charge would necessitate an investigation.
• An investigation would require the possibility of a trial.
• Typical investigations and trials cannot be undertaken and completed in nine months – especially in cases that might boil down to “she said/he said”. In reality, these cases actually would have a “prosecutorial window” of only about 4-6 months – since the pregnancy might not be known until the second month and would need to be terminated prior to the third trimester in order to avoid late-term abortions that would never receive legal support.
• In these situations, to be a viable option, an abortion would have to be possible before the completion of any legal action to determine the validity of the claim.
• Rape cases are difficult to prove, but under this “exception” construct, abortions should not be allowed for spurious accusations.
• Therefore, these cases would need to be expedited to reach a conviction that would justify the abortion occurring.
• The cases that should not be rushed, ever, are explicitly those that are the most difficult to prove. Such a focus makes it less likely that the charge will be substantiated, meaning that legitimate cases have a greatly reduced chance of being proven – meaning that the perpetrator has a greatly enhanced chance of being acquitted.
• If abortions are granted on the basis of the accusation, in order to address the nearly impossible task of convicting within 3-4 months of the charge being made, the courts would need to be willing to punish women who make spurious claims in order to have that abortion. Otherwise, a charge of rape would become the automatic action of any woman desiring an abortion, effectively legislating the allowance of abortion in any situation.
• The near impossibility of determining guilt in some cases, even when the accusation is valid, would mean that many women would be punished for having to make the case in a shortened time frame – for making a claim that is difficult to prove in an expedited time frame.
• The possibility of being prosecuted for making a valid but unprovable accusation would have the practical effect of scaring many women away from making such an accusation, thus effectively legislating option #1 for many in the guise of #3. I can’t support that.
Given that I can’t support outlawing all abortions, and that I can’t support outlawing all abortions with the exceptions of rape, health of the mother and viability of the baby, all that is left for me is to leave the decision in the hands of the individual mother (and father, where applicable) and let them deal with the moral consequences of their decisions.
Morally, I am opposed to abortion, but I allow for exceptions; politically, I oppose legislation that restricts abortion in any way that would not address the issues I articulated here. I have yet to see a proposal which I can support.
Abortion is just one example of this conundrum. Morality dictates our individual choices, but as has been said elsewhere: “You can’t legislate morality.” That statement is usually taken to mean that you cannot force people to behave morally. This example illustrates why it is also impractical.