Ethical Incoherence and Abortion

July 4, 2004 | 20 comments
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You’ve all apparently already had a long conversation on this site on abortion and the ethics (or lack thereof) of a Mormon pro-choice position, so let me just make two brief points with respect to those who brought the issue into their responses to my Mormon Republican Majority post. First, consider the sin of adultery. . . .

This is among the most serious sins one can commit in our faith, often described as second only to murder itself. Aren’t those who argue that Latter-day Saints are ethically bound by the Church’s restrictive position on abortion to support only pro-life abortion laws (and candidates?), also necessarily committed by the logic of their argument to support the passage and enforcement of laws that criminalize adultery? The latter seems ludicrous; is there a principled distinction between pro-life laws and anti-adultery laws that explains why Mormons are required to support the former, but not the latter? (Many states have repealed their criminal adultery laws, but others still have criminal adultery laws on the books. Prosecutions are exceedingly rare, even in Utah. I think Miss made headlines a few months ago with an adultery prosecution filing, which then went nowhere and was ultimately dismissed.)

Second, while it takes two sinners to conceive a baby out of wedlock, one of the sinners–the woman, of course–suffers disproportionate costs. Is this just “too bad,” or does gender equality count as a reason justifying a pro-choice position? Note that many of the disproportionate costs borne by women re unwanted pregnancy could be mitigated or eliminated entirely by social welfare legislation (which is usually vociferously opposed by the same interest groups that support restrictive abortion laws). Shouldn’t restrictive abortion laws be ethically linked with social welfare and other legislation that minimizes, to the extent biologically possible, the difference in the costs borne by men and women when their immoral behavior results in conception of a child? While Elder Oaks’s Ensign essay is a powerful and cogent statement of the ethical necessity of linking the Church’s moral statement on abortion with one’s personal view of the availability of abortion as a matter of public policy, the problem of disproportionate costs is not something he addresses.

If these arguments have been made and addressed before, then of course someone should simply say so and we can move on to other things.

Fred

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20 Responses to Ethical Incoherence and Abortion

  1. Russell Arben Fox on July 4, 2004 at 9:18 am

    Fred,

    Sorry I haven’t been able to write much lately. Thanks for the excellent and thoughtful posts so far.

    For the record, my take on the two challenges you pose is that they are legitimate and important points, and not easily dismissed. However, I don’t think they necessarily problematize the issue in the direction I suspect you assume they do.

    Regarding anti-adultery legislation: perhaps there is a “principled distinction between pro-life laws and anti-adultery laws” which prevents the one from properly entailing the other. (In a world where technology has made means of birth control cheap and readily available, sexual activity and procreation are no longer inevitably and/or logically linked. Of course, that begs questions about the morality of birth control, whether life begins at conception, distinctions between intention and action, and other sticky issues.) However, I’ll bite the bullet regardless: why are anti-adultery laws “ludicrous”? No doubt they are likely to fail. However, is the principle of writing standards of sexual behavior and personal responsibility into the law, for the sake of–if nothing else–defining a specific civic morality, really so perverse? Granted, I would prefer it if anti-adultery social norms were strong enough to induce shame in those who disregard such moral standards without recourse to law; I’d prefer it if presidents, CEOs, Hollywood stars and academics who violate the law of chastity, or contemplate such, would feel the weight of custom against them. But if it so be that such customs require the involvement of the state in order to be maintained against the grain of a degraded culture, I’m not sure such is by definition a silly endeavor.

    Regarding social welfare legislation: I agree completely with the proposition that “restrictive abortion laws [are] ethically linked with…legislation that minimizes, to the extent biologically possible, the difference in the costs borne by men and women when their immoral behavior results in conception of a child.” What is needed is not merely a much more comprehensive (and better funded) health care and counseling system, but further public support for and involvement in the providing of day care, adoption services, portable insurance coverage, the enforcement of alimony and other child-related financial obligations, etc. A truly “pro-life” (I dislike that term) society must logically be, I think, an egalitarian one.

    In short, the “pro-choice” position (again, a stupid term) may be a reasonable response for Mormons to the challenges you pose, but so is a socially conservative, economically progressive position. Granted, there isn’t a lot of support out there among the faithful for the creation of a more moral, more egalitarian, stronger communitarian society; like most Americans, we Mormons tend to be unfortunately hung up, as Jim notes, on this notion of “individual responsibility.” But like the orthodox Catholic defense of a “seamless garment of life,” I’d like to think that we ought not, at least in regards to abortion, allow ourselves to be content with the limited, wrongheaded options which the dominant political parties in America currently provide.

  2. ed on July 4, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    Fred writes: “Note that many of the disproportionate costs borne by women re unwanted pregnancy could be mitigated or eliminated entirely by social welfare legislation (which is usually vociferously opposed by the same interest groups that support restrictive abortion laws). ”

    I would like to take issue with this argument, which seems to be a very popular one among pro-choicers. I think it’s a slur to say that those who oppose abortion rights don’t care about the poor. There are many pro-lifers (e.g. liberal catholics) who do in fact favor broad social welfare programs. Many others sincerely question the premise that these programs help the poor, believing that in the long run they do more harm than good. In any case, I see no evidence that abortion opponents, as a group, either care less or do less for the poor than abortion supporters. Certainly many religious people do much more.

  3. Adam Greenwood on July 4, 2004 at 8:09 pm

    I’d like to put myself with the Grey Fox in saying that anti-adultery laws seem unludicrous and desirable to me. Why not a little enforcement?

    I suppose though that I could make a principled distinction between the two if I had to. Many Mormons who are pro-life feel not just that abortion is immoral but that abortion kills a human person. If one could be opposed to murder but not to adultery, as a matter of law, then I suppose that one could outlaw abortion but leave adultery legal.

    As for the opposition to abortion means supporting social welfare programs for women, I’m not sure that I see the connection. Yes the costs are disproportionate, but in a fallen world they always will be. It’s not that the prolife position commits us to an egalitarian economics, its that if we have an egalitarian economics then a prolife position commits us to certain kinds of welfare programs. As a social and not necessarily an economic conservative I am open to hearing arguments from prolifers in favor of some kinds of welfare programs (Russell?)–though I must admit that arguments from prochoicers about how prolifers must support social welfare programs will probably ring a little false to me–but I don’t see that the connection is self-evident.

  4. john fowles on July 4, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    I agree that with Adam that the issue in abortion is that it kills a human being. That is why it bothers me so much that those who support abortion call it “pro-choice.” Choice is not the issue. I don’t know any conservatives who oppose abortion because they want to oppress women or take away their legitimate choices in life. Rather, those who support abortion do so because they believe it is murder, not because they believe that women have less rights. In this sense, Russell, I actually think that “pro-life” is a very adequate term for that position, whereas I agree with you that “pro-choice” is a stupid term. I would go a step further and say that it is an extreme misnomer that is calculated to distract from the real issue in the abortion question.

  5. john fowles on July 4, 2004 at 8:23 pm

    I agree that with Adam that the issue in abortion is that it kills a human being. That is why it bothers me so much that those who support abortion call it “pro-choice.” Choice is not the issue. I don’t know any conservatives who oppose abortion because they want to oppress women or take away their legitimate choices in life. Rather, those who support restricting abortion do so because they believe it is murder, not because they believe that women have less rights. In this sense, Russell, I actually think that “pro-life” is a very adequate term for that position, whereas I agree with you that “pro-choice” is a stupid term. I would go a step further and say that it is an extreme misnomer that is calculated to distract from the real issue in the abortion question.

  6. john fowles on July 4, 2004 at 8:25 pm

    please just read that second post–a small typo in the first prompted the re-post.

  7. Adam Greenwood on July 4, 2004 at 9:28 pm

    Does this mean you’re only agreeing with me once?
    Do you have an address to which I can return the additional dose of warm-fuzzy validation? Ethics, you know, I wouldn’t feel right keeping it.

  8. William on July 4, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    Adam and John are right. Abortion is not just another sexual morality issue; it’s a human rights issue. One of the legitimate functions of government is to pass laws protecting the basic rights of its citizens. If the fetus has a right to life (the big if), then the government has a responsibility to protect that right with legislation.

    I support the legality of many things to which I am personally opposed — smoking, prostitution, Scientology, etc. I disapprove of them, but they are not violations of anyone’s rights. Abortion is different. If you are morally opposed to abortion, it is presumably because you believe that a fetus is a person and has a right to life. How can you recognize that right but say it should not be protected by law? It’s like recognizing the right to property but being “pro-choice” about theft.

    As for anti-adultery laws, they could perhaps be acceptable. One of the legitimate functions of government is to enforce legal contracts and punish those who violate them. To the extent that marriage is a legal contract including an explicit agreement to be sexually faithful, the government has a right to enforce it. (I don’t think marriage includes any such explicit legal agreement, but I could be wrong.)

  9. john fowles on July 5, 2004 at 12:44 am

    It would be interesting, if anti-adultery laws were enacted and enforced based on the logic of William’s post, what the punishment should be for violation of such a law. Perhaps a talionic measure would work well here. For example, one found to cheat in marriage would be barred from holding any type of fiduciary position or duty. I for one am often skeptical of the trustworthiness in business of one who has cheated on a spouse in marriage. I suppose that to some that might seem judgmental, but really it makes perfect sense: if someone can’t even be trusted to be true to a spouse–someone with whom they have an intimate relationship, how can I expect them to be faithful to me on a business level?

  10. danithew on July 5, 2004 at 1:29 am

    Legal penalties for adultery and enforcement of those penalties sounds good to me.

  11. Aaron Brown on July 5, 2004 at 3:23 am

    William said:
    “If you are morally opposed to abortion, it is presumably because you believe that a fetus is a person and has a right to life”

    But this is not necessarily a good presumption. For conservative Catholics perhaps it is, but certainly not for Mormons. LDS Church leaders have defined abortion as being “like unto murder,” which makes it a very severe sin to be sure, but not identical to murder. The Church’s unwillingness to explicitly define a moment prior to conception at which time the spirit enters the fetus precludes, I think, the ability of Mormons to unequivocally adopt the arguments of devout Roman Catholics.

    As I recall, we’ve had discussions here at T&S in the past where certain pro-lifers have strenuously argued that one need not necessarily subscribe to a particular theory of spirit/body union to justify adamant moral opposition to abortion. True enough, I think, but let’s not pretend LDS theology pmandates such a cut-and-dried view on this matter.

    Having said this, I do agree that IF you believe that abortion is precisely equivalent to murder, all the talk about “freedom to choose” and “disproportionate impact” rings hollow. THE crucial issue is whether a “life” is, in fact, at stake.

    Aaron B

  12. William on July 5, 2004 at 9:18 am

    I stand corrected, Aaron. You can be morally anti-abortion without believing that the fetus is a person and that abortion is a form of murder. If you believe that the fetus is more than just a part of the woman’s body and yet less than a full person, its status would perhaps be similar to that of an animal. You could then argue that killing it is immoral but should be legal — just as some people are vegetarians for moral reasons but support the legality of meat-eating.

    Does anyone know where I can find the revelation that declares abortion immoral? I just realized I don’t know where that particular prohibition came from. As far as I know it’s not mentioned explicitly in the standard works (“murder or anything like unto it” is the closest thing I can think of, but that’s open to many different interpretations). Which prophet first revealed that abortion is wrong, and what exactly did he say about it?

  13. B Warnick on July 5, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    A more interesting question of coherence, to me at least, is the stem cell research question. LDS politicians generally oppose legalized abortion (except under certain circumstances), but they generally support legalized stem cell research. I wonder if this is a coherent position. At first glance, at least, it seems that almost any anti-abortion argument (sanctity of life, violation of future personhood, culture of death slippery slope, scriptural proof-texts, and so forth) quite easily turns into an anti-stem cell research argument. I wonder if these two positions can be reconciled.

  14. Gary Cooper on July 5, 2004 at 11:29 pm

    B. Warnick,

    At last! Someone else besides me has thought about this dichotomy between “pro-life” and pro-stem cell research. I completely agree with you that almost any of the standard pro-life arguments can also be used against fetal stem-cell research, and they are used, but LDS politicians accept the one and not the other.

    This seems odd. I am LDS and *opposed* to stem cell research (and most of the LDS I know are opposed as well out here in Oklahoma), and for the following reasons:

    1. I am concerned that currently fetal stem-cell research has a “faddish” aspect to it, and that all the hype over it is overblown, but is forcing a neglect of adult stem cell research, which is highly promising and which has, in fact, already begum to produce real results.

    2. I simply don’t trust the governmental/medical establishment (and with federal tax dollars flowing to research, the two really are one) to be content with what the President has given them, but am concerned that the obsession with fetal stem cells will increase the call for more abortions, “harvesting” of fetuses” , and other evils.

    Now, I don’t describe this as an “LDS” position—my reasons are practical in nature, though morally based. Other LDS disagree. What bothers me though is the extent to which LDS politicians are literally plunging into the pro-fetal stem cell movement, even to the point of parroting some of the more factually questionable claims of this movement, and openly claiming in congressional testimony that somehow LDS theology is on their side.

    With regard to abortion as murder, I have always thought that the Lord has not inspired His prophets to declare abortion as murder (or perhaps more accurately, as homicide) is because it is simply not as clear to the average person.

    Everybody knows that it is wrong to murder a newborn baby. But, is it that clear to everyone about a child before birth? For those of us who have done the research and read up on what present fetal research and perinotology can tell us, it is abundantly clear that human life begins *sometime* in the first trimester. However, how many other people, especially those most likely to face an unwanted pregnancy, are aware of such medical facts? Where would they encounter this knowledge?

    While I am as pro-life as anyone I know, I am grateful the Lord, in His mercy and long-suffering, would permit a woman, penitent and humble now, who wants to enter the waters of baptism, but who once had an abortion earlier, thinking it was okay, only later realizing how terrible such a decision was. Again, the Lord judges us based on the knowledge we have and how we use it. Non-members may not understand the immorality of abortion, members do (or should), and so members who engage in an abortion are excommunicated. Cain knew murder was wrong, and was cast off forever; the Lamanites murdered too, but didn’t realize its wrongfulness, and could be baptized and saved.

    The fact that abortion is not officially declared “murder”, therefore, does not necessarily mean that its okay, or should be legalized, any more than the fact the Lord permits divorced persons to maintain temple priviledges means He’s all “hunky-dory” with the various reasons LDS people dissolve their marriages.

  15. Jim F. on July 5, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    Gary Cooper: I think it is important to keep our arguments straight so that we know what we are arguing for and against. In your concluding paragraph you say, “The fact that abortion is not officially declared ‘murder’, therefore, does not necessarily mean that its okay, or should be legalized.” I don’t think anyone has made the argument that you oppose there.

    In other words, you argue against this claim: “Since abortion is not murder according to present LDS teaching, it should be legalized.” However, I don’t think anyone has made that claim. Instead, I think they have said things like “For LDS, the proscription of murder doesn’t necessarily imply a proscription of abortion, as it does for those who believe that abortion is murder.” That is a much different claim than the one you criticize.

  16. Gary Cooper on July 6, 2004 at 12:01 am

    Jim F.,

    Thanks for the clarification. You’re right. I think what I was (rather tortuously ) trying to say is that I perceive that some LDS feel the reason the Church doesn’t label abortion as murder implys a *fundamental* difference between murder and abortion, and I am saying that I don’t believe we can safely say for sure that abortion and murder are, in fact *fundamentally* different. In other words, we cannot definitively say that abortion is different in substance from murder, and in fact we can just as easily make the claim that abortion is different from murder in *degree*, rather than in *kind*. If, in fact, abortion really is homicide, then LDS who insist abortion be allowed to be legal are, unwittingly, acquiescing to a horrible crime, a violation of human rights on an immense scale, as well as a serious sin. On the other hand, if abortion is different from murder not only in degree, but in actual substance (abortion just plain *isn’t* murder, period), then acquiescing in the continued legality of abortion would not seem nearly as grave of an issue. Clearly I come in on the former side of this equation, but let me hasten to add I am not here condemning anyone here (at least not intentionally)–I am simply stating that I think advocacy for the current legal regime of abortion on the part of LDS people seems to me contrary to what Elder Oaks’ statement, and other Church statements, is telling us to do, and therefore is a mistake, and if in fact it turns out that abortion really is just a degree removed from actual murder, then that mistake would seem even bigger.

    Whew! I hope I didn’t just make what I was trying to say even *less* clear than before! How I look forward to the Lord’s coming, and the return of the pure language of Adam (that’s Eve’s husband, not Adam Greenwood), which presumably will lend itselg better to communication.

  17. Mike on July 6, 2004 at 7:12 am

    Gary- I think that if the Prophet believed that abortion and murder were completely equivelant rather than he would say so. The idea that the Lord or the Lord’s prophet would not declare abortion to be murder simply because that isn’t clear to the average person seems absurd.
    Why else do we have a prophet of God but to tell us God’s will when it isn’t clearly evident to us.

    Further- under some circumstances those who have committed murder can be baptized. Doesn’t mean it is common but it is possible. The Lord would not make abortion rhetorically less than it is just so people who had an abortion without realizing the seriousness would be more comfortable getting baptized.

    You create a dichotomy that seems as outside of what Elder Oaks talks about in his article as does fully supporting abortion on demand.

    -please don’t take the above criticism as a statement that I am pro-choice.
    Though a registered democrat, I am pro-life. I don’t believe in the total legal prohibition of abortion- but I do think it should be limited largely to the circumstances described by the church as times when abortion may be allowable. Further- I think that our economic and social welfare policies should do more to encourage life than to discourage it.

  18. Adam Greenwood on July 6, 2004 at 11:49 am

    Mike,
    we’ve had a lot of talk about the questions you raise.
    The church hedges on whether abortion is killing or not, or when it becomes killing. Instead of taking that hedging as an answer, we should take it as an imperative for us to find an answer ourselves. After all, the church could as easily state that abortion is NOT murder but our leaders have yet to so state. The different treatment accorded repentant aborters is not such a statement. In a world where women are taught that their children aren’t yet alive, or their children, or persons, abortion is still killing but not murder because women who have abortions don’t have the full intent to kill.

  19. lyle on July 6, 2004 at 11:55 am

    Gary: Actually…Adam G’s diction is probably closer to Adamnic than anyones! ;)

    Adam/Mike: Perhaps you can both look to Senator Hatch’s position on stem cell research. His support & influence have been instrumental in moving towards passage of a stem cell bill; which apparently now has the votes it needs…although will probably wait til after the election.

    Sidenote: I’ve decided in favor of stem cell research. So, I’d make a bad Catholic…even though I’ve decided against the death penalty (the Pope would be a tad happier).

  20. Clark Goble on July 6, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    I’d say that I do agree Hatch has been very important in this issue. For various reasons I’m not a fan of Hatch, although I do appreciate having a reasonably important Senator representing Utah. However I think he has been very instrumental in providing a third choice between what has been a rather polarized discussion.

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