Ethics: July 2004 Archives

The people on Fox and Friends this morning are amazed that John Kerry believes life begins at conception, and they're wondering how he can believe that and then say that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Many of my students have had the same strange notion that pro-choice people shouldn't believe the scientifically obvious truth that life begins at conception. The main issue has absolutely nothing to do with when life begins. For many people it has to do with when personhood begins (though philosophers have given good reasons to think even that doesn't decide the issue either way, since it's sometimes ok to kill a person, and it's sometimes wrong to kill something that's not a person).

What bothers me about Kerry's stance on abortion isn't some supposed inconsistency between believing life begins at conception and allowing abortion. The problem is that he says he thinks abortion should be rare, and then he does nothing to discourage it and everything to encourage it. That's good reason to think he doesn't really believe very strongly that it should be rare.

Update: Someone from the Washington Post is on now, saying that Kerry has set himself up for some moral dilemma with his recent comments on abortion. He stated it again in terms of life beginning at conception, so apparently he doesn't know any biology either. Tehy're now giving some more information on the quote, and he hasn't just said that life begins at conception, which isn't exactly an informative point as to anyone's views. He actually said he opposes abortion. So maybe he does have a moral dilemma to deal with, and he's just a moral wimp, believing something to be gravely wrong but being absolutely unwilling to do anything to oppose it. That dilemma has nothing to do with when life begins, though.

Update 2: More context: Kerry sees his opposition to abortion as a purely religious matter that he can't force on others. This doesn't change my previous evaluation that this is the position of a moral wimp. It does raise my eyebrow a bit, though, because it reveals two things. First, he doesn't think there are any good arguments for abortion and takes it as an article of faith. He uses that term. Many people who have a more liberal view on this issue believe this to be true of all pro-life people, and it's completely false. I wonder if this is evidence that he doesn't really believe it and is giving what a Democrat might think a Republican believes to try to get more conservative votes. The other possibility is that this is just his way of saying that there isn't any truth of the matter, but he has a feeling about it. It's a bad way of saying that, and it's offensive to people who really have convictions about it, but it's one way of reconciling his claim that he has convictions about it with the obvious evidence that he doesn't.

Second, as I just suggested, this is incredibly offensive to people with deeply seated beliefs that coincide with their religious beliefs but also are held because or real arguments and even careful reasoning. It belittles them, and it ignores how many of our laws really do come from religious viewpoints, even if there are also secular arguments for most of them. Abortion, for many people who happen to have religious beliefs on the matter, is not a religious issue. It's a moral issue. Those who say you can't legislate morality are simply ignorant of how the legal system works. Most laws legislate morality.

Independence Day is tomorrow in the United States, and it's good timing for some thoughts I've been having lately. As my congregation has worked through the beginning of I Samuel and the founding of the Israelite monarchy in our sermons, I've had the occasion to reflect on the nature of government. I think there are two principles, which you might think of as being in tension (but not contradiction) with each other, that have a bearing on how we should think about our government today and how we should think about the 4th of July.

Posts at Jollyblogger and Beyond the Rim... also express in different ways the tension I'll develop here and how we need balanced between both principles without allowing either to remove the other.

Digitus, Finger & Co. has a nice post explaining why abstinence-only sex education (or lack thereof!) is a very bad idea, even if excluding the abstinence-only message is also a bad idea. I knew there were extremists out there who think it's morally wrong to teach facts about birth control or how the human reproductive system works, but I thought abstinence education was simply showing why abstinence is the only way to be sure to avoid pregnancy and STDs (barring rape). I didn't realize that there are whole programs developed just make that claim and don't bother to teach the rest of the relevant issues. That's at least as bad as failing to mention that abstinence is the only 100% safe method and failing to talk about the magical thinking of the inverse lottery fallacy (instead of "I know how irrational it is to play the lottery, but I might win, and isn't that enough" it's "I know it's possible I might lose at the sex lottery, but that won't happen"). How can you support your claim that abstinence is the best method when you don't teach the facts about the others to back it up?

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