Elected representatives cannot be allowed neutral views on abortion


RITE AND REASON:Appeals to neutrality on the right to life issue should be unmasked for what they are, writes CHRIS HAYDEN

PAINTING ONE’S own position as the neutral or default position is one of the oldest argumentative tricks in the book. Straight away, it puts one’s opponents out on a limb. Atheist propagandists do it regularly, by insisting that unbelief is the default position of the human intellect, and that it is belief that must account for itself.

In the abortion debate, a development of this ploy is to portray the anti-abortion/pro-life position as a fundamentally religious one (aka a religiously fundamentalist one), based on religious convictions and theological speculation.

This enables pro-abortion/pro-choice speakers to present their position as one that does not have to make any appeal to religion, because it can lean on enlightened, secular common sense.

The assertion that the Roman Catholic Church’s position on abortion is a purely theological matter is, however, nothing more than an argumentative sleight of hand – an attempt to declare the church’s view to be irrelevant in the public square.

Let those who subscribe to “traditional views” continue to do so (it’s a free country, after all ) but let them not expect their arcane theological speculation to have any influence on policy or legislation.

Now if the Catholic view were based solely on narrowly doctrinal convictions, or on tradition, or on a particular reading of scripture, then such objections would be perfectly reasonable. The religious convictions of one group in society should not be foisted on others, and religious leaders cannot appeal to support from the State in the event of dissent within their group.

Conversely, it’s unlikely that anyone would be impressed if Oireachtas time was swallowed up by a discussion of the Aristotelian metaphysics underlying transubstantiation.

That said, however, the view that human life should be legally protected from the moment of conception is not reducible to a theological position, one to which only believers can subscribe, and which they should not expect to be tightly and unambiguously enshrined in law.

Ultimately, it is impossible not to hold a fundamental position regarding the status of unborn human life, and anyone who asserts neutrality is either being venal or has not considered the issues in sufficient depth.

Consider the case of a politician who asserts that as an elected representative, he or she will not commit to any fundamental stance regarding the status or value of unborn human life, and will, instead, be guided by the views of constituents. At first glance, this view sounds eminently democratic.

Indeed, in a certain sense it is!

But it also entails a fundamental view – and, more importantly, a fundamental commitment – regarding the status of unborn human life.

The politician who asserts neutrality is saying the following, even if the words are never spoken: “The value of human life in utero is not sufficient to protect it from the wishes of a democratic majority, or of a legislative body, should either such group ever decide that direct termination of unborn human life is desirable.”

An alternative spelling out of the default position could read: “Unborn human life has no inherent value, only a derived value, conferred or withdrawn by plebiscite or public opinion.”

It is, of course, unlikely that the average “neutral” politician or commentator will spell things out quite so explicitly, but this is the meaning of neutrality – and it means there is no neutrality.

The decision not to commit to a fundamental stance regarding unborn human life is itself a commitment and a fundamental stance. We should not, therefore, permit our elected representatives to kick for touch on the abortion issue. Appeals to neutrality should be respectfully and charitably unmasked for what they are, and the unmasking is really not all that difficult.

Some, of course, will appeal to the authority of legislation and of the legislative process, but they should be promptly reminded that to permit legislation to trump the value of unborn human life is to adopt a fundamental position regarding that life. Once again, there is no neutrality.

From time to time, we may hear politicians conceding that it’s all very well for the church to reaffirm its traditional opposition to abortion, but that it must not seek to have its “theological” views imposed, still less enshrined in law. Whenever we hear this kind of language we will do well to remember that the speaker is not – indeed cannot be – speaking from the position of a non-committal, neutral view of the value and status of unborn human life.

Rev Dr Chris Hayden is a priest of the Ferns diocese.

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