Voters will decide the fate of the nearly total ban on abortions that was recently passed overwhelmingly by the South Dakota Legislature and signed by that state’s governor, Mike Rounds. On June 19, 2006, South Dakota’s secretary of state, Chris Nelson, confirmed that the legislation, which was scheduled to take effect on July 1, will be suspended pending the results of the voting in November. The law allows exceptions to the ban only to save the pregnant woman’s life.
The coming referendum presents an opportunity for South Dakota to model for the nation the manner in which substantial public debate regarding this volatile moral issue can be carried on with respect, honesty and conviction. Conflicting positions on abortion and public policy are deeply held and passionately argued. But even when addressing issues of depth and passion—indeed, most importantly at such times—we should be committed, as U.S. citizens, to the proposition that our public dialogue must be marked by civility and clarity, and that it should generate light rather than heat.
I propose below three conditions for discussing the matter of banning abortion by law, not only in view of the coming debate in South Dakota, but more broadly as well.
1. It must be recognized that both the issue of abortion and legal restrictions on abortion are inevitably moral questions informed by moral values.
Science can and should inform debate about abortion and the law. But science does not resolve questions of moral value and moral choice. Some have argued that those who seek to prohibit abortion are imposing their own moral views on others, while suggesting that those who do not seek legal sanctions for abortion are not imposing theirs. But supporters of both positions inevitably bring their moral perspectives on the nature and dignity of human life to bear in deciding when life should be protected.
Society cannot escape what is essentially a moral question: When does human life deserve legal protection from the state? And society certainly cannot escape this dilemma by denying that it is fundamentally a moral issue, no matter what position one chooses. The coming debate on the South Dakota referendum will be immeasurably enriched by a clear and constant recognition that this is not a battle between science and morality or between those who wish to impose their moral views on society and those who do not. Rather, it is essentially a debate about when and how the moral claims of human life should be honored and protected in our society.
In a similar way, some opponents of the South Dakota bill hold that the abortion issue is about personal belief in the definition of life and that such personal beliefs do not form a legitimate basis for public law, in part because there is no public consensus on the definition of life. But if consensus were the ultimate criterion for public action, most of the great moral accomplishments of American law—the end of slavery, the granting of the vote to women, the establishment of legal rights for working men and women, and the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s—would never have been passed. More important, abortion is not merely an issue of personal belief about the definition of life.
Again, it is more fundamentally a response to the question that every society must face: At what point does the state protect human life?
2. There should be agreement that any discussion of abortion and the law must recognize both the suffering of the unborn children in abortion and the suffering of pregnant women in dire circumstances.
Some pro-life advocates focus almost exclusively on the rights and suffering of the unborn baby, while some pro-choice advocates focus equally exclusively on the rights and suffering of pregnant women. This is a distortion of the moral choice that confronts us as a society. Abortion is a searing and divisive public policy issue precisely because two significant sets of rights are in conflict, and no matter which set of laws it enacts, society must choose between those rights.
The coming debate in South Dakota will be greatly enriched if public discussion is consistently marked by the admission that both the rights and suffering of the unborn child and the rights and suffering of pregnant women in grave circumstances are significant moral claims. I have learned over the years that the Catholic position favoring the protection of human life is greatly enhanced when it is constantly articulated with a full and compassionate recognition of the terrible dilemmas that pregnant women often face, realizing that even such dilemmas do not justify the taking of innocent human life.
3. There must be a commitment to dialogue that is civil, interactive and substantial.
Our national dialogue has been greatly impoverished in recent years by the bitterness, superficiality and attack-orientation of our political debates and campaigns. It is difficult to imagine today the depth of dialogue that characterized America’s discussion of the proposed Constitution in 1787 or the searing question of slavery in the election of 1860. But the issue of abortion calls for just such depth and dialogue. The citizens of South Dakota must undertake a debate on abortion and the law in which both sides consistently commit themselves to honesty, compassion and insight and expect and acknowledge those same qualities in their opponents.
Three great benefits will come from such a dialogue. First, it will enlighten the citizens of our state about the profound issues involved in this vote. Second, it will strengthen, rather than weaken the bonds that tie us together as a civil society. And third, such a dialogue can provide a model for our nation for how to debate public policy on abortion in a civil and enlightened manner.
The legislature and governor of South Dakota have enacted legislation that vigorously defends human life and makes abortion illegal except to save the life of the mother. The Catholic community actively supports legislation that protects the dignity of human life and will contribute its voice to this debate because we consider abortion to be a pre-eminent moral issue facing our society. Let us hope that the dialogue will be characterized by civility and depth. And let us recognize that in public discourse moral passion must walk hand in hand with mutual respect.