Politics — touching the third rail now

I’m going to touch the true third rail in American politics, or at least American political discourse. I’m not only going to touch it, I’m going to dance on it, wearing a tinfoil hat. Ready?


The thoughtful challenged me recently on my remarks about abortion, saying, among other things, “Is there room in your philosophy for respectful disagreement with someone who is against abortion because they believe it is the murder of a human life?”

To which I say, absolutely. But though I think it’s likely to be a pretty small room, I’m more than willing to go there.

First of all, let’s presume I’m talking to all the people in America for whom opposition to abortion is a matter of basic moral principal, to the point of being an absolute. You are against the taking of human life, therefore you are against abortion. This seems to coincide with the Christian position as stated in Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.” I don’t have much problem with that one. The required concomittant position seems to be that ensouled human life begins at conception. This one seems highly debatable to me, but I’ll grant it for the sake of this discussion.

If you believe in capital punishment, to my view you’ve lost your position of moral absolutism. We’ve now established that some people can be killed some of the time, therefore human life is not absolutely sacred as claimed. You’ve introduced nuance into the equation. There’s no room for nuance if you’re staking a position of moral absolutism. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We’ve already established what you are, ma’am. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

If you believe in justifiable homicide, for example, your right to defend your property with deadly force, then once again you’ve lost the argument before you started. If some people can be killed some of the time, even if they happen to be innocent and mistaken, then human life is not absolutely sacred.

If you believe in exceptions for rape or incest, you’ve lost your right to absolutism, because those embryos are just as human (or not) as any other embryos. Their parentage is not their fault. Once again, you’ve introduced nuance.

If you believe that in vitro fertilization is a legitimate method of producing babies, you’ve really wiped out. The IVF process can discard half a dozen embryos for every successful pregnancy. You’ve not only lost the argument before you started, you trashed it at both ends.

To hold any of those beliefs, then to denounce abortion on religious grounds, amounts to situational ethics. You’re picking and choosing where God’s law applies, rather than applying it as an absolute, rationalizing your prejudices and fears with moralizing. In effect, you’re doing what liberals do all the time, balancing the greatest good for the least cost, and it’s precisely what my absolutist friends on the far right constantly condemn us for in the public discourse.

If despite these examples or their equivalents, you still believe all human life is sacred, and that human life begins at conception, then for you, I grant freely and without reservation that you have a principled and reasoned opposition to abortion. You’ve got a moral absolute, and you’re consistent about it. With you, I’m going to seek a way to talk about some kind of middle ground.

Stay tuned.