The scene: The Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, in the late 1970s. I was invited in to do a debate on abortion with a young woman from the ACLU. I sought to show, in my usual way, that the argument on abortion could be cast simply in the form of a principled argument, without any appeal to faith or religion.
I drew, as ever, on a fragment that Lincoln wrote for himself in which he imagined himself in a debate with an owner of slaves, and he put the question of why this man was justified in making a slave of the black man. Was he less intelligent? Then beware, said Lincoln, you may be rightly enslaved by the next white man more intelligent than you.
As the argument moved on in this way, the upshot became clear: there was nothing one could cite to justify the enslavement of the black man that would not apply to many whites as well.
I pointed out then that we simply draw upon the same mode of reasoning when it comes to abortion: why is that offspring in the human womb anything less than human? Does it not speak? Neither do deaf mutes. Does it lack arms or legs? Well, other people lose arms or legs in the course of their lives without losing anything necessary to their standing as human beings to receive the protections of the law.
I would point out that, at no point in the chain of reasoning, is there an appeal to revelation or faith. This is an argument that can be understood across the religious divisions, by Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, and even atheists.
Hence the bombshell – that one does not have to be Catholic to understand this argument – and that has been precisely the position of the Church: The argument can be made by drawing on the scientific evidence of embryology, woven with principled reasoning, which is to say, the moral reasoning of the natural law.
The young woman from the ACLU listened to all of this, smiling. When I was done, she nodded benignly and said, “That is what you believe.” I had given her a moral argument carried out through reasons that could be assessed and understood by any functional person, regardless of his religion, and yet she reduced everything bearing a moral argument to a matter merely of personal “belief.”
The late John Courtney Murray, S.J. warned about the tendency to libel religion by reducing it merely to “beliefs” having no claim to be true for anyone apart from those who held them. With that cliché nicely absorbed, the Bidens and Cuomos of the world could affect a high-minded restraint from imposing the “beliefs” of their Church on anyone else.
We fast-forward to our own day, and we encounter the irony of a false idea turning on itself. In the awful unfolding of the “culture war,” abortion has been deeply planted in the law, along now with same-sex marriage, and the drive toward “transgenderism.”
But with this turn of affairs, we find people in moral opposition seeking a safe harbor from the demands of the law by invoking their claim to religious freedom. And so the Green family, the owners of the famous Hobby-Lobby craft stores, sought to avoid a demand of the federal government that they cover contraception and abortion in their medical insurance for employees.
In pursuing their argument, the Greens affirmed their “belief” that life begins at conception. Belief? The point is contained in every textbook on embryology and obstetric gynecology.
And yet, my friends defending religious freedom in the courts have been willing to settle with this mode of argument because it brought at least the right result for the Greens and others. But there was this point of awkwardness: We find people who are not Catholic and yet make precisely the same moral argument about abortion that is made by the Church.
How, in any strict reckoning, could we explain why the Catholic businessmen should be exempted from the obligation to support abortions, while the same exemption is not accorded to the man making precisely the same argument made by the Church but who happens not to be Catholic?
That awkwardness becomes the key to the deeper danger. The people who have been content to rest their arguments on “beliefs” earnestly held seem quite oblivious to the unsettling implications arising from the argument they have put in place: If indeed our moral judgments can be reduced to matters of beliefs, that woman from the ACLU now has the trump card.
Let us say that Roe v. Wade is overturned, and it becomes legitimate once again for the laws to cast protection over the child in the womb. But if the pro-lifers could invoke their “religious freedom” not to be obliged to perform or fund abortions, should we be astonished if a comparable freedom were claimed by those who profess to believe in the deep rightness of abortion?
Why should they not claim a “religious freedom” to order abortions, even against the laws that now bar them? There is a path for protecting the doctors, nurses and others who don’t wish to become complicit in abortions. But to cast their rights on the ground of religious “beliefs” is to lay the ground for undoing those laws on abortion that some of us have sought so long to restore.
*Image: The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt, c. 1883 [The Tate , London]