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I have two friends whose different perspectives on life have helped me understand the abortion debate a little differently from the usual view: that it is an irreconcilable conflict of rights. One is an evangelical Christian whose religion tells her that life begins when fertilization occurs, that is, when God instills a soul into the new being, and so even that tiny microscopic grain is morally the same than an adult human. The other is a deeply spiritual Alaskan native, who tells me that life begins when a newborn baby inhales its first breath, and with it willingly imbibes a portion of the Great Spirit, thus becoming a member part of creation and attaining moral equivalence with all other living humans. Abortion, for the evangelical Christian, is a form of murder and must be fought in all its forms. Abortion, for the Alaskan native, is permitted from a strictly religious standpoint (though subject to many other considerations), as a fetus does not have the same moral status as a living person.
They can’t both be right.
Unfortunately, there is no way for science or objective analysis to settle this argument. Science cannot count souls or weigh the Great Spirit. Whether the Evangelical Christian, Native American, or indeed any other of the myriad religious and philosophical views on abortion should be followed is a decision each person must make for themselves. A pregnant evangelical may choose not to have an abortion; a pregnant Alaskan native may decide to do so; both are consistent with their individual spiritual traditions.
But it is the government that makes the laws on this issue. The long-standing tradition in the United States, enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, is that the government has no religion and must permit the practice of all religions. This is a wise disposition, as religions are intolerant of the beliefs of others and have a millennial history of irreconcilable conflict. The government must avoid picking winners and losers from religious disagreements.
And here’s how I see my friends’ differing opinions helping me understand the abortion debate: From a non-religious perspective, there is no way to settle the question of the moral worth of a fetus. Thus the government, in Roe v. Wade, came to a Solomonic ruling that abortion is permitted up to the point where the government has an interest in the outcome – that is, there is a real potential new citizen once the fetus becomes viable. It sounds like a compromise – not all abortion is banned, but not all abortion is allowed either – but it’s really more than that. The decision on the moral value of the fertilized egg is left to the moral compass of the individual woman, for only she can apply religious or moral values to her situation; but all of society is interested in the fetus once it has acquired the possibility of living among us.
I want to pause for a moment to focus on the difference between actual human life and potential human life. A fertilized egg is a potential human life. He is not an actual living person at the present time. The evangelical may believe that it has the same moral value as a human life, but it cannot exist independently in the world. That’s a fact. A fetus, once it reaches viability, can exist independently (with plenty of medical support) and can reasonably be considered real human life at present. This difference is the basis for the government’s interest in preserving viable fetuses, and for preventing interest in pre-viable fetuses. It is a distinction that is not based on religion, and that members of all religions should be able to recognize and at least honour, if not support.
Roe v. Wade allowed all women to practice their religion equally; prevented the government from interfering in private moral affairs; and respected the individual woman’s ability to make important decisions for herself and her fetus. The Overthrow of Roe c. Wade opens the door for government to go far beyond its own limits and, in states with an evangelical Christian majority, to begin picking winners and losers among religions. No religion, including evangelical Christianity, should want this to begin.
Harold Johnston, MDis a lifelong Alaskan who practiced family medicine in Anchorage for 29 years and led programs at Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, Alaska Family Medicine Residency, and Providence Medical Group, before retiring in 2018. He is a graduate in philosophy from Whitman College and an MD from the WWAMI program at the University of Washington, where he is currently professor emeritus of family medicine.
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