Abortion is not a social issue

religion_politicsIn the lexicon of contemporary politics, abortion is defined as a “social issue.” While technically a social issue can be anything that affects our society or culture, “social issue” is most commonly used as shorthand for issues perceived as religious or moral in nature.

This formulation is popular among the right to life’s enemies on both ends of the political spectrum, because they find it useful for belittling the cause’s importance and disqualifying it from consideration on dubious church-state grounds. On one side, liberals condemn pro-lifers as attempting to impose their subjective religious values on the country; on the other, libertarians and moderate Republicans declare us a distraction from their single-minded focus on economics and budgets.

While the abortion debate certainly has a religious and moral aspect, to define it solely as such does it a great disservice. In fact, in a number of ways, the very label “social issue” is an oversimplification that only muddies the rhetorical waters.

For one thing, this country has no blanket prohibition on “morality” in politics. While most of us agree there are various aspects of morality – our kindness, our speech, our religious practices, our (adult, consensual) sexual habits, etc. – that are none of the law’s business, basically every public policy issue ultimately boils down to someone’s moral suppositions versus someone else’s.

And those who most confidently deem the right to “choose” an inviolable personal matter are consistently the least shy about imposing their morality on the rest of the country in every other area they can think of, from how much of your money you should be able to keep to what uses it has be put toward to what agreements you can make with your employees to how environmentally conscious your homes and vehicles must be. Say what you want about the merits of liberal economic, labor, welfare, health care, and environmental policies, but don’t deny that they involve making people adhere to someone else’s idea of how to be a moral and compassionate person.

In response, liberals will defend their impositions because they regulate decisions impacting other people. And while the nature and extent of that impact is debatable, that’s basically true. But it’s also giving away the game for a very simple reason: abortion impacts other people, too. It’s not personal. If taxing the wealthy to (theoretically) make the poor’s lives better and compelling an employer to provide birth control coverage to make an employee’s lifestyle less costly are acceptable infringements in the name of all that’s decent and enlightened, then forbidding abortion to keep a baby from dying cannot possibly be off-limits on the same grounds.

For libertarians, it’s not enough for an action to have an arguable impact on another; it must have a certain kind of impact – violating his or her rights to life, liberty, or property – to warrant government intrusion. As a conservative, I agree with this in theory. But because anti-life libertarians are wrong about unborn babies being people with rights of their own, they fail to categorize abortion where it belongs, alongside murder, rape, assault, and theft – violations of the individual that nobody but an anarchist would oppose criminalizing.

As Gerard V. Bradley explains at the Public Discourse, protecting the unborn is inseparable from the very nature of just government:

Abortion is the great civil rights issue of our time because it raises—uniquely and compellingly—every society’s foundational question about law and justice: Who is the law for? For whose benefit do we plan, build, and apply this vast apparatus we call the “rule of law”?

The question is foundational because it is prior, in status and importance, to the question: What shall the law be? It is foundational because answering it correctly is essential to justice. Anyone can see that even the most refined arrangement of legal rights and duties counts for naught if the strong can manipulate the foundational question, and deny the benefits of law to those they wish to exploit.

Jurists as far back as Justinian in the sixth century correctly saw that law is for persons, not the other way around. Persons are the point of law; law is their servant.

Persons are not entities identified through policy analysis. They are not the sums of interests balanced, the deliverables of a vast progressive agenda. The older jurists saw, too, that the question of “personhood” could not be an intra-systemic riddle, solved by a feat of technical legal reasoning, and answered with a legal fiction.

Being prior to law and indispensable to justice, the foundational question must be answered according to the truth: Everyone who really is a person counts in law as one.

By the label’s popular usage, at least, “social issue” simply doesn’t fit the right to life. It is much better understood as a liberty issue, a human rights issue, an equality issue, and even an individualism issue. As pro-lifers search for new ways to advance the debate, we must redouble our efforts to make that clear.

  • NGOWorker

    Am I missing something? Don’t many groups define abortion as a religious issue for legal purposes? Many of the most prominent cases against abortion and the morning after pill were tried under the guise of religious freedom. Lila Rose has classified it as a religious issue, as it pertains to Obamacare, in many of her speeches. This will continue to be a relgious issue until groups stop legally defining it this way. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    • Calvin Freiburger

      Your complaint is what, exactly? That because people consider dealing in abortion against their religious beliefs, therefore all reasons to oppose abortion are religious, or there can’t also be secular reasons? Therefore there aren’t biological or rational reasons to consider unborn babies as human beings with rights worthy of protection?

      • NGOWorker

        If you want people to stop seeing this as a social issue, you will have to stop legally and publicly defining it as one. This will not happen in the near future because any legal challenges to abortion and the morning after pill under the guise of civil and human rights of the fetus will not get very far. You can sit here and say in your opinion abortion is a social issue, and also a civil and human rights issue. What you cannot say, is that this is NOT a social issue when you decide to define it this way for legal advantage. Your article delves deeper into this, but the tile is disingenuous and misleading.

        Every time you, Lila Rose, or anyone else complain, blog or tweet that Obamacare is an affront to religious liberty you are helping defining it as a religious issue. My complaint is that using the mantle of religious liberty to gain legal advantage and then complaining about its ramifications (using your own definition you are now defined as a social issue) is hypocritical and confusing. If you want to throw the “social issue” label aside you will have to put a stop to your most efficient legal way of fighting against abortion.

        • Calvin Freiburger

          This is insipid even by pro-choice standards. All you’re doing is whining that pro-lifers have the gall to defend their religious liberties, but you’re not responding to the REASONS WHY I say abortion is so much more than a religious issue. It’s neither hypocritical or confusing to people who listen to and think about the argument with an open mind before trying to tear it down.

          Let’s put it this way: the Bible says “thou shalt not steal,” yes? That makes anti-theft a religious value. But nobody would be foolish enough to say that anti-theft is ONLY a religious value, that it can’t ALSO be a secular value, for reasons OTHER THAN “because God says so.”

      • Basset_Hound

        Hey Calvin….

        My husband is an agnostic. His parents didn’t believe religion was all that relevant, and that’s how they raised him. He is pro-life, and told me the other night that pro-abortion advocacy was ugly and repulsive to him.

    • LoveTheLeast8

      I think it is many different things. The question is what is it primarily. I see it as a rights, moral and legal issue at its core.

      Lila was talking about the HHS mandate on religious people. That is a specific application of law on people of faith. I haven’t seen most of her speeches but I think that is what she was saying. I haven’t her ever address abortion as primarily a religious issue. She usually talks about it being a human rights abuse from what I remember.