by Ann Marie B. Bahr
While I don’t support a ban on abortions, neither do I believe that all abortions are morally justified. But I think the latter is the question that we need to ask: Not “Can I legally do this?” but rather “Is this abortion morally justified?” Ideally, laws should be simple and apply to everyone in all circumstances. On the other hand, the question about moral justification is designed for cases in which always-or-never reasoning does not apply. The right answer will differ under the circumstances. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes,” and there are no restraints on behavior. Rather, it means we must exercise our ability to find the best answer in each set of circumstances as persons endowed with minds and free will. One traditional definition of “conscience” is the ability to discern moral right from wrong. Freedom of conscience is the legal right to follow what one’s conscience dictates. It commonly refers to the freedom of religion but extends beyond the right to worship as one chooses. For example, conscientious objectors believe killing is not justified even in war. That may be for religious reasons, but not all conscientious objectors have been religious.
The free exercise of conscience was an issue of immense importance to the framers of the US Constitution. They separated church and state lest anyone’s conscience was subjected to government coercion. They did not mandate the removal of religion from all public life or public debate—to the contrary! They thought religion was necessary precisely because it provided a moral basis for society. In their wisdom, the founders of our nation sheared religion of coercive power by forbidding any government establishment of religion. Logically this should include forbidding governments to enforce the moral laws promulgated by religions since legal enforcement is a form of coercion. But to forbid the government to force one person’s conscience on others is not to say that expressions of conscience should be banned from the public square. Privatization of moral reasoning undermines the development of social consensus. In addition to laws based on razor-thin majorities, it is another reason for the sharp divisions and mutual mistrust which we see in the US today.
What the founders did not foresee is that many of the institutions that informed moral reasoning in the late 18th century—e.g., religious institutions, the centrality of a liberal studies curriculum in higher education, and civil public debate–would not remain as prominent in society as they were in the founding period. They did not anticipate the secularization of society, which occurred in the second half of the 20th century. They could not have imagined that the day would come when the academic disciplines most central to the formation of the capacity for moral reasoning–the humanities in general and philosophy, religious studies, and moral theology in particular—would no longer be the sine qua non of anyone who aspired to public service. They were not aware that an economic theory that showcases self-interest, and a political philosophy based on national self-interest, would one day supersede ideals of civic virtue and righteousness and likewise supersede the national ideal of world leadership based not on the amassing of wealth and power but rather on the sharing of wealth and the spread of democracy. These historical developments have been a downplaying of the importance of moral reasoning to the point where most citizens never learn how to do it. In the eyes of other nations, we seem to have left our greatest moral aspirations behind as we seek only to maximize pleasure, pocketbook, and power.
Contrary to what many people think, it is possible to teach moral reasoning without indoctrinating students. One can use examples from many different religions, or one can include different philosophers and moral theologians from within a single tradition. Either way, the student is being introduced to a way of reasoning that can be applied in many different situations, not to a universal and immutable set of answers. The role of an educator, whether affiliated with a secular or religious institution, is not to preempt the students’ right to make their own moral decisions. Students learn how to apply their own reasoning powers in their own unique circumstances. Teachers and religious leaders cannot pretend to have all the answers, but they can demonstrate how they and other people reason about moral issues. In a world in which moral reasoning is rarely highlighted, it can elevate its importance. They can help the public to see different sides of a question. They can provide the necessary background knowledge for the analysis of different claims and viewpoints. But their role is not to make our decisions for us, just like it is not the role of governments to make our decisions for us.
Each of us, whether female or male, is endowed by our Creator with reason and free will. It is an affront to God to deprive women of the right to make their own decisions, especially in matters that touch most deeply on their role as child bearers, which only they can fulfill. But it is an abdication of social responsibility to deprive citizens of opportunities for training in moral reasoning or to deprive them of the right to speak in public about what their mind and their conscience hold to be true. Moral decisions cannot be coerced, but they can be nurtured.