One Perspective: Reclaiming our civil religion depends on ending the abortion wars

By Steven B. Young

The Daily Record Newswire

We Americans lost our traditional civil religion when the culture war began in the 1960s. As our civil religion of citizenship and the common good evaporated, our politics grew more and more divided, partisan, ideological and toxic.

As common values frayed, the intolerance of sectarianism crept in. Religions -- both evangelical and secular humanist -- entered politics seeking triumph for a chosen truth and humiliation for opposing points of view. Compromise became impossible for politicians as governance of the public square became dysfunctional.

The last time Americans were so divided was in the 1850s over the moral issue of slavery.

This time the moral issue is abortion.

As Lincoln said about slavery, everyone knew that -- somehow -- it was the cause of a great civil war. Just so in our time, we all know that somehow our differences over the morality of abortions are at the heart of our divided culture and society.

What if there were an end to the abortion wars? What if there were common ground acceptable to most of us? Then we could reassemble the Humpty Dumpty of our politics and get our politicians back to doing what they traditionally did best: solving our practical problems as grown-ups would do.

There is, I think, a way out of the ideological conflict over abortion. It is to recognize that the issue is, at bottom, one of faith and religious belief.

A free society does not use government to regulate faith and religious beliefs. Government's power stops where freedom of religion begins.

Government regulates what is secular -- material, scientific and demonstrable. There must be rational relationships between the constitutional goals of government and its policies, not prejudice -- or just any belief -- no matter how strongly held.

Now what do we believe about the human life quality or status of a fetus? Is our belief based on religion or science?

If religious beliefs shape our response to how to think about a fetus, then freedom of such beliefs would seem to be required in a free society. The First Amendment to our federal Constitution holds that the state may not prevent the free exercise of any religion, nor may it support establishment of any religion. We are left free to accept religious truth without being told what to think by the police.

Similarly, the First Amendment prevents the government from dictating our speech, expressions that contain our thoughts.

A free society is free for people to differ on many important questions.

What then can the government regulate? In the area of belief, government's police power begins where religion leaves off and science enters it. When a matter is secular, rational, subject to discernable rules and regulations of nature -- where a matter is tangible and not abstractly deduced from ultimate faith propositions -- then our social conventions hold that a public interest arises independent of any individual's search for religious truth. Government can regulate in the material public interest.

I conclude from this distinction between religious beliefs and secular beliefs that different beliefs apply to a fetus at different times in its gestation.

In the beginning of gestation, the conclusion as to the presence of a soul or of human life already existing in a fetus is purely a matter of speculative definition. We define what is in the womb as being this or as being that. We are free in our thinking as to what definition makes the most sense to us individually. Thus, for many of us, the conceptual understanding of what a fetus is in its early days and weeks flows from our religious beliefs, teachings and convictions. Some choose one definition, others do not.

But at the end of gestation, what is the situation with describing a fetus?

I would point out that on the day before its birth after a normal gestation, a fetus is pretty much a human being capable of living on its own outside the mother's womb. This is so as a matter of scientific fact. It can be established through observation and demonstration. It is common knowledge and not mysterious or arcane.

A fetus in this stage is so very close to being the kind of human that governments protect by law that it seems strange not to include it within the category of that which is human and so should be protected by the state.

So, taking this approach, we could sensibly say that at the beginning of its gestation, the status of a fetus is a matter of religion and faith, but that at the end of its gestation, its defined status has become part of the secular state of affairs.

From this conclusion, it is an easy step to assert that principles of freedom of religion and no regulation by the police powers of the state apply at the beginning of a pregnancy and principles of police power regulation apply at the end of a pregnancy.

So, if clarity as to the possibility of regulation can be obtained at the beginning and end of a pregnancy, what about the middle weeks and months?

There is where reasonable minds can differ as to when in a pregnancy state regulation can commence.

The proposal by pro-life advocates -- recently introduced in the Minnesota Legislature -- that regulation of a woman's pregnancy can begin after the 20th week of gestation has real moral merit in my mind. This proposal acknowledges that in the first 20 weeks of gestation, before it is said a fetus can feel pain, the status of a fetus is not subject to regulation as the balance of deciding what it is shifts towards religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

This proposal or something like it -- if broadly accepted -- can end the abortion wars and return America to more civically respectful politics using compromise and cooperation for the common good. It is a fair balance between respecting religion at the beginning of a pregnancy and honoring secular realities at the end of a pregnancy.

But I would prefer grounding the time for the onset of state regulatory powers at the moment when a fetus can live on its own with some medical assistance outside the womb. This consideration, I believe, would move the start of regulation of a pregnancy to the third trimester, or after the 24th week of gestation.

To me, whether exceptions to regulation of very late abortions should be made to protect the life of the mother or to vindicate other important values in unusual cases raises different moral and legal concerns that need to be discussed separately among people of good will and with thoughtful minds.

Published: Fri, Apr 8, 2011