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Grael Gannon, Fargo, Published May 25 2013

Letter: Argue issue on merits, not religion

Recent actions of the North Dakota Legislature designed to restrict abortion have, predictably, aroused fury of many on the other side. The outrage frequently takes the form of denouncing those who seek to impose their religious convictions on others.

It is true that a lot of our ethical values arise from the religious beliefs we hold, but to dismiss such values for that reason is to commit the genetic fallacy, attacking the source rather than the merits. An example of this would be the following syllogism:

1. Someone’s religion teaches that it is wrong to commit murder.

2. People cannot be bound by other people’s religious convictions.

3. Therefore, members of society cannot be prohibited from committing murders.

That is, one can refrain from murder if it violates one’s own beliefs but cannot legislate on the matter for anyone else. I wouldn’t want to wipe out several million Jews, but if Hitler wants to – hey, that’s his business. In such a moral universe, the only recourse for the Jews is to fight back, which they couldn’t very well do in the 1930s – tough luck.

Most of the people who defend abortion probably are not also claiming the right to bump off neighbors, but that is how the argument would run. If we can agree that society has the right to prevent us from murdering our neighbors, then we are conceding that society does have the right to enforce at least some ethical boundaries that apply to everyone, historic connection with religion or not.

A basic rule is that we can exercise our own freedom as long as it does not impair the legitimate freedom of others; yet respecting other people’s rights very often does restrict our own. The freedom of some African-Americans to send their children to schools with other ethnic groups can diminish the freedom of some white people who want their children in all-white schools. There may be times when freedom has to come second to justice, though when and how is of endless debate.

Yes, many who oppose abortion do so because of religious convictions (convictions that lie at the base of a great many of the values of human civilization), but the focus should be on an ethical principle distilled from those convictions – the principle of not harming others. Pro-life people argue that the fetus is a human being, whereas most pro-choice people contend it is not. (There are some pro-choice people who allow a human being, just that some human beings are disposable.)

So that frames the argument: Is the fetus a human person or not? If it is not, the aborting mother can reasonably claim to conform to the principle of no harm to others. If it is, then the moral situation is quite different. But let’s not hear any more complaints about other people’s religious views. That’s a red herring, demagoguery. Argue the issue on its merits.


Gannon is an instructor in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Dakota State University.