Abortion is a moral issue, and not primarily an issue of freedom of choice. There is a clear example from history that ought to convince us of this. I am referring to Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president of the United States, and the abolition of slavery.
According to the Smithsonian Collector’s Edition 2009 (marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln), up until 1854 Lincoln had been a one term congressman and nearly five years out of office. He was losing interest in politics when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise ‘aroused me again’.
In that year, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act authored by Stephen A Douglas of Illinois. The issue was slavery in these two new western states and the act would allow them to decide whether to accept slavery or not without interference from the Federal Government. In effect, it repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which outlawed slavery everywhere in the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border. The rationale came to be known as ‘Popular Sovereignty’, or simply, that the new states would have the right to choose or decide for or against slavery. Whilst not a radical abolitionist, Lincoln responded; he returned to politics and took the lead in forming the Republican Party.
In 1858 Lincoln was running for the US Senate and his opponent was Douglas. There was a series of seven debates throughout Illinois as part of the election campaign. The fifth debate was at Knox College in the western Illinois town of Galesburg with an estimated crowd of 25,000 people present. The issue was slavery in the context of ‘Popular Sovereignty’.
Lincoln’s words as quoted in the Smithsonian Collector’s Edition were as follows:
‘I suppose that the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends, and the Republicans on the contrary, is that the Judge is not in favour of making any difference between slavery and liberty…and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery. Judge Douglas declares that if any community want slavery, they have a right to have it. He can say that, logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.’
Lincoln lost the Senate position to Douglas, but the series of debates set him up to be elected President in 1860. As President, Lincoln both saved the Union of the United States and put an end to slavery, but not without the enormous cost of the Civil War.
What moral clarity! What courageous wisdom that, as President, he acted upon! Without the conviction of this clarity, and with the acceptance of the right to choose, America might not have abolished slavery. Lincoln could see so clearly that the principle of right or wrong, the question of morality, comes before the principle of freedom of choice. He could see clearly that we have no right to choose what we know to be wrong.
Here’s the lesson from history that applies equally to abortion. The freedom to choose, or the right to choose, cannot override the moral issue of the taking of a human life. We must not conveniently label abortion as a ‘freedom of choice issue’ or a ‘health issue’ or think that by legalisation we have removed its essential moral character. This is to the detriment of the loss of so many human lives and the good of our lives in common.
As humans the greatest gift we have is ‘freedom’. But real freedom means to discern and distinguish between good and bad choices and then to take responsibility for those choices. We must not assume that because I freely choose, the choice is a good one. Indeed, if there is no distinction in my choices, I am not free at all.
Legalisation cannot remove the moral responsibility inherent in our choices. Further State sanctioning of abortion cannot remove the human consequences felt by many who are involved in abortions, even years later. Women also suffer as a result of abortion. However, healing, compassion, love and forgiveness are always available from our loving and compassionate God.
Abortion is wrong because of the deliberate taking of a defenceless human life; because it does harm to all involved, robbing them of their personal responsibility for human life and for our whole society, blinding us to what is essentially human, the freedom to make choices and take responsibility for them.
May our parliamentarians take note of the moral clarity, wisdom and courage of Abraham Lincoln when deciding to vote on further abortion law reform.
Fr Dean Marin is parish priest of Mount Gambier and Millicent.
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