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Legislating Morality

by Bishop F.B. Henry of Canada

My last column on Leaders' Conduct Scandalous' caused quite stir. I was congratulated and praised by some, lambasted and vilified as a "religious nut" by others. In the midst of such reactions I found solace in the words of a poem that Mother Teresa hung in one of her orphanages.

"People are unreasonable, illogical, self-centred... love them anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives... do good anyway. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies... be successful anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow ... do good anyway. Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable ... be honest and frank anyway. People love underdogs but follow only top dogs ... follow some underdog anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight... build anyway. People really need help but may attack you if you try to help ... help people anyway. If you give the world the best you have, you may get kicked in the teeth ... but give the world the best you have ... Anyway. "

Pretty good advice for all of us!

At the risk of enraging and alienating even more people, I want to return to a couple of the arguments used by some politicians to justify their inactivity despite being pressed by the Supreme Court to initiate legislation to protect the unborn child.

The argument goes: "We should not legislate or impose our morality on others. Morality is a matter of private choice, not government legislation."

In point of fact, we legislate morality all the time, in many ways. We have laws against murder, against rape, against physical and sexual assault, against theft, against libel and slander, etc. These moral evils, as violations of the rights of persons, must be reflected in law and made illegal.

Some years ago many people opposed civil rights legislation, saying, "You cannot legislate morality." Dr. Matin Luther King responded, "It is true, the law cannot make a white man love me, but it can discourage him from lynching me."

It is true that certain parts of the moral domain should not be reflected in the law. For example, to be ungrateful is a moral wrong that should not be reflected in law; indeed it cannot be. But the fundamental right to life, not to be killed, belongs within the domain of law. All civil rights should be protected by law.

Another variant of the argument is: "Abortion is a controversial matter. Opinions are divided. The law should reflect this and be neutral, and let each person decide on their own."

This sounds reasonable and tolerant, so Canadian! However, it represents a death verdict against thousands of children as they are surrendered to the power of those who would have them destroyed.

Abortion is admittedly a complex phenomenon. Psychologically and socially, many women do not see any "good" resulting from an unplanned pregnancy. Instead they weigh what they perceive as three "evils", namely, motherhood, adoption and abortion.

The sudden intrusion of motherhood is perceived as a complete loss of control over their present and future selves. Adoption, unfortunately, is seen as a kind of double death, the loss of control of motherhood coupled with the feelings of death of the child through abandonment. Frequently, the perception of the choice is either "my life is over" or "the life of this new child is over."

What we must do is help a woman reevaluate what she perceives as the three "evils" before her.

The terrible miscalculation is that abortion can make someone "unpregnant," that is, restore them to who they were before their crisis. But a woman is never the same once she is pregnant, whether the child is kept, adopted, or killed. Abortion may be a kind of resolution, but it is not the one the woman most deeply longs for, nor will it even preserve her sense of self.

The government cannot be neutral on the question of abortion. It either recognizes the child in the womb as a person, entitled to the protection of law, or it doesn't. "Not to decide" but to leave the question open is itself a decision. For example, for the government to leave open the question of whether toxic wastes may be dumped into rivers, and to let each person decide for themselves about the legality of such actions is clearly a decision, not neutrality, and a matter of public policy.

Suppose someone said, "I'm personally opposed to child abuse and rape, but I will not impose that belief on potential child abusers and rapists." How absurd! This argument is as absurd in the case of abortion as it is in that of child abuse and rape. The law must protect all innocent persons from assault: children from abuse, women from rape, babies from slaughter. The morality of not abusing, not raping, and of not murdering, a fellow human being is not "my morality" or "our morality" but morality itself.

The word "impose" suggests that outlawing abortion is something bad because it imposes a burden or restriction on people. But all laws impose. Traffic laws impose on us certain obligations and restrictions. All laws impose certain obligations and restrictions for the common good, and to respect other individuals as persons and not to hurt or to kill them. A law making abortion illegal merely applies a general feature of law to one class of persons, unborn babies.

Mindful of the last words of the poem,- "... If you give the world the best you have, you may get kicked in the teeth ... but give the world the best you have ... Anyway," I'd better telephone my dentist and make another appointment!

✚ F. B. Henry

Bishop of Calgary.

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