Thursday, March 22, 2007

Faith Versus Law

The South Carolina bill that mandates that women seeking abortions must be shown ultrasounds of the developing fetus has already garnered nationwide attention. I'd read about it in an editorial on my own side of the continent, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. My first thought was that the religiosocial arch-conservatives were simply trying to force another opportunity to play on the potential mother's sympathies, and perhaps open up a new avenue for ego-destroying name calling: "Do you see that little person there? See their little hands and feet? Don't you think that they deserve the same chance at life that YOU have? What kind of wicked, selfish, and heartless monster ARE you, wanting to DESTROY that HELPLESS LITTLE BABY?" I could almost hear the background music, quiet and pastoral at first, grow louder, darker and more menacing with every word.

But there was nothing new here. It's been a truism for a long time that in the absence of an outright ban on abortions, the arch-conservative crowd would use any excuse to erect yet another barrier. It's about as surprising as winter rain in Seattle.

The fact that several legislators were attempting to carve out an exception in the case of rape victims was a new twist on the subject, one that I hadn't known about prior to reading William Saletan's piece about the topic on Slate.

Upon reading "Arguments made against the rape exception: [...] 2) If you allow abortions for rape victims, 'Are you saying God creates mistakes with the lives he creates?'" I at first took it for a bit of hyperbole, it seemed over the top, and I initially missed the citation. Then I followed the link, and read the article there. And now, separation of church and state aside, I understand why it's a bad idea to legislate from your Faith.

South Carolina State Representative Greg Delleny, who posed the question, is clearly a person who believes that every conception is its own small miracle, defined as: "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs." Following this train of logic, I arrived at the following conclusion. To Representative Delleny, a woman becomes pregnant after being raped not solely because she was ovulating at the time, and her attacker had a high enough count of healthy sperm that one reached and fertilized the ovum. She becomes pregnant because God selects her to be the vessel of a new life. And that new life belongs to God. (Of course, this applies to any act of conception, even those under happier circumstances.) And since that new life requires the mother's body for its subsistance, her body is a tool of divine will, and, in effect, it becomes property itself. Representative Delleny and his peers are effectively working to protect God's property interest in the fetus and its incubation/life support system via the South Carolina legislative process.

And in doing so, they (unintentionally, I would expect) reduce us to things, and thus energize the opposition. The idea of being reduced to a thing, even as part of a divine plan, is frightening for many people. If part of the reason for a belief in a supreme being (or a pantheon thereof) is bring a sense of order to a universe that otherwise presents itself as vast, arbitrary and uncaring, what good does it do one to have a deity who not embodies those same qualities, but regards you as less than pawns in its schemes, but merely as tools - to be used at a whim, and discarded once your utility is at an end?

As much as I can't understand the logic that goes into having love, faith and devotion for such a being, I don't begrudge people those feelings. People's Faith is found at the interesection of what they have learned and what works for them, and I'm old enough to understand that "Doesn't work for me" and "Doesn't work for anyone," are usually completely unacquainted with each other. But when you start working to codify that what works for you into law, implicit in that is its imposition on EVERYONE who is subject to those laws. That "Works for me" DOES equate to "Works for everyone."

And, in this case, when the "Property of the Divine" label goes on as a matter of statute, we are all now subject to legal obligations not only to a being who is, by definition, outside of our laws, and thus has no reciprocal obligations to us, but to a specific interpretation of that being. And if we haven't learned yet that not everyone shares a common vision on the specific interpretation of the divine, we haven't been paying attention. Some people may find Charles Spurgeon comforting and insprational, but not everyone.

At the end of the day, this is the reason why looking to an unshared Faith to define civil or criminal law is a poor choice in pluralistic societies. While you may be perfectly at home with the assumptions that underlie your beliefs, those same assumptions may be serious threats to others. Using the power of a democratic majority to enforce your assumptions on others, along with your understanding of the meanings of those assumptions, can't lead to anything good.

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