David Rodeback's Blog

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Mormons, Abortion Policy, Harry Reid

The Big Media Acronyms are all over the story of Harry Reid's ascension to lead the Democratic minority in the US Senate. He's a Mormon, and for all of his sterling Democratic credentials, he doesn't fully support abortion, at least not to the satisfaction of some.

This raises an interesting question: Are devout Mormons obligated to support completely banning abortion? Okay, that's the wrong question. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, serious danger to the life of the mother, or competent medical determination that the fetus is so defective that the baby will not survive beyond birth. Let's try again: Are devout Mormons obligated to believe that the Church's position should be the law of the land?

Uh, no.

Mormons are not to choose, submit to, encourage, fund, or perform an abortion, with the exceptions noted. If they do, their Church membership is in serious jeopardy. But this relates to individual choices, not directly to public policy. Where policy is concerned, the Church encourages its members to be active in promoting what they believe to be wise policy, including in the matter of abortion. But the Church has not favored or opposed specific legislative or constitutional measures.

I believe that abortion is almost always the wrong choice, and I don't think government at any level should fund it or require medical personnel to perform it. (There will always be private interests willing to fund abortions for those who cannot pay, and doctors and nurses willing to perform them.) But I do not favor banning it absolutely. Any proposed ban, to have a chance of my support, would have to allow for the exceptions stated. But I cannot promise that I would support a ban with those exceptions, either. I am not convinced that it would be wise policy.

In fact, I am so uncertain on this point that I would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned - but not for the reasons you think. Whatever side you're on, that decision is bad constitutional law. (This was Robert Bork's point, before it was distorted by his inquisitors.) Even if you believe in fully-funded abortion on demand for any woman or girl who wants it, that Court decision is not adequate to protect your position in the long term. Why . . . is a longer story for another time. I'd like to see it overturned simply because I'd like to see the states each take a crack at abortion policy. Among the 50 states, there might well be 50 different policies. I'd like to see which ones proved successful. It's an experiment, which is one of the important roles of the states in our federal system.

Let's suppose for the sake of discussion that the Court changes its collective mind, and the matter does fall to the states, including my current home state, Utah. As a church leader and as a political scientist (the latter by training and avocation, if not occupation), I can see a major reason to leave abortion legal for the foreseeable future. Here it is: Because an absolute ban on abortion is not reasonable (besides not being politically feasible, I think), an abortion ban would have to exclude some list of exceptions resembling the one I have given here.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a young lady who is pregnant outside of wedlock, perhaps at a very young age, as a result of consensual sexual activity, which is not on the list of legal exceptions. She may be in trouble with her parents and her church, and, even if she isn't, her future is suddenly a mess. She will find herself sorely tempted to report falsely that she was raped, so that she can avoid most of the consequences of her unhappy situation by having the unwelcome fetus aborted.

Most young ladies will not succumb to such temptation, but some will. It is inevitable. What if only one in a hundred lies to get an abortion? How many men's lives will be ruined by false charges of rape or incest? We don't have, and we are not likely to have, a very reliable means of determining after the fact whether sexual relations were consensual or not. We often have only the testimony of the participants, both of whom may be under great pressure to tell something other than the complete truth. In the end, therefore, we will either have to relax our rape and incest laws (a very bad idea) to avoid doing grave injustice in many instances, or we will have to decide that the ruin of many lives is an acceptable price to pay for almost eradicating abortion.

Not every problem can or should be solved by legislation. Perhaps this is one instance in which we should rely on moral persuasion (not by government) to diminish or remove an evil among us.

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