Democracy, Christianity & Abortion

If we are Christians, and, if we accept that democracy is the best (or at least, the least worst) form of government for society, and, if we believe that abortion is wrong primarily because every abortion deliberately takes the life of a fellow human being; how should we fit these three factors together in our lives so that we live most truly and consistently by our professed convictions ?

In his book, The Roots of Abortion: the slaughter of innocents in the American Empire, Terry Sullivan writes:

A group of us are trying to decide whether to go for pizza or for hamburgers. So we vote on it. The losers good-naturedly go along with the vote rather than split the group. A vote may be the best and simplest way to decide such a question.

Someone suggests we pull the plug on Uncle Fred so that we can collect the insurance. He is dying anyway, and his medical bills are enormous. Someone else suggests that we vote on it. Obviously, you cannot votefor such a proposition. Can you vote against it? NO! You cannot let such a question be decided by voting! What you have to say instead is that no one has the right to do such a thing, that a 9 to 1 vote against you is meaningless, is null and void, and that, instead of merely outvoting you, they have to kill you first, before they can kill Uncle Fred!

Suppose you are sure of winning. You are confident you can muster a majority for Uncle Fred’s life. Why not do it that way? Why risk making a martyr of yourself when you have the votes to do it an easier way?

Because once you have gone along with voting on such a proposition you have conceded that it can be decided by voting. When it comes up again, and this time you are outvoted, you have abandoned the moral principle you need to effectively oppose this decision. Because you thereby subscribe that morality can be popularity, that it can be established by majority vote, that it doesn’t require courage and sacrifice, that there is no need to fight, that there is an easy way to do it. Because you thereby forever limit yourself to such morality as can be made to be popular with a majority vote.

Do you abide by the results of an election only when it goes your way? The essential requirement of an election is that all those who participate in it have made an implicit good faith agreement to abide by the result. So when you vote in a contest between vice and virtue you have thereby agreed to accept vice if that is the will of the majority. You have said let the people decide and I will go along with it, even if the decision is against God. That is what Aaron did when he bowed to the will of the people and made the golden calf for them to worship. That is what everyone does when he participates in a vote to decide a moral question. (p.3)

Sullivan makes the claim here that it is wrong to take part in voting on moral issues. As he correctly points out, inherent in the very notion of voting is an agreement by those participating that they will accept the outcome. If the parties involved in a vote enter into it with the intention of simply ignoring the result if they lose, then obviously voting would be a pointless exercise.

Of course though, those who lose a vote can maintain that their position is still the best one and if they want to, they can immediately resume campaigning to try and convince a majority to support their position at a future vote. But until the next such vote is held, they are bound, if they are going to abide by democratic principles, to accept the previous result – like it or not.

But Sullivan is going much further than saying that being involved in voting on moral issues is wrong because there is a risk that an immoral outcome may gain majority support. According to his view, even if it was certain that what one perceived to be the morally correct position would win, that would not make it right to participate in such a vote.

The problem is, that by participating in voting on moral issues one must accept that morality can be defined by what happens to be the majority opinion at the time. And, according to Sullivan, for Christians to do that, is wrong: morality is to be derived from Christian principles, not from popular opinion.

If Sullivan is correct, the implications of’ these claims are very significant and very challenging. The example used by Sullivan to illustrate his point refers to the impropriety of voting about the deliberate hastening of the death of ailing Uncle Fred. For Christians- they who are clearly taught to respect and value human life- would an overwhelming majority of people voting in support of killing Uncle Fred be of any significance? Could any size majority justify the killing of an innocent person?

But again, not only is the size of the vote either way irrelevant, Sullivan’s claim is that it would be wrong even to participate in such a vote.

To help spell out the point further, what if for some reason – but assuming there has not even been a finding of guilt in relation to some major wrongdoing – a vote was to be held regarding whether or not you (or perhaps your mother, or your child, or your spouse) should be put to death? Would you accept that such a vote could be acceptable?

Which of the following responses would you want to hear your friends say about such a vote: “We’re working hard at drumming up support for you (or your mother/child/spouse) and we hope that we can get a majority to vote to let you (them) live;” or, “Having a vote about killing you (them) is wrong. We will have nothing to do with that, but rather we will do all we can to protect your (their) life.’

As Christians should we give even a hint of legitimacy to a vote about whether to kill the innocent, by taking part in the vote? Rather, should we only act to intervene to protect Uncle Fred, or any other person, who may be harmed by such a vote?

If this position is accepted though, it would seem to mean that Christians would have to exclude themselves from the democratic processes of our society – at least with regard to any issues that are of a moral nature.

Here then is a serious dilemma. If it is immoral to vote on moral issues, then we should not do so. But if we refuse to participate in votes on moral issues, we would appear to thereby cut ourselves off from being able to have any influence on the decisions that are made.

There are many decisions that are made in parliament. Not all of them are about moral issues but many do have direct or indirect moral implications of greater or lesser significance. For example, a vote about spending x million dollars on a new sports stadium involves having to make a decision as to whether it is morally justifiable for such an outlay in that direction to be made when, perhaps, a new hospital is urgently needed. Other matters that are voted on have very explicit moral content; votes about legalising abortion, for example.

It is arguable that there is a spectrum in the significance of moral issues. Perhaps issues at the end of the spectrum having lesser significance could be voted on without too much problem, thus allowing for a measure of involvement in community decision-making. Very serious issues at the other end of the scale however, should they ever be made subject to a vote? It would probably be a matter of considerable debate as to where exactly some issues would lie along that scale. Some issues however, such as whether innocent human lives should be allowed to be deliberately killed, wouldn’t they definitely be at the end where participating in a vote about them would be wrong? If that is accepted, it would be wrong then to be involved in a vote about allowing abortion.

For Christians to retreat from such votes though, would appear to mean that they would then be totally capitulating to whatever decisions the rest of the community happened to make. In the present social climate that would probably mean opening the door to completely legalised abortion. Although walking away from voting on this issue may be the right thing to do, it would seem to be done at the expense of the lives of unborn children. A valid principle may be maintained, but the price for doing so would seem to be at an unacceptably high price.

However, it need not follow that because one stands firm on the principle of refusing to vote on very serious moral issues, that the abandonment of innocent lives to destruction must result. Just because it may be the case that we should not vote on a moral issue, does not mean that we should do nothing at all. As Sullivan said, before they can kill Uncle Fred, they should have to kill us first. We can’t vote about it, but we can directly intervene to try and protect innocent lives.

Surely we would have no argument if someone were to step in to save our life if we were marked down to be unjustly executed: indeed, we would hope, even expect, that such a rescue would occur. If we are going to be consistent then, should we not endeavour to “rescue those being led away to slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11), even if those being led to slaughter are yet to be born – even if others have decided that they should be allowed to be killed?

(It is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt to provide a justification, but in this paper it will be taken that ‘rescuing’ by non-violent means is the approach that most consistently fits with New Testament teaching.)

It may be objected that, to substitute direct action, albeit non-violent direct action, in place of voting would be to create a recipe for disorder: if every time people did not like a situation they were to resort to trying to stop it by direct action this would surely lead to complete chaos and the breakdown of civil society. As well, would not such an approach be tantamount to attempting to introduce a theocracy?

But what is being argued for here is that non-violent civil disobedience should be applied in only limited circumstances – in particular, where innocent human lives are in danger of destruction. This is not an advocacy for all out rebellion. It may be the case that others will/do use direct action inappropriately, but the fact that there is the possibility of abuse of something does not mean that it must not be used at all.

Regarding this being a move to a theocracy, even the Queensland government recognises the value of the preborn child’s life – if you kill a preborn child without the mother’s request you can get life in prison. Moreover, is direct action at an abortion clinic significantly different to the then illegal (but what would now be widely considered legitimate) acts of hiding runaway slaves or Jews under Nazism?

An orderly society which enables people to go about their lives without unnecessary hindrance is certainly to be desired. Such orderliness however must not be regarded as an absolute good. If in order to maintain good order the destruction of innocent lives must be accepted, then we must be prepared to sacrifice orderliness. The protection of human life is always a greater good than the maintenance of apparent peace and harmony.

After all, it is an odd sort of “good order” that Australian society experiences at the moment. Presently, up to 100 000 human lives are deliberately ended each year in this country. Certainly it is the case that these lives are ended in tidy, sterile environments, behind closed doors, with no evident mess which may cause offence to the general public. But why should we be so keen to preserve an “orderliness” which has such an awful underbelly?

There is no doubt that an open-ended campaign of widespread civil disobedience to stop abortion would be very messy. Our neat and peaceful society would be disrupted – not least for those directly involved with carrying out the actions. In comparison to relatively civilised, even rough and tough, public debate and democratic voting, civil disobedience would be “yuck.” But should the messiness and (personal) costliness of our actions be the criteria for determining our course of action?

It is obvious that those who participate in civil disobedience are almost certain to be made to pay a very high price for doing so. Monetary penalties and ultimately the loss of personal freedom with the accompanying impact on families, etc, may be required of them. But in the end Christians have to decide whether it is right to remain free citizens in a society that allows the killing of preborn children, or whether they should risk forfeiting that freedom for the sake of such children.