Is another American civil war inevitable?
Some people on the Christian right answer affirmatively, and have even been predicting another civil war for a couple of decades or longer.
The cause of this impending conflagration? Disputes over abortion.
A person’s attitude about abortion often depends upon the person’s belief on when a human life begins. If a human life begins at the moment of conception, then the claim that abortion equals murder of the unborn makes sense. If a human life begins at some point after conception – for example, when a fetus is viable outside the womb – then the claim that not all abortion equals murder makes sense. The very great problem with belief in this instance is that the belief, regardless of when one believes that a human life begins, does not rest upon any demonstrable or provable facts.
Life is precious. Albert Schweitzer consistently emphasized that life is sacred. However, one immense difficulty is an irresolvable lack of clarity – at least in the present – about when life begins.
Christian opponents of all abortion AND Christian pro-choice individuals who support a woman’s right to have an abortion can both make scripturally based arguments in support of their belief. If these diametrically opposed interpretations of scripture could be resolved, Christians would assuredly have reached a broad consensus by now. Only a few outliers would continue to hold out for a different position (consensus, in other words, does not connote unanimity).
If life begins at conception, then all abortion is wrong. That includes aborting a pregnancy that results from rape or incest. Yet many people opposed to abortion feel that at least in the case of rape or incest abortion may be morally justifiable.
This internal inconsistency among abortion opponents points to a second difficulty in arguing about abortion. Not only is there a lack of factual clarity about when a human life begins, abortion is a complex issue with competing values. One vital issue is that a woman is not simply a “brood mare.” A woman is a person whose rights equal those of a man. A woman may be unable to prevent rape, whether perpetrated by a stranger or a husband. This does not mean that the woman therefore must surrender control over her body or is in any way “damaged goods” of less value than she was before the rape.
That analysis leads to another vital issue. Sex and pregnancy are not inherently and irrevocably linked. Sexual intercourse is not always and only for the purpose of procreation. Sex is a good in and of itself when expressed in a healthy, intimate relationship between two consenting adults. No method of birth control is 100% certain except for vasectomies and hysterectomies. Some couples may cherish their sexual relationship without being ready or willing to be parents.
Finally, this analysis presumes that God does not micromanage human affairs. In creation, through the evolutionary process, God endowed humans with an equal measure of value not contingent upon gender as well as some limited degree of autonomy. Humans have the privilege and opportunity to engage in sexual activity for their mutual enjoyment and benefit.
Concurrently, humans live with imperfect knowledge, looking through a glass darkly. Consequently, Christians tend to agree with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Living in a democracy requires living with policies with which one disagrees, perhaps even policies with which one vehemently disagrees.
Public policy that rests exclusively upon theological premises transforms a democracy into a theocracy. Few Americans would want to live in Iran or any other one of the theocratic states found in the twenty-first century world. Few Americans would choose to live in the world’s on Christian theocratic state, the Vatican. Indeed, the forebears of many Americans migrated to the States to escape from a theocracy, preferring the freedoms of this democracy, albeit a very imperfect democracy with unequal freedoms. Obviously, other migrants sought better economic opportunities, some sought safety from persecution, and yet others had no choice arriving as slaves. All previous efforts to establish a theocracy (e.g., the Mormons in their migration to Utah and some of the Utopian communities established in the nineteenth century) adopted democracy or failed.
Any argument that rests solely upon theological premises is an inappropriate and insufficient basis for establishing public policy. Examples of wrongheaded public policies that failed to gain widespread traction in large measure because of their dependence upon theological premises include Sunday “blue” laws that upheld a Puritanical interpretation of Sabbath keeping, prohibition, and more recently laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
Many of the laws regulating abortion and limiting a woman’s access to abortion similarly rest upon theological premises to which only a minority of Americans subscribe. Opinion polls consistently report that although Americans do not like abortion, a strong majority believe that it is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Even as prohibition was the catalyst for speakeasies, bootlegging, and other illegal activities, so will a ban on abortion lead to a return to “back alley” abortions that jeopardize a woman’s life while bypassing the ban on abortion.
Instead of threatening civil war, we must learn to engage in civil discourse with one another. Regardless of one’s views on the morality of abortion, a person remains a child of God, worthy of equal dignity and respect. Another civil war is not inevitable; another civil war will harm the innocent without resolving the issue(s) that divide us.