The Pro-Life Decision Tree Revisited
In two brief blog entries on January 8th I set forth a decision tree for How to Choose among Presidential Candidates. While most readers seemed to respond favorably to my argument that the life issues had to be the first branch of the decision tree, a few objected strenuously. There were two kinds of objections.
The first involved conscience. Some readers made the case that once someone comes to the conclusion that another moral issue (typically the Iraq War) is so evil that it trumps the abortion license, then the decision tree breaks down, for a person must follow his conscience. The problem with this objection is that the whole point of the decision tree is to help a person properly form his conscience with regard to voting in contemporary America. While a person must indeed follow his conscience, it is a misunderstanding to think that once a decision of conscience has been made, the process of formation becomes moot.
We cannot be deaf to rational argument because of conscience. Rather, a person must always recognize that that his conscience may be malformed or erroneous. Conscience provides a snapshot of what we think is right at this moment. It makes no claim that our understanding is either perfect or permanent. Therefore, if the decision tree is compelling, as one reader put it, “up to the point when someone makes a decision of conscience”, it must also be sufficiently compelling to assist in the progressive formation of conscience, which may cause such a person to change his mind. Conscience must be followed at any moment, but it is never an adequate excuse for acting badly. Most especially, it is not an adequate excuse for acting badly tomorrow after hearing a new and compelling argument today.
The second objection suggested that the decision tree over-emphasized the abortion license and related life issues. On this reading, it was inadequate because it ignored the gravity of other serious issues, so much so that I did not even take the trouble to identify what the other issues might be. Actually, I agree with this observation in the abstract, but I believe it fails utterly in our own concrete circumstances. Indeed, my point was that in America in 2008 there are no other issues which can compete with the life issues in terms of importance. The abortion license comes first in our particular time and place precisely because this is not just true but obviously true.
One can imagine another culture or another era in which this would not be the case, for abortion is not in and of itself an issue which trumps all others. For example, let us suppose a nation in which abortion is permitted only in cases of rape when the victim has been visibly beaten. Let us suppose pro-lifers wish to change this law and it is an issue in the presidential campaign. But let us also suppose there is another campaign issue, the issue of controlling political opposition in an outlying province through the use of a poisonous gas that can make everyone in that region sick and keep them weak. Finally, suppose that the two main political parties offer opposite points of view on both issues. A different decision tree might be required.
But there is no such scenario in contemporary America. Whether you want to discuss the Iraq War, health care, immigration, or any other issue, there is nothing that has anything close to the fivefold urgency of the life issue. That urgency derives first from the monumentally large number of lives at stake, second from the devastating loss of respect for the dignity of the human person in the culture as a whole, third from the supreme clarity of the moral issue, fourth from the susceptibility of the problem to legal and political control, and fifth from the clear differences among the available candidates. Hence, the decision tree stands: The right to life, as framed and understood in contemporary America, must come first.
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