I've heard this argument several times in support of keeping abortion legal, but surprisingly I'm hearing it from otherwise anti-abortion people. They say they think abortion is wrong. They even admit abortion takes an innocent human life, but they believe that, because the government can't change hearts, they shouldn't make abortion illegal--leaving up to the individual to decide, saying, "It's not the government's job to legislate morality."
That makes me want to ask:
1. What do you think morality is?
2. What do you think the government's job is?
In the interest of not rambling on forever, I'm just going to tell you what morality is.
Morality is the internal instinct by which we navigate our relationships with God, other people, and the world. Moral behavior is behavior that exhibits an accurate recognition and respect for the inherent worth & qualities of God, other people, and the natural world.
In other words, morality is all about relationship: relationship with God, relationship with mankind, and relationship with the natural world. Morality is the guide by which we decide what is the right way to behave toward God, people, and nature vs. what is the wrong way to treat these entities. Morality is NOT just a set of rules. Morality goes deeper than that.
That being said, let's think about what the government does. Government's job is to set rules based on our collective sense of--guess what?--morality! Even though rules themselves do not create morality and morality itself is not just a set of rules, the government's job is to try to find the most effective way to make people do what is moral--the kinds of behaviors that create an environment where all people (and even animals & nature, to a certain extent) can exist with the reasonable certainty that they will be treated fairly (or, with the recognition and respect for their inherent worth).
In other words, government is all about making laws and laws are all about morality. In fact, there is no such thing as a law for which moral principles were not integral to its creation.
You can't have government without lawmaking, and you can't have lawmaking without guiding moral principles. So, to say that government's job is not to legislate morality is to say that government has no purpose or function at all. If you believe government has no purpose, then you must believe we should be living in anarchy.
Perhaps you could respond with, "No, government could stay out of the morally-based, lawmaking business, but still exist to provide us with civil services, like roads and schools and prisons." But without a morally-based method of taxation, dividing up funds, distributing funds, and choosing what kinds of services to provide, there can be no such function. (And we're not even going to get into the difficulties of having a prison system without any kind of moral compass guiding us.) Again, government requires morality to exist, let alone function.
You might say, "But our government leaders are flawed people, at best, and some are deeply corrupt. How can we trust them to legislate morality for the rest of us?" Here I would agree with you. We can't trust them--at least, not fully. However, in a republic, which is the form of government we have in the United States, the people have the responsibility and the power to insist that our leaders make moral laws--even if the leaders themselves are immoral. And if we manage to have moral laws, those who aren't sure what is right or wrong will be encouraged to, at least, conduct themselves in a moral way as they figure out what they believe.
So, even though it's true that laws do not establish morality, they do have the power to create a moral environment within which we can learn and grow.
Now to the topic of abortion: If you believe (in your own, internal, moral center, with a clear view of the inherent worth of other human beings and your relationships to them) that it is wrong to take an innocent, human life, then you must believe that abortion is a great evil. If abortion is a great evil, then the government's primary job is to make it illegal. If any government allows a great evil--a behavior that denies the basic, inherent worth of human beings--to continue, that government has failed to perform it's primary function.
So, in response to the pro-choice argument: "It's not the government's job to legislate morality," I will respond with: "Government's ONLY job is to legislate morality."
If you believe abortion is no different from murder, but also believe murdering a born person should be illegal while murdering an unborn person should be legal, you are in a state of self-contradiction. I suggest you reevaluate your position and choose to uphold the morality of simply letting other people live. And when evil people or an evil government arbitrarily decides that one human life is less valuable than another, it is your moral obligation to stand against that kind of core immorality, to hold your government accountable, and insist they make moral laws consistent with the reality of the equal, inherent worth of all human beings, in all its forms, at all stages of development, from conception to the grave.
© 2016; S.E. Thomas has a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Idaho.