While there has been much noted of Arkansas’ recently approved “pain capable” abortion bill, there has been little meaningful public debate among legislators about the political, social and legal complexities of legislating morality.
Not even Gov. Mike Beebe, the most popular governor in at least the past 50 years, could rise above the din of those whose charge and retort was simply, “Are you for or against killing babies?”
With their newfound control of the Arkansas lawmaking process, Republicans wasted no time pushing a key tenet of their social agenda, which included a relatively easy veto override. (The Legislature is now on track to push aside another Beebe veto to enact a more restrictive abortion law than the previous law.)
A veto override was not a surprise. Any Republican legislator supporting Beebe’s veto knew their next primary election opponent would have the full financial backing of any number of out-of-state pro-life groups.
The “pain capable abortion” legislation approved over the veto of Beebe is now Arkansas law and bans – with a few exceptions – abortions of pregnancies past 20 weeks.
Beebe’s veto was based on concerns the legislation will face a court challenge, which could result in significant amounts of taxpayers dollars spent on litigation. Most Republicans – and several Democrats – either don’t believe it will face a court challenge or don’t care. Some GOP Legislative members hope the law results in a court challenge that eventually overturns Roe v. Wade.
Remaining unconsidered are other perspectives on abortion laws and legislating morality. These unconsidered and/or hushed views come from reasoned people who also arrive at their belief after tough and honest self-introspection.
These perspectives include the following.
• Some oppose abortion but believe time and resources are better spent changing hearts and minds than changing laws. A person opposed to abortion sent this question to The City Wire: “Is it a better use of time and money to hold a rally at the Capitol on the protection of life, or would it have been better to utilize that time and money trying to bring more people to the Church, or bringing the Church to more people, then educating on why we believe in the sanctity of life?”
• There are a few pragmatic politicians and anti-abortion leaders who fear that a rush to pass anti-abortion laws could create a negative backlash when the laws bog down in court battles that prove costly to taxpayers. This group prefers an incremental approach to ending abortion – an approach that typically runs afoul of right wing elements.
• Arkansas, believe it or not, houses a few libertarians whose opposition to abortion is trumped by their fear of the slippery slope of government rules that reduce individual liberty/responsibility.
• We also have humanists/atheists who, through the faith they place in science and reason, do not see abortion as a moral issue requiring legislation.
• Some in the aforementioned groups believe that troubles in our state revolve around issues – lack of economic opportunity, marginal education systems, comparatively weak economic competitiveness against other states, infrastructure needs, etc. – that have nothing to do with the passage of legislation based on semi-theocratic pursuits.
• And, as we see in the Legislature, there are those who adamantly oppose abortion, and believe they must act in any way to end abortion. Those in this category see abortion as the taking of life, and the questions and complexities mentioned by others are irrelevant. They argue simply and forcefully that abortion is wrong; it is the taking of a life and they are committed to doing everything in their power to stop it.
But if taking of life is the key issue, where is the angst from the religious right to end capital punishment? Why do we not see more ardent Christians avoid military service as conscientious objectors? Where are the laws to end drone strikes in foreign countries that have killed more than 4,000 people (including children) in the past few years?
A pillar of logic must be consistency – if even only on a superficial level. However, we know there is no superficial acceptance of whose life is sacred. Through thousands of years of interpretation and re-interpretation, scholars crafted many and evolving exceptions for the simple “Thou Shalt Not Kill” commandment. For example, the nationalism required by monarchies, popes and presidents justified the taking of life in “legitimate battles,” with the victors able to define which battles were legitimate.
We should be a nation of laws, in which the many issues that orbit the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" must be balanced between the consensus morality of the generation(s) and the idea of individual liberty/responsibility. In that balance, we should remember that using religion and the various historical incarnations of morality to legislate has proven to be, at best, a slippery slope. We used morality/religion to justify the oppression of women, American Indians, blacks, non-property owners, etc.
Ideally – but admittedly doubtful – we'll get to a point where the government-sanctioned taking of life at any level is ended. Until then, the charging of windmills by state legislators to change what will likely be addressed at the federal level seems a misallocation of resources. Not only is it a misallocation, but these avid anti-abortion legislators seem wholly comfortable betting with Arkansas taxpayer dollars to cover the odds that their religious beliefs will prevail to and through the U.S. Supreme Court.