If it seems like democracy isn’t built to handle the issue of abortion, that’s because it’s not. Democracy presumes that the population holds a set of a priori values which are not up for public debate. Some things, in the parlance of the Declaration of Independence, are self-evident truths, and not issues which citizens of good faith may legitimately disagree upon. Democracy can only function when a nation continues to be in agreement about the most basic questions of morality and human rights. A democratic nation in which half the population thought that cannibalism was a fundamental right could not long endure.
To be sure, no moral premise, no matter how seemingly uncontroversial, will ever command the assent of everyone on earth. Even ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’ will meet objections from ethical egoists. Any law criminalizing behavior is going to necessarily ‘impose morality.’ An ethical egoist will get nowhere with protestations that his personal choice to embezzle ought not be infringed by the moral beliefs of the majority. Democracy can still work if the number of objectors to the common set of values are few. The problem arises when this few becomes more numerous. Numerous enough to become a potent political force.
Enter abortion. At it’s core, it is a disagreement over the boundaries of the right to life. For those who place the unborn outside that boundary, it becomes a question of personal autonomy and freedom, and one can no more take away a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy than one can take away her right to get a haircut, remove a wart, or treat a disease. The two values, life and autonomy, are both fundamental ones which democracies usually presume to be beyond debate. This is what the misguided folks who seek “common ground” fail to understand. You can find common ground on taxes, immigration, or education. But common ground doesn’t exist when the right to life, and the right to bodily autonomy are set in opposition to each other. Both are rights which are meant to be eternally protected from the dangers of majority vote.
I must confess that this schism over a priori values has made it extremely difficult for me to have any affection for my fellow countrymen in the abstract. All around me, I see citizens, good citizens, who think the eugenic abortion of a down syndrome child is not only acceptable, but compassionate. Conversations I overhear between seemingly normal people can leave me deeply depressed. They are, I keep reminding myself, just ordinary Americans, and their vote counts just as much as mine come election day. Daniel Berrigan, a peace activist who occasionally speaks out against abortion, put my feelings into words better than anyone else
It is a hell of a way to spend one’s life, as I do, objecting to the killing of people. It is like being in the stone age, pre-human. You would like to be building human community with certain common presuppositions, and you can’t. You can’t. It is like living in a cave, sitting around the fire arguing whether we should go out and club people and eat them. As if this were a serious choice. (Quoted from http://www.meehanreports.com/)
It’s hard to predict how the irrepressible tension between democracy and abortion will ever be finally resolved. In some European countries, the the pro-life movement has all but vanished, and abortion has become non-controversial. That’s one possible outcome. But because I place no limits on the sovereignty of God, I also do not rule out the possibility of a massive scale softening of American hearts. At least for the moment, hope springs eternal.