To Protect Life and Promote Justice, Laws Matter

In a recent column for Religion News Service, Marcia Pally, who describes herself as “emphatically pro-life,” argues that all of the legal efforts to regulate or ban abortion over the past 40 years are “hokum.” She writes “Laws limiting abortion don’t pay for sonograms or day care, and they don’t feed or educate children.”

If the most important pro-life goal is to reduce the number of abortions, she writes, it’s better to focus on and address the host of complex issues that help drive up the abortion rate, such as poverty, an overly complicated adoption process, and the lack of access to things like paid parental leave and quality healthcare. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on abortion because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Pally’s column reminds me of an argument I’ve heard from those who oppose stricter gun control measures. Some gun control opponents say that tighter restrictions on gun rights won’t work because there are already lots of guns out there and those bent on doing harm will find a way to arm themselves. Better to focus instead on improving mental health services, or keeping violent video games from kids. We should abandon the pursuit of legal restrictions on gun ownership because they don’t work — not until we’ve had a big cultural shift, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong — focusing on root causes and the web of related issues that contribute to abortion and gun violence is essential. But not at the expense of addressing the issue head-on with targeted legislation. Laws restricting abortion access and gun ownership do reduce abortions and gun violence. They’re not silver bullets, but they’re important pieces of the puzzle.

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Whenever I think about the role of narrow, limited legislation within a broader movement for social change, I remember this quote from a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Western Michigan University in 1963:

Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.

As all pro-life and social justice advocates discern how to best spend our time, we shouldn’t make an “either/or” decision about broad social change vs. targeted legislation. Instead, as is so often the best option for Catholics, we should choose “both/and.”

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3 comments

  1. JayHamlet

    Mike, really enjoyed your NCR piece on the Pope’s “Year of Mercy”! Yes, I grappled with its meaning, too – but came up with far fewer examples than you did. So thank you! A timely and very well-written piece. I say: Stay at it!

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