South Dakota answers the question of when life begins


South Dakota answers the question of when life begins

Suppose the South Dakota Legislature passed a law that required doctors to tell patients before they received a blood transfusion that the transfusion could prolong their earthly life, but it jeopardized their prospects for eternal life?

Such a law would be in keeping with the beliefs of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we doubt that any U.S. court would find it constitutional for the state of South Dakota to enforce a minority religious viewpoint on all doctors and their patients.

Yet, the difference between our hypothetical law and a law passed by the South Dakota Legislature and now upheld by a 7-4 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit is a difference only in degree. The law requires a doctor to inform a pregnant woman “that the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being.” Disagreeing with a federal district court judge, the appeals court found that it is unlikely such meddling by the state infringes on a doctor’s First Amendment right to discuss or not discuss philosophical issues of abortion with his or her patient.

On the frontline

South Dakota has become a hotbed of anti-abortion activity. Two years ago, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have banned abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. A new version, only slightly different, will be back on the ballot this November. It is clear from reading the 2005 report of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion that there is and has been a powerful political movement in the state to overturn by statute the tenets of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court opinion that gave women the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

Indeed, after four days of hearings, the South Dakota Task Force, a creation of the Legislature, not only determined six specific areas that it said undermined Roe v. Wade, but it determined a medical, philosophical and ethical issue that has confounded some of the world’s greatest thinkers for thousands of years. The task force reported: “It can no longer be doubted that the unborn child from the moment of conception is a whole separate human being. During the 2005 legislative session, the South Dakota Legislature passed H.B. 1166 that expressly found that ‘all abortions, whether surgically or chemically induced, terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being.’ ... The Task Force received testimony from numerous experts who reiterated this fact.”

Take that, Aristotle. And that, Thomas Aquinas. You and the philosophers and theologians who debated your feeble ruminations for centuries couldn’t figure out when life began, but a task force in South Dakota managed to answer the question beyond any doubt in just four days.

A movement worth watching

Such arrogance would be amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that in South Dakota legislators are giving the force of law to religious doctrine. And they are determined to legislate based on their preconceived notions of how the Supreme Court got it wrong when it said that women and their doctors, not the government, should make the decision about terminating a pregnancy.

The task force itself gives an interesting insight into its prejudices when it attempts to show how very fair-minded it is. “In order to achieve a balanced viewpoint and obtain as much information from diverse points of view as possible, live testimony was divided almost equally between witnesses who support the position that abortion is harmful to women and should be illegal and those who think it should be legal.” The legality of abortion is the law of the land. How often is a government entity so scrupulous in giving equal time to those who want to subvert constitutional law?

Of course, South Dakota’s tolerance for an opposing view only goes so far. For instance, the anti-abortion legislation that was passed by the legislature and subsequently affirmed as the right thing to do by the task force, not only requires that before a doctor performs an abortion the woman be informed of the medical implications of the procedure and the “fact” that the fetus is not a fetus, but a human being. It also requires an abortion clinic to refer a potential patient to a pregnancy help center that provides information about alternatives to abortion. Yet if a woman goes first to a help center, the center is under no obligation to refer the woman to an abortion provider for a second opinion.

Millions would disagree

What South Dakota is doing is giving a particular religious interpretation of the evils of abortion the strength of law. And people who believe in the separation of church and state should be frightened that seven appeals judges — all appointed by President Bush — support the effort. As we have said before, there are tens of millions of Americans of good conscience, both religious and nonreligious, who do not see abortion as intrinsically evil or sinful. They are not convinced that life begins at the moment of conception.

If the state accepts narrow religious interpretations for purposes of abortion, why not accept them in matters of contraception? Many of the same people who are convinced that abortion is wrong, also believe that contraception is sinful. Anyone who thinks that people who are so comfortable with their own moral superiority will not be happy to impose their view of abortion, morning-after pills and contraception on the general population hasn’t been paying attention.

Religious leaders have every right to preach against any evil they perceive in the United States. They are obliged to convince members of their own flocks that there are consequences to violating what they perceive to be God’s law.

But they should not be allowed to insert their doctrine into the law that everyone must follow.

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