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Who am I to say?

Moral relativism and the debate on abortion


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The following is the second in a series of classic columns by Joel Belz. This one ran in our Dec. 21, 2002, issue, but the relativism Joel encountered then still frames the abortion debate today—even after the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

I WAS HEADED FOR a two-day conference on the subject of countering abortion. So with nearly an hour extra at Los Angeles International Airport, I thought I’d find out what the folks there were thinking about the issue.

My poll wasn’t scientific. In the end, it didn’t need to be. The statistics, skimpy as they were, were overwhelming. The pro-abortionists have won—and the American public has yet to discuss the subject in any serious way.

That, of course, is exactly what the pro-abortionists want. They know as well as we do (maybe a lot better) that if we ever get around to an actual discussion of what happens when a baby is aborted, they’ll lose almost every time. But if they can change the subject—say, for example, to the issue of women’s rights—maybe then they can bluff their way through.

My informal, superficial poll at LAX suggests that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Over the course of an hour and a half, I approached perhaps 50 people. “Pardon me, sir,” or “Pardon me, ma’am,” I would start, with my notebook and pen as obvious as I could make them. “Have you ever been asked to participate in a public opinion poll?”

“This is for real,” I would then reassure them, and tell them I wanted to ask two simple questions about abortion. About half the folks I approached fell by the wayside, but give the other 27 folks credit. They were willing to hear my questions, and most displayed a pleasant enough attitude.

“In the most general terms, do you think of yourself as someone who defends abortion or opposes it?” My question seemed pretty direct and clear enough to me, but it wasn’t, apparently, clear to my respondents. For the record, just seven of them said they opposed abortion; five said bluntly that they defended the practice. But the typical response was to look one direction, and then another, and then to start sputtering about how varied everyone’s circumstances were, and how no one could possibly know all the details of any given situation, and after all who am I to judge?

After a bit, I came to expect such a response. Then I would ask again: “But just for you personally, not trying right now to impose what you think on anyone else, do you tend personally to be for abortion or against it?” Now feeling a wee bit safer (and usually reminding me a second or third time how reluctant they’d ever be to impose their morality on anyone else), more than two-thirds of the people I talked with assured me that ­abortion is something they wish would just go away.

So I asked my second question: “Do you think most young people—let’s say kids in high school—know what actually happens when an abortion takes place?”

Now the relativizing became heavy duty. “What do you mean?” folks would ask. “Doesn’t that depend on when the abortion takes place?” “Don’t you have to know more of the circumstances?” And again and again: “Who am I to say?”

Two things impressed me in my mini-poll exercise. The first was that folks were ready to talk about the subject—if I could get through the first door of resistance.

But my second conclusion is how desperately we pro-lifers need to engage the actual topic and move the public past the phony issue of choice. Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform reminds us that the “choice” bluff would never be allowed in the context of other profound social issues. Just imagine anyone ­telling Martin Luther King Jr. that how someone treats black Americans really boils down to that person’s choice in the matter.

Such relativism has long since been disallowed in most moral debates. The fact that it still works in our society is testimony to what a shabby job we pro-lifers have done so far.


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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