Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What Ground Do You Stand On?

I've been thinking, wondering how to encourage the kind of civic conversation that can move ahead constructively in our powerfully polarized environment.

A case in point. A private member in the Canadian Parliament has introduced as bill to redefine the meaning of "human life" in Canadian Law (Bill M-312). The bill had no chance of passing because it was perceived as (and intended as) a way to re-open the debate in Canada about abortion on demand. As a result, a full term infant five minutes before birth is not "human life" and five minutes after is.

I have little interest in arguing either side here. The comments that follow such news stories illustrates how pointless and polarized such debates are. Instead I want to use the case to examine the basic process of civic discussion as it now exists.

The usual argument for abortion on demand -- at least if the comments to the stories are any guide -- is that women have the ultimate right to decide what happens with their own bodies. The argument is compelling and should (I believe) carry a great deal of weight. the usual argument against abortion on demand is that the fetus being aborted is human, and that human life deserves the same protection under law as any other person. This argument is also compelling. One can see why some object to redefining the status in law of the fetus.

Again, I do not want to pursue the argument here. I want to examine the process.

Both sides make a strong case. Both sides start from clear assumptions, which they develop into a coherent position. The trouble is that their assumptions are sharply different. Often those who oppose abortion begin with assumptions drawn from a Christian or Judaic framework for living. But if they refer to their beliefs as Jews or Christians in making their case, they are told immediately that religion has no place in a civic conversation. "I don't believe the Bible, so you can't use it in this discussion."

What is not admitted is that those who oppose limits on the individual's right to control her own body also proceed from a religious framework. I define religion as a system that seeks to make sense of life and to answer ultimate questions about life. So naturalism -- the belief that there is nothing more than natural realities -- is religious in form, even if it is not an historic world religion. Similarly the secular worldview that makes the individual the basic building block of society functions as a religious framework for living.

So when people argue the case for abortion on demand, they build on specific philosophical and religious assumptions about the nature of life and of the whole of reality. If the Christian or Jew (someone, for example, such as David Novak, professor in Judaic studies at the University of Toronto and author of The Sanctity of Human Life, 2007) cannot use his/her framework for understanding life, then neither may the secular person, or the Buddhist, or the naturalist, or anyone.

We all speak from some ground when we speak. We all speak with basic assumptions about life and the nature of reality. Accepting that basic fact would be a step forward in the civic conversation -- whether about the meaning of human life in Canadian Law, or the way that we should respond to immigration policies in Canada, or about any other subject.

In a future blog I will ask what such a conversation might look like. At this point it is enough to say that the current conversation looks imperialistic -- the rule of whoever can shout the loudest and beat the other down. Such imperialism is the preserve of no one group. From Muslims to Christians to Secular people to the "non-religious": every one of us is capable of trying to win the argument by mobilizing force and destroying the other. I want to stop that and ask instead, when you speak, what ground do you stand on?

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