Part of the debate regarding the legality of abortion is the question of whether or not a government can or should legislate or regulate morality. An oft-held position is that, in the end, a person is autonomous, and their actions are their own, that freedom of conscience is ultimately inviolate, and to attempt to create law based on a particular moral stance rather than, say, social necessity is itself misguided at best or at worst openly theocratic.

The rejoinder to this is that no society has been so callous as to fail to legislate against things like murder and theft, but this is itself rebutted by saying these are social problems more than they are moral ones, that they are bad of themselves, and not merely because they have been decreed to be sins.

Abortion falls in some weird territory both legally and morally.

So, since we’re talking something that is widely understood as a social sin as well as a personal sin, let’s discuss it in the context of two other great social sins that affected the United States, at least; I am not as up on the history of the other English-speaking nations as I should be, so I’ll stick to the one I know best.

So, in order

  1. Slavery;
  2. Indian removal.

1) The decision to purchase and hold slaves is a personal one; John Q. Slaveholder is making a moral decision, one with remarkable nuance over the years. There were those, like Thomas Jefferson, who felt slavery a problem that simply held off greater problems, fearing mass emancipation would lead to race war and crime. John C. Calhoun felt that slavery was, in fact, a moral good, and while his position was primarily reaction to aggressive abolitionism — an assertion of the southern way of life as something objectively right — it too is a form of moral reasoning, a personal decision he made seeking for what he felt to be the common good.

Was the federal government right to impose a different moral conclusion on the individual moral agents who peopled the slavery debate, and unilaterally dissolve the practice? In other words, can a government legislate objective morality?

2) Indian removal is the same story, but backwards: the federal government paved the way for white settlers to seize Indian lands and displace their inhabitants on a massive scale. Now, while the government legalized the processes by which this happened, the choice to, in fact, move into the Cherokee territory (for example) was one made individually by the settlers themselves, and it is something they were, to an extent, doing anyway without government intervention in their favor. We can likely all agree that this was a moral wrong conducted against America’s aborigines, but the question remains: shouldn’t the United States government have rather enacted laws shielding them from white encroachment on territory that had been legally protected by treaty, imposing on the white settlers its own moral conclusions?

In other words, can a government legislate objective morality?