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Can we enter abortion, gun debates with compassion?

The debates about abortion and guns in the United States rage on.

Dick White

When does life begin? Religious traditions offer answers ranging from “life begins at conception” to “life begins with the first breath.” Science describes the development of the embryo as a lengthy process. Only in a laboratory could one observe the initial merging of egg and sperm. A pregnancy test can yield a result a few days after implantation of the embryo in the mother’s womb, about two weeks after conception, but many women would seek one only after a month or more. Nearly six months must pass before the fetus might be viable with exceptional (and expensive) medical care.

Most countries allow abortion, at least under some circumstances and for some time into a pregnancy, but the diversity of laws developed in different places speaks to the difficulty of finding universal principles for navigating this ethical terrain.

What does it mean to have a “right to bear arms”? Does it really mean that any 18-year-old can go out and buy an AR-15 – a weapon of war – without either a background check or training? What about the Second Amendment’s qualifying clause about a “well-regulated militia”?

The debates about abortion and guns rely on interpretation of religious texts such as the Bible and legal texts such as the Constitution. But what could the authors of sacred texts written down more than one or two millennia ago know about modern technology that allows women to regulate fertility or doctors to save the life of a prematurely born baby? What could the Founders in an era of muzzleloading weapons have known about assault rifles?

“Thou shalt not kill” appears unambiguous – and yet scriptures and cultures around the world sanction execution of killers. Today in the U.S., evidence abounds that capital punishment preferentially applies to minority populations, too often victimized by racist prosecution. Is this justice? Prohibitions on abortion preferentially disadvantage poor women, increasing the likelihood that they and their children remain in poverty. Is this ethical?

Do babies brought to term have the right to proper nutrition in the womb, so that they begin life healthy? Do children born to poor mothers have the right to food security, so that they can grow up without physical and mental stunting? Do school children have the right to a safe learning environment, free from the threat that some crazed man might kill them? (Women have committed less than 3% of mass shootings in the U.S. in the last 40 years.)

We debate such questions because we recognize that matters of life and death carry heavy moral weight. Could we enter such debates with the understanding that we humans are fallible? One of the most telling stories in the New Testament recounts Jesus defending a woman against stoning for the crime of adultery (that did not apply to her partner) by confronting the would-be (male) executioners with their own sins.

Headlines, both in past years and recently, involve revelation of sexual abuse of women and children by clergy, often serving the same religions that most stridently oppose abortion.

Could we enter these ethical debates over lives and deaths with compassion and the humility to acknowledge that we might be wrong? In court, we are prompted to swear to tell the truth, “So help me God,” in recognition that such judgments have a sacred dimension.

These debates are important, but righteous conviction that “God is on our side” historically has victimized, even slaughtered, “the other.” What can we do to protect the lives of children, before and after they are born? Can we leave our guns – and our dogmatism – at the door?

Dick White is a former two-term City Council member and served as mayor of Durango.