During the Vice Presidential Debate, Mike Pence was asked to give an example of a time when his religious beliefs and his responsibilities as a public servant had come into conflict. He articulated no such example. As I’ve written elsewhere, this demonstrates a general lack of respect for all faiths, moralities, and perspectives other than his own.
But Pence’s answer actually flaunted the question. Rather than identify a time he fulfilled his responsibilities as a public servant rather than follow his personal religious beliefs, he brought up abortion, an issue around which he has dogmatically endeavored to enforce his religious beliefs. As I’ve written about many times before, the questions of life and death are not simple biological ones. They have a grounding in biology, but they are not simple biological truths. It is the social aspects of defining our life and death that provide us with the space for disagreement about what constitutes not simply biological existence, but a being with rights, and further a being with rights that trump the rights of others.
Pence claims to have a definitive resolution to this disagreement, and it comes from his religious perspective. And I’m certainly not here to suggest that Pence is misinterpreting his own religious perspective. But public servants in a democratic republic should not be imposing their religious perspective on other people. We do not want atheists prohibiting people from going to church, nor Orthodox Jews prohibiting people from cooking on the day of rest. Public servants should be serving the interests of a public that has a diversity of religious and moral perspectives. Pence may be failing to recognize that the answer to “What do I think is moral?” is not necessarily the answer to “What policy should govern a pluralistic republic?”
And so, unless Mike Pence has an argument for why abortion should always be illegal (or as difficult as possible for any woman to acquire) that does not depend on his religious perspective, he has a responsibility to set aside his religious worldview, acknowledge the unsettled status of embryos and fetuses in a pluralistic society, and govern accordingly. Failing to do so undermines the premise of a democratic society that supports the freedom of religion.
Abraham Schwab is a Fort Wayne associate professor of philosophy and medical ethicist.
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