Religion and public policymaking

Context:¬†Woman ‘denied a termination’ dies in hospital

From a friend, on Facebook:

It’s a horrible story and a touchy subject, but there is both a legal and a religious element to this and I have more of an issue with the former.

While that part of the constitution, as originally drafted, did have strong Catholic influences that would have probably been a good reflection of the beliefs of the people at that time. However, although there have been a number of referenda about the topic since then, I am not sure that it currently reflects the ‘will of the people’ and that’s the failure that I would be more angry about.

While you can debate whether it is right to make the rules about this matter on simple majority view, given the complexities, I’m inclined to think it’s the best option. So, I think the real issue is not the religious label, but whether these are in fact the rules that the majority buy in to or not.

There may well be a majority of anti-abortion sentiment (which may or may not be motivated by religious beliefs). However, if there is a silent majority that would be in favour of abortion being legal and if that opinion is not heard because the political system prevents that view from being expressed, that’s bad.

I believe that governments should try to enact policies which will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. ¬†Taking that as a starting point, the question isn’t so much “does the majority support X”, but “does the majority support X, and if they do, why?”

If there is a majority view in favour of a public policy for which there is supporting evidence, or a history of positive outcomes, or a lack of negative ones, all is well.

However, if there is a majority view in favour of a public policy which is largely supported only by dogma, and which results in injustice or bad outcomes (or just waste), all is not well. Popular support does not make a thing right. A majority view supporting some policy is not, by itself, enough. The policy also has to be by supported by evidence or experience showing that the policy is more likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number than some other policy.

Elective abortion is a complex issue and that is the main reason that I am pro-choice. I think that it is possible for pro-choice and anti-abortion positions not to be religiously motivated, although it’s certainly unusual to find secular opposition to abortion. But the case for abortion as a medical procedure to save the life of the mother is surely a different issue. In a situation where the baby and the mother will probably die, but the mother could be saved by aborting the baby, it is clear that the greatest good is accomplished by performing the abortion. (I think in that situation abortion is in fact legal in Ireland? Not sure why it didn’t happen here?)

Assuming that the case in question was such a situation, it seems to me that:

  • The legal and constitutional prohibitions of abortion in Ireland are the result of organised lobbying by religious groups and the popular support of religious people
  • Those prohibitions apparently do in some situations prevent abortions that are not elective
  • The doctor in this case is a Catholic who allowed his religious views to influence his medical decisions; or that
  • The doctor in this case felt unable to offer his patient an abortion because of the law or because of prevailing public opposition to it
  • The patient died (at least in part) because of a public policy that is in fact dogma, enacted on the support of religious people and motivated by religious principles.

If all of that is right (and I certainly make room for the possibility that this case is some grotesque exception) then I do hold this up as an example of the way religion and religious views distort people’s understanding of reality and impede our progress towards the realisation of a society that is optimally good.