The Myth of Legislated Morality

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In my ten or so years as a Project Manager and Software Developer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, I was frequently involved in discussions with physicians about what limits to incorporate into system designs.

Software development, and any sort of engineering or design for that matter, focuses to a large extent on limits.  We often needed to address questions like:

  • How large a number does this data field need to be able to store?
  • How wide should this column be on this report?
  • How flexible does this screen’s functionality need to be?

At Mayo, the underlying attitude was always “Limit our options and flexibility as little as possible.”  This was because physicians are dealing with people’s lives.  They absolutely do not want anything getting in the way of their ability to provide the best possible care for their patients. Is our “Great Physician,” Jesus, any different?

People constantly come to Doctors with all sorts of symptoms and issues that were well outside of what is expected, and so the tools they use in caring for those patients cannot limit their ability to provide the care that is needed.  Since we cannot accurately predict what situations the future will hold, we must provide tools that “flex” well in unexpected situations, and that do not needlessly place restraints on what can be done.

This same logic applies when talking about moral issues in everyday life, things like abortion, or gay marriage, or adoption across cultural or ethnic boundaries.  In all of these situations, people are involved.  Therefore, each such situation has its own unique circumstances.  Each one involves difficult, sometimes painful choices and adjustments.  Like a physician’s care of a patient, all of these situations involve decisions that these people will have to live with for the rest of their lives.  They are not choices that are made lightly.  Further, they are not choices made in isolation: the choice that is made impacts not only the person making it, but others as well, whether that is an unborn infant, or a same-sex partner, or a child who needs a family.  Their choices also impact and involve the “community” of which they are a part – family, friends, co-workers, and so on.

We have all experienced situations where difficult choices have to be made, like those named above, or something else – such as turning off life support for a parent or child, whether to work late and so skip an important event, or sacrificing our time, energy and resources to help our loved ones live a better and more prosperous life.

When you encounter these situations, do you feel they are unique?  Almost certainly, even though they are probably similar to what you and many others have experienced before.  If nothing else, the people involved are unique.  (Or else they wouldn’t be human beings, but clones!)  And, the circumstances that brought you to that point are also unique.  Likewise, the possible outcomes of your decision are unique, and none of any of this will ever be repeated.

Let’s back up for a second, and examine the other side of the question, that of specifying in advance what the outcome (or outcomes) must be.  At Mayo, we could not do this: people would have died, lawsuits would have been filed.  We always had to account for the fact that each person’s circumstances are unique.  Therefore, we had to allow humans to make the decisions that were best for each unique situation.  We could not predetermine what was best.

I submit, therefore, that any time we create laws or legislation that dictate how difficult situations are to be handled, situations where people are making difficult choices that will impact the rest of their lives, or the lives of others, we need to be very careful to not presume we know best.

We need to use the Law as a tool that enables the best of our humanity and human/humane values to be employed when addressing difficult situations.  But we also need to remember that all tools have inherent limits.  If we exceed those limits, the tool will break, or whatever we are manipulating using our tool will break.  (And yes, if you think about it, a law is ultimately just a tool that is used to manipulate people’s lives).  So, when a law is used to address a difficult choice, there needs to be a recognition that we cannot prejudge what is best.  We cannot allow carelessness or lack of compassion to create a law that has unintentionally painful or cruel consequences.  The tool needs to not only be adequate for the job, but also be flexible enough to address the unique and unforeseen circumstances of each individual’s situation.

In the news a couple of years ago I read of a 15 year old boy who had sex with a girl that lied about her age.  He did not know she was really only 13; but, because of her age, and even though that she had lied was known, the law required him to be branded for life as a sexual predator.  It prevented him from going to school, attending church, or even working at the local McDonalds.  It subjected him to all sorts of abuse by people in his community who reacted to the label that had been placed upon him, but who did not know the reality behind that label.  A mistake made in ignorance combined with a well intentioned but poorly written law has seriously damaged this young man’s life.  At age 17, he was afraid to even leave his home because of the judgment and anger directed at him by others.

What will the consequences be if we, for instance, limit or prohibit abortion?  Abortion is not pretty.  Any woman choosing to have an abortion knows that her choice involves destroying a young life.  She knows it is a decision she will have to live with the rest of her life.  It is not a choice that she makes lightly.  (Or, perhaps we should say it is not a choice that should be made lightly, but do we dare judge whether a woman is making such a decision lightly?)

I have known many women who have had abortions at some point in their lives: nearly every one of them has told me it was a traumatic experience, and one they made only because they felt they had no choice.  It was never a matter of convenience, never something they did just to get rid of a troublesome bit of protoplasm.  They knew the seriousness of their decision, and knew they would have to live with the emotional pain and trauma of that decision for the rest of their lives.  If anything, I admire their bravery in making such a decision despite all this, especially considering the immediate and long term risks involved, including medical complications and the condemnation of others.

Who am I, then, to dictate that they should not have that choice?  Will a law that dictates that abortion is prohibited even work?  History has shown that it will not; because whether there is a law against it or not,  women will continue to encounter situations where their own unique circumstances force them to conclude they have no choice but to terminate their pregnancy, and many will, if driven to it, risk their lives to do so.  In creating a law that prohibits abortion, we are in effect demanding these women bow to our sense of morality, and we force them to suffer the consequences of the outcome of our demands, with no risk to ourselves.  And yet, it is clear that Jesus condemned those who demanded much of others and yet did nothing to share the burdens they were placing on them.

In other words, uncaring laws create needless and unrealistic limits, and are thoughtlessly designed: they fail to take into account the unique circumstances that bring a woman to the point of having to make that choice.  Such laws prejudge what the moral decision is, without knowing what the unique circumstances are.  Such laws erect a wall of judgment instead of treating each individual’s situation with the care they need and deserve.  Such a law treats a person in crisis as an object to be shoved into a slot marked “motherhood,” not as a human being needing compassion and support in making the most difficult decision of their lives.

Now, many will flip this around and argue that the rights of the fetus need to be protected.  This presumes that a fetus is a person with rights equal to that of a child or adult.  However, such an argument gets into all sorts of difficulties, and has unintended consequences.  If all life is sacred, then what about war?  What about the death penalty?  What about when we allow a child to starve to death or die of a disease because of our own unwillingness to provide them with the care they need?  There are a huge range of circumstances where sacred lives are being threatened, lost, or permanently damaged.  Even though an abortion and the resultant loss of a potential life is unquestionably a sad thing, if we are to claim that a fetus is a sacred life (a stance that has little or no biblical justification, by the way) then we must also be willing to be just as uncompromising in all of these other circumstances, and more.

If laws could solve such problems, then Christianity would never have been needed, nor would it have been accepted by so many in the ancient world and today.  Grace, in the end, is what matters: supporting others in love and with compassion is the first rule of our faith.  So, if we take the two “great commandments” Jesus taught us in Matthew 22:36-40 to heart, then there is no room for absolutes when we find ourselves confronted with the life challenges of others, other than the absolute demand of God to love and respect them right where they are at.

So, in the case of abortion (and any other issue of morality), it seems to me that the challenge is not how to create a law that prohibits it – it is not possible to do so, just as it is not possible to write a law that will prohibit war, or the plague.  The Bible warns us that we should not try.  The real challenge, and the decision our great Physician calls us to, is how do we, as people of faith, address the circumstances that cause these situations and difficult choices in the first place?  Solving the root causes in love and compassion is what we are called to do, not to brutally and uncaringly prohibit their consequences at no cost to ourselves.

Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Legislated Morality”

  1. I read many of your posts Allen, but this one struck me as clearly demonstrating the grace that you wrote about. Thank you. I wish your perspective could reach a much wider audience.


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