You can't legislate morality

"We have too many teenage mothers," whines Congress. "Sex, drugs, and alcohol are ruining our schools!" cry the mothers.

America is far from the perfect nation that many of us believed it to be in our youthful innocence. Everybody can see the problems plaguing our society -- drugs, violence, apathy towards learning -- but nobody quite seems willing to do anything about them. The tendency in our society tends to be to "legislate morality:" to proclaim that the "right" path is the only legal path, and to be the unfortunate bearer of one of society's ills automatically makes you an outcast.

The latest Republican Congress has been among the most visible of those guilty of this offense. The Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, decided that teen pregnancies were undesirable, probably a perfectly reasonable assumption. His response, though, was to deem every teenage mother unfit to raise a child: any child of a teen mother would be placed in an orphanage.

Gingrich's mistake is the all-too-common one of punishing the problem instead of trying to find a reasonable solution. Rather than looking at why sexually active teenagers don't use birth control or finding some other cause for his problem, he automatically assumed that anybody who would have a child as a teenager was a criminal, regardless of their age or qualifications as a mother, and completely regardless of the child's best interests.

This basic response -- "this is immoral, let's punish it" -- causes much greater problems within the Gingrich regime. Essentially, that teen mother is doomed to follow a specific course through the next nine months of her life once she becomes pregnant. The Republicans again tried to ban all abortion, this time via a Constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, forcing the mother to carry her child to term. The mother no longer has the option to try to raise the child herself, the "standard" decision in most pregnancies. But even if the mother's family offers to help raise the child, that choice is gone to the mother -- Congress has decreed that teen pregnancies are bad, so, as a pregnant teen, the mother must be punished. Using the claim that the mother is irresponsible, Congress attempted to take all personal control of her life away.

Some of the arguments in favor of this type of action may make sense. Certainly, teenagers shouldn't be getting pregnant on a regular basis. But to punish teen pregnancies just because it's "wrong" for most individuals doesn't make sense, especially given the other things that are legal in our society. Since nobody is directly hurt by the birth, and the only person likely to hurt indirectly is the child, who may well do worse in a Gingrich orphanage, there really shouldn't be anything illegal about giving birth to a child.

The simple fact that Congress ignores is that people don't like being told what to believe, and they don't like being told to act a certain way because somebody else believes something. Certainly there are some underlying moral principles that we all share, things like "life is good." The current Congress has tried to force some other principles upon all of America, though, and tried to make its beliefs the right ones by legislating them. People tend not to accept that readily. Rather than just trying to legislate morality, Congress needs to try to change the social situations that create the "immoral" behavior. Society can't just be ordered to change; instead, it needs to be helped into whatever change will eventually happen.

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