Over the last several days, videos  of Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims accosting protestors quietly praying outside of a Philadelphia-area Planned Parenthood clinic have received wide notice and commentary. In one video , Sims appears to offer a financial reward to anyone who could reveal the identities—doxxing is the internet term—of three underage girls protesting outside the clinic. Cue the national outrage .
I’m also angry. Rep. Sims’s actions towards these young women are irresponsible, threatening, and unbecoming a representative of a free people. However, another moment in the video troubles me almost as much, since it reveals a profound misunderstanding of the purpose of moral duty.
Roughly halfway through the video, Sims approaches another protestor, a young man who respectfully doffs his hat and calmly provides his name. Sims asks him, “What makes you think that it’s your job to tell women what’s right for their bodies?” The young man begins to offer a response, but Sims dismissively cuts him off, responding, “The truth is I’m not really asking because I don’t care. Shame on you.”
Think about the implications of that statement: I’m not really asking. Like many controversial issues, the abortion debate is caught up in a web of profound and important commitments. Morality, freedom, the meaning of humanity, rights, death, suffering, God—all these issues, and more, are involved. When Sims indicates that he’s not really asking, he doesn’t really care, and then says “shame on you,” Sims, like so many others, betrays not only his angry shallowness, but his failure to understand the nature of the moral life.
Americans are taught to value their rights, and correctly so, but making a rights claim is no small matter. While some people seem to think that they have a vague right to anything they really wish were so, most people, it seems to me, understand that when I say I have a right to x I’m making a claim not only on myself but on others as well. If I have a right to x, or a right to not have x done to me, I’m saying that others—you, the state—have an obligation to provide x or not do x to me. If I have a right to my property, say, then you are obligated to not steal, use, or ruin my property. If I have a right to be free from an established religion, then you are obligated to not force me to worship at the established church, and so on. To claim a right is to make a claim not only for yourself but also on others, and that should be done cautiously.
When it comes to religious freedom, we as a people have understood that every person has this freedom because they have a grave duty to follow their conscience, to seek truth, to live in keeping with truth, and to obey God, or what they honestly understand to be God and God’s commandments, so long as they do not harm or interfere with other’s equal right to do so.
Like many others, I believe that a direct and intentional abortion is an unwarranted and immoral killing of a human being. I understand that others disagree with me, and, of course, it is logically possible that I am wrong. But, if you are pro-abortion, take a moment to imagine my point of view, namely, I believe a human being is being killed without justification, and I believe that I am obligated and duty-bound as a moral agent to not cooperate with this killing. As I understand it, a grave moral crime is being committed.
So when Brian Sims, or others like him, “aren’t really asking” and “don’t care” but offer only “shame,” to a peacefully (and legally) protesting young man, Sims is suggesting that the duties and obligations another believes himself bound by can simply be ignored, repressed, and shamed. (And I know, and admit, that some pro-life people also act unreasonably towards others.)
But if we follow the logic of Sims to its conclusion, it means the end of a democratic republic, which exists to secure a form of life where its members can live their lives freely, in keeping with their own duties and responsibilities. A decent society, a decent person, encourages its members to fulfill their moral responsibility, and, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others, that society supports and secures the freedom to follow conscience.
Not so Rep. Sims. He and his ilk do not recognize that others have a duty to follow their conscience, and thus Rep. Sims betrays decency, democracy, and the sacred rights of a free citizenry.