Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
What the Church Teaches
If you asked an average group of Catholics
to identify the Church—s position on abortion, they might give you
a one-word answer: "NO."
What a shame. In reality, the Church—s
teaching on abortion really begins with a great big "YES." It begins
with a yes to all human life created in God—s own image and likeness.
As our Holy Father said in poetic fashion in his most recent encyclical
on human life: "All human beings, from their mother—s womb, belong
to God who searches them and knows them, who forms them and knits
them together with his own hands, who gazes on them when they are
tiny shapeless embryos and already sees in them the adults of tomorrow..."
(The Gospel of Life, #61).
In other words, human life is sacred,
inviolable. It only makes sense, then, for the Church to reject
all that violates this sacred gift, beginning with the direct destruction
of innocent human life which is abortion.
But the Catholic Church—s pro-life teachings
are based not only on sacred Scripture about the divine creation
and the divine destiny of human life. They are also based upon what
is commonly called "natural law," the divine law written in our
hearts and knowable by human reason. You might say that because
of natural law, a person doesn—t have to be Catholic, Christian
or even overtly religious to understand that human life is special
among all creation and should not be violated by abortion. It is
A deeper understanding of natural law
and Scripture helps make sense of all details of the Church—s pro-life
Respect human life
The most comprehensive—and inspiring—summary
of Catholic teaching on abortion is the 1995 papal encyclical The
Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). There, the Holy Father speaks
specifically and at great length about abortion, beginning first
with the natural-law argument against taking human life. He describes
the medical and scientific consensus on when human life begins:
"From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which
is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life
of a new human being with his own growth...[M]odern genetic science
offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first
instant there is established the programme of what this living being
will be" (#60).
Some people are surprised to learn that the
obstetrics textbooks used in the leading medical schools in the
country today assume that human lives begin at conception! This
is not a theological teaching but a medical fact. The more that
science studies the unborn, and the more it develops ultrasound
imaging of the unborn child, the more confirming evidence emerges
of the child—s humanity and truly ingenious development.
The ensoulment debate. Many people
still believe that the Catholic Church bases its pro-life stance
on the religious belief that a human being is ensouled at the moment
of conception. But this is wrong. The Gospel of Life and
the earlier Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974) acknowledge
that you can—t scientifically verify when a soul enters the human
body. (You sure can—t see it under a microscope!) Both documents
note that it is more likely than not that at the "first appearance
of a human life" there is a personal presence, a body/soul unity.
But even if this is doubted, they say, it remains wrong to kill
what is certainly human life from the moment of conception, whether
or not it is "ensouled."
If it—s human, don—t kill it! From
this scientific consensus about when and how human life begins,
it follows that we should all respect human life from the moment
of conception. And you might say that a bottom-line minimum for
respecting human life is not killing it! As our Holy Father puts
it, the first right that everybody has is "the inviolable right
of every innocent being to life" (Donum Vitae). Everyone
has, in other words, a right not to be killed. This is a moral principle
held, if not always applied, through the ages and across the globe.
When it is violated, there is almost always an outcry.
Some 'hard cases'
1. Rape and incest. Many question
why the Church won—t make specific exceptions for abortion when
unborn children are conceived in rape or incest, or are disabled.
They also feel that the Church is being unduly hard when it makes
no exceptions for situations in which a mother will have her mental
or physical health taxed as a result of carrying a baby to term
and/or rearing the child. But consider the implications of making
such exceptions. It would send them the message that people—s value
depends upon their physical condition, the circumstances of their
conception or others— perception of them.
2. Disabled children. Human beings
have value no matter what the circumstances of their conception.
They have value whether or not they have physical or mental disabilities.
But, goes the usual argument, the mother or the child or both could
suffer terribly if the disabled child were allowed to be born. Yes,
we understand and have compassion for the anguish of these women.
We feel an obligation to assist them. But such suffering doesn—t
extinguish that unborn person—s right to life.
Furthermore, the suffering such mothers
or children experience will often come not from their circumstances
but from other people—s reaction to their circumstances. The raped
woman is made to feel "she asked for it." The disabled child is
made to feel less than her peers. The more humane and more Christian
response to a violated mother or disabled child is more love—not
3. Abortion doesn—t end with the baby.
It should also be remembered that no matter how many times abortion
is proposed as a solution to a difficult situation, abortion has
a way of creating new, long-lasting problems of its own. According
to post-abortion women, abortion taints the expected good result.
Even some post-abortion women who became
pregnant as a result of rape or incest report that the abortion
made them feel further violated. Of the other 99% of post-abortion
women, many report that instead of feeling free or happy after the
abortion, they feel burdened with guilt and loss.
4. Medical necessity. What about
the argument that the Church must make exceptions to its teaching
when abortion is medically necessary for the mother—s health or
a child—s disability?
First, while the Church opposes all direct
abortions, it does not condemn procedures which result, indirectly,
in the loss of the unborn child as a "secondary effect." For example,
if a mother is suffering an ectopic pregnancy (a baby is developing
in her fallopian tube, not the womb), a doctor may remove the fallopian
tube as therapeutic treatment to prevent the mother—s death. The
infant will not survive long after this, but the intention of the
procedure and its action is to preserve the mother—s life. It is
not a direct abortion.
There also occur, very rarely, situations
in which, in order to save the mother—s life, the child needs to
be delivered early. But this can be done safely with a normal, induced
delivery, or a caesarean section.
The argument for killing disabled unborn
children is not a medical one either. There are no disabilities
which require directly killing the child in order to save the mother.
In fact, disabled children can usually be delivered with no more
complications than a child without disabilities. The argument for
abortion in these cases is ideological, a belief that it is better—for
the child, the family and the whole society—for the child to die
than to live with a disability.
5. Culpability. Here, a vitally
important point must be made. While the Church teaches that the
act of killing an unborn child is intrinsically bad, it does not
teach that the mother who seeks an abortion is also intrinsically
bad. There is a difference between condemning an act, and judging
the guilt of the actor. Only God can judge these women. To the woman
who has had an abortion the Church says instead: "How can we reconcile
you? How can we help you, first, to face honestly what happened,
repent, and be reconciled to the child, to yourself, to your family
and to God?" Today, most Catholic dioceses in the United States
sponsor programs of healing for post-abortion women.
'Choice': A failed argument
But what about the choice argument, that
a woman simply must be allowed to make a choice about the life of
the baby inside? Some find this argument compelling because pregnancy
so intimately affects the mother—s body and the course of her life;
and because the baby is carried literally inside of her, completely
dependent upon her for sustenance.
As a mother myself, I can confirm that
the baby—s presence affects almost every aspect of a mother—s physical
person. Pregnancy may force a woman to leave school or a job. Women
often serve as the single parent. More often it is women who stay
home with children—and their schedules are thus altered.
Women in families assume still the disproportionate
share of daily household tasks like cooking, cleaning, laundry and
bills. Therefore, the argument goes, women must be given the power
to decide whether to assume these burdens.
There isn—t just one answer to the choice
argument. Consider these four:
1. Abortion is a bad choice. I ordinarily
begin by saying that, of course, it—s great to have choices about
some things—where to go to school, whom to marry, what kind of car
to buy. But certain other choices, though they may be available
(to take harmful drugs) and even legal (to kill the unborn), are
intrinsically bad. This is the case with the choice for abortion.
2. Don—t be fooled by a goal that looks
good. Abortion remains a bad choice, even if someone is trying
to use it as a means to a good end. Leaders of most pro-abortion
groups today usually ignore this. They regularly admit that the
abortion choice is bad, even a form of killing. But they continue
to insist that abortion remains a morally legitimate choice because
the killing is merely the means to a good end—"freedom" or "relief
from suffering" for the mother. They call abortion a "tragic necessity."
But this ignores the basic moral argument
that it is wrong to use bad means to reach a good end. And it ignores
the com-monsense truth that "ends" get tainted when the means used
to achieve them are evil. Choosing an abortion to bring about short-term
"relief" regularly leads to unhappiness, depression, marital failure,
even suicidal behavior in post-abortion women for years, sometimes
decades, after the abortion. Really bad choices hurt the one choosing
them nearly as much as they hurt the intended victim.
3. Different, yes, worthless, no.
Still drawing on the choice argument, some abortion advocates will
insist that even though abortion is a form of killing, it—s not
intrinsically bad because unborn victims are different from born
ones. Unlike a born child, for example, an unborn child is nearly
part of the mother—completely dependent upon the mother, they say.
I usually respond that another—s dependency could never extinguish
their individuality or their dignity. The unborn child may be inside
the mother, and rely on the mother for life itself, but he or she
is a genetically distinct human being with his or her own development
If dependency is the cutoff point for everybody—s
"right not to be killed," you and I are in a lot of trouble too!
Every one of us relies on the accomplishments of others, not only
in the first and last moments of our life, but every day: to eat,
find shelter, receive medical care, work and so forth.
Pro-abortion arguments based on the child—s
dependence also contradict both American ideals and Christian teaching.
In both traditions, another—s neediness and relative weakness are
a sign of our obligation to provide greater care to the person.
Recall the words on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired,
your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." Recall
Jesus— special love for the poor and the outcast of his day.
4. If it—s for women, it shouldn—t penalize
children. Abortion advocates might still insist on a woman—s
choice to abort because they feel so strongly that unplanned childbearing
or child-rearing is unfairly burdensome to a woman and too destructive
of her life plans. As a mother, I would again readily agree that
children require an enormous amount of effort. But that is no argument
for killing them! Mothers, rather, deserve particular help and particular
respect for their labors. Any feminism that tries to advance women
by demeaning other members of the human race is under-mining its
own major premise: that all human beings are equal simply by virtue
of being human beings!
Abortion and authentic freedom
In recent years, a new dimension has
been added to the Catholic Church—s pro-life teaching. It is an
analysis of the meaning of authentic or Chris-tian freedom, as opposed
to the false but seductive freedom promoted by advocates of legal
abortion. A brilliant description of this freedom is laid out in
The Gospel of Life in three major points.
First, freedom is never merely about
the well-being of the individual. It is always also a relational
matter. Freedom necessarily involves "solidarity,...openness to
others and service of them." God "entrusts us to one another" to
care for and serve each other. When people act as if freedom is
just about "me," the results are predictable: The strong people
exercising their "freedom" completely dominate the weak "who have
no choice but to submit" (#19). Christian freedom turns this on
its head, saying that there is no freedom in running away from responsibility
for others, but only in accepting a special obligation to care for
the weakest. The unborn—unseen, unheard, physically and legally
powerless—are among these.
Second, Christian freedom sees "an essential
link" between freedom and truth. Jesus told us, "The truth will
set you free" (Jn 8:32). Acting against truth hurts not only the
victim, but also the actor.
Finally, Christians are most free when
we act in accordance with who God wants us to be. "[W]hen God is
forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible" (Gaudium
et spes, #36, Gospel of Life, #22). We become out of
touch with our wonderful, divine origin and our divine destiny.
We no longer see ourselves as "mysteriously different" from other
creatures. Our life becomes a "—mere thing,—" which "man claims
as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and
manipulation" (Gospel of Life, #22).
It is easy to see how when a culture
embraces the idea that "freedom" means "me" and "my opinion," and
leaves God out, abortion comes in with a vengeance. The powerless
child is killed. The truth about the child—s humanity is simply
denied in the face of all of the evidence to the contrary. We become
blind to God—s image and likeness in the person of every single
Christian freedom, on the other hand,
calls for a way of life in which the weakest are not merely spared,
but are looked after with greater care. When the U.S. bishops responded
to Evangelium Vitae with their own reflection in 1995, Faithful
for Life, they summarized the soul of Christian freedom with
the Good Samaritan story: "We are all on the road from Jerusalem
to Jericho and this story haunts us, for it flatly contradicts the
strong presumption so widely held today that our loyalties and obligations
are owed only to those of our —choice.— On the contrary, it is we
who have been chosen to go out of our way for them.
Next: Catholic Schools Today (by Robert