Thank you very much for your letter, which was very informative and, truth be told, very well-argued. I am glad that you made a serious and informed effort to educate others-particularly us, the Catholic moralists-of your views on abortion and of your reasons for maintaining them. In response, I hope to be able to give a similarly serious and informed explanation of our views on the issue, and why we think “pro-choice” views are not correct.
You raised three main objections to the pro-life position, namely: that there is no certainty that an unborn is, in fact, alive and a “full-fledged” human being; that the determination of whether an unborn is alive should be left to individual choice; and that the rights and interests of the mother take precedence over those of the unborn. You also argued against certain pro-life arguments by arguing that parenthood and sexuality should be a matter of choice, and that religious texts written “a long time ago” cannot be a basis for “a modern interpretation of morality.” I trust that this summarizes your points; and if I misunderstood any one, I ask that you correct me, for I am not, as you would say, infallible.
No one can pretend that abortion is a simple issue, since it involves the lives and rights of three actual human beings: the unborn child, the mother, and the father, who is the one often forgotten in discussions on abortion. We believe, however, that abortion is not a free-for-all where anyone can make just any choice, precisely because it involves the lives and rights of different human beings, one of whom, the unborn, will certainly be killed and have her life and his rights annihilated by abortion. That is why we believe abortion is wrong, and that no one should ever have the “right” to commit an abortion, anymore that anyone can have the “right” to commit murder.
You said that the discussions on “abortive freedom” leave out the woman, her rights, choices, dreams, and need for liberation. That is not actually true, for the woman is, along with her child, always at the center of any discussion on abortion. Nor do we deny that it is her choice and her body, or that she has the right to carry or not carry the child. However, our question is: is there no limit to the exercise of this choice or right at any time? What if this choice affects the body of another unique human being, especially one who is completely helpless, and more to the point, how far does this choice extend to the body of another unique human being who happens to be dependent and helpless[i]? May it include the actual killing of the helpless in the name of “privacy”, “choice”, “career”, “dreams”, or “liberation”? Are “dreams” ever worth the deliberate killing of a completely helpless human being who has no power to resist, which every legal system in the world calls murder?
Why do we consider abortion to be murder? I think we have to begin by saying why anything at all is murder. We affirm that every human being is a subject, a unique person with choices, experiences, and dreams-unique not only to others, but also to himself as a subject-that cannot be duplicated by anyone else, no matter how close or how similar; and, hence, a human being is irreplaceable[ii], possessing a self that is her very own, and capable of acts that only she can do in her own way[iii]. Hence, we believe that the value of a human being simply cannot be comprehended by saying that he/she is a taxpayer, or a lawyer, or a consumer, for all these indicate functions that can be undertaken by someone else, whereas a human being is much more than beneficial functions[iv]: he is himself and she is herself, Ana, Anatoly, Zachary and Zara. This quality of uniqueness and irreplaceability is present in every human being, no matter how young or old, how rich or poor, how healthy or sick, how “useful” or “useless”; and, therefore, each human being and her uniqueness and his self-hood must be protected by, among other things, acknowledging of the right of every human being without discrimination to live and to live out his/her unique self[v].
What happens, after all, when a human being is killed? It means that someone unique and irreplaceable is destroyed, without anyone who can ever substitute for what she was in herself, and what he was to others. That’s why we call killing innocent human beings murder. It’s not the same as breaking a desk you use, or losing the pen you were writing with, for you can always get a new desk or buy a new pen; but if my eldest brother were killed, who can ever be himself to me again, and who can ever be himself to himself? It is a crime, against someone, not merely something, with a life and consciousness that is his own; against those who loved him and valued him as himself; and against the whole universe, every moment of which since creation led to the life of this one person, to her experiences and her loves. That is why, even without reference to “religious texts”, as you called them, we believe that every human life is precious and, in itself, an ultimate value, by which we mean that it cannot be equated with any other interest in such as a way that this interest would cancel out the value of human life.
Moreover, to kill a human being is to destroy all possibilities, especially to herself as a free and thinking person. Choice, the freedom to determine what to do and what to make of oneself, is only one of these possibilities. I mentioned this because you said that at the heart of your pro-choice ideology “is accepting that other people have the right to choose whether you think their choice is right or not.” I’m wondering if you will take that principle, standing alone, to its logical conclusion, for what would happen if everyone chose what they wanted without any limit and without being subject in any way to the opinion of everyone else? Under your principle, a man who wants to rape a woman, despite her own refusal to have sex with him, cannot be punished by laws imposed by some legislators, since they have to respect his right to choose even if they think his choice is wrong; and a man who chooses to shoot someone else to take his money cannot be stopped by someone else, since he is exercising his freedom. I think even you would recoil from such a conclusion, and that you would agree that choice would have to be limited in some way. “Live and let live” may mean respect, but it doesn’t mean unbridled license: it doesn’t mean “live and let rob”, “live and let rape”, and certainly not “live and let kill”.
One of these limits to choose, then, is the duty not to take the lives of others. Like you, we Catholic moralists affirm the dignity of human freedom and believe that it must be protected[vi], but we believe the right to life to life is superior to the right to choose, for would the right to choose even be possible if everyone were dead? Would someone have the right to choose after that person is killed? Isn’t it clear that the value of human life is prior and superior to human freedom, considering that life can exist without freedom, but no one can be free without life? For, surely, something that can exist without something else, and without which that something else would be impossible, is more basic, more important, and deserving of a greater degree of respect and protection. Hence, we believe that choice-the choice to be pregnant, the choice to engage in sexual relations-is superseded in importance by the duty to respect human life, and by the rule that no one can kill a living, innocent human being in cold blood[vii].
We affirm the freedom of every person, particularly the woman, to decide whether to have a child or not. However, the moment a human being is already alive, the choice that may be exercised cannot extend to killing him/her. This means that choice will have to be exercised before the human being is already there, which we believe, for reasons I will explain, happens at the moment of fertilization; that is, at the sexual act. We all recognize and protect the freedom to choose who to have sexual acts with (though such acts should be done within a covenanted marriage), which is why we all believe that rape should be punished. Moreover, you said that sex is an act of love, bonding, and joy, which contributes to emotional development and life experience, and not merely a procreative act. That is true of marital love, as, indeed, many Popes have affirmed[viii]; but the fact that it is not merely procreative does not remove the fact that it is procreative, and that it leads to the conception and transmission of life[ix]. Sex has procreative consequences, and a human being-who, whether a woman or a man, is not an animal under the control of instincts, but a thinking and free person-should consider them when deciding to enter into a sexual act.
This is not the place to discuss contraception; but what you perhaps want is for thinking and free persons to escape the consequences of their choices, despite the fact that those consequences are an indelible part of our choice, and that the very essence of human responsibility is to be subject to the consequences of what we do. Would you allow someone to break a promise to you, or a contract to fix your home, or to do the fixing without considering the structure of the home, or its functions, simply because he says “my work, my choice”? After all, no one can make anyone give a promise or sign a contract-it is a private and very personal act. And even if someone would be allowed to escape the consequences, should that escape include killing a human being? May anyone ever say: “I’m sorry, I made a mistake; I have to kill you now”?
There is one problem to this argument, you might say, and that is the situation of those who are pregnant because they were raped. You will note that less than 5% of all abortions are actually done by rape victims, and most are done for reasons of personal convenience-you yourself only mentioned intangibles like career, liberation, and dreams. No one will deny that rape is a horrific violation of a person’s dignity and freedom, and of a person’s right to decide who to have sexual relations with, which is why the rapist is always severely punished. However, only the offender should be punished, and not the victim or the child. Why then should the victim keep the child alive? To begin with, no person should be executed because of the act of another. Moreover, the mother’s responsibility to keep the baby alive is not a punishment of the rape, but the consequence of the presence of a helpless human being that only she can save[x]. If a person sees a bleeding adult stabbed by someone else or a 2-month old baby inside a deserted building that’s about to collapse, and she can’t run away, and there’s no one else who can save her, can he simply leave the bleeding adult or the infant in the building to die, because he says “I didn’t put her there”, or because he has dreams, a career, or freedom he wants to have, or because “it’s my choice”?
b. Human Life
The problem, as you said, is deciding who is a living human being. You denied that an unborn should be protected as someone alive, and one ground you pointed out was that there is no agreement on the subject or, for that matter, on what exactly constitutes life. I don’t think this is a valid argument, for the mere fact that people can’t agree on the right answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. If a group of 2nd graders can’t agree on what is 20 x 20, does it mean it can be anything, and not just 400? If a group of people can’t decide if someone from a religious minority is human and shouldn’t be killed, does it mean that any of them can treat that person any way he wants, since there isn’t any agreement on whether he’s human anyway[xi]? A lot of people used to think that women were only half-human, that the moon was filled with trees, and that disasters are caused by goddesses spinning threads, but this doesn’t mean that there are no right answers, since women really are fully human, the moon is barren, and there are no goddesses spinning threads except in poetry (I think).
In your letter, you also mentioned that, before the end of the direct physical dependency between mother and child, no one can be sure if life is already there, or as you asked: “who’s to say?” Please note that direct physical dependence is your standard, and not mine, nor of the group of people who call themselves pro-life, so, on your own premise of “choice”, you can’t impose that standard on us, and you can’t stop us if we choose to stop abortions and lobby for laws against it. Besides, your choice of standard is arbitrary, since anyone could choose any kind of physical change and say that “before that, we can’t be sure if the being is alive.” There are also the moment of fertilization, when the child is made who is genetically different from those of the mother and father; the moment when an unborn first has brain-waves; the moment of quickening[xii] or of viability[xiii]; the beginning of adolescence; and the first sexual act (if any). Why not choose these instead of “direct physical dependency”?
You also said that life “is a tricky thing, often defined only by our culture and personal opinion… Can anyone be right where the definition is a social construct?” Again, I don’t think that’s valid: The mere fact that some definition is a social construct, or is affected by our culture and opinion, doesn’t mean no one can be right about it. You mentioned a woman’s right to choose, and your opinion that reproductive freedom “is vital to the liberation of women”, but aren’t these social constructs as well? If you look around you, you would see this tree in the garden, this man Mike, this woman Solita, and you would hear this song by the Beatles, but there is no “right” or “choice” anywhere, nor a “liberation” you can see, nor anything that is “the woman.” For that matter, there is no “freedom” either. All of these are social constructs; but does it mean that you can’t be right at all when you defend them? Does it mean that if someone says “the woman” has no “rights”, he can’t be wrong, since these words and concepts are social constructs anyway? If you say yes, then what can you say to the billion-dollar company that treats its employees like cattle, since “human” and “being” are social constructs anyway? For that matter, an individual’s free choice is also subjective, and it is a merely individual construct that also can’t bind us, so, on your premises, why should we live and let live?
Therefore, a “construct”, whether social or individual, can be right or wrong. The only question is what the basis for this judgment would be. Would it be your opinion, my opinion, or the opinion of the majority in society? Would it be a minority, like lawyers sitting in the Supreme Court, or those ever-honest people we elect to Congress? Their opinions would be subjective, and if they’re subjective, then they would be social constructs, which brings us back to the square one. Let’s go back to what we all have in common, the world in which we live, the “objective” that corresponds to you call “subjective”. In that world, there is a sun and moon and stars; we are conceived and we die; there are, in short, “objective conditions” that are not merely social constructs but are the basis for our constructs; and if they are still constructs, they are universal in character, since everyone in the world experiences them.
In that common or “objective” reality, what differentiates the living from the non-living is the capacity for internal chemical processes regulated by, among others, their genetic code [xiv]; and what distinguishes the individuals we call “human” is their having a common kind of genetic code sequence[xv], which is the basis for phenotypical traits–that is, what characteristics appear. Hence, the DNA of human beings is different in kind from those of plants, though it is closer to those of chimpanzees; and the DNA of a human embryo after fertilization is genotypically human in kind, and different from the DNA of his/her mother[xvi]. Doesn’t this mean, then, that the human embryo is a human being who cannot be treated as though he/she were just another part of the mother’s body? Also, the process of development from embryo to old age is biochemically and structurally continuous and contains no sudden breaks[xvii]. Hence, it is the same being, human and unique, who is in the womb, who becomes a teenager, and who starts to feel arthritis; and if we give him as adult the protection of not being killed, then why shouldn’t we give the same protection to him as unborn, when the adult and unborn are one person?
Even if we assume that the humanity and life of the unborn is still uncertain, it is a different matter entirely to say that the unborn can therefore be killed. Killing is final; it is the total destruction of possibilities, of choice, of someone unique and irreplaceable; it is irrevocable; and, considering the importance of the value involved, it should not be undertaken unless we are certain that no human being would be killed[xviii]. Put another way, if I weren’t sure if a building has a child in it, does it mean I can blow it up? And if I do, and I discover there was a child inside, can I bring her back to life? Uncertainty is a poor excuse for killing someone. Besides, these “theoretical rights” are not merely theoretical, nor possessed by a mere “cluster of cells”, for, as found by the eminent pro-choice thinker Daniel Callahan:
“the genetic evidence…appear to rule out a treatment of zygotes, much less the more developed stages of the conceptus, as mere pieces of ‘tissue’, of no human significance or value. The ‘tissue’ theory… can only be made plausible by a systematic disregard of the biological evidence.”[xix]
Hence, there are many physical and scientifically verifiable facts that prove the humanity of the unborn and militate against killing him/her-the humanity of his DNA; her uniqueness relative to everyone else, including the mother, “a uniqueness of a different kind from that of the uniqueness of a sperm or ova”[xx]; the continuity of human development from conception to age; even the natural impulse, shared by most societies, to care for the unborn and for pregnant women-and that show at least the probability that the unborn is human. Should we ignore these physical evidences, and insist nonetheless on the right to choose, which is a mere social construct, when it actually means the right to kill?
That summarizes the reasons why we are pro-life, which reasons, you will note, are by no means dependent on any “religious text” you might object to. However, since we are Catholics, our beliefs give us additional reasons to condemn abortion and work against the license to commit abortion: the fact that every human being is made in the image of God[xxi], with a life given by the Almighty as a sharing in God’s own life[xxii]; the fact that he/she is not merely an earthly person but a being called to an everlasting destiny, and who was so loved by God that God the Son became man and died so that he/she may have this destiny[xxiii]; the fact that God considers even the unborn to be human beings deserving of recognition and love; and the fact that God therefore forbade killing of human beings other than in strictly defined exceptions that do not include killing the unborn. I know you don’t believe these things, but you, too, must respect our right to believe them and our reasons for applying them to “modern” questions-for if there is, indeed, an eternal God, then God cannot be limited to the “ancient” or the “modern”, and what the Almighty reveals cannot become invalid because of the passing of time; and if our destiny is eternal rather than merely earthly, then what God says about that destiny matters wherever and whenever we may live.
I hope that sufficiently explains the pro-life position, and why we condemn abortion and oppose laws and decisions that allow it. Thank you for reading and maybe considering them, and, always, God bless you.
[iv] See Pope Paul VI, Encyclical on the Regulation of Births “Humanae Vitae” , no. 9, in Flannery II.
[vi] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World “Gaudium et Spes”, no. 17.
[xii] See Justice Harry Blackmun, Roe v. Wade, lead op. in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia. Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 481.
[xiii] See Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, et al., Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia. Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 484.
[xiv] David Baltimore, et al. Molecular Cell Biology. (New York: Scientific American, 1995), p. 9-10; Frank Brescia, et al. Fundamentals of Chemistry. (New York: Academic Press, 1983), p. 644-648
[xv] Hence the Human Genome Project, in David Baltimore, et al. Molecular Cell Biology. (New York: Scientific American, 1995), p. 12.
[xvi] See Daniel Callahan, “Abortion Decisions: Personal Morality”, in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia. Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 476, 477; Declaration on Procured Abortion, no. 13.
[xvii] See the alternative formulation in Daniel Callahan, “Abortion Decisions: Personal Morality”, in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia. Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 476.
[xix] Daniel Callahan, “Abortion Decisions: Personal Morality”, in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia. Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 476.
[xx] Daniel Callahan, “Abortion Decisions: Personal Morality”, in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia. Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 476.
*First posted on our apologetics blog Exultate! ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.