omnibus omnia

Why we are not “pro-choice” (part 1 of 2)

In Abortion, Catholicism, Christianity, Conservative, Culture War, Debate, Ethics, God, Health, Human Rights, Opinion, Philosophy, Politics, Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, Religion, Theology, Values on January 13, 2008 at 23:05

Abortion is not a free-for-all where one can make any choice… it involves the rights of different human beings, one of whom, the unborn, will certainly be killed by abortion…

Dear ____,

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.

A Matter of Choice

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?

In other words, 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?

To take a hard-case example, 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, then, 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–and this is a fundamental consideration–, only the offender should be punished, and not the victim or the child.

Why then, you ask, 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”?

(Continued in Part 2, which discusses whether the fetus/unborn bears a human life. The 2 parts of “Why abortion is wrong” were previously posted together as “Letter to a Pro-Choice Activist”. Apologies to all, since I don’t yet have time to write an actually new post.)

[i] See Declaration on Procured Abortion, no. 14.

[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2275.

[iii] See Declaration on Procured Abortion, no. 8.

[iv] See Pope Paul VI, Encyclical on the Regulation of Births “Humanae Vitae” , no. 9, in Flannery II.

[v] See Declaration on Procured Abortion, nos. 11-12.

[vi] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World “Gaudium et Spes”, no. 17.

[vii] See Declaration on Procured Abortion, nos. 14-16.

[viii] See, for instance, Humanae Vitae, no. 9

[ix] Humanae Vitae, no. 9.

[x] See Pope John Paul II, “Evangelium Vitae“. Excerpts are also in Thomas Mappes and David DeGrazia, Biomedical Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 455.

  1. freewill can never be dictated … abortions, right, wrong, or indifferent – have been going on as long as there have been females …

    i do not believe you can morally dictate a blanket law against all abortions – since it does not alleviate the terrible extremes that can happen to females or pregnancies

  2. C.L. Mareydt, thank you for the comment. In reply, while I agree that abortions have gone on since time immemorial, I don’t think the mere fact that something happens justifies it. The argument you propose could also be used in favor of wife-beating, rape, etc., which are all morally reprehensible.

    As for the “blanket law” against abortions, please note that I’ve left out a discussion on “therapeutic” abortions, whose careful nuances require a separate discussion. For the moment, though, let me say that the primary problem is not with the medically unavoidable use of drugs for, say, eclampsia, even if, as a side-effect, they might cause the expulsion of the preborn. Rather, our concern is with termination of pregnancy due to “status” considerations like money and position, which are difficult to justify against the human life of the preb0rn, even if it’s only “possible” or “potential”.

  3. Well, truth is that no matter if it is legal or not, there will be abortions all over the world. Its like drugs or prostitution, you can forbid them, but you will not get rid of them. So, knowing this, it is better that the unavoidable abortion occurs in a hospital with a decent staff, rather than in some back alley.

  4. Farthel, thank you for the comment. In response, I disagree with the argument you propounded for 2 reasons. 1st, the mere fact that something is done frequently, even despite the law, is not an argument for allowing it. Murder, election fraud, and drunk driving all happen despite laws against them, but we may not advocate permitting them simply because the laws “don’t work”.

    2nd, abortion is qualitatively different from drug abuse and prostitution. These are”victimless” crimes involving (hopefully) consenting adults, while abortion involves the probability that someone may be dying as a result. In any case, the degradation of women’s dignity that results from prostitution means that, even if States don’t ban it, they should still work to remove its social causes and not promote it as an acceptable alternative.

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