During the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the mid-1950s, a reporter asked civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall, “Do you think all Negroes should boycott the buses?” Marshall replied, “Oh, by no means. I think all freedom-loving Americans should boycott the buses.”
Marshall was able to highlight the fact that opposition to racial segregation was not merely a “black issue,” but rather an issue that all just and reasonable people should support, regardless of their race. In a similar vein, when someone asks me if I think all Catholics should oppose legal abortion, I reply, “Oh, by no means. I think all reasonable people should oppose legal abortion.”
Unfortunately, there are many people who call themselves Catholic and yet believe, for one reason or another, they can be “pro-choice,” or support legal abortion, without compromising their Catholic Faith. When I say someone is “pro-choice,” I don’t mean only that he has voted for a political candidate who happens to support keeping abortion legal. I mean that person is committed to the idea that legal abortion is necessary and that he votes for laws and politicians with the intention of keeping abortion legal.
I contend that Catholics cannot support legal abortion for two reasons. First, Catholics are reasonable people, and the most reasonable position on abortion is to outlaw it. Second, Catholics are guided by faith, and our faith clearly teaches that abortion is a serious evil that must be stopped.
Although the many reasons that motivate women to choose abortion—such as poverty and lack of familial support—are important to address at a social level, morally, the issue of abortion comes down to one question: “what are the unborn?” If the unborn are not human beings, then abortion is harmless surgery. But if the unborn are growing, they must be alive.
The standard medical text Human Embryology and Teratology states, “Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization [also called conception] is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed” (p. 8).
If the unborn are human beings who have the same intrinsic value you and I possess, then abortion cannot be tolerated. It is true that an unborn child is smaller, less developed, and more dependent on another (his mother) than we, but a newborn infant also differs from us in these ways. None of these differences justifies killing either newborn infants or unborn children. (For a more in-depth treatment of this argument, see our article “Forty Years Is Long Enough.”)
Along with reason, revelation tells us that abortion is wrong. While the Bible does not explicitly mention abortion, it does describe how human life exists in the womb (Gen. 25:21; Luke 1:41) and that it is wrong to kill an innocent human (Exod. 23:7; Prov. 6:16-17). A first-century document called the Didache states, “You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (2:1-2). By 314, the ecclesial Council of Ancyra thought it was being “lenient” in reducing a woman’s penance for procuring an abortion to ten years of fasting (can. 21).
Some pro-choice advocates claim that the Church’s teaching on abortion has changed because some theologians, such as St. Augustine, speculated that human beings might receive their souls several months after conception. In the first place, those Church Fathers who believed that ensoulment occurs after conception never endorsed the view that abortion is moral. Second, they operated under the mistaken view of human development espoused by the philosopher Aristotle. He thought that unborn children progress through vegetable and animal stages of life before their bodies were “animated” with a rational soul and that they become human beings later in pregnancy.
Other early Church writers like Tertullian made it clear that it does not matter “whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197]). Tertullian believed that “the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does” (The Soul, 27).
Early Christians agreed that it is a grave evil to kill the developing human life in the womb, regardless of whether or not God “formed” it with a soul. This is powerfully articulated by St. Basil the Great, who said in the fourth century, “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed” (First Canonical Letter, can. II ).
Today we know that a biological human organism is not “formed” like a clay model, but possesses a human genetic code. This makes an unborn child a developing human being whose life begins at conception and therefore deserves respect and protection under the law.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (2271).
When he ran for president in 2004, Massachusetts senator John Kerry said, “I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist.” The standard line for pro-choice Catholics is that abortion is wrong for them because the Church forbids it, but they cannot in good conscience impose their faith upon unwilling non-Catholics by making abortion illegal. By this reasoning, a Catholic can be pro-choice and allow other people to choose abortion while he remains personally opposed to the practice.
Now, it is true that the state cannot, in the words of the Second Vatican Council’s document Dignitatis Humanae, “impose upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion,” but this is irrelevant to the issue of legal abortion.
For example, a Catholic politician could not force his constituents to accept his views on racial equality that spring from his faith, but he could use the law to stop some of them from committing racist acts of violence such as lynchings. That is because his faith coincides with the commonsense view that human beings have a right to life regardless of their race, age, or level of development.
In fact, the Catholic faith does not only demand that politicians be not merely “pro-choice” about lynchings and work to stop their “underlying causes”; it demands they protect the innocent victims of lynching as well as victims of other acts of violence by making such acts illegal. Pope John Paul II said, “A law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law. For this reason I urgently appeal once more to all political leaders not to pass laws which, by disregarding the dignity of the person, undermine the very fabric of society” (Evangelium Vitae 90).
The mere fact that a law—whether it is a ban on lynching or a ban on abortion—happens to align with a widely held religious belief does not mean that such a law is unconstitutional. According to pro-choice Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, “the participation of religious groups in political dialogue has never been constitutional anathema in the United States. . . . The theological source of beliefs about the point at which human life begins should not cast a constitutional shadow across whatever laws a state might adopt to restrict abortions that occur beyond that point.”
As long as non-religious evidence can be provided from the science of biology to show that the unborn are human organisms, there is no political problem in advancing laws to protect those humans from being unjustly killed.
Some people claim that everyone should be free to answer for himself the question of when life begins and that it should not be legislated. Although this approach sounds both fair and practical, in reality, it is neither. Upholding the right for individuals to define when life begins would lead to morally heinous consequences. Should the state allow some indigenous tribes or secular philosophy professors who believe that newborn infants are not persons to practice infanticide in accordance with their beliefs? In Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court held that religious freedom is not absolute if it undermines the common good. Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote in the Court’s unanimous opinion:
Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Under such circumstances, government could exist only in name.
The Supreme Court also ruled in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) that a child’s right to life and good health supersedes his parents’ right to practice their religion. The Court said, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” Pro-life advocates simply believe that the principle of protecting born children from the dangerous religious beliefs of their parents should also be applied to their unborn brothers and sisters in order to protect them from the dangerous belief of some of their parents that they are not a person until birth.
Finally, the state is clearly not neutral to the question of when life begins, having accepted “birth” as the correct answer (which is why infanticide is illegal—for now). Pro-life advocates maintain that the state should endorse an answer to the question of when life begins that is backed by science and common sense and not one that is backed by convenience or a desire to keep abortion legal.
Catholics for Choice is an organization started in 1973 by former nun Frances Kissling that is, according to its website, “the most effective counterpoint to the vocal, well-financed and powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy.” CFC has long engaged in dissident activities that publicize the contempt its supporters have for the Magisterium. These activities include crowning the group’s female president “pope” at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as unsuccessfully trying to have Vatican City (which is the smallest country in the world) stripped of its position as a permanent observer at the United Nations.
CFC uses a variety of arguments to advance the idea that one can be a faithful Catholic and support legal abortion. For example, it claims that in the 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion,” the Vatican “acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person.” It highlighted this quote from the document: “there is not a unanimous tradition on this point [the exact moment of ensoulment] and authors are as yet in disagreement.”
This quote comes from a footnote in a section of the declaration that both affirms the humanity of the unborn child from conception and condemns any discrimination against human beings, regardless of their level of development. The document says the humanity of the unborn child from conception has been “confirmed by modern genetic science,” and this fact is true apart from any discussion about when a human embryo receives an immortal soul.
It is true that there is disagreement among Christian theologians on exactly which moment during the process of conception an embryo receives a soul. But there is also no way to prove empirically that a newborn infant, or anyone, for that matter, has an immortal soul, and so this argument from agnosticism proves too much and would justify killing humans at any stage of life.
The footnote goes on to say that a human life is still present in the womb, and this fact justifies prohibiting abortion. It also says that if we are unsure about the status of an embryo, then we should not risk killing a person whose existence in the womb is at least “probable” (just as we would not shoot a figure in the woods who is “probably” a hunter and not a deer).
Catholics for Choice promotes the idea that an individual’s conscience is the sole and final authority in moral issues. It writes, “The teaching on the primacy of conscience means that every individual must follow his or her own conscience—and respect the rights of others to do the same.” But the idea of a supreme and infallible individual conscience is illogical. For example, my conscience informs me that abortion is tantamount to murder, and it should be made illegal. Should I follow my conscience and work to outlaw abortion? If CFC says I should not do that because that interferes with other people’s consciences, then CFC is wrong about conscience being the sole or final arbiter of truth.
Rather than being the final authority, conscience is like a compass that guides people in unfamiliar situations towards the true “moral” north. But just as a faulty compass will lead people astray, a faulty or ill formed conscience will lead people into error. The Catechism states that although we “must always obey the certain judgment of [our] conscience,” it’s possible our conscience can make an “erroneous judgment” due to ignorance or even blindness caused by sin (1790-1791).
CFC also asserts that because the immorality of abortion has not been infallibly defined by the pope, it is a teaching that Catholics are not bound to follow. Like many of CFC’s arguments, this is a half-truth that cleverly camouflages a clear falsehood. It is true that no pope has infallibly declared abortion to be morally wrong, but Catholics are obligated to obey not just the special infallibility present in the pope’s ex cathedra declarations. They are also obligated to obey teachings that are infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II issued an authoritative statement that stops just short of ex cathedra infallibility but still reaffirms the infallible, binding elements that were always present in the Church’s teaching on abortion:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops—who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine—I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (62).
It’s important to know that even if the pope were to infallibly declare abortion to be wrong, CFC would not accept this. In the March-April 1989 edition of CFC’s magazine Conscience, Rosemary Radford Ruether says that if the pope were to infallibly define the Church’s prohibition on contraception, it “would have the immediate effect of focusing Catholic dissent on the doctrine of infallibility itself. . . . A storm of dissent, and even ridicule, directed at infallibility itself would ensue from such a declaration.” So rather than obey Church teaching, dissenters like CFC would simply reject whatever Church teaching they don’t agree with.
A more sophisticated Catholic defense of abortion, which provides the academic muscle behind CFC’s sound bites, is found in a book by Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete, A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion. The authors claim it is the possession of a complex brain that can receive an immortal soul that makes something a person, as opposed to a mere animal, and fetuses lack this characteristic.
But if Dombrowski and Deltete are right, then why should we believe that newborn infants have souls? After all, a newborn’s brain, like an early fetus’s brain, is not complex enough to engage in rational thought. In fact, the newborn’s brain is hardly more complex than a cow’s brain. If that is the case, then why not treat infants like cattle?
Dombrowski and Deltete anticipate this objection and claim that infants do not have any biological traits that warrant granting them a right to life. However, they claim that this fact should motivate us not toward the approval of infanticide, but the “Franciscan protection of the lives of animals. [Born infants] are actually sentient and it is a fundamental moral axiom that no being that can experience pain or suffering ought to be forced to experience pain or suffering gratuitously” (73).
This leads Dombrowski and Deltete to a dilemma, because with anesthesia, we can kill newborns painlessly. If it is not wrong to euthanize animals like cats, then it would not be wrong to euthanize infants who have brains as complex as a cat’s. If it is wrong to euthanize infants, then veterinarians around the country should be rounded up and put on trial for euthanizing animals with brains that are similar to newborns’.
Since I doubt Dombrowski and Deltete would accept either alternative, it seems that their argument defending abortion without conceding infanticide fails. The only logical explanation for why adults and infants equally possess a right to life is that both belong to a rational kind, or the human species. Of course, all unborn children belong to the human species, and this would justify granting them the right to life and consequently prohibiting abortion.
So how should we respond to family and friends who claim that there is no contradiction in being Catholic and supporting legal abortion? First, agree with them that Catholics should not unnecessarily impose some requirement of our faith onto other people, such as the requirement to attend Sunday Mass. But then ask them if it is okay to impose some aspects of our faith onto other people, such as the commandment “thou shall not kill.”
Now your conversation is focused on the question “can we know abortion is wrong from reason alone, just like how we know from reason alone that child abuse is wrong?” Show them the visual and scientific evidence that unborn children are simply small human beings and ask, “If abortion is like child abuse, then why not pass laws that prohibit abortion?”
Finally, if you sense that a past abortion experience is motivating the person to support legal abortion, gently encourage the person to speak with a Catholic post-abortion counselor and to seek the sacrament of reconciliation. This person might be “pro-choice” in order to justify past actions and mitigate feelings of guilt. Let the person know that pro-life advocates believe that all human beings have value and deserve to be treated with dignity. This includes not just unborn children, but also their mothers and fathers. Offer this person hope and friendship because, in the words of Pope John Paul II, past experience with abortion and ability to repent and trust in God can make one “among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life.”