The First of Rights: Catholic Social Teaching on Abortion

The following first appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Marian Helper magazine. Order a free copy.

I became a committed pro-lifer in a matter of minutes.

I knew the Church forbade abortion. I knew abortion was a hugely emotional, enormously controversial topic. But one day, walking through the halls of my high school in Oregon, I thought that I should give it some consideration and figure out whether I agreed with the Church. After all, I'd been raised to think for myself - why not see where my reason led me on one of the most controversial issues of our time?

So I thought about it. Within a minute or two, I realized I was done thinking. Here's my train of thought:

• I wouldn't support the killing of an infant, even if its parents faced economic hardship or other challenges that made caring for it difficult or impossible.
• I can't think of any significant difference between the child in the womb and the child outside of the womb - no substantive difference between the 6-week-old in the womb and the 6-week-old outside the womb.
• So I wouldn't support the killing of the unborn child, either.

I couldn't see any other significant information to take into account.

I've been pro-life ever since.

Reason and Revelation
That's a quick and easy walk through the fundamental argument against abortion using natural reason and basic morality.

The Church teaches, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth - in a word, to know himself - so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves" (St. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason], 1).

So much of the Church's moral teaching (and her social teaching more specifically) is grounded in the natural law - that is, the morality written into the created order by the Creator Himself, a morality that rational people can discern simply by using their intellects rightly (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1952, 1954-1960).

In other words, a good portion of Christian (and Jewish) morality can be proven by reason. You don't have to have faith in order to perceive the natural law, though the light of faith certainly helps.

This is incredibly important when we're discussing abortion. A lot of Americans are pro-choice because they have the misguided conviction that opposing abortion is solely a matter of applying religious teachings to a secular issue: the issue of women's health and their choice of what to do with their bodies, made in consultation with their doctors. Hence the famous pro-choice slogan, "Keep your Rosaries off my ovaries!"

But that misses the mark. Abortion is wrong, not merely because the Church says so, but because the natural law, knowable by human reason alone, says so.

Here's an outline of a natural law argument against abortion:

• Life begins at conception, according to modern embryology and common sense. After all, if the embryo isn't alive, there's no point in talking about having an abortion at all!
• From the moment of conception on, the living cells of the new individual in the woman's womb bear unique, complete DNA - human DNA.
• Therefore, a human life begins at the moment of conception.
• And every human being is a person, by our very nature. Even a human life temporarily lacking consciousness and self-awareness (such as a person in a coma) is still a personal being with an inherent capacity for developing or recovering all the proper expressions of personhood.
• Every innocent human person has a clear right to life, a right not to be killed by other human beings. This right is recognized by the founders of our country in the Declaration of Independence.
• By the simple use of human reason, then, discerning the natural law (a philosophical reality undergirding one of the founding documents of the United States), we can discern that every human being has been endowed by God with inalienable rights, starting with the right to life. And the purpose of government is to secure, defend, and preserve those rights.
• Therefore, the right of the unborn to life should be reflected in the laws of the land, and abortion should be illegal.

The Light of Faith
The teaching of the Church confirms and reinforces that human beings have an intrinsic right to life and that abortion is wrong.

The Church has forbidden abortion since the earliest days of her existence (see below).

What's less commonly known or understood is why. Why would the Catholic Church make the defense of the unborn such a central part of her witness? Why this issue above all others? Why, given the tidal wave of feminism and the sexual revolution washing over the world and changing civilization from the ground up, does the Church stake out such a contested idea on which to take her stand?

The answer is because the right to life is the foundational right, the first right before all other rights. Unless that human right is protected and respected by society, no other human rights are secure. After all, corpses cannot participate in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the dignity of the unborn, the most vulnerable and voiceless among us, is not protected, then all human dignity is up for grabs. On this fight, then, stands or falls our civilization's understanding of humanity's place in the cosmos as children of a loving God, as individual persons with dignity and worth that doesn't depend on how much we make, what we produce, or our social status.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

Unfortunately, it's not so easy for many people to see the truth of the pro-life position. There are many reasons for that moral myopia. Many times, the reason is that they or someone close to them has had an abortion. Sometimes, it's because they feel solidarity with women in difficult situations - an abusive boyfriend, partner, or husband. There is no money; no marriage; a baby now would make college difficult or impossible; and so on. Pro-choice people look at those difficulties and want to support the person whom they perceive as the underdog.

Meanwhile, they ignore the well-documented and negative medical and psychological costs to women who have abortions. If you really wish to come to the aid of a pregnant friend or relative who is not ready to be a parent, guide her toward putting her child up for adoption.

How to Turn the Tide?
It will largely fall to women, the group that the pro-choice movement thinks it's helping, to help overturn the culture of death and inaugurate a culture of life.

Men must stand as staunch defenders of life, but women must take the lead in this. After all, women can speak with a unique and powerful credibility about both the rights of women and the rights of the unborn, about the responsibilities of parents and the blessings of bearing children, even unplanned children, even in difficult or seemingly impossible circumstances.

The culture of life will be inaugurated by women following in the footsteps of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Unborn, bearer of a Son whose conception took place during her engagement. Bear in mind Mary's choice to bear the Christ Child was a risk to her own life. After all, Joseph was not the biological father, and she could have been accused of adultery, punishable by stoning.

The culture of life will be inaugurated by women like St. Gianna Beretta Molla, whose heroic choice to forego necessary medical treatment that would kill the child in her womb meant she offered her own life, instead.
The culture of life will be inaugurated by women like Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-life advocate when she had to assist at an abortion and saw on the ultrasound the child being killed.

The culture of death will be turned back by women, led by the Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, with men serving them as Christ serves Mother Church.

The right to life is the first of all rights. It's the only choice we can all live with.

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What the Church Believes
"[Y]ou shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten" - Didache (The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations), first or second century, Ch. 2.

"[T]he direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children" - Pope St. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth), 14.

"The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being's right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death [CDF, Donum vitae III]" (Catechism, 2273).

Chris Sparks is the author of the book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question (Marian Press).