What is abortion?
The answer to this question, until the early 1970s, was very simple. Abortion meant killing an unborn child, killing a human being whose peculiar weakness consisted in its inability to survive outside its mother's womb. And there were two moral evaluations of this action:
(I) that it was a justifiable homicide - in certain cases. This was the position of many non-Catholics, although certainly not of all;
(2) that it was an unjustifiable homicide, that is, that it was always murder, and therefore could never be licit. This was the Catholic position, shared by the Greek Orthodox Church and by many other religious and nonreligious people.
The reasoning behind the first position - justifiable homicide - was simple: that in the extreme case (the only one contemplated) of conflict between the life of the mother and the life of the child, the mother's life is more valuable, and the child's life should be sacrificed so that the mother can survive. The extreme case would be a pregnancy such that, if allowed to come to term, the mother - and perhaps the child too - would die.
What is one to think of this position? Two things: first, one can easily accept that it was inspired by a sincere humanitarian feeling; second, that the principles on which it was based - that one human life is worth more than another, and that one can kill an innocent person in order to save another - opened the door inevitably to the position on abortion that has rapidly become generalized today: the "abortion on demand," position, with no more justification than the fact that the mother - or perhaps the State - wants it.
As regards the Catholic position, it is enough to say for the moment that it is based on the clear principle that every human being receives his life directly from God, and only God can take that life away, unless a person fortifies his right to life by a voluntary criminal aggression. It is not possible to imagine a more innocent person than an unborn child; therefore, one cannot directly kill the child for any reason whatsoever.
Such was the situation as regards abortion not very many years ago - overall, a situation where it was easy to indicate and describe the points of agreement and the points of disagreement. There was agreement between both sides as to the nature of abortion: that it meant killing a child, that it was homicide, that the being in the mother's womb was a human being. And there was disagreement as to the licitness of this homicide: for some it was always illicit; for others it was, in certain grave cases, justifiable and licit. It is worth adding that even in the countries where this latter viewpoint prevailed and the civil law recognized the legality of abortion in such extreme cases, the same legislation forbade and punished abortions performed in the absence of such exceptional circumstances.
The position today
Now, if we examine the present-day situation, it so happens that to this question - What is abortion? - we find not two but three answers:
(1) that it is a nonjustifiable homicide - this is the Catholic position, reaffirmed by Vatican Council II in the strongest terms, in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, where abortion is referred to as an "abominable crime" (no. 51);
(2) that it is a justifiable homicide in certain circumstances - the position of certain non-Catholics; and
(3) that it is not a homicide at all!
This third answer reflects the position with which I wish especially to deal, for it is the "pro-choice" ideological position - the new "moral" basis - by which they seek to justify what cannot be justified.
Reformulating the problem
Abortion, say the pro-choicers, is not a homicide at all, for a very simple reason: that what is killed is not a human being, that what is in the uterus is not human.
It is obvious that this supposition means a complete reformulation of the abortion problem: so complete in fact that if the supposition itself is accepted, the problem aspect of abortion practically disappears, and abortion becomes a matter - so it is suggested - devoid of any difficulties of a moral nature.
Why the reformulation?
Perhaps the first thing to do in relation to this new position is to ask why and how it should have arisen in such a few years. It is not difficult to find the answer
Everyone likes to feel humanitarian. The "liberals" of today's moral positivist school like not only to feel humanitarian but also to be able to proclaim themselves such.
The liberal humanitarian sense of non-Catholics of forty years ago found no excessive difficulty in accepting that the life of an unborn child should be sacrificed to save the life of a mother. The years have passed, and, with the years, two main factors have intervened. One is the fact that advances in medicine have practically eliminated the extreme case of having to choose between saving either the mother's life or the child's. Despite this - and here is the second factor - the demand for abortions has increased. There are many motives behind this increase. They include some "indications" of a more or less medical nature: the mother's poor health, the strain that a pregnancy imposes on her nerves, and so on. The main motive, however, is simply the growing birth-control mentality.
Despite their being wrapped up in apparently disinterested references to world population problems, the motives for abortion in one individual case after another - at least in the more developed countries - can almost always be reduced to an inability to look on the child with love. It is, after all, an incapacity to love that makes a couple think of their unborn baby as nothing more than a burden: the burden of the pregnancy and of the care the child will require after birth. It is this incapacity to love that makes a family dwell on the fact that, if the child is born, they will have to give up some material comfort. It is this incapacity to love that makes a mother not want to bear and give birth to the child she has conceived.
Turning the fetus into a "thing"
To kill a child in order to save the life of a mother was not repugnant to the humanitarian sense of some liberals. To kill a child in order to save the convenience of the mother - her reluctance to go through with an existing pregnancy - or to save the well-being of the other children or the financial position of the family: to accept this is to ask a lot of the humanitarian sense of anyone, however liberal he or she may be.
The solution has been found quite simply. So, it is too much to sacrifice a child's life for the sake of a mother's caprice, or a family's standard of living, or a society's welfare?.. Then, let it not be the life of a child that is sacrificed; let it be no more than the life of a fetus. Let us conclude, moreover (according to someone's happy theory), that the fetus is not human (let us conclude it, I say, because we certainly cannot prove it), and what we are left with, after all that, is neither homicide nor infanticide, but only feticide - which (let us be persuaded) is no more significant in the moral order than the killing of some microbes (also foreign and unwanted bodies) by means of an injection of antibiotics.
Here is the new moral view of the abortion question. We are going to have to face the objection (so they would seem to have reasoned) that abortion is homicide; and certainly, at least in the new cases we are interested in, it would be difficult to justify a homicide... Let us not waste time trying to justify it. Let us say, in all simplicity, that it is not a homicide, because what is aborted has not a human nature; it is therefore not a member of our human race, it is a thing. And because things possess no rights, the problem quite disappears.
What this view offers us is, so to speak, a two-stage abortion - a physical operation preceded by a metaphysical operation, a physical abortion with a metaphysical prerequisite: namely, that of suppressing the human identity of the living being in the womb. Once this metaphysical operation has been performed (a truly painless operation, provided one applies a little anesthesia to one's conscience), the surgical or pharmacological operation necessary to suppress what "remains" in the uterus offers no special difficulty, since this "remainder" - duly disenfranchised from among the race of man and deprived of its human status and rights - is not a human being; it is no more than a nonhuman thing.
Let us grasp this clearly. The essential argument of abortionists is not (except in two cases we will examine later on) that new indications or reasons for abortion have been discovered, new reasons of note that were hitherto unknown. Their argument is different, and it is important, I repeat, to grasp it. They are not mainly saying that there are more reasons than those formerly known, to justify killing what is in the womb. They are saying that what is in the womb has less importance than what was formerly believed; it has less value. It has no human value and possesses no human rights.
The Catholic argument
The whole of the Catholic argument - and I would maintain that, from whatever angle one may consider the matter it is the only truly rational, truly scientific, and truly humanitarian argument - is that the unborn child is already a human being and enjoys all the natural rights of every human being, among which the main right is the right to life; and moreover, that its particular situation as a defenseless human being confers on it the right to special protection in the prescriptions of the civil law.
It is interesting to recall that the United Nations, in plenary session in November 1959, unanimously approved a declaration of the rights of the child in the following terms: "The child, in virtue of its lack of physical and intellectual maturity, needs special protection and care, including adequate legal protection, both before and after birth." This declaration was renewed later on at the International Human Rights Conference, in Teheran, in May 1968.
Embryology gives supporting evidence
From the theological viewpoint, specifically human life begins with the infusion, by God, of the soul into the new embryonic organism. Although there has been no dogmatic declaration on this point, the Magisterium of the Church has crystallized in the clear teaching that the beginning of this personal human life should be computed from the moment of conception: the moment in which the ovum has been fertilized . This teaching is reflected in the relation between certain liturgical feasts - the Annunciation (March 25th) and Christmas; the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady (September 8th) - and is supported by the dispositions of Canon Law (see canon 871). Much more significant and interesting is the fact that this universal teaching of the Church is fully borne out by all the scientific advances in modern embryology. So true is this that one can affirm that, from a scientific viewpoint, the truth of the Catholic teaching on this point has been placed beyond all doubt. Modern embryological research has shown that the human being, organically speaking, is fully constituted by the fertilization of the ovum, and that everything that follows is simply the process of development of an already existing human organism, without it being possible to indicate any subsequent datum or fact on which one could reasonably base the supposed beginning of a personal human life.
The arbitrariness of the abortionist position
It is significant that abortionists or pro-choice people never speak of an unborn child. They rigorously use the term "embryo" or "fetus." If they are asked (a question not much to their liking) to define what is a fetus, they define it as "potential human life," speaking of it on occasion even as "potential life." And if they are obliged to pursue their pseudo-philosophical or pseudo-juridical line, they maintain that this potential life does not become real and actual human life - with its corresponding rights - until birth, or at least until the fetus is viable. This is pure arbitrariness. It is impossible to advance any rational or scientific principle or fact on which it can be based. It is simply the product of prejudice. Is anyone prepared seriously to maintain that what is born today is human, but that what was in the womb yesterday was not?. If one tries to make an argument out of viability, can one say that a newborn child is significantly more viable than a child still in his (or her) mother's womb? If anything, the child is definitely less viable. One has to put more care, and not less, in feeding him. One has to take greater precautions to make sure, for example, that he does not fall down the stairs, precautions that his mother guaranteed him far more effectively when he was still in the womb.
If human personality and human rights are not acquired until one is really viable, until one can get by and survive by oneself, it is doubtful that any child less than six or seven years old is really a human being.
I repeat: all the scientific arguments are against the position of the abortionists and in favor of the pro-life position. If someone wants a practical test of this, then let him simply ask a non-Catholic doctor who has performed an abortion whether what he has extracted from the womb is no more than a thing; or whether it is a living being. And if it is a living being, of what species is it? No - the abortionist position is not based on science or on reason; it is based on prejudices and interests, neither of which have anything very humanitarian about them.
The woman who aborts
As a priest, I have learned to distinguish between the sin and the sinner. I have also learned that although one can and at times one must judge actions and facts, it is difficult and risky to judge persons. Only God can do that properly. In a moment of temptation, a pregnant woman - who does not want to have her child and decides to abort - can have been swayed by countless factors: factors of personal formation, of influences coming from her environment, her relatives or friends, factors of loneliness, of fear, of nervous strain... We cannot judge the degree of blame that may rest on a woman in such a situation. Only God, I repeat, who takes everything into account, can judge this. We can however judge something else, or at least form a reliable opinion about it, namely, what will become of this woman, in human terms, according to whether or not she repents of what she has done.
Let us not fool ourselves. The woman who has procured an abortion knows that she has procured the death, the murder, of her own child, the fruit of her own womb. And she lives with a deep wound in her conscience. A permissive society may find no difficulty in forgiving her. The worst of it is that she will not be able to forgive herself, or to forget. And my experience is that in the exceptional cases where a woman does succeed in silencing her conscience, she does so at the cost of moral suicide: she destroys her very conscience and her sense of values, she de-feminizes and de-humanizes her self. Her maternal instinct, in particular, and her whole capacity for loving suffer enormous and irreparable damage.
The Church never wants to condemn persons. If she condemns sin, if she condemns wrong actions, it is in order to help people have clear ideas, to help them look into their conscience (which, if they have done wrong, will also accuse them), so that, by repenting, they can find pardon and peace. It is those who condone immoral actions who may be condemning a person to a terrible life of mental anguish.
Personalization and depersonalization
This consideration leads us to touch on another pseudo-argument of the abortionists, according to which the determination that the unborn child is a person should depend not on biological facts, nor even on time-factors (viability or birth), but on a psychological factor. Playing with concepts drawn from modern psychology - concepts that emphasize the importance of intersubjective relationships in the process of "personalization" - some have suggested that the unborn child cannot properly be regarded as a person before it has been accepted by its parents; if this acceptance is lacking - so the argument runs - it cannot be considered a person nor does it possess personal rights.
This argument runs into the same sort of trouble as the "viability" argument. It "proves" too much. On its basis, neither a one-year-old child nor a five-year-old child would be a person either, if its parents have not "accepted" it. Obviously it is before, and not after, begetting a child that the parents have to decide if they want it or not. Before, the child was a possibility, precisely no more than a potentiality. After, the child is a reality, and that reality is a person just as much as the one-day-old or the one-month-old baby.
It is a person, who therefore possesses a personality in the fullest human sense, a personality that makes him or her the subject of rights .
There is, of course, an ambiguity in the personalization argument. But it is an ambiguity that, when brought to light, rebounds back against the very proponents of the argument. Evidently, if one asks whether the unborn child has its own "personality" in the popular sense - in the sense of possessing a whole personal manner of being, of thinking and speaking and acting - the answer is No. In this sense the unborn child is not "personalized," nor is the one-day-old, nor the one-month-old child; just as, in this same sense, the three-year-old or the five-year-old child is only very slightly personalized.
Since "personalization" really means the process of the development of one's individual personality, this is evidently a process that takes years: all the years of one's life, in fact. Only with the years - with all that the years bring in terms of human experience: of generosity or selfishness, of virtues and sins, of learning to respect and love others or of failing to learn to love, of having faced up to one's responsibilities or of having rejected them - does a person develop his or her distinctive personality.
Self-realization for 'liberated" women?
The personalization argument - which has no application to the case of the unborn child (what personality can be developed by a person who is killed?) - does, however, apply precisely and very clearly to the case of the mother who aborts. For here one can ask, and largely foresee, what sort of personality is going to be developed by a person who kills.
Modern psychology insists that men and women "realize" or "fulfill" themselves above all in their relations with other people, and that one of the clearest proofs of the presence or absence of personality is the capacity or incapacity for establishing interpersonal relationships.
What personality is going to be developed by a woman who, before the most intimate interpersonal relationship imaginable - the relationship between her own person and the person of the child she has conceived; the (truly unique) relationship between her own body and the body of the child in her womb - rejects and destroys that relationship, killing her child and having its body consigned to a hospital incinerator?
Through what type of later relationships will a woman be able to "realize" herself if her reaction to this sacred mother-child relationship has been to extirpate her most intimate instincts of motherhood and pity from her heart, by extirpating her child from her body?.
It is sad to see pro-choice propaganda present abortion as a "right" of every woman, claiming this right precisely in the name of women's "liberation." It is sad propaganda that can only turn the women who use this "right" into sad and embittered women. Who is going to liberate them afterward from the awareness of what, in violation of their most intimate human instincts, they have done?
When the proposal to "liberalize" the abortion law was being debated in England, I recall seeing a television program that included interviews with a series of women who had each had a number of abortions. The interviewer's questions were evidently aimed at "proving" one point: that neither physically nor psychologically had they suffered any adverse effects from the abortions. What the women said, in answer, corroborated the thesis fully. However, I still retain a vivid memory of their hardened faces, their way of answering, their evident concern to justify themselves, their insistence that they had never been troubled by the least feeling of repugnance or remorse, their air of proud and sad loneliness; in a word, the impression of what I have mentioned earlier: a brutal defeminization and dehumanization.
I would now like to examine two points: two new "indications" or arguments that tend to make ever more frequent appearances in the pro-abortion campaign. I will consider them briefly, not because these arguments are less important - they are very significant and important - but simply because space does not permit any more extensive treatment.
The "eugenic" argument
The first argument is that of the so-called "eugenic" indication - in other words, the probability (or possibility) that the already conceived child may be born with some physical or mental defect. All modern abortion-law reform includes a clause legalizing an abortion carried out for eugenic reasons. The clause containing the eugenic indication tends to be very short, and many people probably look on it as another indication, more or less of the same order as the others.
It is no such thing! If the philosophy of life that underlies the other indications is repellent, the ideology underlying this clause is of an infinitely worse order. Let us state it very clearly: this indication is the fruit of no mere selfish hedonism; nor is it the product of an individualistic materialism that has lost its sense of direction and values. By means of this little clause, a clear, powerful, and repugnant philosophy is opening a way for itself - a legal way - into our Western societies. The philosophy, or rather ideology, of this clause is that of racial purity and has little or no essential difference from the Hitlerian ideology. For eugenicism, after all, simply means this: we don't want any inferior stock, we don't want any "substandard" specimens who could disturb the tranquil contemplation of our Brave New World, demanding compassion, appealing for charity or affection, or simply reminding us that there is a God to whom we ought to be grateful for the good things we enjoy.
Lives not worth living
Let us not forget what this phrase - lives not worth living - means in practice. It means, each time it is applied, that one person or several persons are making the following judgment:
"In our opinion, this life [and they are speaking of another human being already in existence] is not worth living. It is (or it may later turn out to be) so defective that it is better for it to die now."
This same judgment, it should be noted, is likewise applied by those who maintain that the fetus is not yet a human person. They are saying: "This life, which - unless we kill it - will develop into a human person, will develop into a human life unworthy of being lived. Therefore, let us kill it."
The essential and only basis for what we call democratic rights is that every being has inviolable value; and that no one - no State, no authority, no person - can decide that anyone else's life is useless and dispensable.
One can make the judgment that someone is living in conditions unworthy of a human being, and then make every effort to remedy those conditions. That is humanitarian.
What one cannot do, in the name of humanitarianism, is to make the judgment that someone is not worthy to live - even if he may have to live in conditions unworthy of a human being. That is not a humanitarian but a totalitarian judgment. When one makes that judgment, one has put an end to humanitarianism.
Consequences of eugenicism
The eugenic argument is subject to many further criticisms. I will limit myself to two:
(1) The prognosis that the child may possibly be born defective cannot be made with absolute certainty. If abortions are performed on this ground, the result will be that in a high percentage of the cases (some estimates say that it could be as high as 50%) quite normal children will be killed. It would be much more logical, from the eugenic viewpoint (and if the eugenicists consider themselves humanitarian, it would also be, for them, much more humanitarian) to let all these pregnancies come to term and, once the children have been born, kill those who in fact prove defective. If anyone says that this would be too repugnant, I could not agree more; but it is the logic of eugenicism that is repugnant.
(2) If, in virtue of the principle that defective lives are not worth living, it is humane to kill in order to prevent a person being born who may turn out to be defective, it is unquestionably more humane still to kill a person who has already turned out to be defective, to kill a defective person already born whether one day old or one year, or twenty or forty or sixty. And that person can be killed because (it is a point inherent in the same principle) he is not possessed of human life by a sufficiently good title. His physical or mental defect has made his very right to life defective. He can be killed, not perhaps for the "defect" of being a Jew, but for that of being crazy or disabled or chronically ill, or simply aged.
The acceptance of eugenic abortion means - whether the public at large is aware of the fact or nor - the acceptance not only of the principles underlying euthanasia, but of all that prop up the politics of racial purity: the policy of the elimination of the unfit, of those unworthy of life, of those who do not measure up to the quality standards laid down - by the controllers-that-be - for the human stock.
But surely - I hear the objection - all of this is rather exaggerated. No. It is not exaggeration. It is simply a projection. It is simply to follow out the logical consequences of the new abortionist philosophies, and to project them on to the practical life of a perhaps not-very-far-off future.
Tomorrow's world will be the product of the tendencies and ideologies that have prevailed in the world of today. What will that world be like? It is something to think about, while there is still time to think. This is not the moment to play the ostrich, burying our heads in the sand. It is an elementary responsibility to read the signs of the times, to see where a large part of our civilization is heading, and to ask ourselves if we too want to go there. To prefer not to ask oneself the question is the surest way of finding oneself eventually dragged in that very direction.
Excommunicating oneself from humanity...
Thus we are led to a conclusion that needs to be emphatically stated. Abortion - tolerated or legalized; looked on with indifference or with approval - represents an extreme of barbarity that is hard to surpass. One could well see in it a symbol of how our civilization seems bent on destroying the very seeds of survival that it bears within itself.
It is understandable that the Church should wish to emphasize the gravity of this "abominable crime" by decreeing an ipso facto excommunication not only for the woman who seeks an abortion, but for all who effectively procure it (Code of Canon Law; canon 1398).
An abortionist - again I am thinking above all of those who try to justify this crime - excommunicates himself from the most elementary human community, the community of those who strive to respect the human rights of others, whatever their religion, race, color, social position, state of physical or mental health, or age.
The demographic argument
The second new argument that is used to support abortion is the demographic argument. There are already countries where abortion is imposed as a means of demographic control. Elsewhere, for the moment, the matter rather works the other way around; that is, the constant propaganda about overpopulation acts as a factor in favor of abortion. As public opinion is "mentalized" so as to think that it is not quite right to have more than one or two children, that not to do so is an urgent and imperative duty, that its non-observance must be regarded, initially, as a total lack of responsibility and next, as a flagrant crime against society ... then it becomes progressively easier to persuade the public that abortion is not a crime at all; that, far from being a crime, it may he the best and most appropriate means to get people to fulfill a strict duty.
It is logical that those to whom this "argument" appeals should be attracted also by the fact that abortion is, without the slightest doubt, the most effective means to check population growth. It requires no exceptional degree of intelligence to figure out that the best means to ensure that there is no excess population is to kill the "surplus". This, in all its true crudeness, is the way of thinking among some people, although they do not - as yet - dare to present it quite so bluntly. But it is as blunt as that; so much so that one could well ask those who think this way to explain if there is any real difference, as a means to their end, between the scalpel and the machine-gun.