Murder — the taking of innocent human life — is condemned by God (Exodus 20:13). Abortion is the killing of the most innocent human persons: the unborn. Underlying every argument for abortion is the assumption that the power to define the human person and his right to life belongs to earthly governing bodies. Without a sense of his life as something given to him as a gift from a Creator, man sees himself as a subject of his own manipulation. But the Christian vision of the human person, verified by natural law and revelation, is that man is created in the image of God, with a unique and inalienable dignity, and that God has entrusted to man the protection of innocent human life from conception to natural death.
The Consistent Position of the Catholic Church on Abortion
Since its legalization by the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, access to abortion has become widely accepted as a fundamental right to individual freedom for every woman. Yet ironically, as Bl. John Paul II noted in his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitæ, “Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death” (EV 18).
Many arguments for and against abortion have been presented over the course of human history and on the battlefield of American cultural and political life over the past forty years, and it can be confusing to try to understand them. For abortion opponents, it has been a fierce challenge to convince the populace at large that abortion is a moral evil. Historically (and certainly now), one of the most forceful opponents and clear voices of reason against abortion has been the Catholic Church. From the first century of Christianity to this present day and age, the Church has applied Exodus 20:13 – “Thou shalt not murder” – to abortion.
The Church offers clear arguments for this position according to natural law as well as to revelation. Bl. John Paul II summed up the Church’s stance against abortion:
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. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church (EV 62).
John Paul II also affirmed that every person open to the truth is capable of recognizing the value of human life from beginning to end:
Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded (EV 2).
Common Pro-Abortion Arguments
In the first few decades after Roe, and sometimes even today, supporters of abortion will claim that since It is scientifically unclear when the existence of the human person as a person really begins – whether at fertilization, implantation, or another stage of gestation – the assertion that every human person has a right to life from the beginning of his existence is wrong. This argument, in fact, was the meat of Roe: since we don’t know when human life begins, we can’t impose restrictions on abortion.
But this claim has been answered time and again by the scientific community itself, which agrees by a vast majority that life begins at conception – namely, that moment when a human male sperm unites with a human female egg. “To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion… it is plain experimental evidence" (The Father of Modern Genetics, Dr. Jerome Lejeune, Univ. of Descarte, Paris). In fact, in 1971, two years before Roe, a group of 220 physicians, professors, and fellows of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology submitted an amicus curiæ brief to the Supreme Court, wherein they showed how modern science established that the unborn child is, like its mother, a person from the moment of conception.
What Is A Human Person?
Faced with the overwhelming biological evidence that life begins at conception, defenders of abortion often then resort to the contention that personhood — what makes a human being a true person—depends on one’s ability to function in various capacities, such as thinking rationally or existing independently from the mother. The Supreme Court decision ruled that the term “person” in the Constitution, which in the Fourteenth Amendment names the right to life for every human being, “has application only postnatally.” Those who hold this position are hanging onto an arbitrary definition of the human person. By what authority can one group of persons determine what makes another a “person”? And if personhood depends on quality of life, as the various proposed definitions suggest, does anyone retain the inviolable right to life, inside the womb or out?
In contrast to these musings on personhood, The Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims clearly that “ … from the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (2270).
Human Life is Given by a Creator Who Endows it With a Sacred Value
The biological arguments for human life’s beginning at conception are not enough, however, to thoroughly convince that abortion is a grave wrong or that the fetus is a human person. One can always pose the question, “But what kind of life is it?”, and come up with any number of qualifications in regard to the innocent human person’s right to life.
Without reference to the human person’s Creator, he is not safe from an ethic of relativity in regard to his absolute value and right to life. A chilling testament to this threat is the statement of a medical professional, recounted in Abortion and the Meaning of Personhood by Clifford Bajema (1974, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI):
It may be a mistake to quickly assume the charitable point of view that most everyone believes it wrong to kill innocent human beings. Obviously this is not the attitude of one member of the influential medical profession who voiced some revolutionary ideas recently in California Medicine, the official journal of the California Medical Association. I will attempt a brief paraphrase and summary of this article entitled "A New Ethic for Medicine and Society" (An editorial reprint taken from California Medicine 113, no. 3, pp. 67-68).
(1) There is an old ethic, based in the Judeo-Christian heritage, which has prevailed in the West and has been the keystone of Western medicine, namely reverence for each human being, equally, with no regard to the person's quality of life (i.e., relative health, intelligence, age, social productivity, and rehabilitableness).
(2) This ethic, which is still dominant, must be replaced by a new one because of emerging demographic, ecological, and social realities such as:
(a) The geometric rate of population expansion
(c) The growing social importance of quality of life.
In response to this proposed new ethic of the human person’s relative value, the Church appeals not only to arguments based on nature in the defense of the unborn but also to the fact that human life is given by a Creator who has bestowed on it an irrevocable value that cannot be redefined. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” says Jeremiah 1:5.
It is the Creator of man alone who has the authority to set forth the laws of his life and who by his infinite love has made man a being of infinite value and special dignity: “Of all visible creatures only man is ‘able to know and love his creator.’ He is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,’ and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:
What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good (221 St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue 4,13 "On Divine Providence": LH, Sunday, week 19, OR) (CCC 356).
Without the acknowledgment of God as the source of his identity, man loses sight of his own meaning and becomes capable of the worst violence toward himself:
When the sense of God is lost, the sense of man is also threatened and poisoned, as the Second Vatican Council concisely states: “Without the Creator the creature would disappear … But when God is forgotten the creature itself grows unintelligible.” Man is no longer able to see himself as “mysteriously different” from other earthly creatures; he regards himself merely as one more living being, as an organism which, at most, has reached a very high stage of perfection.… He no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God, something "sacred" entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving care and "veneration". Life itself becomes a mere "thing," which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation.
… In relation to life at birth or at death, man is no longer capable of posing the question of the truest meaning of his own existence, nor can he assimilate with genuine freedom these crucial moments of his own history. He is concerned only with "doing," and, using all kinds of technology, he busies himself with programming, controlling and dominating birth and death. Birth and death, instead of being primary experiences demanding to be "lived," become things to be merely "possessed" or "rejected" (EV 22).
Each person must choose his fundamental position regarding life: will he live it as a gift of infinite value, or as something to be manipulated? To treat abortion as morally acceptable betrays a tragic loss of the sense of this gift and its Giver, and of morality itself. The results of the pro-abortion mentality can only lead man on an ever darker and more dehumanized path, in which any sense of the person as a creature “willed for his own sake” (Gaudium et Spes, 24) is lost.