Last week, Dr. Gary Gutting published an essay, “Should Pope Francis Re-think Abortion?” To my mind, the professor makes an honest, respectable effort to engage the issue. I have read many counter-arguments, and I don’t think any of them responds charitably and fairly.
Dr. Gutting makes some important points. Spontaneous abortions (i.e. miscarriages) do frequently occur, resulting in loss of unborn life. The Church, in her solemn magisterium, does not (and, in fact, may never be able to) take a position on the metaphysical question of when exactly human life begins. We human beings do not, at this point in time, possess knowledge adequate to offer a definitive statement on that subject, and it hardly seems likely that we ever will. People of good will sympathize with the sacrifices a mother makes in carrying a child, so any argument that asserts a right to life without due attention to the interests of the mother will not convince. To my mind, these are good and important points about abortion that Dr. Gutting’s essay brings rather eloquently to light.
His lack of focus lies in a couple crucial areas. First, Dr. Gutting refers to a “ban” on abortion which does not exist. Neither the Pope, nor Mother Church entire, can “ban” abortion. Women, in fact, have millions of abortions every year. The Church solemnly taught, at Vatican II (!), that procured abortion is an unconscionable crime. Ergo, there ought to be laws against it (as there were, at one time). But the Church does not make civil criminal laws.
The Church does not compel; she does not “ban.” She teaches. In morals, She helps doubting consciences to find the path of upright action. Her only ban on abortion is this: In response to the question, Is it ever moral intentionally to end the life of an unborn child? She replies, No.
Dr. Gutting’s use of the term ‘ban’ obtusely conflates the Church with the Pro-Life Movement, which does actively seek legal protection for unborn children, enforceable by criminal penalties. At one time, abortion was effectively banned in the United States. But that was the work of civil law, not the Church. It is the Pro-Life Movement, not the Pope or the Church per se, that seeks to re-establish this lost humane rule of law.
This distinction—between the role of the Church and the role of civil law—will help us to address the other preposterously unfocused aspect of Dr. Gutting’s essay. He acknowledges that, “biologically” speaking, an unborn child, beginning at the earliest stage of development, must be recognized as human. But, he proposes, this cannot be the only way of looking at it.
Okay, granted. One-month, two-month, three-month old embryos, fetuses, babies are not immediately recognizable to the naked eye as human beings, because they are to be found inside a womb. And, indeed, many of them die of natural causes well before birth—many so early that no one ever knows the baby was even there. Maternal-fetal medicine has developed to the point that we can see and know a great deal about unborn children, to be sure. But let’s freely grant that neither universal moral obligations nor criminal laws can necessarily compel any given expecting mother to submit to an ultrasound or any other particular medical procedure.
The thing is: that’s not the issue, really. Because all of us have to acknowledge that, much as we know about the mysteries of the pregnant womb, what we don’t know dwarfs what we do.
Dr. Gutting regards it as overly aggressive for a pro-lifer to refer to abortion as murder. Certainly, in many, many cases, he has a point. Terrified, panicky people generally don’t commit murders (maybe manslaughters). Let’s agree with Dr. Gutting that it is in no way illuminating to refer to a hopeless teenage girl who has an abortion as a “murderer.” (To be honest, I have never heard a single pro-lifer say such a thing.)
But, Dr. Gutting, by the same token, your introduction of the concept of “potential life”—to be used to identify the inhabitant of the womb—the idea that such an abstract and fundamentally meaningless concept could carry any moral or legal weight is, to say the least, overly aggressive.
A sperm and an egg, taken separately, but ready to be juxtaposed by sex, could meaningfully be called “potential human life.” But the womb of a pregnant woman houses neither sperm nor egg. It houses what happens when a sperm fertilizes an egg, which, to a humble, reasonable person, can only be regarded as: you or me, when very little. Since we all were, at one time, living at that size and in that way.
My point here is: The answer to the question, Is there a “human person” in the womb? really is above everyone’s paygrade. Does an early miscarriage result in the tragic death of a human person? We—the human race—we don’t have an answer; we don’t need an answer to that question. Such questions do not lead us to the heart of the matter at all.
The real question is: Is there ever a situation in which intervening to snuff out the life that dwells in a pregnant womb—is there ever a situation in which snuffing out is the right thing to do? The socially responsible thing to do? The genuinely self-fulfilling thing to do? The decent and above-board thing to do? The thing to do that respects everyone involved in the situation? The thing to do that will leave me a better person than when I started? When the option of not having an abortion is always available? And the universal voice of sober conscience replies, Don’t kill. Don’t do violence. It’s not the right path.
IMHO, abortion and the “right to choose” express, more than anything, hopeless hubris. I don’t see how this can work out! I have other plans! So I will intervene with an act of violence and go back to square one. But:
1. There really is no going back to square one.
2. None of us really knows how it’s all going to turn out.
Which brings us to the final aspect of Dr. Gutting’s essay that is out-of-focus. (I don’t think, though, that it’s altogether his fault that this particular point is out-of-focus, because even those of us in the Pro-Life Movement don’t always keep it clearly in focus.)
Dr. Gutting insists that the Pro-Life Movement shows our ignorance and hypocrisy by letting so many miscarriages occur without clamoring for more research to find ways to prevent them. The professor actually betrays his own ignorance here, especially considering that pro-life people do pursue this research (within ethical limits). Not to mention the fact that many of the “spontaneous” abortions that occur are probably caused by the use of artificial contraceptives, which we also wholeheartedly oppose. Since it is impossible to be genuinely and consistently pro-life without being thoroughly pro-chastity as well.
But, all these quibbles with Dr. Gutting’s false accusations aside, let’s grant the fundamental point that the death of unborn children by miscarriage is a fact of human life, with or without any procured abortions, legal or illegal. Miscarriages occur with a sad frequency. But, again, that’s not really the issue anyway. Because, if the philosopher will forgive the tautology, we can only control what we can control. And controlling ourselves—restraining ourselves from acts of violence, acts of violence unworthy of human beings—is what the Pro-Life Movement aims at.
In truth, the pro-life side has a pretty solid lock on the metaphysics of zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. The burden of proof is on the other side—just show us where human life begins, other than at conception!—and pro-choicers have nothing solid at all to say on that, including Dr. G.
But we have to stay focused on the real heart of the matter. Debating the moment of ensoulment is not the heart of the matter, because it does not involve certainty. The heart of the matter is: It is certainly wrong; it is certainly de-humanizing; it is certainly unworthy and corrosive and profoundly self-destructive for anyone to act so as to cause the death of another, including an unborn child/fetus/embryo/zygote. Two fundamentally different things–which, again, a humble, reasonable person can instantly see are different: the sadness of miscarriage vs. the inhuman violence of abortion.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up for innocent blacks because he was concerned about the state of the souls of the whites and the blacks. He appealed not to force, but to conscience. The central inspiration of his movement was: The greatest evil is the inhuman darkening of so many consciences by racism. Dr. King, and all those who risked and sacrificed alongside him, wanted America to see that treating a black person like a slave is something no one should ever do, because to do so makes you less of a person. It doesn’t make the black person less of a person. It makes you less of a person.
The Church’s work in this area, at least as far as Her magisterium goes, lies solely in the education of consciences. To have an abortion is to demean, to do violence to, truly to abuse—yourself. So don’t do it. Trust the future, and don’t do it.
The Pro-Life Movement militates like we do for fundamentally the same reason, though with the additional civic goals of supporting pregnant women and protecting unborn children by law. We members of the movement want to live in a country that has been liberated from the darkness of mind that cannot see abortion for what it certainly is: Something no one should ever do.
To be able to live in such a country, we happily make sacrifices. Our “I-Have-a-Dream” dream is: That all Americans could see clearly that abortion is a grievously self-lessening act. Dr. Gutting concludes his essay by appealing to the primacy of Christian love. Agreed. The love of Christ is primary. The dream of the Pro-Life Movement, I would submit to Dr. Gutting and everyone else who makes chimerical arguments to justify the unjustifiable—the dream of the Pro-Life Movement is real love. Anything less is not.