What's All the Debate about Abortion?

Perhaps the hottest and most contentious issue that the Catholic church is dealling with, and has made many public statements in opposition against, is that of abortion. While not the ONLY issue that the Church, it would certainly be the most important.

The reasons are obvious, to us anyway - there are millions of unborn babies that are killed every year. And if we recognize that a fetus, or even an embryo is a HUMAN PERSON, then stopping their mass murder MUST be of paramount importance to us.

Seems pretty black and white, right?

Well its not. Its actually very complicated.

What's a human being?

Its complicated by the fact that not everyone agrees that embryos or fetuses ARE human persons. If they are, then clearly abortion is murder, and must be prevented in the same ways we prevent murder. But if they are NOT human persons, then the FIRST issue becomes the rights of the mother over their own body.

And this is the MAIN issue for most who call themselves pro-choice. Its that no one should have the right to legislate a woman's own reproductive rights. She must have control over this. If she doesn't have it, the slippery slope of ethical ambiguity can lead to cultures where women can be used as breeding factories for the society as a whole, as envisioned in Margaret Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale."

But if the fetus, or even the embryo, IS a human person, and as such would be guaranteed the right to life under just about every legal system in the world, including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then that person's rights must take priority over the woman's rights over their own body. Legal right to LIVE takes priority over legal right to quality of life.

So how do we tell? Is an embryo, only fertalized a day before, still just a collection of cells, a human person? And here lies the CRUX of the issue - what is the definition of a human person? Relgion has one answer. Different scientists have another. Which one is it?

Well, some would suggest that neither an embryo or a fetus is a human person, because of their inability to live independently of their mother. But this argument doesn't wash, because babies can't live independently for the first ten years of their lives, if then.

Others would suggest that an embryo or a fetus can be a human person because they lack the normal human attributes, to speak, diminished ability to think, to walk, etc. This argument doesn't work either, because there are plenty of people with physical and mental (we'll call them) disabilities, who are fully recognized as human persons by civilized countries, no matter the degree of their physical imparement or brain damage.

Some simply look at the collection of cells in the embryo, and say, "That isn't a human person! Just look at it!" Such a subjective qualifiication of what a human is, fortunately, is not the objective standard. If it were, we would be opening another slippery slope, one reminiscent of ancient Sparta, or Nazi Germany, where certain individuals in a society were regarded as "in-human" or "less than human" and as such, were disposable.

The reality is, science cannot answer the question "What is a human person." So who can?

Who Decides?

Well, this question leads to the core issue of moral relativism itself, which I'm saving for another topic, but I will say this. Either its decided by a "moral majority", democratically, which might seem like a good idea, but it presumes that the majority are well educated and cannot be influenced or manipulated by half-truths - doesn't apply to our society, that's for sure. Look to the French Revolution to see how that system worked.

Or it can be decided by whoever is the strongest: they decide what's right and wrong, and have the muscle to force everyone to see it their way - might makes right - this is called a dictatorship - but as Lord Acton observed, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Under the two above names systems, we would have no right to conclude that another culture, which exercises laws which might be abhorrent to our sensibilities, such as in practicing child sacrifice for example, are right or wrong. Anything is right, or anything is wrong. Ultimately these must regress into tyrrany or anarchy. And the rights of ANY individual cease to exist.

The only alternative is to BELIEVE in some universal principles, which are somehow established beyond human subjectivity, as the basis of morality. Where do such principles come from? Well, they can only come from religion, which bases such principles on a transcendent being that establishes said rights.

In the case of OUR religion, such principles include the belief that ALL people are created in the image of the divine - this means that they share something of God, and that gives them the right to exist, and to be respected. It gives each person the right not to have their dignity exploited or disregarded by any other person. It insists that any political system should be directed towards preserving and protecting individual dignity, rather than to any one dictators agenda, or the will of the masses.

The basis of this dignity is that each person possesses (so we BELIEVE) a soul, which is an expression of God's own divine spirit. They are as such SACRED. And our religion tells us that we are endowed with this spirit right from the moment of conception, for two reasons, 1) the Bible says so, and 2) to suggest otherwise would also suggest that other less developed or disabled humans have no souls, thus opening up the slippery slope mentioned above.

So, here's the BIG question - what if you don't BELIEVE what I BELIEVE. If my argument against abortion is based on BELIEF rather than FACT, how can I enforce it on an entire population.

Believe it or not, there's a simple answer to this: its that or nothing. ALL LAWS have their basis on some universal principles that have, as their underlying foundation, a RELIGIOUS BELIEF, in something anyway. Politicos like Obama and Joe Biden, or here in Canada, Catholics like Jean Cretien or Paul Martin, who say they don't PERSONALLY believe abortion is right but don't feel they have the right to force their personal belief on others, are relying on an intellectual cop-out.

Even non-religious types usually base their morals on the belief in inherent human dignity. If asked WHY humans have human dignity, they typically would answer, because each person has the right to be happy without someone else taking that right away from them. Says who? The democracy? The people? The constitution? All of these must rely on something greater than they are, otherwise are subject to replacement on the whim of the masses.

Counter Arguments

So, taking up some reasonable pro-choice arguments: what about the reality that quite often, the body spontaneously aborts such embryos, before the embryo can embed in the uterine wall? Should we hold a funeral in such cases?

Maybe we should. Maybe we should in all cases of miscarriage. I know I've performed them. Perhaps this would be one way that we Catholics could bolster our case in favor of pro-life.

Bottom line in this case is that no HUMAN is determining that another human's life should end. It happens on its own. The underlying principle is still maintained - that no human can end another human life.

And what about the concern about ending legalized abortions leading to "back-room abortions", "coat-hanger abortions", where women expose themselves to unspeakable risks when faced with the possibility of a pregnancy that they are not ready for? This reality, in my mind demonstrates a failing of society as a whole.

1) A healthy understanding of the sacredness of sexuality needs to be re-established in our society. The attitude that sex is a form of recreation is the primary culperate in leading to unwanted pregnancies.

2) When unwanted pregnancies do occur, society must be ready to take responsibility, in a REAL HEALTHY WAY, for those children. It must also be ready to support those mothers. The attitude, that its the mothers problem and she's on her own, must end. If a person is REALLY prolife, they should be ready to adopt an unwanted child.

There are the two extreme cases that need to be mentioned:

Rape or incest: what if a woman (or girl) is raped and becomes pregnant? As hard a situation as this is, there is still a child who still has their own right to live, despite the horrible crime that has been perpretated on the mother. But again, in such a case, society MUST step in to lend a hand - it must take full responsibility for psychological help and healing for such a mother, and finding a home for the child.

There was a case of a young girl, who molested by her step-father, became pregnant, AND the pregnancy risked her life. She had an abortion. The church's response was to excommunicate everybody - child, mother, doctor, everyone. This was the wrong response. The church should have been the FIRST to step in and be the face of Christ to this poor girl, and to give her love and healing.

Danger to the mother: this is the one potential exception to the above, as it involves the value of more than just the mother's rights over their own body, but their right to life itself. As such it can become a choice between the mother's life and the child's in some extreme cases. And there are even some cases when the child has no possibility of living anyway. In such a case, where a choice has to be made, there really is NO ONE that can make that choice but the mother herself. It may be that the "Christian thing to do" is for a mother to give her life for her child - I know most mothers would - but that choice cannot be forced on her by someone else - she must make it on her own.

Final Point

One final point is worth mentioning. As a priest, I've had the experience of having some people confess to me that they have had abortions. It was clear to me that these people were shattered inside, that they were in tremendous emotional and spiritual pain. To me, this is one of the strongest reasons for being against abortion - not just for what it does to the child, but also what it does to the mother. God will raise up the souls of the unborn to God's own bosom. Their mothers need our help to heal, and to know that God does still love them.