Swimming the Tiber 38: The Human Right

Last time, I talked extensively about how contraception sinfully controverts God’s will for married life. Two posts before that, I talked about the importance of keeping our children safe as a society. I have talked about the urgent necessity of baptism, too.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that I oppose abortion in all its forms.

This wasn’t always true; like many people, I didn’t give it much thought. I was opposed to abortion on the face of it (“Yeah, that’s bad”), but when prompted about situations of rape, incest, and danger to a mother’s life, I said, “Well, those are probably okay, I guess.” But my Catholicism has cleared my thinking on this issue.

The past 44 years have seen innumerable arguments on the subject. Being against abortion or not did not always follow the political divide (the deciding Supreme Court had four Nixon appointees, one Johnson appointee, one Kennedy appointee, and one Eisenhower appointee–that’s 5 / 7 Republican nominees, folks), but somewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Republican party took a stronger stance against abortion, prompting the Democrat party to do the reverse. (Democrats for Life are a thing, but they are not necessarily welcomed by some party leaders.)

There are good (read: well-crafted) arguments for abortion, and there are bad arguments for abortion. There are probably arguments for abortion that I haven’t heard, because it’s typically a debate I try to avoid. (As a Catholic, my opposition to abortion is so absolute that even Republicans and evangelical Protestants think we go too far. It makes for a difficult conversational environment.)

Let me quickly run through the bad arguments for abortion that I have heard, with simple rebuttals.

It’s Just a Clump of Cells

This is plainly false. This argument suggests that a fetus is like cancer or that weird wart you had to get lasered off. Even a rudimentary understanding of biology makes it clear that a fetus is a unique organism, with its own unique DNA. As a unique organism with human DNA, that makes it a unique human. The “it’s a clump of cells” argument falls flat immediately because it’s factually wrong. (This is still true even if this new organism becomes multiple organisms through twinning; the uniqueness of the zygote is absolute.)

The Presence of the Fetus Is Invasive

It can certainly seem that way, I suppose, when you believe entirely wrong things about sex. If you think, as many do, that sex is for fun alone, then the sudden, unexpected appearance of a child will seem unfair and/or invasive, like a squatter in your real estate holdings. But of course that’s not what’s going on; we already know that sex should only occur in marriage and that one of the purposes of sex and marriage is procreation. A proper understanding of sex alone disproves this argument.

Besides that, the biology of procreation is still against this. A new human organism is made up of two parts in the initial zygote: an egg and a sperm. The egg is a part of the woman’s body designed for reproduction and was already present there; the sperm, with one notable exception that I’ll get to in a moment, was invited in by the woman. The result cannot be invasive unless the constituent parts were; any time they were not, the invasive argument doesn’t fly.

The Burden Is Entirely on the Woman

When this is the case, it’s tragic, but bad circumstances alone don’t justify anything. This is a non sequitur. What does a deadbeat dad have to do with the price of tea in China?

A Fetus Is Only Human Once It Is Viable

This is often coupled with the “clump of cells” argument above, and falls flat on that account, but there’s another reason this argument is no good: viability is a moving goalpost. The age of viability was much, much later 100 years ago than it is today (as of this writing, at least one child born at 21 weeks 5 days has survived past infancy, barely half of full-term). As technology and medicine improve, the age of viability will continue to go down. How could it be that a 24-week-old is a human today, but was not 100 years ago, and an 18-week-old is not today, but will be in another 100 years? Either they are or they aren’t.

A Fetus Is Only Human with a Heartbeat/Brain Function

Rudimentary organs exist at 8 weeks gestation (about 6 weeks after conception on average, since gestational age is typically counted from last menstrual period). The circulatory system comes first, such that a heartbeat can be detected by 6-7 weeks. Electrical brain activity is detectable around 12 weeks and regulates somewhat later than that.

Ignoring that this depends entirely on the “clump of cells” argument as a baseline, is there supposed to be a specific time or stage of development, which changes very slightly with every unique organism, or just whichever one is most convenient?

No One’s Forcing You to Get an Abortion

No one’s forcing me to rob banks or kill people or cheat on my wife. No one has killed me or cheated on me (full disclosure: I have been burgled). But I oppose those actions on principle because I want to protect the victims, regardless of their identity. My concern is not, “You’re doing bad things, how dare you,” but, “Unique human beings are dying and I want it to stop for their sake.”

Abortion Is Necessary to Prevent Poor Quality of Life

This is ridiculous on the face of it. It presupposes that suffering is worse than death. I have not written directly on the economy of suffering in Catholic thought, and I won’t get into it here (it’s a post in itself that I may get to eventually), but we know that suffering is a part of life (as a result of sin). This claim that suffering is worse than death is an extension of the modern tendency to value pleasure more than any other good; if something is not pleasurable, it should not exist. But even in practice, we do not behave as if this were true. We go to work, and even when we enjoy our jobs, it is still work and not always pleasurable. If we follow this line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, it suggests that we should kill everyone for fear that they may at some point suffer.

After all, there is no guarantee of particular suffering; there is a nonzero occurrence of false positives in prenatal testing for various syndromes and disorders–but many people take the results of these tests as absolutes. Even then, some conditions that people call “poor quality of life” (such as Down’s Syndrome) are not suffering. They have challenges, and they are not always happy, but this is true of everyone; we call it “poor quality of life” because their challenges are different from ours. And to think that you may somehow save them from these challenges by aborting them!

What logic is there in suggesting that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying?


You may disagree, of course, but I find those to be the weakest arguments for allowing abortion. They’re easily refuted, and it’s not even a question of religious opinion, but simple logical and/or scientific facts. But there are some arguments in favor of abortion that have a little more backbone.

Children Conceived by Rape or Incest Are Invasive

Ignoring for a moment that rape and incest account for less than 1.5% of reasons for obtaining an abortion, let’s examine the argument on its own merits. (After all, I don’t want abortion to be used under any circumstances.) The argument goes that, because the sperm was uninvited, then the child was uninvited. This is, at least, factual.

It is not, however, sufficient. The argument goes that the child is somehow party to the crime of its male parent and is therefore culpable, but this is not factual (the child has no awareness of its origins and made no choice about its own conception). This argument relies heavily on denying rights to the child. Not even a kangaroo court will condemn a man to die without first claiming some crime, however false that claim may be. But the unique human organism conceived as a result of a crime is deemed guilty and executed without any court at all. (For the Biblical argument here, see Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:4, 19-20.)

Then the argument turns to the trauma of the victim (i.e., the woman who was raped). It would be evil, one supposes, to visit another trauma (pregnancy and childbirth) upon a woman who had just experienced trauma (rape); it would be evil, one supposes, to subject a woman to hardship who had already undergone hardship. But the way a woman handles trauma depends very heavily on her individual psychological state, so these blanket statements are not useful (in the same way that the reverse accusation–that abortion is traumatic for a woman–are not entirely useful). Anecdotally, you will always have counterexamples; scientifically, Surgeon General Koop (who did not find “no evidence” of the harm of abortion) found that every study he had access to was created with a preconceived notion about abortion, and the politicization of the issue had resulted in no reliable studies altogether. Both sides continue to cite studies in the same vein, while denying consistently that there was any possibility of bias.

Anecdotally, there is also the possibility that carrying the child to term will be restorative and, even if the woman gives the child up for adoption, it will provide better closure than an abortion. Anecdotally, the reverse can also be claimed.

In this case, then, the argument for or against traumatic experiences cannot be made. Yes–rape is more traumatic than I will ever know. Yes–pregnancy can be very difficult, especially when you did not want it. But the argument for abortion insists that a human life must be taken in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of its mother; the argument against abortion insists that a human life must be allowed to live in the same attempt. As for me, I will take the road that sees more people live; this argument is like the trolley problem, but on one track lies one person and the other track is altogether clear of people. The trauma of the victim of rape is a constant regardless of which track is chosen.

Human Rights Are Not Innate

This argument disregards natural law and presupposes that the rights of individuals are granted not by a Creator, but only by the government. By this argument, there are no natural rights, but only legal rights. The right to life, then, is granted when the government says it is; through Roe v. Wade, the government has deemed that the legal right to life does not begin at conception. By that merit, abortion is legal.

I grant that this argument holds weight among those who disregard natural law. Since the government, by its nature, also disregards natural law, this argument is why abortion is legal in these United States.

But natural law is determined by nature, and it is from natural law that human laws are derived. I lack the philosophical background to argue for natural law in full depth, so I will not attempt to. Let it suffice to say this: Natural law is the law under which we are bound simply by existing because of the way the world works. Those who disagree, from what I have read, generally follow either Hume (claiming that you cannot derive ought from is, which presupposes that all rights are granted by some authority and are not innate to creation) or Sartre (as rational beings, we are absolutely free and under no laws whatsoever, which is itself a natural law). Read more from Catholics, Wikipedia, and John Locke (for the basis by which our country’s Founding Fathers made this claim of self-evident truths). See Romans 1:18-23 for a relevant Scripture passage.

As for me, I do not trust the government. Governments, by and large, become corrupt over time, seeking their own good. Knowing that natural law is true, I will not cede the right to life to a collection of legal rights granted by a temporal authority, which may remove those rights as it sees fit (as nearly all governments have done in the history of our species).

Abortion is Justifiable Homicide

Of all the arguments for abortion, this one disturbs me the most. Most people (i.e., those who support abortion rights) do not make, even refuse to make, this argument. It allows not only that a fetus is human, but also that, as a human being, it may have natural rights, such as the right to life–but that those rights may be abrogated by the decision-making power of its mother. The argument goes that there are circumstances which allow the mother to unilaterally determine whether her fetus will live or die. I will get to the prime example of these circumstances in a moment, but supporters of this argument frequently allow poverty, suffering, and inconvenience to be sufficient reason for an abortion.

The danger, of course, is that this is a slippery slope. Once we deem that human organisms may be eliminated as inconveniences or causes of suffering, we enable ourselves to kill the sick instead of treating them, to kill the poor instead of feeding them, to kill the naked instead of clothing them. We would seek a utopia built on the bones of those we find unpleasant. This is as opposed to Christianity as any philosophy can be.

Abortion is Necessary to Save Lives

This one comes up frequently; it’s also the primary argument that even some Republicans will use to support abortion (along with, slightly less often, cases of rape and incest). It goes like this: when the life of the mother is in danger, abortion is permissible.

This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but from a Catholic ethical perspective, it isn’t. It also doesn’t clarify what “in danger” means to any degree, so this is frequently used to justify abortions where both mother and baby would have turned out fine. But even when that isn’t true, the most ethical position I can think of is this: Work as hard as possible for as long as possible to save both lives; in the event that at least one life cannot be saved (i.e., trying to save both will mean losing both), treat it like a triage situation and work to save the most viable.

People often refer to the principle of double effect when arguing for abortion here. The act of abortion, they say, does kill the baby, but it saves the mother, which outweighs the cost. This is not an appropriate use of that principle. Double effect does apply in some situations like this, but not all, and never to a distinct act of abortion. The first requirement for the principle of double effect to apply is that the act itself must be either good or morally neutral; an abortion is inherently evil (by taking a human life), so it does not qualify. What does qualify, for example, would be a salpingectomy (the removal of a Fallopian tube) during a tubal ectopic pregnancy; in that case, the child cannot survive to viability and attempting to allow it to do so would kill both it and its mother. Removing the Fallopian tube is a neutral moral act (which could be done to combat cancer, for example), but it has the double effect of killing the child and saving the mother, which is morally better than the alternative (allowing them both to die).

The difference may seem moot, but from an ethical standpoint, it’s justifiable, whereas abortion is not.

If you came here looking for a fight, I’m sure you still disagree. But my point in going through this incredibly divisive and difficult issue is this: Think about why you believe things. I never thought about why I was against abortion generally but okay with it under vague circumstances. When I thought through the arguments, and applied the wealth of knowledge and tradition in the Catholic Church, my faith and my ethics came into alignment and became clear.

Next time (hopefully next week), I want to address an issue that many non-Catholics bring up in opposition to the Church: “I talked to a Catholic and they didn’t know the Bible or good behavior or the movement of the Spirit or anything! Why would you want to join a church like that?” To find out, keep coming back for more.

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