Q: Archbishop J, is abortion wrong?
You won’t find a more contentious issue in the western world today than abortion. This has been made more so because of the leaked document that claims Roe v Wade will be overturned. I would ask that whatever side of the fence you sit on this matter, you read with me to the end.
A lot of emotion surrounds this matter, on both sides. We need to look at it from different perspectives if we are to understand what people are invested in, and why they hold the positions they do.
With the prospect of the reversal of Roe v Wade many are arguing that this is a regressive step. The fact is abortions were done in America, as in Trinidad and Tobago, without it being legal.
According to one estimate, between 200,000 and one million abortions per year were done in America before it was legal. Many women died or ended with a botched job, with serious health complications.
For many, a woman has a right to decide over her body and this should not be taken away. Others cite the case of rape where the woman did not consent. Or where the pregnancy could be injurious to the woman and her life.
There are many good reasons people propose to keep abortion legal. Each of these focuses on the woman, her rights, state of mind, life choices and lifestyle. We must be sympathetic to these perspectives. Many women have faced great distress and had their lives torn apart over these choices.
But the right of the woman and her needs must be weighed against another right—the right of the unborn foetus. How you see the foetus determines how you weigh these two rights.
Before modern medicine, Aristotle’s theory of reproduction prevailed for over 1000 years. He believed the child came entirely from the sperm of the man. The woman was just providing a home or lodging. He believed it took time and a process to turn matter from the woman’s womb into a human with a soul. He knew nothing of the ovum and as such began with a defective biological model.
This Aristotelian model believed the foetus became a human being at birth. But the Bible gives us other perspectives.
Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Isaiah 44:4 speaks about God forming the prophet in the womb. Isaiah 49:15 says even if a woman forgets the child of the womb, God will never forget us. Ps: 71:6 speaks about God being the active agent in bringing us from our mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13 says: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
Whatever the biological understanding, the Scripture speaks about a person in the womb, who is called by God, with special purpose and who is brought into being by God’s action. Thus, the being in the womb is known to God and already has a vocation. This is important.
The second century Church Father Tertullian says: “It is anticipated murder to prevent someone from being born; it makes little difference whether one kills a soul already born or puts it to death at birth. He who will one day be a man is a man already” (Apologeticum, IX, 8: CSEL 69, 24).
This is how the tradition understands the unborn child. When Tertullian’s principle is combined with the biblical text, we have a very different view.
Biology and new models
A fact sheet from the US Bishops Conference says: “In 1827, with the discovery of the human ovum, the mistaken biology of Aristotle was discredited. Scientists increasingly understood that the union of sperm and egg at conception produces a new living being that is distinct from both mother and father. Modern genetics demonstrated that this individual is, at the outset, distinctively human, with the inherent and active potential to mature into a human foetus, infant, child, and adult. From 1869 onward the obsolete distinction between the ‘ensouled’ and ‘unensouled’ foetus was permanently removed from canon law on abortion.”
As Tertullian says 1600 years earlier, “He who will one day be a man is a man already.”
Once Aristotle’s biological model was debunked, it became clear that the foetus in the womb was a unique person distinct from mother and father. Genetics has made the point even clearer.
What is in the mother’s womb is housed there, but it is not an organ of her body. It is a unique genetic species. Thus, we are not speaking about a woman’s body, but a unique individual residing in a woman’s body.
Legal moral view of the foetus
Your position on abortion is linked to your view of the foetus. Is it an individual? Or is it a part of the woman’s body?
The new 3-D ultrasounds of a foetus in utero gives stunning images. Through them you can see so much more. Head and hands and toes, eyes, mouth ears and genitals. Genetics says this is a different and, yes, unique genetic being that is different from mum.
American law has begun to see the foetus as having rights when foetal surgery gets botched. Feminist scholars fear that: “…inconsistencies, once established, could be used to erode existing abortion rights. They argue that inclusion of fetus within the protection of wrongful death law begins to establish fetal constitutional rights, which could become powerful enough to outweigh a woman’s right to privacy” (Vanderbilt Law Review: ‘Fetal Surgery and Wrongful Death Actions on Behalf of the Unborn: An Argument for a Social Standard’; Vol 56, Issue 5 Article 5, 10-2003, p 1540).
The argument surrounds viability of the foetus, which is defined as “the independent existence of the second life can in reason and all fairness be the object of State protection that . . . overrides the rights of the woman” (see p 1539).
But what is the viability of any of us supporting our life under water or on the moon without technological support?
If we are taken from our home, we cannot support our life. We are not viable. As modern medicine advances, we can support a foetus earlier and earlier. Does that mean the definition of personhood is dependent upon our technological advancement?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2770–75) lays out the teaching of the Church very clearly. Abortion is a moral evil, a violation of the fifth commandment. Those who have an abortion or assist in one cut themselves off from the Church.
The foetus is a unique genetic life that is different from the mother. It is a person from the moment of conception and as such enjoys all the human rights that you and I enjoy.
Reflect deeply on this teaching. What makes you uncomfortable? How do we respond to women who have had abortions?
Jeremiah 1:5; CCC 2770–75
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk