By Charles D. Dern
September 15, 2008 - Recent remarks on abortion and the beginnings of human life by both Senator/Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attempt to make it sound as if the Catholic Church officially teaches that life does not begin at fertilization, but at some later point. In support of this they quote St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas who did not have the benefit of our contemporary understanding of biology. They, along with Aristotle and the remainder of the world at that time, thought that the sperm contained the entire human in germ that grew in the womb much like a seed grows in the earth, going through various stages of development that were plant-like, then animal-like, and finally human.
On this understanding, St. Thomas logically concluded that a fetus was not fully alive until “quickening,” that is, when its movements could be felt in the womb. But St. Thomas was very clear that artificially stopping a pregnancy always is matter for mortal sin. All that changed was the type or “species” of the sin. The type of sin committed before quickening, in his opinion, was more akin to an act of contraception than murder.
Nonetheless, granting that Biden and Pelosi are sincere but misguided, if they are intelligent devout Catholics, why are they not familiar with the more recent documents such as “The Gift of Life” (Donum vitae) which instructs that “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception: and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.” But even if Biden and Pelosi are stuck in medieval theology, where is their support for outlawing abortion after “quickening”?
Now as to “when life begins,” it is both a simple and complicated question because of the possible implications of the questioner. Taken simply as “when does an individual’s life begin?” such as your life or my life, any university level biology book will tell you that it starts at the completion of fertilization, that is, when sperm and ovum have fused fully. This even holds true for non-humans. However, “life” is not created in the womb, but passed on. It remains a scientific impossibility to produce “life” from non-living materials. This reinforces the answer even more strongly. Label whatever is the womb what you will, but you cannot deny it is alive!
Of course, the reason Biden and Pelosi are going through such mental gymnastics is to justify their support for abortion while remaining “Catholic.” But the irony is that the primary issue as far as the U.S. Constitution and Roe v. Wade are concerned is not over the question “when does life begin,” but, “when does personhood” begin?” (The 14th Amendment states that no person shall be deprive of life, liberty or property without due process.)
Contemporary society tends to equate personhood with self-directing rationality or more or less the capabilities of the average adult. Furthermore, an entity need not even be “alive,” such as in the case of corporations in order to be considered a “person” (a fact which would only strengthen argument for including the unborn).
The problem with this approach is that human beings such as fetuses, children (to the age of 18), the mentally handicapped, the comatose and the demented technically are not adults. They do not have inherent rights under the law, only those that we “persons” grant them. Princeton Ethicist Peter Singer logically argues on the aforementioned definition that parents ought to have the right to “dispose of” their severely handicapped infants. Unfortunately, Presidential Candidate Barak Obama remained logically consistent in his pro-abortion viewpoint by also opposing on several occasions a “protection for infants born alive” act in his Illinois legislature.
Persons with liberal moral viewpoints on sexual and reproductive matters often look with disdain on those who are conservative or actually try and uphold traditional teachings. But the paradox here is that science and logic, if followed to unbiased conclusions, both support the right to life of the unborn from the moment of fertilization. As for those Catholic politicians who continue to put political expediency before what is morally right, they need to be reminded that: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
Charles D. Dern, Ph.D., is an Instructor of Moral Theology and Medical Ethics for St. Charles Seminary and Immaculata University, both located in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.