Life begins at conception. Science has been able to pinpoint the exact moment when human life commences, and the biological facts are uncontested (George 196). When an embryo is formed it is a new, distinct, and living human being. It is not a part of the mother, although the child relies completely on the mother for subsistence, and the way in which physicians treat pregnant women, acknowledging that there are two patients, confirms what we already know through common sense (George 197). From the moment of conception, the embryo is dependent and helpless, yet it is a distinct and living human individual (Mother Theresa 6). A child in the womb is a complete human person in the fullest sense, and so the deliberate killing of an unborn child is always and in every case morally impermissible.
Time and time again both the Bible and teachings of the Church refer to the dignity and humanity of the unborn child from the very moment of conception. Take this passage from Jeremiah for example: “Before I formed thee in the [womb] of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou came forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee” (Jeremiah 1:5). Not only does God participate in the act by which husband and wife cooperate with Him to bring each new life that comes into the world, but also God sanctifies the new human individual at that very moment of conception. Even before the child is given life, God knows him and has a plan for him. Holy Scripture is clear that all human life is sacred and that the unborn child in the womb has the same dignity and value as any other human being.
The Decalogue, given by God himself and confirmed by Christ, clearly identifies ten moral precepts which are essential to human flourishing and govern all human interaction (ST I-II q.100, a. 3). These ten commands will never conflict with one another and must always be followed, and for this reason we call them perfect duties. For any living human individual, we are obligated to obey the perfect duties of the Decalogue that apply to them, some of which are positive duties, which must always be done, while others are negative duties, which must never be done. One of these negative duties, or Moral Absolutes, is the absolute prohibition that one must never murder (Exodus 20:13). Abortion is the killing of an innocent, helpless human being, and therefore, the act is impermissible under any conditions.
Some try to replace the Christian understanding of morality with, what might seem to them, a more philanthropic method of making moral judgments. However, no matter how hard they try to sidestep the facts, it is clear there is a universal moral standard which regulates our conduct towards others (Lewis 18). Every time you feel an injustice, point out another’s fault, or demand retribution, you are admitting to the existence of a moral law as well as its accessibility by and its applicability to everyone. This unescapable moral code is called the Natural Law. We all know that stealing is wrong even if one is too stubborn to admit it. No one wants his employer to cheat him or a thief to steal his car. Likewise, we all know that murder is evil, most especially the murder of defenseless children.
Yet many today do not share this view of the sanctity and inherent value of human life. While Christians and other believers in the Natural Law maintain that abortion –the killing of an unborn child– is murder, progressively-minded secularists often disagree. Some might argue that a woman has a right to abort her child and, in some circumstances, ought to do so. Consider a mother who learns she is pregnant and is informed by her doctor that the baby has Down syndrome. Already struggling to raise three young children, the mother feels that the additional strain of caring for a handicapped child would be more than she could bear. The doctor feels sorry for the troubled woman and, out of compassion, encourages her to consider an abortion. Not long ago the average American would have been horrified at such a recommendation, perhaps because abortion was associated with practices in communist Russia or Nazi Germany. Yet this so-called solution has become accepted in today’s world, and some even claim that aborting the child is the responsible thing to do.
The point at which human life begins is no longer unknown to science. In the words of Robert George, it is “intellectually indefensible” to claim that the moment when a new human being comes into existence is some unfathomable mystery (195). Since a reasonable person with all the facts before them cannot deny the humanity of the unborn child killed during an abortion, any real argument in support of abortion must necessarily be a Utilitarian calculation. The essence of Utilitarian reasoning is that any act is permissible as long as it produces the greatest pleasure and the least pain for the most people. Some will argue that the perceived emotional pain, financial burden, and physical fatigue of the mother plainly outweighs any pain that the unborn child might, or might not, feel. Thus, the act is not only permissible, but what one ought to do. In order to truly justify abortion, one must believe that if the act will cause the least suffering for the most people it is permissible to kill another human being. This is particularly clear when it comes to late-term abortion, partial-birth abortion, or outright infanticide (post-birth abortion), in which there can be no mistake that a human child is being killed for another’s perceived benefit.
In reality, the Utilitarian solution is a hard pill to swallow. Few people find the idea of murdering someone for the benefit of others justifiable if they were to be the victim. In order to appease the public conscience, those who promote abortion find themselves compelled to disguise their method of reasoning by claiming that the embryo, fetus, and even fully developed child (moments before birth) lack “personhood.” In this way they attempt to divorce personhood from humanity, each of which are inseparable parts of the complete human being. What logically follows is that if a mother wants an abortion and the child survives, the abortionist ought to finish the job, because even though the child is clearly human, it somehow lacks the worth, dignity, and rights of a person.
Those who promote abortion are forced to style the unborn child as merely a human object without value simply because it has not yet reached a certain stage in development. Yet this is akin to saying that an African American is not a full person because of the color of his skin. No one can credibly deny the humanity of African Americans. Instead, the only way to deny enslaved Blacks the rights afforded all men by the Constitution was to claim they lacked the full dignity of “personhood” in some way or another, which is clearly false. Either you are a human person, or you are not; personhood is inseparable from humanity.
The only way to justify abortion is for one to reject the Natural Law in exchange for Utilitarian reasoning. Yet in order to make the troubling conclusions this leads to palatable, abortion advocates must make the absurd claim that some human beings possess the dignity and worth of personhood while others do not. Abortion is not, and never was, a matter of “my body, my choice” as the slogan goes, but rather a claim about which human persons might be killed for the benefit of others. When the most vulnerable of us, the pre-born child, is somehow excluded from the status of personhood and murdered, there is no good reason why others might not be denied their personhood, including ourselves. If, however, all human beings do indeed have intrinsic worth and God-given dignity, who can deny that from the moment of conception the life of an unborn child should never be taken away.
George, Robert P. Conscience and Its Enemies: confronting the dogmas of liberal secularism. Wilmington, Delaware.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York. 1960.
Mother Theresa. Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court of the United States. 1994.
St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica.
The Holy Bible. Douay-Rheims Version, Loreto Publications, 1941.
This article was re-published by Oremus Press (February 2021) with the permission of the author.