By:Stephen M Fields, SJ, Associate Professor of Theology, Georgetown University
The annual ‘March for Life’ convenes on the nation’s capital every January, the anniversary of ‘Roe v. Wade,’ the Supreme Court’s decision making abortion easily accessible. In the wake of this year’s recent March, it is worthwhile for us to review why the Catholic Church insists so strongly on the pro-life stance.
The Church is guided in its teaching, not first and foremost by its religious faith, but by the “natural law.” This is the system of ethics based on a rational reflection on human nature and its ends and purposes. From this reflection, an understanding of what is good and bad, right and wrong, emerges. The natural law, then, is simply those ethical norms that arise from the way our nature is intrinsically structured. This structure is known by what we call “right reason”: that is, reason thinking consistently, coherently, and honestly about who and what we are and about our destiny and purpose.
The development of the natural law has a long history in the West. We find it, for instance, in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, in Cicero and the Roman jurists. It was brought to a high point by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and it continues to be developed today.
A basic and fundamental norm of the natural law affirms the following: Evil may never be done, even to bring about a good purpose. In other words, a good end never justifies a means that is wrong. We see this clearly in Socrates, who argues that doing wrong does profound injury, not first and foremost to the person injured, but to the perpetrator — to the human being doing the injuring. This is because doing evil fundamentally violates the dignity and integrity of our very nature.
The rule that evil may never be done stands at odds with other views of ethics, such as utilitarianism. This states that what is good is determined by what produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. According to this system, one may make a moral case for the killing fields of Cambodia under Pol Pot in the 1970’s, and the massacres at Strebreniza in recent years in the Balkans.
Why then we might ask, is abortion an act that is intrinsically evil, and so may never be done, even to produce a good result? The natural law shows us that abortion is what we call “the direct taking of innocent human life.” As such, it is fundamentally wrong. Let us explain these terms.
First, why is the fetus “human life”? It is equipped from conception with the genetic and chromosomal material that defines humanity. Human life constitutes a continuum from conception to death. There is no point in this continuum where it makes sense to draw an arbitrary line and to say that at this point the embryo or fetus is not human.
Second, why is the fetus “innocent” human life? The fetus has done nothing wrong that merits, in justice, any harm to itself. It is not, for instance, a criminal convicted by due process and therefore worthy of punishment. It is not a soldier fighting in a just war and therefore liable to harm. In strict justice, therefore, the embryo and fetus merit protection and nurturing.
Third, why is abortion the “direct” taking of innocent human life? The direct doing of any act means that a person consciously intends to do that act. In other words, the person does not do something wrong by accident. When, for instance, we are involved in an automobile accident and someone is harmed or injured, if we are obeying the speed limit and we skidded on some hard-to-see oil on the highway, then we would be judged far less severely than if we had been driving while under the influence of alcohol. In the first instance, we would have harmed an innocent person indirectly. We would not have consciously intended it, nor would we have done anything within our reasonable power to bring about the injury. In the second instance, we would be much more directly responsible for harming an innocent person, because we had done something wrong – the drinking – that led to the injury.
In sum, then, because abortion is the direct taking of innocent life, it is always and everywhere wrong, no matter what the circumstances or the intention of the person doing it. Consequently, it may never be done.