I was rather surprised when I saw that the Washington Post had recently published an op-ed by Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru; the topic was even more surprising: a discussion of how President Joe Biden’s stance on abortion is in direct conflict with his Catholic beliefs. Though the WaPo’s willingness to publish such content is worthy of commendation, the published letters responding to George’s and Ponnuru’s op-ed suggest how little effect their article seems to have had, given the manifest illogic of pro-choice readers.
Yet for their sake, and the sake of all interested in the abortion debate, it’s worth addressing arguments the WaPo deems worthy of print.
“Though some Christians may think abortion is murder,” notes Richard Dine of Silver Spring, Maryland, “people of other religions and many nonreligious Americans disagree. Because we are supposed to have religious freedom in the United States, the government should stay out of making this decision. Abortion should be legal.” Dine goes on to reprimand Republicans for “prioritiz[ing] abortion over everything else,” including “separating children at the border, encouraging corruption and lies, damaging the environment, and so many unnecessary deaths from the coronavirus thanks to former president Donald Trump.” That such people want a government to “force women to do their bidding,” he says, is “sad.”
Mr. Dine apparently assumes that criticisms of abortion originate solely from religious belief — a patently common and false presumption, given there are secularists, atheists, and agnostics who oppose abortion on philosophical and/or logical grounds. Moreover, even pro-life Catholics and other Christians have offered many non-religious pro-life arguments based on science, law, and philosophy, aimed at persuading even the most virulent of anti-religious skeptics. Perhaps more problematically is that Dine speciously asserts that arguments originating from a religious belief or impulse are somehow less legitimate than those that rely on materialist or utilitarian premises. Yet, as I’ve argued elsewhere, all political opinions stem from beliefs, whether they are religious or not. Indeed, those adhering to secular, progressivist dogmas can be far more ideological and intolerant in their zealotry than the religiously inclined.
Dine’s criticism of those prioritizing abortion over other evils is question-begging, in that it elides a pro-life understanding of the issue. If abortion truly is the murdering of innocent life, then of course it would trump many other issues — however important — including immigration, cronyism, and environmental degradation. And if abortion is truly murder, then the law can be used to coerce people not to commit it, even if such coercion is an alleged violation of “rights” or bodies. This is because the innocent life in the womb (and their bodies) has as much of a right to life as the mothers who carry them. What is truly “sad,” from a pro-life point of view, is that so many mothers have been persuaded to destroy their own children.
Marcia Hoogstra, from Washington D.C., writes: “It is disturbing that President Biden’s religion is ever mentioned as an issue.” She continues:
The U.S. government is religion-free, according to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. If you don’t believe in abortion, that is a religious decision, so don’t get one. If you believe that women should have control over their own bodies, then you are within the law and honoring the separation of church and state.
Hoogstra makes a similar mistake to Dine, as she believes that opposition to abortion is only motivated by religious belief—and that such religious belief is somehow less legitimate than non-religious beliefs. Yet Hoogstra’s assertion that Biden’s religion shouldn’t even be an issue is either blinkered or disingenuous. During the Democratic Party convention, Biden was constantly praised as a “man of faith” whose religious convictions informed his liberal politics. This messaging was an obvious, explicit attempt to outflank Republicans as the party representing people of religious faith. George and Ponnuru, in fact, are implicitly responding to that message. And as much as women have a right to control their bodies, they have a moral obligation to protect the other bodies within them.
Ed Takken of Alexandria, Virginia, takes issue with George and Ponnuru’s argument that modern science affirms that the life conceived in the womb is a “new and distinct member of the species Homo sapiens comes to be.” Takken presents a history of Catholic opposition to abortion that begins in the 1860s, when, he says, “science first realized that union of chromosomes from egg and sperm form the genetic inheritance of the future individual.” It was only then that the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion policy coalesced, he argues. Moreover, says Takken, “on average most fertilized eggs do not survive,” and thus life does not begin at conception. Finally, Takken argues, “Would God endow souls early just to have to turn around and rescue most of them from Limbo?”
Early Church fathers such as Sts. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Maximus the Confessor taught that human life begins at conception, and St. Augustine condemned abortion from conception onward. Popes Stephen V and Sixtus V opposed abortion at all stages of pregnancy. St. Thomas Aquinas also condemned abortion, regardless of when the soul enters the body. Furthermore, that most fertilized eggs do not survive is irrelevant to whether or not those fertilized eggs are human life. Indeed, Takken gives the game away by using the word “survive” — if something “survives,” then that presumes it is alive. Finally, while Limbo is not even a magisterial Catholic doctrine, yes, God’s omnipotence enables him to save every single last fertilized egg that does not survive, just as God can save anyone else he so pleases.
I’ve left the most absurd pro-abortion argument for last. Lynn Kearney of Arlington, Virginia, reprimands Catholic laypersons and clergy for forgetting “the church’s teachings on the primacy of conscience.” Kearney asserts: “We must follow our consciences and respect everyone else’s as a matter of charity. Yes, we must inform our consciences and seek the church’s counsel, but that does not mean that we must be dictated to.” She adds: “I have to respect the consciences of President Biden and all those whose consciences he respects.”
Kearney’s understanding of Catholic teaching on conscience, while fairly common, is deeply confused. One wonders, for example, if would Kearney argue that one must respect the conscience of a cannibal, child molester, or other such criminal? Would Kearney say we should not dictate moral norms to child pornographers? Would Kearney deem it permissible for another person, following his own conscience, to harass her, steal her possessions, and cause her bodily harm?
The Catholic Church does not teach, and has never taught, that conscience allows the committing of objective, moral evils that violate another persons’ rights. “In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person,” the Catechism teaches (§1907). To murder one’s child in utero is not a conscientious decision worthy of respect, for the same reason that murdering anyone is not to be respected; the life in the womb, as George and Ponnuru argue, is a member of the human species and a human person. In a 1974 document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed that man may not “take part in a propaganda campaign” in favor of a pro-abortion law, nor vote for it. “Moreover,” it reads, “he may not collaborate in its application.”
If the Catholic Church taught that people should not be “dictated to,” then it would vitiate its own moral authority. Of course Catholicism teaches people should be dictated to — otherwise there would be moral chaos. Does Ms. Kearney think that biblical and Magisterial teachings are mere suggestions that Catholics are free to obey if they like, and to disobey if they dislike? Yes, the Church teaches that conscience is to be protected and not coerced. But it also teaches there are consequences, both ecclesial and secular, for following a malformed conscience that leads to and results in evil: exclusion from reception of the Eucharist, public censure, and, when those evils violate secular law, legal prosecution and punishment. It is, frankly, a reflection of the moral impoverishment of American law that citizens are free to perform and procure abortions.
The responses to George and Ponnuru’s op-ed reflect another impoverishment: that of the logical quality of pro-abortion arguments. There are many non-religious reasons for opposing abortion; indeed the Church constantly communicates such truths precisely to persuade a secular world. That Catholic teaching on abortion has developed and crystalized over two centuries does not negate the fact that opposition to it can be found in Scripture, early Church Fathers, and many magisterial documents. And conscience is not a blank check to be used in pursue any moral action. Sadly, the consequences for failing to understand this means it remains lawful for American parents to deprive their own children of the right to life.
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