Paraphrasing John Adams, intrinsic evil acts are stubborn things. The Fifth Commandment prohibits murder. Abortion is murder. It is always and everywhere wrong. A person who commits — or formally cooperates in a direct abortion — is guilty of murder. The early Church document — the Didache — taught: “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten.” The ancient Greek Hippocratic Oath also opposed abortion. Doctors promised: “…not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.”
In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae:
…taking up the words of the [Second Vatican] Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: ‘Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.’
Most modern political entities prohibit murder and punish murderers because the violence undermines public safety and threatens the common good. Many do not recognize the humanity of unborn babies even though abortion undermines general reverence for life. Further, many who acknowledge an unborn baby’s right to life are hesitant to believe the right is a moral absolute. So the comparison with slavery is instructive.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial treats abortion like the United States treated slavery in the 19th century. Phil Lawler comments: “…the Journal has adopted the approach to ‘popular sovereignty’ once championed by Stephen Douglas, in his debates with Abraham Lincoln. Douglas won the election that year. He took a balanced, reasonable approach. He was a solid, honorable legislator. (‘So are they all, all honorable men…’) But the face of Douglas is not carved into Mount Rushmore, and his memorial is not on the National Mall.”
Abraham Lincoln was also a practical politician, outlawing slavery incrementally. He awaited the military (relative) success at Antietam before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln’s proclamation declared: “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The Proclamation did not put an end to slavery. It was a military measure and applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control. Abolitionists were initially unhappy. But Frederick Douglas – the ex-slave abolitionist — came to appreciate Lincoln’s political maneuvering as necessary to win the Civil War. The total abolition of slavery would have to wait.
Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery in 1865, and the states ratified the Amendment by the end of the year. Later in the decade, the 14th and 15th Amendments established full civil rights for the freed slaves.
Minus a bloody civil war, granting the right to life to unborn babies from conception might follow a similar protracted path beginning with the enactment of pro-life legislation in the states. (Although the war is already bloody with mangled bodies of tiny babies on the surgical operating table.) Persuading most Americans that direct abortion is murder and intrinsically evil will be arduous, and we can expect unavoidable political and legislative compromises along the way. The Wall Street Journal ably describes the challenge but misses an essential emphasis. Direct abortion is intrinsically evil – murder — always and everywhere wrong.
The Journal’s warning on the limits of pro-life legislation has political merit in its realism. However, it fails to instill a sense of urgency in opposing a terrible injustice that even exceeds the injustice of slavery. Substitute “slavery” for “abortion” in the opening paragraph of the Journal’s editorial: “The press corps is making a big deal of the defeat of the Kansas slavery referendum on Tuesday, and for once they’re right. The 20-or-so point rout of the effort to strip slavery protections from the state constitution is a message to Republicans and the anti-slavery movement that a total ban isn’t popular even in a right-leaning state.”
The limitations of the political process are indisputable. But we must never make peace with deeply flawed abortion legislation, however necessary the increments may be.
Pope John Paul II acknowledged as much when he wrote in Evangelium Vitae:
The Church well knows that it is difficult to mount an effective legal defence of life in pluralistic democracies, because of the presence of strong cultural currents with differing outlooks. At the same time, certain that moral truth cannot fail to make its presence deeply felt in every conscience, the Church encourages political leaders, starting with those who are Christians, not to give in, but to make those choices which, taking into account what is realistically attainable, will lead to the re-establishment of a just order in the defence and promotion of the value of life.
We may legitimately delight in defective legislation that incrementally reduces the number of abortions. But we cannot permit our politicians to forget that direct abortion is intrinsically evil. We cannot rest until our civil laws coincide with God’s decree and fundamental law of human nature: Thou shalt not murder.
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