Helplessness of unborn demands we give protection with law
Failure to protect against abortion is an injustice against innocent unborn
Pope Francis told the US Congress in 2015 the aim of politics was to protect, with law, “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face”. Photograph: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Peter Boylan recalls that while training in London his views on abortion began to change. In discussions with a Jewish colleague about foetal abnormality, he concluded that “these people were civilised, highly educated, thoughtful and caring. Just because they had grown up with different religious beliefs or values, they weren’t bad people”.
He goes on: “We don’t believe France or Scandinavia are abnormal or evil societies, yet there is an attitude in this country that what they are doing is morally wrong.”
Two things strike me about these remarks. The first concerns the principal objection to abortion, which the interview with Dr Boylan does not reveal. The second concerns the ambiguity of political culture.
The principal objection to abortion is that it is an act of injustice against an innocent human being against which there is no remedy for the victim. That is it in a nutshell. The innocence of the unborn is striking as their dependence makes them especially vulnerable. The pressures on their mothers may be overwhelming too, sometimes from those who fail to support them or stand in solidarity with them.
In an essay on his conversion to Christianity, John Rist, an English classicist and philosopher, recalled that abortion was a question of justice for him. Recalling his experience in the UK in the 1960s he observed that “the unborn are not only innocent; they are incapable of intending evil or doing anything by their own deliberate action which is in any way harmful or dangerous to anyone”.
It is for this reason, their innocence and helplessness that unborn children are also entitled to the protection of the law. This is not contingent on their strength. However weak, fragile and uncertain their future may be, it is arbitrary for doctors to judge the worth of their lives, that it would be better for them not to be born at all.
It simply makes no sense to train doctors to look after the health and life of patients and then expect them to take part in something which is diametrically opposed
Like their mothers, unborn children are also patients. Doctors would hardly be developing microsurgery for babies in the womb if they didn’t regard babies as patients. The compartmentalisation required where abortion is practised by doctors can hardly make for consistency and a clear line of vision. This point seems to have been largely overlooked.
The reason for medical science is to care for the fragile and vulnerable human body. While treating any illness or condition in expectant mothers is essential, developing babies are also entitled to respect for their bodies, and their future projects and possibilities. This means defending their inviolability in our legal and medical culture.
The fact that doctors have technical skills which would enable them to kill is certainly not a reason for them to get involved in abortion. With some understatement, the American philosopher John Dolan said it would be “a mistake to expect physicians to be especially good at killing; the task conflicts too radically with their pledged aim”.
In fact, it is absurd to expect doctors to perform abortion. It simply makes no sense to train doctors to look after the health and life of patients and then expect them to take part in something which is diametrically opposed. The objection in principle to the international experience of abortion being repeated here is quite straightforward.
The second issue is the ambiguity of human history and political culture generally. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar noted how along with great achievements in civilisation in music, art, literature and philosophy, there were serious injustices and acts of oppression, such as war, oppression and exploitation.
Discerning judgments about other cultures, perhaps for that reason, resist judging entire countries as altogether deficient in virtue. It doesn’t mean being inattentive to the significant injustice involved in the failure to protect those who are unable to defend themselves.
In his visit to that most diverse country, the US, Pope Francis recalled that “each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility”. It is politicians who are called to defend and preserve human dignity, especially those who are “in situations of greater vulnerability or risk”.
That is the aim of politics: as the pope put it, to protect, by means of the law, “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face”.
Fr Seán MacGiollarnáth is a Carmelite Friar in Dublin city