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Regarding the issue of abortion, the Catholic Church is in error.
It is no blaspheme to say so. Theological standards require that infallible doctrine apply to the entire Church, and never target an individual or a particular group of people. The Church’s pronouncements against abortion, however, remove rights deemed universal exclusively from the pregnant.
The error applies specifically to abortion conducted before the point of viability, or the point at which a fetus is developed enough to live unattached to another human being. This error, in other words, applies to the vast majority of intentional termination.
Post-viability abortion is intrinsically different, in terms of both impact and intent.
In terms of intent, the person who has voluntarily endured six months or more of pregnancy is demonstrably planning to give birth. Personally (and legally, in almost every location) it would take nothing short of a calamitous prognosis at this point to convince doctors and parents that death is the best course of action. Most commonly, it is a fetal health anomaly guaranteeing the unborn a short life of struggle and pain, or a life like perpetual coma, without hope of interaction. In these cases, the end of pregnancy is incidental to the situation, not the ultimate goal.
Late-term abortion, in other words, is not abortion. It is euthanasia.
Though comprising a very small proportion of intentional termination, post-viability abortion is predominantly singled out by pro-life literature. Images of women with pronounced pregnant bellies, terms like “fetus,” and references to dismemberment are common indicators that the protester believes all abortions occur late-term. To make the case against it, some present graphic descriptions of the removal of the deceased’s body out-of-context, as though the unborn was killed in a manner without parallel. However, the method of death is, as prescribed with every act of euthanasia, lethal injection. The remains are collected in the manner least dangerous to the pregnant person (as is also the case with late-term miscarriage).
In terms of impact, there may be few circumstances where post-viability abortion occurs in defense of life, as gestation can usually be ended by an induced, non-lethal early labor involving the same degree of risk for the pregnant person as a late-stage termination.
Abortion pre-viability, however, constitutes the lowest threshold of force for the removal of risk from one person at the expense of another. It therefore constitutes legitimate self-defense and cannot be infallibly condemned.
Contrary to what has been claimed by some who are pro-life, pregnancy and childbirth always include a very real risk of dying. This is why people tend to give birth under the direct supervision of medical professionals who keep sterilized surgical equipment at the ready, and it is why, throughout gestation, doctors carefully monitor the pregnant person’s health. Pregnancy can cause spiking and plummeting blood pressure, deadly clots, strokes, and heart-attacks. Hormone-related psychosis, depression, and other disorders which (because of pregnancy) are not treated with prescription pills have even taken their share of lives via suicide. Everyone who died giving birth or under the cesarean knife would have lived had they instead chosen a safe, legal abortion during the typical first trimester.
Nor is there any knowing in advance who will die. Every pregnant one is risking death. Hence, every pregnant person is entitled to defend her own life in this manner.
Contrary to what some may argue specifically in this context, we are not obliged to shrug off risk to our own lives as unimportant when demise is not guaranteed. Nor are we expected to defend ourselves in a haphazard fashion; a less-than-certain hazard of death does not require a defense that is less-than-certain to kill. A moderate use of force requires rather that we are to employ in our own defense nothing in excess of the force required to remove the risk of death. Up until viability, lethal force is the minimum amount necessary to ending the pregnancy; hence, abortion is the moderate use of force.
Some do not like the categorization of abortion as self-defense for the reason that they would rather not place the unborn in the same category as any violent criminal. This, however, is bias – and it undermines one of the Catholic Church’s foundational teachings. That is, all people are equally, incalculably, precious. When removed from battle, a child-soldier, blameless and vulnerable, is to be shown the same mercy as the commanding warlord. The rights of others dictate, however, that while posing an active threat, either might be killed in self-protection.
Legitimate defense is not a proclamation of guilt, nor a dismissal of human value. No crime makes a person unworthy of living. It is simply the Church’s position that when two lives are in conflict, neither is obligated to forfeit for the good of the other. As the Catechism states, “one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”
The fact that the Church classifies abortion as a special kind of sin, resulting in instant excommunication for the pregnant person and doctors involved, emphasizes the targeted and discriminatory nature of this teaching. Unlike the soldier joining, in good faith, what seems to be a Just War, or the sovereign who orders the death of a citizen in pursuit of societal safety, the woman who is pregnant and chooses abortion (along with those who serve her) are presumed to be acting with mal intent and operating without the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The demonstrable good of her continued existence on this planet is not considered, or else is worth nothing, such that abortion is purported evil by nature.
In cases where the error of this assumption are glaring, Catholic thinkers have exercised mental acrobatics to deny it the medical context proclaimed by secular feminism.
In an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo is found developing without a uterus, it is clear that termination will save the life of the pregnant person, and that the unborn will otherwise not have long to live. Still, the preservation of one of those lives can only be accomplished by such pretended accident as might require, for instance, the removal of a woman’s fallopian tube.
In impact and action, this is abortion. A willing deed ends one life early and saves another. But, by a discriminating twist of logic, it is reasoned that intending the action that will certainly cause death is not the exact same thing as intending the death itself. So this is not abortion.
But it would be, if the embryo were removed through a tubal incision small enough to heal.
We see by this example that a condemnation of abortion requires that sanctity of heart and mind not meant to be trespassed, even by angels, to be plastered over with assigned purpose. Neither the woman seeking an abortion nor the doctors helping her are granted the privacy of their own intentions. For them, and only for them, benign intent must be externally demonstrated in order to exist. What satisfies the Church that they mean well, furthermore, is singularly the removal of a piece of her body. This is nothing but abortion pre-absolved – by the sacrifice of one’s fertility and the physical assurance of her lifelong suffering. It is an ordered corruption of indulgence.
Denying pregnant people their medical rights in order to maintain that abortion is wrong does nothing to disprove the medical nature of abortion. If sin cannot be justified by the avoidance of harm, then sin cannot be required as a condition for the avoidance of sin. Non-therapeutic amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations are explicitly-listed sins against bodily integrity. In this context, the removal of an entire fallopian tube is all of the above.
Consideration for respect of the person and scientific research led the Church to rule concretely that it is “not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.” As the best possible outcome of tubal removal for an ectopic embryo is the delay of death, such mutilation serves no ethical purpose. In removing a pregnant person’s risk of death entirely, however, direct abortion is an application of legitimate defense – in keeping with the fifth commandment and the spirit of defending life.
Nor is respect for the person to be undermined in the interests of saving life. The donation of one’s bodily organs is hailed by the Church as an act of love and compassion, but is “not morally acceptable” if the donor has not issued explicit consent.
Even when the donor body is no longer alive, and sharing of its parts endangers no one, it must be unambiguously established that the deceased had intended donation. In condemning abortion, the Church has established that the dead possess more rights than the living pregnant person. For, as has been pointed out, every act of pregnancy requires the donation of one’s organs and the accompanying compromise of one’s health.
Symptoms of a typical pregnancy would certainly be termed illness – and often severe illness – if experienced by any category other than the pregnant. Nine months is a long time to be so incapacitated, but many of these symptoms, such as tooth decay, have permanent effects. Childbirth and the major abdominal surgery known as cesarean sections are, of course, objectively damaging in the best of circumstances and require many weeks and months of medical recovery. Very often the person bringing life into the world sustains serious injuries rarely acknowledged. Tissue damage may result in enduring painful intercourse, lost libido, or incontinence. Irreparable pelvic fractures are also very common.
Explicitly, the Church holds as the organizing principle for the regulation of human bodies, the fifth commandment. The value of life. But where it is not argued that the individual is the appointed guardian of her own life, and it has not been established that the insides of our bodies are as private or as sacred as the insides of our minds, it is taken for granted that violations of body are wrong for the reason that they go against a certain order established by the Church.
Consent does not justify medical experimentation enacted voyeuristically. Consent is not the baseline for determining what constitutes a desecration of the dead. The Church establishes the order, and in so doing, places the human body firmly under its own jurisdiction. Ecclesiastical authority can say that pregnancy does not violate its integrity – even when bones break, muscles tear, and hearts stop. Even when the person who is pregnant does not will it, and is screaming for it to end. There can be no violation because, as regards the pregnant, it has established that this is what their bodies are for and this is what their lives are for.
The fact that sexual assault appears in the section of the Catechism listing sins against chastity, rather than those entailing sins against health, freedom, bodily integrity, or respect for the person, speaks further to this troubling assumption: it is the business of the Church to regulate, not the pure morality of how people treat one another, but the material usage of bodies. With relation to all things sexual, it is human reproduction the establishment seeks to command.
This is why, though it was never acceptable to kill an attempting rapist, it was once taught as valiant to kill yourself in the event that you were a virgin girl who otherwise would be raped. Saint Maria Goretti, who died fighting off a sexual predator, is still commemorated at the pulpit for “defending her virtue unto death.”
What sole, unspoken virtue could there be in a young woman’s death – except the prevention of a baby, whose very existence outside the bounds of sacrament would sully institution?
It is not by reasoning, but by the default prejudice known to feminists as “sexism” that we have always determined something in a woman more precious than her life. And by that same determination, we have reduced what life may be within her to exploited, “disposable biological material,” however hard we preach to the contrary.
When we include those zygotes who fail to implant, three-quarters of all persons conceived are never born. That the Church nevertheless will demand unprotected sex between married persons is a valuation unexamined. It states that an infant is worth the sacrifice of every life lost in utero. In the Church’s eyes, the born child is worth more – by far – than the zygote or the embryo.
The Church’s teachings against birth control further are a statement that allegiance to natural order as defined by institution are of greater import than human life or dignity. Science informs us, in fact, there are many more zygotes lost in the course of natural ovulation cycles than could be in the storied event of breakthrough ovulation, as it may occur within wombs too thinned by hormonal birth control to sustain life. Assuming hormonal birth control even does thin the uterine lining and hinder implantation. The jury is still out.
So, too, the teachings on marriage requiring openness to life, while maintaining that perpetual abstinence is sin. A discovery that one partner entered the union with no willingness to have children qualifies a union for annulment – a disavowal that true love ever existed. In pursuit of procreation, the Church makes the statement – never mind the fact that Jesus’ parents followed quite a different model – that this is what your marriage is for. This is what your love is for.
This is the context by which abortion is without conceivable merit. The great evil is not death – for all lives are equal and every child born requires the risk of another. What rankles so is the insubordination; the fact – the known fact – that a pregnant person made a choice about it.
Let it rankle and be known, however – the Virgin Mary is pro-choice.
It says so in the bible.
In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel does not frame it as question, but fact – that Mary the virgin will be overshadowed by the power of the Most High, will become pregnant and will give birth to a baby, whose job it will be to save all the people of God. (Luke 1:26-38). The Annunciation ends with Gabriel’s insistence that no word from God will ever fail.
Mary tells him, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your word.”
This is not a yielding, simple, sweet agreement. Mary’s first word is the literal demand – look at me. And, contrary to what most think, that line about being the handmaid of the Lord is anything but self-dismissal. For context, we need to look at the story immediately before the Annunciation – the one where Gabriel appears to Mary’s cousin, Zechariah.
Line by line, this conversation (Luke 1:5-20) reads as a foil for the second. Both visits begin with Gabriel suddenly appearing, telling the human not to be afraid, and proclaiming a boy will be born to change the fate of the world. In both cases, the human wants to know how it is even possible to expect a baby, given how old he is on the one hand and how unmarried she is on the other.
It is in answer to Zechariah’s skepticism that the angel self-identifies as a servant of God, whose words reflect God’s will. Then Gabriel tells the old man that, because he failed to believe the angel’s words, he will be silent until the prophecy comes true. (Accordingly, Zechariah can not speak again until he supports his wife in naming their baby John.)
When they come from an angel or a man in gleaming vestments, claims of serving God are hailed as proof of a special proximity to heaven. He uses this claim to imply that he, better than others, is able to decipher the Lord’s will. And if no word from God will fail, speaking for God makes one infallible.
But enter the maiden – poor and young. Never having commanded angelic legions in heaven’s defense, and making no claims to any standing in divine presence. She is bold for no reason – except faith. Where Zechariah was shut up by Gabriel’s humble-brags of higher service, Mary makes the angel look her in the eyes. Mary speaks of her own service to God. And Mary tells the angel famously, “Be it done unto me according to your word.”
So active and forceful is her consent – practically a command – the annunciation is painted as a sort of proposal in most biblical interpretations. But she answered a question that was never asked. By her yes, Mary asserts, against the angel’s presumption, that she has the right to say no.
This is a stand that flies in the face of erroneous Catholic teaching. The girl is not consenting to sexual activity that may or may not lead to pregnancy. She is consenting to her pregnancy in the moment after learning there is a person – with a name, a gender, and a destiny – whose life depends on her.
Mary’s faith in God was not the type of faith that could be blinded. She could not be silenced, like Zechariah, because she believed no word from God would ever fail – and if the word of God was in the angel who served her , she knew the word of God was in her own voice, too.
Mary’s love for God was not the type of love that would let her forget the dignity of her own person. So she told the angel yes, even though she wasn’t asked.
It was in that very act of choosing that Christ was made, before the angel’s eyes, from a perfect foretold prophecy to a person of flesh, who might be denied. Without that yes in honor of his mother’s personhood, there could be no honor given to the personhood of Christ.
Let Mary teach us, in a spirit of humility, to halt our quest for The Kingdom where it causes us to tramp beyond the veil of a breathing human’s flesh. We do not honor children by removing from their parents such rights as we still give to corpses.