The American bishops cue up firmly against abortion. Their argument reduces to this: no one may morally destroy innocent human life. They rarely engage in discussion concerning the complexity behind that facile statement. Points that may lead to a deeper and considered examination of this moral position bear elucidation.
In the first place, neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the Christian New Testament speak directly about abortion. The bishops, supposedly experts on revelation as revealed in these Scriptures, may claim no such inspiration or expertise in genetics or biology. It seems both presumptous and unhelpful for them to pretend detailed, professional knowledge that they do not possess.
Biologists for their part may posit that life begins at the moment of conception. They cannot, however, determine one way or the other when that life becomes human life. The initial budding certainly has the potential to develop into human life; experts argue about what conditions realize that and what indicators prove its presence. The bishops, therefore, beg the question when they declare that no one may abort human life that begins at the moment of conception: at this scientific point in time that is precisely what remains unknown.
The bishops’ assertion depends, moreover, on an essentialistic view of human existence. When form shapes matter, an essence results; in this instance, when a spiritual soul through God’s action infuses matter, we have a human essence. Throughout Christian history, theologians have held a diversity of views as to when this infusion occurs, and have detailed reasons behind their favored position. Honesty requires, however, the admission that we simply do not know when this happens, if it does. If one understands life in an existentialistic framework, then humanness records a developing process, not an all-or-nothing, once-and-for-all given. Essentialists require proof of the moment of human actualization; existentialists seek evidence of the being’s ability to be in relationship.
From psychological observation and research we understand that a material body cannot develop into a human being except in relationship. Beings raised outside of human contexts, even though they physically appear to be human, cannot be “civilized”; they wither and expire in human capitivity. Deprived of nurturing warmth and attentive love, human babies shrivel up and eventually die. Human beings put into sensory deprivation and kept in inhumane isolation become unmoored, even succumbing to the terrors of insanity. Human life from this standpoint happens only in the context of relationship. Humanness requires a minimum of acceptance, warmth, and ongoing relationship for presence and growth. That obviously depends on the relationship, in the first instance, between a woman and the new life blossoming within her. As we learn through philosophy, by nature a human being is a social being. A human being does not first occur and later enter into relationship; a human being only happens in relationship. A fetus, therefore, only becomes human in relationship to its mother: no relationship, no human.
From both a moral and a political position, the Bishops’ anti-abortion platform strains credulity. Based on a rational ethic that asserts survival as the ultimate good, it allows post-natal violence against human beings in self-defense, through captital punishment, and during war. Yet using that same ethic it categorically denies that pre-natal violence may at times be a moral response to preserve human life. It justifies this by appealing to the innocence of the pre-natal being. Illogically, however, it does not condemn post-natal violence that often and usually kills innocent embyros and fetuses in wombs, babies in their parents’ care, children below the age of moral responsibility, and blameless civilians. Why no conscientious outrage over the incineration of the innocent in Nagasaki, the carpet-bombing of the innocent in Dresden, the “shock and awe” of the innocent trembling among the guilty in Baghdad?
If the Catholic bishops embraced a moral position based on Christian ethics, it would be founded, not on survival which is assured for all who believe in Christ, but on the non-violent love which He preached and modeled. A Christian ethic would prohibit all violence against human life, both post-natal and pre-natal. The instant the bishops espouse that position as the clear teaching of Christ is the moment that reasonable and thinking persons may reject abortion.
I suspect a political motivation behind the bishops’ strenuous assuming of anti-abortion rhetoric. They are employing the “apple pie and American flag defense.” Shown to be bereft of leadership qualities, exposed as lacking respect for their own people equal to their protection of the Church, afraid to outlaw all violence as demanded by Christ, a position frowned upon by self-protective civil authorities, they assert instead what all compassionate people must uphold, i.e. you must not kill babies. Indeed, any good person would agree with that. The obvious query, however, remains: when does a being become human? An animal that looks like a duck must perform like a duck before we will declare that it truly is, from beak to paddles, a duck.