“It is true that the decision to have an abortion is often tragic and painful for the mother, insofar as the decision to rid herself of the fruit of conception is not made for purely selfish reasons or out of convenience, but out of a desire to protect certain important values such as her own health or a decent standard of living for the other members of the family. Sometimes it is feared that the child to be born would live in such conditions that it would be better if the birth did not take place. Nevertheless, these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”
─ Pope St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 58
Is human life intrinsically sacred, or is it only valuable when it meets certain criteria? So much rides on how we answer this question. The Judeo-Christian answer is that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and that as a consequence every human person, regardless of their characteristics, possesses the same moral worth as any other.
However, there is another view. This was the view explicitly defended by eugenicists in the early twentieth century. And it is the view implicitly present in countless acts of genocide, murder, and enslavement across history. According to this view, certain humans possess less value than others, based upon the extent to which they exhibit various traits or abilities, and hence can be exploited or eliminated by those with more value or power.
Whether he realized it or not, this latter view is the one expressed in recent days by a U.S. representative during a House Energy and Commerce Committee debate on the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment is a long-standing amendment appended to fiscal legislation that prevents taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortions. Rep. Raul Ruiz of California argued during the debate, however, that funding is necessary in cases of so-called “therapeutic abortions,” including cases where the unborn child is suffering from various health conditions.
“Discontinuing a pregnancy is medically indicated [i.e. medically defensible or suggested] when there is anencephaly, a developmental disorder in the formation of the neural tube that can result in a failure of the brain, skull, scalp to develop,” said Rep. Ruiz. He went on to list a variety of other “abnormalities” or circumstances – including hydrocephalus, Potter syndrome, and “selective reduction” – that might justify these “therapeutic terminations.”
Hiring a ‘Hitman’
I write often about the deceptive language used by pro-abortion activists to hide the evil that they are committing. “Therapeutic abortion” is one Orwellian term they created to suggest that abortion is no different from any other form of “health care.” The term is Orwellian because there is nothing “therapeutic” about the direct killing of another human being.
It is true that there are cases – ectopic pregnancy being the most commonly cited – where doctors must make very difficult decisions. Prioritizing equally the life of the unborn child and his or her mother, doctors may sometimes licitly pursue treatments that unintentionally and indirectly lead to the death of the unborn child. However, not only is this extremely rare, it is also not a case of abortion.
In a statement on this matter, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified: “it is necessary to make a strong distinction between two different situations: on the one hand, a procedure that directly causes the death of the fetus, sometimes inappropriately called ‘therapeutic’ abortion, which can never be licit in that it is the direct killing of an innocent human being; on the other hand, a procedure not abortive in itself that can have, as a collateral consequence, the death of the child.”
In the cases cited by Rep. Ruiz, there is no therapeutic outcome. Even if the child in the womb is suffering from a condition that may cause him to die either before or after birth, there is no medical benefit to deliberately killing the child. Killing cures no disease, it merely eradicates the one with the disease.
Pope Francis has repeatedly compared the act of aborting a child in these cases to hiring a “hitman.” “Is it legitimate to take out a human life to solve a problem?” the Holy Father asked attendees at the Vatican in 2019. “Is it permissible to contract a hitman to solve a problem?”
“Human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective purposes should be discouraged with strength,” he added.
The Horrific Logic of ‘Therapeutic’ Abortion
The mentality expressed by Ruiz horrifies me, in part because it isn’t clear where it ends. Rep. Ruiz did not mention Down syndrome, but we now live in a world where an overwhelming majority of children diagnosed with this condition are aborted. This, despite the fact that most people with Down syndrome live extremely happy lives.
As technology advances, however, scientists will be able to detect more and more potential “problems” with the developing unborn child, even some that do not amount to actual diseases or disabilities (e.g. the mere susceptibility to certain diseases, or less-than-desired IQ or physical robustness). What begins with a “therapeutic” justification, inevitably ends in outright eugenics.
Human beings are not animals. To deny their personhood is to walk down the same road that led us to slavery, the Holocaust, and countless other crimes. You’d think by now we would have learned our lesson. And yet, certain “enlightened” thinkers continue to openly defend the utilitarian view of the human being mentioned in the beginning of this column. The most famous, perhaps, is the philosopher Peter Singer, who teaches at Princeton.
In one passage in the book Rethinking Life and Death, he writes:
Once the religious mumbo‑jumbo surrounding the term ‘human’ has been stripped away, we may continue to see normal members of our species as possessing greater capacities of rationality, self‑consciousness, communication, and so on, than members of any other species; but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of each and every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be.
If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacity, both actual and potential, for rationality, self‑consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant … Some nonhuman animals are more like normal humans than are some more seriously damaged members of our own species … We cannot justifiably give more protection to the life of a human being than we give to a non‑human animal, if the human being clearly ranks lower on any possible scale of relevant characteristics than the animal.
Singer does not shy away from the implications of this inhuman view. Not only does he defend the abortion of children in the womb suffering from severe conditions, he has even defended infanticide, and, naturally, euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Since the child in the womb “has not developed the capacity to feel pain or feel anything,” and has “no degree of consciousness,” then it has no “moral status,” he writes. With cold directness, he adds, “it doesn’t even reach the level of the standard laboratory mammal. It’s more like a vegetative existence, a lettuce, if you like.”
Reclaiming the Sacredness of Life
It is almost unbelievable that someone in the highest echelons of academia can speak so callously and cruelly about human life.
And yet, we can give Singer “credit” for this: he is supremely logical. He begins with a certain premise – that human life is not intrinsically sacred – and follows it all the way through to its horrific conclusion: that human life that fails to exhibit certain traits is less valuable than that of animals, or even plants, and is dispensable.
Singer has gone so far wrong, because one of his first principles – the denial of the intrinsic value and sacredness of all human life – is catastrophically wrong. Consequently, anything that follows from that first principle is also wrong.
The problem is, it is often very difficult to argue about or get people to change their first principles. Instead of arguing about the principle itself, often the best way of responding is to show them the negative consequences of their mistaken principle. Another way is to show them the better consequences of the opposite principle.
If Singer’s erroneous first principle (i.e. that human life is not sacred) leads, as I believe, to the Gulag, the Christian first principle is the only one that leads to a truly humane society, and a meaningful and fully human life.
Here, I think of the selflessness and heroism of so many parents who, faced with a difficult diagnosis about their unborn child, embrace the life of their child, and any challenges that might come along with his or her disabilities. Pro-abortion doctors recommend (and even push) abortion, under the conviction that this will “help” the parents. For some reason, they never seem to even consider the ways that embracing the challenges of having a child with disabilities might enrich and humanize the life of the parents.
But that is what parents consistently report. There are so many stories of parents – both pro-life and pro-choice – who have chosen to welcome their child, regardless of his or her disabilities, and who have found the experience profoundly meaningful and healing. This is true even in cases where the child either dies in utero or within minutes of birth.
Just read these words by one young mother who chose to keep her child (whom she named Lily) diagnosed in utero with anencephaly, comparing her love for Lily to that she has for her healthy son Ted:
She is worth every second of our sorrow and grief. She is worth every tear. Worth every contraction and minute of labor. Worth every lonely night and broken-hearted night that I don’t get to hold her in my arms. In fact, her worth is why we grieve. I love Ted with every ounce of my being and my love for Lily is the same. My heart aches all day long when I think that I don’t get to keep her. When I think about Ted growing up without his sister, I have such a heavy heart.
There is death and suffering in this life. But we do not find happiness and meaning by running away from them. It is, rather, by embracing them, and elevating them by finding the transcendent meaning present in them, that humans live lives worthy of our nature as rational, immortal beings. Those who, like Rep. Ruiz, defend or promote abortion in cases of disability believe they are helping by eliminating suffering; but in reality, they are robbing the parents of such children (and society itself) of the chance of loving their child and deepening their own lives.
They are also robbing the child of the opportunity to live his or her own life, however brief it might be, to the fullest. Though it is true that some of the children diagnosed with severe conditions will die in the womb as doctors predicted, there are many cases where the doctors’ diagnosis turns out to be mistaken. In the most astounding cases, children have been born perfectly healthy, without a trace of the disease they were said to have. In other cases, the children live days, months, or years longer than they were supposed to.
Legislators like Rep. Ruiz and health care workers are supposed to defend human life and human rights. We must pray that they resist the diabolic “logic” of the culture of death, so perfectly embodied in Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethics, and instead use their position and power to defend the intrinsic sacredness of all human life from conception to natural death.