Richard Norman explains the pro-life argument
‘The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere’ [Catechism of the Catholic Church 2261]
‘I am completely opposed to abortion, says Rees-Mogg’ [theguardian.com, 6 September 2017]
Moral opposition to abortion credits the unborn child with the right to life. In this article, I will explore the special character of this right, and the nature of (human) rights per se.
Various theories in moral philosophy attempt to explain the origin and nature of rights, which we might perhaps describe as those privileges enjoyed by individuals which others are called upon to recognize, facilitate or defend. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that human life ‘is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator’ . For Catholics, a certain right—the right to life—derives from a relationship, the relationship between human beings and God. Because God first wills the life of an individual, and then maintains a special relationship with the individual throughout his life, that person’s right to life is established.
Interestingly, the rights of the unborn child in certain strands of secular thought are similarly premised upon relationship. However, here it is the mother who, if she wills the life of her unborn child, establishes its right to life and thereby to medical treatment and state protection; whereas if she does not will its continuing existence the unborn child enjoys no right to life at all. To premise so important a right as the right to life upon the wishes of one other person seems problematic, because in similar situations there is no guarantee of similar rights.
Of course, the catalogue of rights we enjoy can vary under different circumstances—but can the right to life be said to involve any more significant validity? Yes, it can: a right may be categorized as foundational if it is required in order to guarantee the exercise of further rights. The right to life is foundational because no other right can be exercised without it.
However, the ‘pro-choice’ position on abortion asserts the primacy of a woman’s right to make personal reproductive choices. Again, this has about it a measure of ‘foundationality,’ because to continue a pregnancy impacts upon certain other rights and freedoms. But it cannot be said to be as foundational as the right to life, which therefore trumps the right to choose in a practical hierarchy. Put simply, the right to life is the pathway to a greater catalogue of additional rights than is the right to reproductive choice.
We can therefore find a strong moral basis for arguing in opposition to abortion, on the basis of the foundational character of the right to life. But recent public debate has focused more specifically on opposition to abortion in all circumstances, including in cases of incest and rape. Here again, the foundational character of the right to life is key. The right to life is foundational because it is certain that without it, no other rights could be exercised. It has a double nature, as (1) the vehicle for additional rights, and (2) the necessary condition for the exercise of those rights. Bearing this in mind is helpful when considering challenging cases, such as pregnancies resulting from incest or rape. Pro-choice proponents could assert that, in such instances, a mother has the right to avoid the mental distress which might result from carrying to term a child who was conceived as the result of rape. It could likewise be argued that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy where, on account of incest, or for other reasons, there is a likelihood of foetal abnormality.
These assertions fail on two accounts: first, the termination of a pregnancy is certain to result in a violation of the child’s right to life, whereas its continuation involves only the likelihood of the mother’s mental distress, or foetal abnormality. And, as already stated, the violation of the right to life is the more serious moral breach because the right to life is the vehicle for the exercise of the greatest number of additional rights.
Finally, there is the matter of the physical dependence of the unborn child upon the mother. Often, the pro-choice position conflates physical dependence with moral dependence, or inferiority. But comparable examples prove this conflation to be fallacious: consider, for example, a pair of Siamese twins, one of whom is dependent upon the other for life. The ‘less dependent’ of the pair has no right to end, or cause to end, the life of their sibling, whose right to life is independent and unique to him, and has the aforementioned foundational character which leads to it trumping other rights. (The case of Siamese twins about whom a decision must be made to save one life against the other is a separate moral issue, and has its own implications for this debate: the question there is how to deal with conflict between two foundational rights, which would appear to involve the reversal of our reasoning, arguing away from the right to life towards dependent rights, rather than arguing towards it.)
Fr Richard Norman is the Vicar of St George’s Bickley.