Human rights aren’t only to be defended when it’s popular

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

“The process of eroding the old ethic and substituting the new has already begun. It may be seen most clearly in changing attitudes toward human abortion. In defiance of the long held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status, abortion is becoming accepted by society as moral, right, and even necessary. It is worth noting that this shift in public attitude has affected the churches, the laws, and public policy rather than the reverse.

“Since the old ethic has not yet been fully replaced, it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extrauterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected.”

The above paragraph is from an editorial that appeared originally in California Medicine, the official journal of the California Medical Association in the September 1970 issue, volume 113, no. 3. This editorial was written two and a half years before the U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton) that struck down every state law limiting abortion and, in effect, made abortion legal through all nine months of pregnancy.

Justice Harry Blackmun in his articulation of the fundamental premise for the majority opinion of the Roe v. Wade decision stated: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins when those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus.” To borrow a word from California Medicine’s editorial, this gratuitous assertion by Justice Blackmun could be considered “ludicrous” if its consequences had not been so devastating.

Perhaps at an earlier moment in history, when we were less certain about human biology, one could excuse efforts for state-sanctioned abortions to be the result of a lack of information. All of the scientific efforts to develop chemical contraceptives reveal the scientific awareness of the significance of the moment of conception. In 1978, only five years after Justice Blackmun’s assertion in Roe v. Wade, Louise Brown, the first so-called “test tube baby,” was born. Obviously, scientists clearly understood the only way to make the birth of Louise Brown possible was to simulate conception in the laboratory.

Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, in his recent book, “A Civilization of Love,” points out how the Supreme Court carefully selected the cases chosen for their basis for a review of abortion jurisprudence. At the same moment, while Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton were working their way up through the appellate court system, there was another case, Bryn v. New York City Health and Hospital Corporation.

In 1970 abortion had been legalized for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in the State of New York. Robert Bryn, a Fordham University law professor, was able to gain appointment as a legal guardian for all unborn children under 24 weeks gestation in New York state. Professor Bryn petitioned the Court that the New York state law be ruled as unconstitutional because it violated the unborn child’s constitutionally protected right to life. Professor Bryn provided the Court with extensive expert testimony on the biological humanity of the unborn child. The majority of the Court admitted it was unable to refute the scientific testimony regarding the beginning of human life, but went on to uphold the New York statute. The Court concluded whether one was considered a person under the law did not depend on science but was a policy question that could be determined by a legislature or court.

Judge Adrian Burke, who dissented from the majority opinion, was disturbed by the rationale on which the majority premised their decision. He wrote: “This argument was not only made by Nazi lawyers and judges at Nuremberg, but also is advanced today by the Soviets in Eastern Europe. It is and was rejected by most western lawyers and judges because it conflicts with natural justice and is, in essence, irrational.”

During a recent “Meet the Press” interview, Senator Joseph Biden, in response to a question on when human life begins, said that as a Catholic he accepts the church’s teaching that it begins at conception, but as a legislator, he cannot impose his belief on others. Senator Biden, similar to Speaker Nancy Pelosi a few weeks earlier, took it upon himself to interpret Catholic tradition and teaching. Conveniently, Senator Biden ignored the clear moral teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas that abortion was a grave moral evil at any stage of a pregnancy, but latched onto his theory of ensoulment based on 12th-century biology.

Senator Biden, aware of one of the vulnerabilities of his position, brought up a comparison between opposing abortion and opposing fascism. Evidently, he was attempting to make the point that even though he opposed fascism in part based on the teachings of his Catholic faith, it was acceptable for him — as a legislator — to work against fascism, because he stated: “No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.” While this is perhaps true today, it was not true in the 1920s and 1930s when Benito Mussolini was elected in Italy and Adolph Hitler was elected in Germany. Similarly, in our own nation until the Civil War, many decent and even religious people defended the institution of slavery. It is easy and unnecessary to oppose fascism or slavery today once it has been discredited by history and is no longer accepted by the vast majority of people.

Senator Biden’s position of being personally opposed to abortion but supportive of state-sanctioned abortion is wrong on numerous counts. It is wrong because the scientific evidence is overwhelming in the determination that human life begins at conception. It is wrong because it is morally incoherent to believe life begins at conception and fail to do everything possible to defend it. It is wrong because fundamental human rights are God-given and cannot be denied by legislative majorities or judicial opinions. It is wrong because it fails to defend human rights when such a defense is unpopular.

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