On one bright, cold January day in the early 80’s I stood with a group of college students from North Carolina after the annual March for Life in Washington as we were received by Sen. Jesse Helms. He greeted us kindly and then regaled us with a few stories with that combination of gentility and peasant common sense that Southern politicians now no longer dare display, unless they are very old or reckless of their careers. The senator told us of being accosted at the Republican Convention by a “lady” (which word he ironically emphasized, tripping slowly off the land shuffling across a long, wide a) who shouted, “Senator, why do you want to control my body?” He replied, “Ma’am, there may be a man in this broad land who has less desire to control your body than I do, but I don’t know who he is.” We all laughed merrily, as we imagined the confusion of the angry amazon. We were all convinced that the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” slogan was patently false. The innocent unborn child is, after all, a human person distinct from his mother, and his inalienable right to life is in no way dependent on her judgment or anyone else’s.
This is true as far as it goes, but, in fact, it goes too far. Not that our conviction about the dignity of human nature was wrong, but, in the sic et non of a serious disputation, we should have been convicted of not being sharp enough to notice the point of the objection implied in the poor woman’s rhetorical question. The old scholastics used to say, “Qui nimis probat, nihil probat” (“He who proves too much proves nothing”). Pro-lifers (among whom I include myself), then as now, tend to argue their point in a way that, in the long run, is bound to be self-defeating. They avoid asserting the currently unpleasant truths that must underlie their position in the concrete and claim to know more about the unborn than they could possibly know with certainty. “Seldom deny, often affirm, always distinguish” is the rule of sound and effective disputation. In fact, the feminist’s argument based on her personal, bodily autonomy points to a not-at-all irrelevant aspect of human life that must be understood from the start when dealing with natural rights.
To put it bluntly, even though we deny absolutely her conclusion that she may freely kill her child, we nonetheless answer the “lady” with a double, if only partial, concession to the premises implied in her question: “Yes, as a man prohibiting you from having an abortion, I want to control your body” and “Yes, the child is a part of you, and he does not have strict rights over you.” Let us hear what Thomas Aquinas has to say, keeping in mind that his use of father and son is also virtually inclusive of the notions of mother and daughter:
That which is the object of a right, or is just, is said to be so by way of a proportion of one to another. An “other” can be said in two ways. One way is that whereby a thing is simply other, as being entirely distinct, as in the case of two men, one of whom is not subject to the other, but both are subject under one head of state. Among these, as the Philosopher says in the fifth book of the Ethics, there is found a right or the just simply or strictly so-called. Another way a thing is other, is when it is not so simply or strictly, but as something belonging. In this way, in human affairs a son belongs to his father, since he is in a certain sense part of him, as it says in the seventh book of the Ethics. . . . And so the proportion between father and son is not as of things simply other, and consequently there is not found in their relation the just or right simply, but a certain kind of right, namely paternal right. . . . A wife belongs to her husband, since she is proportioned to him as though she were his own body, as is clear from the Apostle in Ephesians 5. Even so, she is more to be distinguished from her husband than the son is from the father . . . and so as the Philosopher says there is more of simple justice between husband and wife than between father and son . . . but even so the justice between them is not simply political, but rather domestic justice. . . . Since it pertains to justice to render to each his right, granting the difference between one and the other, if then someone were to give himself what was due himself, this would not properly be justice . . . therefore there is no justice strictly speaking from father to son . . . It is to be asserted that a son insofar as he is a son belongs to his father, but insofar as he is considered as a man, then in some sense there is justice from the father to him. On this account there are also some laws which regard the rights of sons from their fathers . . . Even so, insofar as they belong to each other, there will be lacking the perfect form of rights or justice [Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 57, a. 4].
Could it be that to argue the case against abortion solely on the basis of the humanity of the unborn (which, of course, we grant) ignores the immediate, proximate moral context of abortion—that of parenthood and the union of man and woman in one flesh? Long before the discovery of ovulation and modern genetics and the consequent dialectical arguments for the personhood of the unborn from fertilization on, abortion was always held to be a grave evil simply by virtue of the natural relationship between parent and offspring. Aquinas regarded abortion as “a grave sin, reckoned a crime and contrary to nature, since even beasts await the development of the fetus, even though it is less grave than a homicide, if it could be that animation has been prevented” (Commentary on the Sentences IV, d. 31, ex.).
An exclusive emphasis on the independent, personal rights of the unborn misrepresents the nature of his relationship to his parents and tends to deprive the pro-life position of what is perhaps the most efficacious motive for forbidding and preventing abortion—the bodily bond between a man and woman and their fetus, a veritable first principle of natural law:
A natural right is that which by its very nature is proportioned to another . . . this can be the case according to one’s nature considered absolutely, as the male has by his very essence as male a proportion to the female that he might beget by her, and a parent to a child that he might care for him. . . . Now to consider something absolutely is not only a characteristic of man, but also of other animals, and so that which is called a natural right in this way is common to us and other animals [Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 57, a. 3].
No reasonable person, educated or not, truly doubts that an abortion is undergone precisely to take a human life already begun. What is lacking in our society is not the awareness of this fact but the sense that procreation begets an obligation to care for what you have brought forth. A man and a woman must care for what they conceive, if they are not to be less reasonable than beasts. “Adoption, Not Abortion” is a fine practical solution to what is, morally speaking, an extreme situation. A society in which there is no shame either in killing or giving away your own children, however, is not one in which many will be found willing to care for someone else’s.
In a sense, a positive law that would define human life in order to protect it, like a law defining marriage, would be a proclamation that a society had become so unnatural, so much less perceptive than the birds and the bees, that it has to try to prove the self-evident, an impossible task that is doomed to frustration and is evidence of madness or despair. Although it is certain that even an unborn child has rights in the relative sense given by Aquinas, abortion would be far more efficaciously prevented by support and esteem for the natural right of parenthood. It is the lack of this, rather than of any speculative notion of the rights and dignity of the human person as such, that drives so many to kill their own offspring.
The commandment that most persuasively attacks the evil of abortion is not “Thou shalt not kill” but “Honor thy father and thy mother.” It is to the observance of this that the promise of life is attached: “that thy life may be long on the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” If the natural, binding force of blood relationships is strong in a people, few will kill, neglect, abuse, or give up their children. Merely being a human person is barely ever the proximate foundation for any morally binding relationship; being father, mother, son, daughter, as also boss, worker, ruler, subject, is, however. When a particular reality is obscure and its immediate causes unknown, we legitimately have recourse to remote and universal causes to provide what understanding we can have; when the immediate causes are evident, however, then recourse to more general ones is unconvincing and unhelpful. If I drop a potted plant on the head of my neighbor in the apartment balcony below, I cannot excuse myself by invoking the law of gravity, even though it indicates a true cause of the mishap. So, too, between “Spare Your Own Child” and “Respect Life,” there can be little doubt as to which command is more apt to convince. In this way, too, the mindset behind a “Million Man March” would do more to stop abortions than any “March for Life.”
Perhaps the soundest political strategy to prevent abortion would be along the lines of those laws whereby parents are able to prevent a minor daughter’s abortion. Irrespective of the age of the mother, the father’s right to prevent the abortion could be legally recognized—even the right of anyone who is a direct natural or legal ancestor of the unborn child willing to take the responsibility of caring for him. If the law were to recognize the compelling interest a family has in its young, the binding nature of kinship, this might go further to overcome the casual disrespect for human life that characterizes America today than would simply restricting abortion in one or another form, or at one or another time. Our society will never respect the unborn if our families do not. If fathers and grandparents knew they could stop the abortion, if doctors knew they could be imprisoned for performing them without the family’s explicit consent, a real moral pressure could be exerted, which would save lives.
The unborn are not simply human beings: They are our sons and daughters, our grandchildren, our brothers and sisters, our cousins, nieces and nephews. The Kantian cult of morally autonomous human personhood—the vulgar corruption (or natural consequence!) of which has led to a denial of natural rights so complete that motherhood includes the right to kill your child as though he were an unjust aggressor on your autonomy—can hardly be trusted to provide a remedy for the evil it engendered in the first place. Is abortion simply a matter of the evaluation of the rights of human persons, or is it more obviously the violent destruction of a natural relationship, a mother killing her child? Human society is not just a collection of persons, it is a moral union of those who share a common nature. And nature means precisely “birth.”
Elaborate speculative, phenomenological arguments can be composed to assert the strict personhood of the zygote. These might be true, even if uncertain. The ancient and medieval Christian tradition, however, which far more successfully opposed infanticide than does modern personalism, did not base its horror of abortion on arguments for the personhood of the unborn but on the natural relationships necessary for procreation. Some current “pro-life” arguments—like one in a recent Roman Catholic clerical review—so relativize the dignity of the relationship of parent to child that they do not notice or take seriously the obvious objection to the full human animation and personhood of the zygote that arises from the case of identical twins. If the zygote is an actual human person, then the first must be, from a strict philosophical perspective, the parent of any which follow from it, though they will likely never know which is which. Such is the brave new world of personalist anatomy! Its conclusions about the absolute immorality of abortion and other forms of manipulation of human life are utterly sound, but its arguments will not help to end abortion or its laboratory equivalents in the concrete. They are like the natural law of Romans 1; they increase the culpability of the wicked without moving them to do what is right.
The perspective of the Epistle to the Romans is indeed the ultimate foil both for injustice and for inefficacious means of overcoming it. Abraham was commanded by God to offer his only son in sacrifice after receiving the promise of an innumerable descent, and yet “in the promise of God he staggered not by distrust, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, most fully knowing that whatsoever he has promised, He is also able to perform, and therefore it was reputed to him unto justice” (Romans 4).
Thomas Aquinas answers the objection that natural law is mutable because God Himself commanded Abraham to kill his innocent son, ordered the Jews to take the precious vessels of the Egyptians, and ordered Hosea to marry a fornicatress. His response is telling:
Everyone dies by a natural death, both the innocent and the guilty, which natural death was induced by the divine power on account of original sin . . . And thus death can be inflicted on any man, innocent or not without any injustice if it is commanded by God. Similarly adultery is commerce with another’s wife, who is deputed to him according to a law established by God, whence it is that if a man approaches any woman by a divine decree, this is neither adultery or fornication, and the same rationale holds for theft . . . so not only in human affairs is whatever is commanded by God due Him, but even on the level of mere nature whatever is from God, is in some sense natural [Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 94, a. 5].
In the end, abortion is contrary to the natural right because it is an offense against God, on whom the whole dignity of a human person depends. The sin committed by parents who reject the child of their own flesh is a worse evil than the child’s own death, which will, in any case, occur sooner or later. The honor due to God, by the observance of His law, is the highest norm, not the dignity of any of His creatures. He will judge as done to Himself what, of good or ill, we did to His rational handiwork.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V, in the constitution Effraenatam, decreed that those who procure abortion by any means “of the immature fetus, whether animate or inanimate, formed or unformed,” should be subject to the penalties established in civil and canon law for homicides. Why? Because this crime was especially horrible in that it deprived the child, by the loss of Baptism, of “the blessed vision of God,” and God “of the service of His creature” and because “the fecundity of the one who bears children is a divine gift.” The priority of the maternal bond over the concrete personal status of the child, and the assertion of the priority of God and grace over the creature and personal freedom of choice that are implied in his decree, leave the modern pro-lifer uncomfortable. Yet this unease is just the faint and disfiguring impression in the hearts of the just of the outright hatred of family and of God found in the unjust. May that same God efface this dangerous trace from our hearts. Otherwise, we may be “pro-lifers” who are on the side of the First Lady—who, as Aquinas has shown us, has less moral sense than a beast’s—who told us around a decade ago that “family means to us whatever it means to you,” and not on the right side of the Psalmist’s curses:
May they be like a woman’s abortion that never sees the sun [Psalm 58: 9 in the Hebrew].
Blessed is he, O Daughter of Babylon, who shall hold
and dash your little ones against the rock [Psalm 137: 8].