This is not a pleasant column. I’m going to talk about something truly upsetting, and I doubt I’ll come to a satisfactory solution to what I believe is a great disgrace in our culture.

I’m not a lawyer, a doctor or a distinguished professor of ethics. But any guy with reasonable intelligence and the gumption to read a couple books can come up with a demanding question.

My question: “How do we define murder — specifically of a baby?”

One good place to look for the answer is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here is some of what it has to say:

“Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the Fifth Commandment: ‘Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.’ 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” (No. 2261).

“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (No. 2270).

That seems pretty clear. And the reaction of authorities to a situation that occurred recently in Chicago would seem to be in line with the prohibition on killing the innocent. As reported in the Feb. 22 Chicago Tribune: “An Edgewater woman was charged with murder after she induced labor, wrapped her newborn daughter in a robe, placed her in a plastic bag, then left her in a closet to die.”

May God have mercy on the baby and the mother. I don’t know why the mother did this horrible act, but I must assume it was out of desperation, fear, anger — some terrible cocktail of emotions that I can only try to imagine. And on top of this sadness, we have the inexplicable strangeness of the criminal law.

You see, an autopsy on the baby showed that it was breathing after birth. Therefore, despite the mother’s obvious attempt at self-serve abortion, to eliminate the baby she had to stop it from breathing after it was born. If the baby had not been breathing upon birth, the law would say this was either a miscarriage or a successful abortion. Thus, it would not have been murder in the eyes of the law.

Perhaps even stranger, past cases suggest that if she had killed the baby while its umbilical was still attached she would not have been charged with a criminal act because baby and mother were still attached. I suppose this is the same legal rationale that allows partial-birth abortion.

If the mother had gone to an abortion business and the folks there induced a miscarriage, the woman would not face any charges. This being Illinois, if the aborted baby had been breathing and appeared “viable,” the clinic would have an obligation to provide care for it. But at the risk of being cynical, I expect that in such a situation a way is found by the abortion clinic to make sure the baby isn’t viable.

Here in Illinois, we had a case in which a pregnant woman was assaulted, resulting in the death of her unborn baby. The assailant was charged with murder — of the unborn baby. If the assault occurred while the woman was on the way to get an abortion, would there still be a charge of murder? If an unborn baby is considered a person who can be murdered, why is an unborn baby who is aborted not a person?

As I said at the outset, I have the question but not the answer. But if I take the Catechism as my law, killing a person before or after birth certainly ought to be murder. And I fear our society is going to pay a high price for not accepting this simple truth.

Revelation 6:10: “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’”

Jim Fair writes from Chicago.