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State of the Unborn (7870)

A Register editorial on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

01/21/2011 Comments (3)
2008 CNS illustration/Emily Thompson

An illustration depicts a human fetus in a womb.

– 2008 CNS illustration/Emily Thompson


The state of the unborn is not strong.

If you were an unborn baby, and if you were aware of all your “options,” you might think of them in these terms:

“I could have a nice life in here for the next nine months. This is what Mommy went through once, a long time ago, and now she’s bringing me into the world. I hope I can have a baby of my own some day.”

Or: “My life could end in any number of ways. If I don’t die naturally, I could be pulled out with a vacuum device. I could be torn apart with surgical instruments. I could be scalded to death with a saline solution. I could be allowed to proceed down the birth canal and have my brains sucked out before I’m allowed to be fully born.”

“If my mother doesn’t know for sure that I’m here, and she’s afraid she might be pregnant, she could take a large dose of birth control pills and make it extremely difficult for me to settle in. Then I’d just starve to death, mostly unnoticed.”

“The doctor did a test on me, and they think there’s something wrong. My parents say they don’t want to put me through ‘suffering’ in life, so they’re going to end it now.”

“I’m a girl. They wanted a boy.”

If you were conceived in a Petri dish, you would have other options:

“I might be implanted and allowed to develop so Mommy and Daddy get the baby they were always hoping for. I’m so happy to be able to make them happy.”

Or: “I might be considered to be ‘too many,’ so I’ll have to be sacrificed so one or two of my siblings can grow to term and give Mommy and Daddy that happiness.”

Or: “I could be put on a shelf for some future time when Mommy and Daddy might be ready for me.”

Or: “It looks like I’m going to go in for surgery. They’re planning to remove something they find in me that they consider very precious, so that maybe someday other people will be cured of terrible diseases. I won’t live to see what it’s like out there, where all these people seem to be making such wonderful discoveries.”

From the unborn child’s perspective, life is precarious until birth. Or shortly after. Or, if ethicists like Peter Singer get their way, several weeks after.

Singer is the Princeton philosopher and animal-rights activist who argues that, in instances of “life that has begun very badly,” parents should be free to kill the child within 28 days after birth. That may seem far-fetched, but so did a lot of other things that are now commonplace. Once upon a time, most people assumed that when a woman was expecting, she was “going to have a baby.” There was little question about it. When abortion was first legalized, people argued that it would be used only rarely, for truly extraordinary cases, such as rape, incest or the life of the mother.

Today, approximately one out of four pregnancies worldwide ends in elective abortion. Catholic women, reportedly, end the lives of their children at a rate similar to other segments of the population. That’s tragic, because the Church has always been clear: An elective abortion is the unjust taking of a human life.

Cardinal John O’Connor, that great pro-life champion of the 1980s and 1990s, used to point out that “the law is a great teacher.” When something is made legal, people begin to believe that it is morally permissible too. The legality of abortion, which we mourn this month once again, 38 years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, has permeated the culture so much that many people see nothing wrong with what is still the unjust taking of an unborn human life. Even a Catholic hospital, St. Joseph’s in Phoenix, recently thought that it was within Catholic teaching to perform a particular abortion. The people in charge apparently confused their decision with the legitimate moral principle, recognized by the Church, of double effect, when one may, as long as there is no viable alternative that would preserve the life of the unborn child, aggressively treat a life-threatening condition even if the death of an unborn child is foreseen (though not intended). The child’s death, in such a case, results as an undesired byproduct of medical treatment, and it is not chosen as the means to saving the mother’s life.

But St. Joseph’s, when news of the abortion came out, “freely acknowledged that they terminated a pregnancy,” said Father John Ehrich, director of medical ethics in the Diocese of Phoenix. “They would say, ‘We had to terminate the pregnancy to save the life of the mother.’”

When those whom we expect to uphold what is right, according to what the Church teaches, go off track in this way, the state of the unborn is perilous indeed. We may be heartened that there are more pro-life representatives in Congress this year, that momentum seems to be building against the government’s attempts to force taxpayers to support abortion, that more states are legally recognizing that an abortion causes an unborn child pain. But before we can hope to put common sense back into public policy, we need to make sure that we who call ourselves Catholic understand and accept the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life. It’s no wonder, then, that Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted, after years of trying to work with St. Joseph’s on life issues, felt compelled to deny the hospital the right to call itself Catholic.

It’s customary for American presidents to summarize in their annual address to Congress, “The state of the union is strong.” Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the state of the unborn.

When President Obama ascends to the podium in Congress later this month to deliver his second State of the Union address, we will be praying that the coming years will see a stronger and stronger state of the unborn. In fact, we pray that someday, when a future president speaks of the state of the union, it will naturally be assumed by all that the union includes all citizens, both born and unborn.

Filed under abortion, roe v wade, unborn