Even if a Million Deaths is a Statistic, a Single Death is a Tragedy
The reason Christians do not go to outrageous extremes over high medical statistics of miscarriage is simple really. We embrace life because we do not fear death.
One of the most jarring statistics in the abortion debate is that between 30 to 80 percent of fertilized eggs never survive to birth. These numbers come from medical studies. Some embryos fail to implant in the womb. Some miscarry after implantation. The rest die later as the fetus develops. If the upper estimates are true, then relatively few conceptions lead to newborn babies, and it is entirely possible that most humans are never born. That is difficult to imagine.
Yet as Catholics we honor the dignity of human life, and our logic is unflinching. If there is a human organism, there is a human life, and if human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception, then from the first moment of 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 (CCC 2270). Therefore, abortion is gravely contrary to the moral law. Considering the high miscarriage rate, however, the Church’s reasoning can seem extreme or unreasonable.
Miscarriage, after all, is a natural death. Abortion advocates are quick to ask, “If most embryos die anyway, what difference does it make if a woman chooses to use birth control or end a pregnancy?” Atheists jeer. “So, all those little souls are given a home in Mommy’s tummy, only to be killed by God before they even know they are alive?” And scientists provide the evidence with studies going back to the 1980s and marching to the present day (see 1988, 1995, 2010, 2015, 2017). Our opponents then wonder why pro-life fundamentalists do so little to fight against such an appalling epidemic of infant death. They wonder if we think women should go to the sheriff's office to get their tampons examined since, according to our delusional notions about human life, a tampon might contain a dead zygote, and the zygote has the rights of an adult.
This kind of rhetoric has been around as long as the statistics have. In 1985, Dr. John M. Goldenring at the New York Medical College argued in the Journal of Medical Ethics that the human embryo is not a “human being” until the organism has a functioning brain. He thought his “brain-life theory” proposed a legitimate compromise on abortion. If human organisms in the earliest stages of development are not human beings, then killing them is not unethical. In that paper, he also mocked those who disagree with him. Goldenring wrote that his brain-life theory would spare women who follow their logic to its end the need to “bury their menstrual flow with due religious ceremony on the chance that a spontaneous abortion has occurred.” He invoked civil society as the obvious support for his claim. No modern society advocates ceremonial rites for menstrual material, which would be akin to ancient superstition, because we all really know that human life does not begin at conception. Right?
Wrong. All derision aside, be assured that the logic of the Catholic Church is indeed sound and incontrovertible. Sneering is meant to intimidate and coerce the weak-minded in the absence of robust discourse. Let’s be brutally honest: the numbers are daunting. How is a woman supposed to be open to life if it most likely means facing death? (Been there.) How is a man supposed to oppose a woman’s choice for abortion if even God has deemed death before birth the norm? And what about the nonchalance on the part of Christians regarding all that death? UNICEF estimates that about 4.3 babies are born in the world each second. That could mean 10 babies per second die. How come Catholics don’t seem to care?
I struggled with this. Logically, yes, it means that we should react strongly to the massive death and loss, panic even, and I did for a while. But when I got past the shock, I dared to follow the logic further than Dr. Goldenring had because my faith demanded nothing less. Catholicism does not teach us to back down in horror in the face of difficulty.
Pro-abortion opponents easily forget that women can understand much about their bodies. They also seem unwilling to grasp that people are capable of unbounded love. My reasoning, as a Catholic woman, led me to this conclusion: If children are gifts (CCC 2378), then our fertility is a gift, and we ought to strive to understand our bodies. If we understand our bodies, then we are aware of its cycles. If we follow its cycles, then we have the best chance of knowing, even in the earliest days, when we are pregnant. If we know we are pregnant, we know when we are mothers. There are no ancient superstitions or extremist antics here, just biologically accurate information.
Perhaps there are times when two gametes combine genetically and do not constitute a human organism, and thus the non-organism never lives or grows. Perhaps there are more humans who died before implantation than survived to birth, and perhaps heaven is full of these souls. God alone knows.
Personally, though, I do not find the 30 to 80 percent estimate unrealistic. I practiced natural family planning, and by my figuring 42 percent of my fertilized eggs miscarried. Let me tell you something: There is beauty, strength, and power in knowledge. The five times I miscarried, I knew I was pregnant on the earliest possible day. If I had not been following the teaching of the Church, I might not have realized my own children ever existed. And that is what I find most horrifying.
So rather than adopting the suggestion of Goldenring to have monthly funerals in blind and cowardly ignorance, I sought to learn all I could. My reward is the satisfaction of knowing that to the best of my ability I have loved my children unconditionally. The body is fragile, but Christians have hope beyond death because we believe that human life is everlasting. Following the logic to its very last conclusion, past the fear and pain, allowed me to mature and become a mother to all my children, to pray for them daily, the ones I never held, the ones I am raising, and the ones who are grown. My life is abundant. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Truth may demand more of us, but truth brings sanity. If your reasoning begins and ends with fear, your arguments will ultimately rely on ridicule, as the abortion advocates’ arguments do, and you will never have the fortitude to face reality. The fuller logic tells us that every human life is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God (CCC 2319). The reason Christians do not go to outrageous extremes over high medical statistics of miscarriage is simple really. We embrace life because we do not fear death.