Abortion Assaults Life, Love, Marriage, Family and Society Itself

COMMENTARY: A robust teaching on the family provides the necessary tools for understanding why abortion is wrong and why it tears apart the social order.

A father cradles his newborn.
A father cradles his newborn. (photo: Unsplash)

Recent legal cases at both the state and federal levels make it clear that, much to the chagrin of politicians in an election year, abortion remains at the center of public debate almost two years after the overturning of Roe v. Wade

On Feb. 16, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that couples may invoke the state’s wrongful-death law to sue storage facilities that accidentally lose their frozen embryos, though Gov. Kay Ivey subsequently signed legislation granting immunity to clinics that cause the deaths of human embryos.

On March 26, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the “abortion pill,” a two-stage drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to end the life of the developing child and induce the mother to discharge her child from her uterus. More specifically, the judges are deliberating whether the FDA lacked due diligence while expanding access to the drug over the past eight years.

Without in any way diminishing the importance of these cases, I would dare suggest that they distract from the wider Catholic teaching on the family, and I fear such distractions are continually increasing. 

The right to life — like human sexuality and human dignity itself — cannot be fully understood if detached from its proper context within the human family. Only a robust teaching on the family and its place in society and in the Church provides the necessary matrix for understanding why abortion is wrong and why it tears apart the social order. The last example of a significant articulation of this robust teaching was Familiaris Consortio (1981).

As recent statements by Donald Trump demonstrate, those on the right can just as easily skirt the central issue of integral family life as those on the left. Former presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who relied on artificial insemination to conceive her son, asserted that “embryos are babies,” adding that the Alabama decision “is based on, and should be based on, the rights of those parents for their embryos.” 

I do not, of course, expect Nikki Haley to contextualize these positions — however commendable — within a full Catholic teaching on the family. Yet she stands as an example of how a focus on parental rights for in vitro fertilized embryos can easily make us forget that most Catholics are not even aware of the Church’s teaching that in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination are immoral. Ivey’s claim that IVF aims to promote a “culture of life” only exacerbates the problem.

It goes without saying that children conceived through IVF are children of God. They deserve to be loved by good parents such as Haley and her husband. Yet such procedures replace the proper marital act rather than assist it. 

If one really wants to stand for family formation, one should both support the Alabama law and honor the proper locus of generating human life as within marriage, family and the procreative-unitive marital act.

Vatican II’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965) already set the parameters for evaluating these difficult situations: 

“When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral character of one’s behavior does not depend only on the good intention and the evaluation of the motives: objective criteria must be used, criteria drawn from the nature of the human person and human acts, criteria which respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love” (51). 

Human dignity comes into full focus precisely within the locus of mutual (i.e., personal) self-giving, where acts of true love bear fruit in the conception of children. Procreation properly comes about by collaborating with the Creator and is, in turn, a sign of the mutual self-giving of the spouses and their love and fidelity. Donum Vitae (1987) even goes so far as to state that a child “has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage.” The child, in turn, “is the living image of their love, the permanent sign of their conjugal union, the living and indissoluble concrete expression of their paternity and maternity.” 

A considerable step toward recontextualizing the issue of abortion was made by former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who argued that “we really ought to embrace a greater sexual responsibility for men.” He suggested that, since we have the means of determining a father’s identity through a paternity test, we “put more of a burden, financially and otherwise, on the father.” By reacknowledging the rights and responsibilities of fatherhood, society would both recognize a father’s “legal rights to save his unborn child” and “hold him responsible” for the well-being of mother and child, “including financially.” Failing to hold fathers responsible gives them the freedom to walk away precisely at a time when they should be providing for a family.

Indeed, Familiaris Consortio (1981) identified the root cause of abortion as the “corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being.” A person’s freedom, St. John Paul II continues, “far from being restricted” by the fidelity and exclusivity of marriage, “is secured against every form of subjectivism or relativism and is made a sharer in creative Wisdom.”

Put differently, the decision to have an abortion — and society’s support of such a decision — contains within it, however implicitly, a denial of freedom’s telos (end) toward marriage and childbearing. The end, of course, is always contained in the beginning, so a recognition of the divine origin of marriage is no less necessary. 

The ongoing controversy hanging over Humanae Vitae (1968) clouds its magnificent assertion of the divine origin of marriage: 

“Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love.’” 

By accompanying every effort to prevent abortion with an even greater effort to reveal “the true nature and nobility” of married love, the Church can reassert both the context in which it opposes abortion and the context within which society can better grasp what the root causes of abortion are. 

In a statement on the anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, emphasized that the decision was “but the beginning of a critical new phase in our efforts to protect human life,” yet the document makes no mention of the family. In a 2023 statement following the FDA’s loosening of regulations for administering the abortion pill, Bishop Burbidge reasserts the Church’s teaching “on upholding the dignity of all life,” adding that “this must include care for both women and their children.” 

But again, an occasion was missed to remind Catholics and non-Catholics of how the evil of abortion comes into full focus only when viewed through the goods of marriage and family. 

I’ve only become more aware of the importance of this recontextualization in the wake of a devastating miscarriage my wife and I recently suffered at the same stage of pregnancy that Apoorva and Vivek Ramaswamy suffered theirs. In an emotional testimony, Vivek didn’t stop at saying it was “the loss of a life,” but added that it was “our family’s loss.” The loss of every human being, regardless of whether he or she was born and raised in an intact family, is, in some way, a “family’s loss.” 

Human life is meant to be lived in family, and marriage is meant to produce human life. To exclude other ways is not to deprive individual human lives of their dignity. It is simply to say that the dignity of human life is fully manifest only within the context of love, marriage and family. My wife and I, together with our four children, were preparing ecstatically to welcome our new child. We rearranged the house, talked over names, and sang to her in the womb. She was an integral part of our family long before her projected birth date. This only makes the widespread use of the abortion drug mifepristone all the more shocking.

Both a miscarriage and mifepristone result in the loss of a life. And yet, even given the plethora of contexts in which each can occur, the differences between them are enormous. A child aborted through mifepristone not only deserved to live, but deserved all the things my wife and I — all the things Apoorva and Vivek — had been providing and preparing all along. The tragedy of the loss of a child through abortion doesn’t stop at a violation of one’s right to live; it includes — indeed, the very “right to life” implies — the prospect of a safe home, a warm bed, breast milk, and loving parents and siblings to welcome and cherish the newest member of the family. 

If we get back to the basics of what a family is, the true meaning of human sexuality, marriage and childbearing will come into sharper focus. The tragedy of abortion can be understood adequately only when compared to the full human flourishing toward which marriage and family are oriented. For all its merits, even the recently published Dignitas Infinita falls woefully short in this regard.

To say that every human being has a right to life, while certainly true, has sadly become prosaic. To say that God “is the author of marriage” (Gaudium et Spes, 48), that “the vocation of marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603), that “in creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its fundamental constitution” (2203), is anything but prosaic, and no less true. We cannot wait to build and strengthen families until abortion is defeated. We will only defeat abortion by building and strengthening families.

 

Daniel Gallagher, a lecturer in literature and philosophy at Ralston College, holds degrees in philosophy and theology from The Catholic University of America and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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