In the News 2008
Opposing Views

The Question is Not Whether Life is Present


The argument about when life begins is a diversion from the real issue, which is an examination of when personhood begins. Life does not begin at any specific moment in time, it continues. Does anybody ask whether the sperm and the egg are alive? No, they don’t, because the issue is not whether life is present, but whether personhood is.

In that context, it is understandable why Catholic teaching on personhood has changed over time. Currently, the Catholic hierarchy and its antichoice allies argue that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. This view first emerged in the 17th century, when scientists, looking at fertilized eggs through magnifying glasses and primitive microscopes, imagined that they saw tiny, fully formed animal fetuses.

Improved scientific investigations lead the church hierarchy to reject the notion that a fetus is a fully formed person, but the hierarchy retained its claim that life begins at conception to suit its political goals. In its last statement on abortion, the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Vatican acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.” This brought us back to a previous incarnation of church teachings, neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas, two of the most important theologians in the Catholic tradition, considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy to be a person. St. Augustine maintained that the soul was implanted at 46 days while St. Aquinas maintained that the souls of girls were implanted at 90 days and the souls of boys at 40 days.

As a Catholic, I believe in transubstantiation—when the bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, they cease to be bread and wine and become instead the body and blood of Christ. While as a Catholic, I strongly believe this to be true; it would be ludicrous for me to start a campaign that sought to translate this religious belief into civil law.

Similarly, it is unethical and immoral to seek to impose on society a belief that stems from religious teachings—especially religious teachings that are not accepted by the majority of adherents to one faith, let alone those of other faiths. Hard cases make bad laws. In the absence of even the possibility of any scientific certainty on this issue, to seek to legislate this would lead to totalitarianism where the views of a small minority are imposed on the majority. This would lead us to situations like those that existed in China and Romania, where women are either forced to have abortions or forced to carry all pregnancies to term.

I would never suggest that freedom should be taken away for those who think personhood begins earlier. Individuals should always be free to act on their religious or moral beliefs in such matters. But they should not be able to turn that personal belief—even a deeply held personal belief—into civil law.

This article originally appeared on Opposing Views.

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