Legal Rationalizations for the Slaughter of Holy Innocents

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

“Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 22:5)

Last week fourteen Catholic senators joined those who voted against the proposed law that would have prohibited abortions after twenty weeks. Thus leaving our nation as one of only seven in the world that allows abortion after twenty weeks of life in the womb.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The Catholic Church often finds itself alone in the United States and in the International Community, in its defense of innocent human life and the rights of the unborn. In the United States and Canada we find some of the most extreme legislation and judicial decisions, literally leaving the defenseless unborn child without any rights. Much like the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision issued in 1857 that denied the human rights of slaves long after most predominantly Christian nations had outlawed slavery; we may very well find ourselves on the wrong side of history in our lack of defense for the Right to Life of the unborn.

Within the last hundred years we have witnessed the holocaust of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, the holocaust of the Armenians by the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the holocaust of the unborn, which in length of years and numbers lost, is greater than all others.

The Right to Privacy
The philosophical and judicial notion of a “right to privacy” has its roots in the philosophy of the seventeenth century British Empiricist philosopher John Locke, whose ideas on government greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson. Locke opposed the “divine right of kings” that helped to legitimize absolute monarchy in France and other European countries of his day. He supported the so-called “Glorious Revolution” that saw the deposing of the last Catholic monarch of England, James II, and backed the installation of William and Mary to rule as constitutional monarchs. In his theory of “Natural Rights,” he proposed that every person is born with a right to life, liberty, and private property, in other words these three inalienable rights could not be taken away by any ruler, monarch or parliament.

It is this third right of Locke’s theory, the right to private property, that had been employed by modern “pro-choice” proponents to support their idea of a woman’s right over her body as extending to even the unborn child. This of course was never the intention of Locke himself, his concern was to limit the government power to search and seizure property and to further the idea that the fruit of your labor was a part of your person. Mary Ann Glendon explains in Rights Talk (1991) how Lockean property rights became transformed into the right to privacy:

Much of the attention the Supreme Court once lavished on a broad concept of property … it now devotes to certain personal liberties that it has designated as “fundamental.” Remarkably, the property paradigm, including the old language of absoluteness, broods over this developing jurisprudence of personal rights. The new right of privacy, like the old right of property, has been imagined by the Court and lawyers generally as marking off a protected sphere surrounding the individual … [the right to privacy was] quite literally pulled from the hat of property.

The right to privacy first emerged from the right to private property in American jurisprudence in 1890, but was concerned with protecting the private communications of the press from unlawful interference. It entered the realm of law as concerns human sexuality in 1965 when the Supreme Court struck down contraceptive restrictions legislated by the states in Griswold vs. Connecticut. This decision, writes Janet Smith, was a nod by the Supreme Court towards Planned Parenthood and its contraceptive programs. This fallacious extension of the right to private property to a right to privacy, along with the usurping of state’s rights by the Supreme Court, reached its pinnacle in the landmark decision of Roe vs. Wade in 1973.

Ironically, part of the argument for legalized abortion was the “bad science” being taught at the time, that it was impossible to say when human life begins, or when the fetus feels pain, or has viability outside the womb. All these arguments have been debunked by contemporary science, so much so that the feminist Naomi Wolf was forced to concede in the New Republic in 1995 that abortion is the taking of a human life, but that women should still be allow to obtain one anyway.

With Roe vs. Wade, the constitutional rights of the unborn, which had existed since the ratification of the United States Constitution, ceased to exist.

The Church Responds
Blessed Paul VI clearly reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching on the protection of the unborn’s right to life in Humane Vitae:

Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.

Saint John Paul II, further explained Catholic teaching on life in his encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae of 1995, which was written to proclaim that, “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.”

John Paul II points to the confusion of culture today, the devaluation of life and the violence against the elderly and the unborn that he calls the “culture of death,” which violates the sacredness of human life. In Evangelium Vitae, he wrote:

In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today’s social problems, … it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death.” This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency… In this way a kind of “conspiracy against life” is unleashed.

In order to facilitate the spread of abortion, enormous sums of money have been invested and continue to be invested in the production of pharmaceutical products which make it possible to kill the fetus in the mother’s womb without recourse to medical assistance. On this point, scientific research itself seems to be almost exclusively preoccupied with developing products which are ever more simple and effective in suppressing life and which at the same time are capable of removing abortion from any kind of control or social responsibility.

Reflecting on Sacred Scripture in Jeremiah, Job, Psalms, and the meeting of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth in Luke; John Paul II writes, “How can anyone think that even a single moment of this marvelous process of the unfolding of life could be separated from the wise and loving work of the Creator, and left prey to human caprice?”

While St. Stephen is counted as being the first Christian martyr, the Holy Innocents were the first to be martyred because Christ had entered into the world. The selfish pursuit of power and unwillingness to be open to the truth, led Herod to slaughter the Holy Innocents, with the hope that one of them would be the baby Jesus. Unfortunately, in our culture the pursuit of personal wealth, power, and extreme individualism coupled with a secular-agnosticism as regards truth, has produced a new group of Holy Innocents; again in hope of removing Jesus, the Lord of Life from our world.

 Just as an individual is judged not so much by the way she treats her peers, but by how she treats those she has an advantage over, so shall our society be judged by how we treat those who are least powerful and in the greatest need of our protection. Our Lady and the Holy Innocents, pray for us!

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Scene of the Slaughter of the Innocents” painted by Leon Cogniet in 1824.


  • Fr. David Andrew Fisher

    Fr. David Andrew Fisher is priest in residence at St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Philadelphia and is an adjunct faculty member at Rosemont College. He earned his S.T.L and Ph.D. in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...