Sense and Nonsense: No Imaginable Circumstance

As Ronald Reagan comes to the end of his presidency, we can acknowledge that he has been almost the only public figure of his rank consistently to oppose abortion as a civil policy, with the intention of doing something about it. That he was not able to do more is almost exclusively due to the political and ecclesiastical context, which did not ever give him a real chance to act through legislative, judicial, or constitutional means. During his term, we have seen most of the Catholic opposition to abortion effectively become confused, most recently by the “seamless garment” doctrine which has so deflected the consistent political support needed into a kind of ideological calculus that sees abortion as merely another complicated issue—not so very different, after all, compared to (presumably) greater issues.

When one reads the whole sordid record of efforts to promote abortion, their almost diabolical genius, it is easy, I suspect, to believe in the truth of the doctrine of hell.

In the new book of Daily Meditations (Ignatius Press) of Mother Teresa, we read for Thursday of the second week after Easter:

Abortion is the killer of peace in the world… the greatest destroyer of peace, because if a mother can destroy her own child what is left for others but to kill each other? There is nothing to prevent them.

We note that Mother Teresa understands the logic of principles.

On this year’s anniversary of Roe v. Wade, USA Today (Jan. 22, 1988) interviewed Kay James, the former head of Black Americans for Life. In a moving interview, Miss James was asked about counseling a rape victim, with the presupposition, I suppose, that she would have to agree with the extreme case doctrine, and hence with the “pro-choice” principle.

Miss James responded, however, by using a counter example, in which a poor woman is pregnant for the fifth time by an alcoholic husband, who abuses his wife and children, and who does not work. Miss James inquires how the questioner would respond. What sort of answer did she receive?

I get a variety of answers, including one that interests me the most, which is, “It would be irresponsible of that woman to bring another child into that situation.” That kind of summarizes why I’m involved with the pro-life movement and feel so strongly about it. That woman was my mother, and that fifth child she carried was, in fact, me. I was born on a kitchen table, in poverty, in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Finally, Miss James was asked, “Well, how do you answer the [original rape] question? She answered, “I cannot imagine any circumstance where I would reach inside myself and take that human life that was growing inside me.”

On December 18, 1987, in Rome, John Paul II met some European Right-to-Life members. He has addressed this topic many times, of course. (See my collection of his addresses in Sacred in All Its Forms, St. Paul Editions). In this particular address, the Holy Father brought up a number of issues that are worth reflecting on. He was talking directly to Europe as a civilization, in which the very notion of respect for life as a legal element in civil society arose. Needless to say, his words also apply to us.

Unconditional respect for the right to life of the conceived but unborn human person is one of the pillars sustaining every civil society. When a state places its institutions at the disposal of those who may act to suppress the life of the unborn child, it renounces one of its primary duties and its own dignity as a state [L’Osservatore Romano, Jan. 18, 1988].

At this point, John Paul II recalled St. Thomas’s teaching that an unjust law has no force, but is a “corruption of the law.” Where would we be if our politicians, bishops, clergy, and academics had displayed such courage and clarity?

The Pope wanted to talk specifically about “the right to life of the unborn and the destiny of Europe.” It is to be noted that John Paul simply eliminates the spurious issue of when an unborn fetus becomes a human being or a person. He is talking about any unborn human being, whatever its condition. He explained that the Greek and Latin heritages, in the context of Christianity, arrived at the notion of a human person. It was a “humanistic” civilization, one that has seen “in the right use of reason—conceived as the capacity to grasp reality, without allowing one to be dominated by self-interest—one of the clearest signs of man’s greatness.”

Within this civilization, the “legalization of abortion” is a “foreign body bearing seeds of corruption.” The Pope then asked the same question asked by Mother Teresa and Kay James:

How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations among persons practiced: the declaration of some as worthy of defense and others as lacking that dignity?

The Holy Father wanted to know “what sort of reason is at work here” when the elimination of innocent human beings is allowed? He pulled no punches. This legalization was a sign of “moral decay, and even of demographic impoverishment.” Ironically, because of it, European nations, if not ourselves, are disappearing before our very eyes.

Continuing, the Pope faced the question so many today ask of themselves as they see that they are often isolated, even in the Church, for taking on the unpleasant, discouraging work of keeping the life question before our public eyes. “Do not let your awareness of being a minority hinder you,” John Paul told his European audience. He insisted that it is not necessary to have recourse to the Christian faith to understand that abortion is wrong, even legally wrong. When the Church insists that abortion is wrong, “it is not in an effort to introduce a Christian state.” Rather she simply “wishes to promote a human state, a state which recognizes as its primary duty the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of those who are weakest.” And again the unanswerable question, “And who is weaker than an unborn child?”

Even those in unpopular minorities can recall, the Pope reflected, that most great accomplishments in our civilization have come about because of “the witness of individuals, often paid for with personal sacrifices.” The Pope did not hesitate to say that, “Tomorrow’s Europe is in your hands. Power lies in truth itself and not in numbers.”

We cannot but admire this forthright man who tells even legislators and bureaucrats in democratic societies just what they might do to protect human life. Is it so hard, we wonder, the insistence by a human civilization on the protection of its own life? There is nothing wrong with being forthright in principle but voted down. What is unforgivable is attesting to the principle, then doing nothing about it in one’s decisions or votes. In the end, we need numbers, too. This is the lesson of the presidency of Mr. Reagan on the issues of human life and its dignity even in its weakest members, those who are not yet born.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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