Those who seek to advance the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of life confront both new challenges and opportunities in the wake of the June 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. On the one hand, many people in the U.S. and in other developed nations have increasingly accepted abortion as a seemingly inevitable aspect of public life. (We are employing the term abortion here to denote intentional embryocide or feticide.) Young women and men are taught from an early age that they must control their fertility in order to augment their autonomy, protect themselves, and advance professionally and socially. At the same time, both sexes are initiated into a culture of noncommitted sexual practices and attitudes, separated from the notion of marriage and responsibility for children as the context for human sexuality. These cultural trends feed an already existing indifference, callousness, or even disrespect toward the good of human life, which is viewed by many as having merely instrumental, and not sacred, value.
On the other hand, there is a growing awareness of the biological reality that life begins at conception and thus that abortion ends the life of a human being. Many surveys indicate that most Americans disapprove of a legal regime of unrestricted access to abortion. Nor are Americans in general satisfied with the way that abortion is discussed: They see our public culture today as excessively divided and marked by ideologies that are partial and superficial. In addition, our intellectual and academic communities lack a coherent and profound vision of the human person and of social ethics.
Within this context, how can Catholics draw on the teaching of the Catholic Church and her social doctrine so as to provide a deeper, positive vision of the human person and of the natural right to life? How might we demonstrate to all concerned that this comprehensive right, which protects human beings from conception until natural death, relates in turn to other goods that society values and must protect? What responsibilities must pro-life advocates accept for the defense of human life across its various dimensions, protecting and promoting genuine human dignity in its many facets, both individual and common?
Those responsibilities are encompassing. Yet our attention to these broader common goods must not be selective to the detriment of human life that is their necessary foundation. Those who wish to underscore these goods and the rights that accompany them, like autonomous freedom, education and healthcare, the care for the poor, and the cultivation of learning and of the arts, must also do justice to that most fundamental of human rights, the right to life. In the wake of Roe, we can see now that failure to affirm the dignity of human life at all stages has had a corrupting influence even on the most tangential of goods. The systematic refusal to consider unborn human life with sufficient honesty has in turn affected academic freedom, artistic realism, religious consensus, and our prospects for political peace in numerous adverse ways.
Thus, how can we advance anew a Catholic vision of the human person and of the integral social doctrine of the Church? How can we advance a culture that places “life at the center,” so that the respect and protection of innocent human life at all stages are understood to be of fundamental and irreplaceable importance, even as we are motivated by a wider concern for the common good of society?
The Right to Life Is a Fundamental Right
Basing her teaching upon Scripture and sacred tradition, the Catholic Church affirms in its Catechism that “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God.” This image of God is present in every human being, and it is rooted in the whole person, body and soul. Concurrent with divine revelation, sound philosophical reasoning can ascertain that the human person is a rational animal, endowed with a biologically specific living body and a rational spiritual soul. Each person possesses intrinsic powers of intellectual knowledge, volitional love, and free choice, which typically manifest themselves gradually and develop throughout life. Human personhood does not depend on the development of these capacities but is rooted in our very nature, even from its beginning. Human beings who are unable to develop all the virtues of human flourishing due to disability, or other circumstances, always are and remain persons made in the image of God, equal and identical to others in their irreducible dignity.
This personal image of the triune God in us is also something corporate: Human beings develop in and through relational dependences of love and shared knowledge, in families and communities of education, work, and artistic creativity. Each person, from his or her conception, is made as well for communion with God and destined by God for eternal beatitude. In view of the human person’s nature, origin, and destiny, the Church teaches that every human life is sacred from conception to natural death, and that it is therefore always and everywhere wrong to intentionally take innocent human life.
It is helpful to recall in this context that the Church affirms her teaching regarding abortion and euthanasia based on principles of natural reason, as well as principles derived from divine revelation. Precisely because they are capable of reason, all mature human beings have the capacity to acknowledge the intrinsic dignity of all other human persons, and to recognize that innocent human life must not be taken by others. The teaching that human life is to be protected from conception to natural death is not a mere “sectarian religious belief” but is a truth of human reason commonly accessible to all peoples. The exceptionless protection of innocent human life is something properly basic to any just society.
A human society can only create an adequately just social order and inclusive common good if it first recognizes the intrinsic natural dignity of every human person. This dignity is given by God and by our created nature; it is not conferred by social convention or the mere legal apparatus of the state. For these and other reasons, the Catholic Church is committed to the civic legal protection of innocent human life from conception to natural death as an exceptionless norm.
Thus, a society that defends innocent life must do so consistently wherever it is threatened: by unjust forms of punishment; by poverty; by economic exploitation or human trafficking; by discriminatory treatment of the cognitively or physically disabled; by practices of assisted suicide and euthanasia; by unjust acts of war and terror. Our defense of life must be consistent and integral.
Just Respect for Human Life Implies Respect for Other Goods
Human beings are made not just for life, but for life in abundance, for a flourishing life. We always develop in our lives as persons together with others in a shared life marked by common goods, like marriage, knowledge, work, art, and religion, all of which must be pursued in cooperation with others in societies both voluntary and political. It is only by partaking of such common goods with others that we can truly flourish as human beings made in the image of God. These other goods, in turn, are dependent upon and in the service of the underlying good of human life.
Since this is the case, defense of human life must radiate outward from a stable center of protection of innocent human life, born and unborn, to the promotion and defense of other goods constitutive of genuine human flourishing. Failure to protect these goods is a failure to protect human life.
Principal among these goods is the family, since the married state of life provides the most stable and just center of care for new human life. Human beings who discover the freedom of committed marriage acquire access to a whole range of goods they—and their children—cannot otherwise possess. They also provide a basic social good to society as the source of new life and the seedbed of education. When marriage ceases and families die out, human life is put at risk; but where marriage thrives, human life is more secure. Thus, families promote the good of society as a whole.
Likewise, human beings rightly seek access to other common goods such as education and fulfilling forms of work. Human persons must enjoy the freedom to seek the truth and communicate it. Societies must make space for artistic exploration and creativity. Human persons should be allowed and encouraged to participate in civil government, in lawful respect of others. Human societies and nations as a whole also have rights to a relative degree of autonomy, self-determination, and peace in regard to one another. All communities have obligations to respect creation and protect the natural environment for future generations. Human beings have the responsibility and right to worship God, and to seek the truth in religious matters, as well as to promote sacred truth when they discover it.
Genuine and just pursuit of these goods is no threat to the good of life. Rather, because these goods are constitutive of human dignity and human development, when these goods are threatened, human life is likewise jeopardized. Those who advocate the right to life, then, from conception to natural death, also need to think about policies that enshrine a real and stable protection for other goods. How can one assist and strengthen struggling families? How can one privilege natality and avoid punishing it in the workplace? Economic and educational systems should seek to prioritize and advance the socially marginalized and disadvantaged, and accommodate families or individuals who are most threatened economically or socially. Art and natural beauty should be preserved and made available for the enjoyment of all. Religious liberty must be recognized as a true aspect of the human good, not a concession to the irrational or ignorant.
A critical task is thus to articulate clearly the relation of the good of life to other fundamental goods of the human person and to mark out a policy path to the comprehensive protection of the common good.
Respect for Other Goods Implies the Fundamental Respect for Human Life
The relationship of life to the other common goods runs in the other direction as well. Failure to protect human life at all stages does harm to other essential elements of the common good.
First, in any society in which some who are innocent are deemed unworthy of legal protections, it is possible in principle for the state to withdraw the right to life from others, and indeed from any. If there are circumstances that allow the transgression of an exceptionless norm in one domain, then there are circumstances that will allow it in others. It is not surprising then that a culture where people are habituated to “controlling” the “problem” of pregnancy by taking innocent life is one where there may be an extended use of euthanasia to control the problem of pain and death, or to eliminate the unwanted, the poor, the physically and/or intellectually disabled, or the terminally or mentally ill.
Such a state of affairs is itself a corruption of law, the first task of which is to provide equal protection to all of a state’s inhabitants. The rule of law is thereby made a casualty of the failure to protect human life.
Second, the goods of family life suffer when life is left exposed. Family life is a great good for children, parents, extended relations, and society at large. Security within a loving family bears important fruit in the lives of those who are thereby nourished, making an essential contribution to human flourishing. Thus, while women should thrive through a network of educational and professional opportunities, they should not be told the lie that their deepest happiness and well-being will transpire only apart from or before they enter into committed loving marriages and have children. Much less should they be encouraged to believe that their welfare is threatened by the choice to affirm the lives of their own children. The same is true for men, who are harmed by a culture of license without commitments. An individualistic ethic of sexual experimentation that relies upon abortion cannot assist and sustain the modern human family in its role of having children and raising them within the context of married love.
Third, the culture of the university should allow for the pursuit of truth through honest public discussion and debate. This includes debate about the relevant moral, political, and scientific principles surrounding abortion. The social effects of abortion, and the consequences for the good of women and men, families, societies, and countries are equally not something to be denied in advance by an ideological position that refuses all honest engagement. To the extent that our university culture (both within and outside the Catholic Church today) refuses genuine conversation and comprehensive ethical treatment of the topic of abortion, we create a culture of enforced silence and of taboo, where genuine academic freedom is suppressed. This lack of honesty affects the good of the academy as a whole.
We must similarly cultivate a freedom of discussion and an openness in the media and public life to intellectual ideas that come from the Christian and the early modern humanist traditions. Foreclosing the possibility of such discussion for the sake of protecting “abortion rights” does damage to a free society.
Fourth, our environmental ethics should be consistent. We are concerned rightly with the preservation of creation and its natural ecosystems. They reflect that beauty and goodness of nature that precedes us, and they form our God-given home, where future generations of human beings can flourish. So, too, we should also respect our own human ecology, a network of natural interdependences in which children are born to parents within the wider context of a natural environment that supports them, but that they are in turn called upon to care for. How will human beings take care of their planet and their natural environment ethically (as they alone can and must) if they are incapable even of taking care of one another within this larger context? There is no opposition of a genuine humanism and a genuine ecological ethics. Both have their place within a larger theological ethics that understands the whole of creation as the beautiful and good work of God, and that understands the human being as having a unique place within that whole, but also a special responsibility for that whole.
Our political leaders and policy leaders must cultivate legislation that acknowledges the diverse goods mentioned above; they should do so from the start by protecting innocent human life as a fundamental or central good of society in all circumstances. In our new post-Roe context, such protections will advance incrementally and by means of imperfect legislation, but it is important always to keep in mind the foundational principles that must animate all our decision making. However, a legislator ought never to lend support to incremental legislation motivated by the belief that some human beings, such as the disabled, or very young human embryos, possess a diminished right to life.
The Church and Human Life
The Church constantly recalls publicly that God, the Holy Trinity, creates all human beings in view of eternal beatitude. Therefore, no human life is inconsequential. The natural gift of every human person is an invitation for others to grow in understanding and love. The Church likewise supports those who wish to advance a culture of life, both in theory and in practice, by cultivating a culture of learning, evangelization, and family life, and by her assistance to the poor and vulnerable. Catholics can and must privilege the defense of the right to life from conception to natural death as a most fundamental social right for the good of all other civic rights. But they must also seek the good of each human person in ways that accord with Catholic social teaching. Likewise, those Catholics who rightly emphasize other facets of social teaching need to draw people’s attention to the right to life as a basic premise for all other rights. In this way, members of the Church can provide a more unified, coherent, and consistent witness to life in a public way, for the good of the whole of society. The Church does this in part for herself, to be more herself in the light of God. She does so also for others, to promote a social doctrine that is rich in implications for the promotion of the common good.
God is the just author of all human life and dignity. God is also merciful to human beings, even when they fail or sin. The Scriptures teach that all have fallen short of the righteousness and justice of God, but that God has also had mercy on all and that he effectively offers them avenues of mercy. Recognition of this truth, far from disempowering us, gives us the strength to go on living with courage, to rise, and to attain to new heights in the order of love and truthfulness. While seeking to advance a society that protects human life from conception to natural death, we also follow Pope Francis in praying to God for a Church and a society that is always merciful. Mercy is not something opposed to truth or to justice, but it is integrally related to each of these. For mercy is life-giving, and knowing that God is merciful is key to our belief that society as a whole can change, can acknowledge the truth, and can move effectively over time to acknowledge the dignity of human life in the fullness of justice. This dignity is at the center of all we do, and so we aim to promote in the Church today an integral witness to her social doctrine, as one that rightly protects many human goods, and that always places life at the center.
Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., University Rector, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum
Christopher Tollefsen, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Carolina
Fr. Kevin L. Flannery, S.J., Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Pontifical Gregorian University
O. Carter Snead, Professor of Law, Director, de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, Concurrent Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
Helen M. Alvaré, Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University
Ryan T. Anderson, President, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Erika Bachiochi, Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Senior Fellow, Abigail Adams Institute
Charles C. Camosy, Professor of Medical Humanities, Creighton University School of Medicine
Mother Mary Concepta, S.V., Superior General of the Sisters of Life
Maureen L. Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy, University of Utah School of Medicine, Appointee to the National Science Board (NSB)
Therese Cory, John and Jean Oesterle Associate Professor of Thomistic Studies, University of Notre Dame
Fr. Gonçalo Diniz, O.P., Professor of Moral Theology, The Catholic University of Portugal, Lisbon
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Emerita, at Harvard University, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See
Donna J. Harrison, M.D., Director of Research, American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Russell Hittinger, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Ecology, The Catholic University of America
Dariusz Karłowicz, President, St. Nicolas Foundation (Fundacja Świętego Mikołaja)
John Keown, Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University
Elizabeth Kirk, Director of the Center for Law & the Human Person, The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law
Leah Libresco Sargeant, Other Feminisms, 2023–2024 Wollstonecraft Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute
Mary Catherine Martin, Senior Counsel, Thomas More Society
Melissa Moschella, Associate Professor of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America
R. R. Reno, Editor, First Things
William (“Bill”) Saunders, Director of the Program in Human Rights, The Catholic University of America
Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P., Professor of Theology, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum
Daniel P. Sulmasy, Director, Kennedy Institute of Ethics and Professor of Biomedical Ethics, Departments of Medicine and Philosophy and the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University
Xavier Symons, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University and the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, Australian Catholic University
Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago
Monique Wubbenhorst, M.D., Senior Research Associate at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture
Image by Dobromir Dobrev, public domain. Image cropped.