February 6, 2003

In the Most Basic Terms

"In the most basic terms, Reverend, just what is wrong with Roe vs. Wade?" an elderly gentleman asked me with a hint of annoyance in his voice. We did not know each other but had just emerged together from a hospital elevator in which two women had been arguing rather strenuously about the decision of the United States Supreme Court in favor of abortion, which was issued in January of 1973 and came to be known as Roe vs. Wade.

"What is wrong," I replied, "is that with Roe vs. Wade the court affirmed that government may legitimately remain indifferent when the being within a mother’s womb is put to death by private parties, even though it has never been proven that that being is something other than a human being, a person with an inalienable right to live."

"The government cannot be expected to get involved in everything," the gentleman countered.

"True enough," I observed. "However, in order to be able to live as civilized human beings, you and I have turned over to government the right and duty of what is called ‘violent defense.’ If we believe we might be attacked by someone, we are not to go out and buy a gun. We are rather to call the police or, if you prefer, inform the government. Whatever else it is supposed to do, the government is bound, first and foremost, to protect human lives. Lose that, and we return to the caves from which some imaginative anthropologists suggest we came."

"But I thought that this abortion controversy was about religion," my interlocutor announced. "In your explanation you made no mention of your own religious take on this matter."

"Correct," I answered. "I did not mention religion so as to avoid the most common red herring in this discussion. Of course, the killing of human beings has religious implications. Nonetheless, abortion is not a matter of what one or another religion might teach, even though some who champion abortion pretend that it is, in order to claim that all are free to think what they like about abortion, just as all are free to embrace whatever religion they wish."

"So you sidestep the religious dimension?"

"I do when I am asked why ‘in the most basic terms’ Roe vs. Wade is wrong. Roe vs. Wade is wrong, evil, and totally unacceptable quite apart from purely religious considerations. For it authorizes the government to do what no government may ever be allowed to do if civilization is to be maintained, that is, it tolerates the killing by a private party of a being which has not been shown to be other than a person with an innate and unassailable right to life."

"Haven’t some governments done something of this sort without abandoning the fundamental obligations of civilization?" my interlocutor inquired. "I am not able to think of any examples, but I suspect some exist."

"Perhaps I can be of help," I replied. "Adolph Hitler denied the personhood of Jews, homosexuals, mental defectives and others; and his government stood apart when they were put to death. Joseph Stalin denied the personhood of farm owners in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Catholics in the Ukraine and the unproductive everywhere; and his government stood apart when they were put to death. I would, however, insist that civilization was surviving in neither case, as it can never survive if government refuses to provide defense for all whose personhood has never been disproved."

"But what do you say to the woman who is pregnant and does not want to bring her child to term?"

"I say many things; but I never dare omit the essentials, among which is the fact that no private party enjoys the right to kill a being that cannot be demonstrated to be something other than a human being, a person. And I regularly add that this holds true even in a nation or state in which the government is turning its back on the fundamentals of civilization by sanctioning abortion."

"Might you not be saying all of that because you are a male, rather than a female?"

"I am saying what I am saying because I am a human being who has opted for civilization in its most elementary expression. Introducing the matter of male and female into the discussion is like introducing the difference between one religion and another. It’s a red herring that serves only to move the discussion off the track."

"Well, if everything is as clear as you make it," my inquisitor insisted, "why do some at least seemingly decent people defend Roe vs. Wade?"

"Perhaps," I replied, "because you and I have not taken the time to clearly articulate the reasons against it. Perhaps because we all too easily allow ourselves to be distracted by such irrelevancies as differences of religion and gender. Perhaps because we are no longer horrified by such anti-civilizations as Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps because we have become unduly enamored of facile, poorly considered solutions for serious moral and legal problems. Perhaps because we are afraid to stand up against manifest nonsense or manifest evil when they are proposed and defended by prominent opinion-makers. Perhaps for all of these reasons and many others like them.

With that we shook hands and parted ways. The patient whom I was there to visit was feeling better. Her operation had lasted more than five hours, and her convalescence would probably be a matter of several months. All the same, her doctor has assured her that she had every reason to expect to live out the life her Creator had given her and, after all, he had added, nothing is more important than that.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York