Why Agonize over an Abortion? - Both Science and Faith Lead Us to the Truth

I used to believe in a woman’s right to an abortion, so I understand some of the difficulties that should be addressed before the pro-life argument even begins. One problem is that pro-life individuals have been portrayed over time as half-crazed, violent individuals. I would like to give the reader a foothold, so to speak, on how to overcome this negative stereotype.

Here are some of the people who have thought abortion was wrong: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama (the leader of Tibetan Buddhism), feminists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of Vindication of the Rights of Women [1792]), Victoria Woodhull (first female presidential candidate), and Alice Paul (author of the original Equal Rights Amendment). These individuals were certainly not violent fanatics, and pointing to them can help overcome this stereotype.

The second way I’d encourage someone in overcoming the negative image of the pro-life movement is by comparing it to the civil rights movement. Almost all of us admire the civil rights movement, and we do not characterize its entirety by groups like the Black Panthers or the radical edge to the Elijah Mohammed’s Nation of Islam (at least, his organization had violence at that point in its history). The violent contingent of the civil rights movement was much larger than the violent fringe of the pro-life movement. In fact, all mainstream pro-life groups are adamant about going nowhere near violence, as you can quickly see from their literature.

Those who believe in the right to abortion should be invited to consider a few things.

The brain waves of a fetus are recorded at forty days (six weeks) on the electroencephalogram (EEG) (H. Hamlin, “Life or Death by EEG,” Journal of the American Medical Association, October 12, 1964, 120). Brain function is “reliably present” on the EEG at eight weeks gestation (which is six weeks after conception) (J. Goldenring, “Development of the Fetal Brain,” New England Journal of Medicine, August 26, 1982, 564).

From here we can shift to our common sense. We know that women don’t start wondering if they’re pregnant until weeks into their pregnancy (when a woman’s cycle is “late” and by various other changes in her physiology). So women often have a baby for six weeks before they get a pregnancy test. If you add on a little more time after she wrestles with the decision (perhaps), or gets the money together (as is often necessary), and then gets herself into an abortion clinic, you see that at present the great majority of abortions take place on babies with brain waves. And the heart has already been beating for weeks by this time.

For a Christian, the question is whether abortions are being done on babies with souls. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (2271). If you believe God inspired the Bible, I think it gives the same answer.

The following scene takes place when Elizabeth is six months pregnant (cf. Luke 1:24, 26), i.e., at a time when a child can be legally aborted in this country (which is at any point in the nine-month term): “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! . . . For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy’” (Luke 1:41–44).

The Christian mind recoils from any attempt to say that the Incarnation had not already begun in the following scene: “But as [Joseph] considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 1:20).

Catholics also believe in the Immaculate Conception, not just as a novelty of biology but as an important mystery to meditate on. If Mary’s soul was not there at the instant of her conception, we lose much of that miracle as well.

Consider also Genesis 25:21–26: “And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is thus, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’ When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came forth red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came forth, and his hand had taken hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob.”

The Second Vatican Council said, “Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. . . . Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception” (Gaudium et Spes, 4:51).

Let’s consider now several typical questions asked by those who favor legal abortion.

“What if the mother’s life is endangered?”

Every effort is to be made to save both mother and child. If there is one of those incredibly rare cases where the choice is between losing the baby or losing the mother and the baby, obviously the moral thing to do is to save the life of the mother. The death of the baby in such a medical procedure is not a desired result but one of the effects of an act designed to save the mother’s life.

If this seems like hair-splitting, it is because it is such an unusual moral dilemma (you can formulate unusual dilemmas in any moral area) that requires us to think more deeply about cause and effect than we normally do.

“What if the woman is raped or a victim of incest?”

The most important point to remember here is that no reasonable person would say we may kill a child for the sins of his father. In reality, pregnancies from rape are extremely rare, partly because rapists often do not perform the sex act to its normal completion. Many pro-life people support the procedure to remove the rapist’s sperm if a rape victim is able to get herself quickly into a medical facility. Finally, keeping the baby has often been part of the healing process from an attack.

“Don’t Catholics and other pro-life people believe that life begins at conception? Doesn’t that lead to difficulties? Should we mourn over a miscarriage? Hold a funeral over one?”

Biologists of every position on the abortion issue concede that human life begins at conception. That is when a genetically distinct individual with 46 chromosomes comes into being. At that point the color of the hair and eyes, the fingerprints, the predisposition to various diseases and so on have been determined. All that is needed are the proper oxygen and nutrients for the individual to grow into a healthy adult.

It is true that every time a fertilized egg dies you have the death of an actual human being. But this shouldn’t be hard to believe. Throughout much of history—and still in many parts of the world—the infant mortality rate has been very high, and so all sorts of genuine humans have died without our ever getting a chance to find out what their personality was like. We mourn to the degree we knew them.


Christopher Butler writes from Kennesaw, Georgia. He maintains a Catholic apologetics web site called “Sacred Heart Catholic Essays” (www.catholic.butlerlinks.com).