When human life begins is not a scientific judgment.
Science doesn’t make such value decisions. Traditionally, birth has been the point. The right-to-life movement idea that life begins at conception is strictly a religious dogma.
Science can tell us that conceptions contain the genetic material of life. But so do the ova secreted each month by child-bearing age women and the 40 million plus of sperm in each male release.
Most of these are wasted in nature’s profligacy. In fact, most conceptions (61.9 percent by one study) are spontaneously aborted – perhaps this makes nature or God the chief abortionist?
Pius IX, the same pope who promulgated the infallibility doctrine, decreed the dogma that conception should be considered full human life (1869), ending hundreds of years of debate among Catholic theologians about various timelines on this.
The anti-abortionist doctrine of conception equaling a human life is closer to the old, discredited notion of the homunculus, the idea that a conception was an infinitely small person that just had to grow to full size. Human eggs (ova) aren’t like that. Even at three months development, the period within which about 90 percent of abortions take place, the embryo weighs about a half an ounce at this undeveloped stage.
When the fetus can be considered fully human is debatable and uncertain to those of us not directed by infallible dogma. Right-to-lifers can’t concede that we become gradually human. For them, the soul is either there or not.
Birth, though, seems one traditional point. The official Catholic position that a doctor should not, if there are complications, save the life of the mother over that of the fetus seems harsh. Most of us would regard the life of a 20-year-old woman more important than that of the fetus.
Most Christian churches and groups who are anti-abortion are also opposed to artificial contraception. Their political power often restricts federal funded sex education to “abstinence only,” a form that does not allow students to learn about contraceptives, and spreads several misconceptions about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases, seriously limiting students’ knowledge and preparation.
A number of employers use religious objections to exclude contraceptives in their insurance coverage for their female employees, even though federal and many states’ regulations include it as a standard insurance offering. These companies don’t believe that women who work for them should have the option to choose such coverage.
Anti-abortion politics is an attempt to remove women’s control of their bodies to the state in conformity with religious doctrine. By making the embryo equivalent to the pregnant woman herself, a woman is reduced to a baby-producing machine out of her control.
For many churches, sex’s only legitimate function was procreation, still an underlying doctrine only partly modified. Part of the abortion opposition is a reaction to women’s recently attained liberation and sexual freedom, and to the defeat of the churches’ Puritan standards in the sexual revolution.
That’s why church opposition to extramarital sex, homosexuality, masturbation, and sexual fantasies (“dirty thoughts”) reflect the procreation-only doctrine: sex is only to produce children.
In the past, many women wore down their health producing one child after another. If church hierarchies attain real power, women will be back to this, and perhaps contraceptives will again be illegal or difficult to get.
Anti-abortion fanatics may yet charge women who have abortions with murder, as is currently done in some Latin American countries, and has recently been proposed by legislators in Texas and Ohio.
Why not? It is certainly a logical step if abortion is truly murder.
Many of our churches have hierarchies that are either mostly or entirely male. No wonder women aren’t considered any more important than their fetuses. Obviously, though, most Catholic couples haven’t followed their leadership’s strictures against contraceptives, witness their family sizes.
Abortion doctrine distorts morality. The Catholic Church is aggressively pro-peace and critical of ongoing wars, and promotes the interests and social welfare of the poor.
However, its anti-abortion politics often pushes it to favor politicians who are pro-war, pro-capital punishment and repressive to the poor, despite its nominal stances to the contrary on these important moral issues.
Nevertheless, many Catholics – and other Christians –have worked hard to promote the human decencies their church may neglect, inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and other traditions.
Religious dogmas shouldn’t be imposed on everyone by law. There can be “no religious test ... to any office,” according to our Constitution. Especially, they shouldn’t be allowed to control the sexual and reproductive lives of women.
Such choices should be left to women themselves.
Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johns-