Science and Catholic Teaching: Human Life, Sacred from Conception to Birth

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October 24, 2018
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October 25, 2018

By Bob Kurland, The Catholic Stand

“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”
—Catholic Catechism, 2258


Since this is “Respect Life” month (October), I’m offering a selection from my web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth,”(Essay 8, forthcoming), that gives arguments for life beginning at conception and thus against abortion.   And, it is important to realize that there are many atheists who also argue against abortion (see this web-search).


Embryology tells us that the development of the human from conception to birth is continuous; there are no sharp changes, no sudden metamorphosis, caterpillar to butterfly.   Thus the full humanity is present in the 8 cell blastopod as well as in the baby emerging from the birth canal.  There is a fine Youtube depiction of this continuous development by Alexander Tsiaras.

The Princeton philosopher, Peter Singer, recognizes that there is no logical distinction between the child in utero, unborn, and the infant, the child which has emerged from the birth canal.  Thus it is as permissible to kill an unwanted child after it is born as before:

‘Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living [emphasis added]Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies…My view is different from this… I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life support — which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection — but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.’ …More recently, in an April interview with WND’s Aaron Klein, Mr. Singer said bluntly: ‘I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.’ ”[emphasis added]
—Peter Singer, as quoted in the Washington Times


We use terms like “zygote” and “fetus” — and for that matter “adolescent” and “adult” — to describe human beings at different stages of development. A fertilized human egg is simply a human being at its first stage. [emphasis added]… But certain individuals like to use these terms as though they describe entirely different creatures, not stages of the same creature. They do this to disguise what they actually believe, which may also be stated quite simply: that some human lives are worth less than others.”
—Peter Christofferson, comment on “The Banality of Evil, Redux: Do Planned Parenthood Officials Sin?

Some abortion proponents attempt to justify killing the unborn by denying the humanity of an embryo or fetus; they use the following arguments:

  1. A fetus is not human until it totally emerges from the birth canal (a presumed justification for partial-birth abortion);

  2. Before some arbitrary time mark, say 24 weeks after conception, it is  permissible to abort a fetus;

  3. Since self-awareness is a prime criterion for being human, it is permissible to abort an embryo or fetus before it is self-aware.

All these assertions deny a fundamental article of Catholic Faith, that life begins at the instant of conception and that the Holy Spirit endows that life with a soul.  Moreover, propositions 1-3 are not justified by any sort of scientific evidence.


In a 1999 debate on partial birth abortion, Senator Rick Santorum showed that Senator Barbara Boxer’s defense for this cruel act was irrational.   (See here for a full account of the debate.)

Senator Boxer: “The baby is born when the baby is outside the mother’s body”

Senator Santorum tried to get a more specific answer by asking whether if only a toe was inside the birth canal, or a foot, or ??, would the baby then be subject to abortion:

Senator Santorum: “But,again, what you are suggesting is if the baby’s toe is inside the mother, you can, in fact, kill that baby.” 

Senator Boxer vehemently denied that, but would not specify how much of the baby’s body had to be in the birth canal to justify partial birth abortion. Her assertion that the baby had to be outside the mother’s body in order to qualify as a human being defies common sense, as was made obvious by Senator Santorum’s questioning. And this is the problem with partial birth abortion: it defines human status in a totally arbitrary way.


In many states an arbitrary time after conception is set for abortions to be allowed:  before that time abortion is legal; afterwards, not.    Most recently the Ohio State Legislature passed a 20 week abortion limit.

Some interesting questions occur, naive though they may be. First, how do you determine (without drastic invasions of privacy) when conception occurs?   Drawing a curtain over that issue, we can ask if a fetus at 19 weeks, 6 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes after conception is non-human, i.e. legally eligible for abortion, and if a fetus 20 weeks, and one minute after conception is human, not to be aborted. I should hope it’s clear that any time marker to legalize abortion is arbitrary, without any rational basis.


The third of the comments above asserted that an embryo or fetus would not be human because it would not be self-aware and, therefore, could be aborted without qualms.  Really?  If we’re deeply asleep, do we then become non-human, zombies?    What about people in deep comas from which they later awake?    Are they non-human while in coma and then become human again when they recover?

With respect to self-awareness in infants, it does not suddenly occur when the baby emerges from the birth canal.    Studies by an Emory University psychologist, Phillipe Rochat, suggest that there are five levels of self-awareness from infancy to early childhood.  Rochat asserts that even immediately after birth, babies have passed beyond the initial stage (total confusion):

It appears that immediately after birth, infants are capable of demonstrating already a sense of their own body as a differentiated entity: an entity among other entities in the environment (Level 1).
—Phillipe Rochat, Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life 

And if this awareness is present immediately after birth, should it not also be present before birth?    And if the development of consciousness is a continuous process, when is it that not one smidgeon of self-awareness is present?  Remember, the brain is present as a partially developed organ some 5 weeks after conception.


In one of my blog posts, The Banality of Evil, Redux, I compared the Nazi genocide of Jews to the Planned Parenthood abortion industry:

The Nazis did not regard Jews as humans, nor, evidently, do Planned Parenthood doctors regard unborn babies as human.

Once it is admitted that a person “no matter how small” can be classified as non-human, then there are no limits:

Assuming as a principle that humans can be selectively classified as unworthy of life—as elderly, as disabled, as unborn, as ethnically impure, as mentally challenged–violates that which is, or should be, written in the conscience of every man.

Since Roe vs Wade there has been a decline in sexual morality, a rise in fatherless families and, generally,  all that contributes to bad times.   Whether there is a causal relation as some contend can be debated.  (See The Myth about Abortion and Crime  and Does Abortion Really Reduce Crime.)  So where does that leave us?   That only evil can come from abortion.


Abortion at any stage, except perhaps to save the mother’s life, is wrong.  And even in that circumstance, the Catholic “Double Effect” teaching has to be operative: the death of the unborn child is an unintended, unsought consequence of the measures taken to preserve the mother’s life.

The proponents of abortion (they call themselves “pro-choice,” but that is an extreme euphemism) do so because abortion seems to offer a “convenient” way not to undergo the trials and effort of bearing and raising a child.  In our day there is no shame to bearing a child out of wedlock, so that is not a reason to kill the unborn.  And if it is impossible for financial or other reasons to raise a child, offering the child for adoption is an alternative.   Accordingly, there is no good reason to kill the unborn if you believe that human life is a good.   Killing the unborn is a sin, but remember, sins can be forgiven through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.