Whenever pro-life policies advance, such as the fetal “heartbeat” bill in Georgia, the protection of children conceived by rape in Alabama, and the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) defunding of fetal tissue in research, the same old pro-choice slogans pop up again in the media: “My Body, My Choice!” “Parasites Don’t Have Rights!” “Every Child a Wanted Child!”
These do not appeal to reason, but, rather, are meant to trigger emotions and irrational responses.
Just as equations depend on the meaning of numbers and symbols, arguments depend on the definitions of words. Words, however, are much more fluid than numbers, which are precise. A trick in rhetoric, then, is to use words in an intentionally ambiguous way to conjure up mental images that sway the mind. It is always worth a critical examination of the language of slogans — especially when innocent human life hangs on the true meaning of every word.
‘My Body, My Choice!’
There’s an argument among atheist scientists and philosophers called “determinism.” It holds that free will does not exist because we are nothing but the matter that makes us up. In this view, all physical events are the result of particles following the laws of physics, be it a raindrop falling from the sky or your decision to buy a brick house. If we feel like our choices are made freely, it is only an illusion.
If science were the only means to truth (also called scientism) and the physical realm all that exists, then it might follow that determinism is true. But this line of reasoning necessarily begins with an unproven and unreasonable assumption that nothing spiritual exists.
To make an argument for free “choice” over one’s body, a very different logical path must be evoked, one that begins with the existence of God. We only have the freedom to make choices if we have a rational soul, and the explanation for a rational soul comes from the revelation that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. Our rational soul has the likeness of the Trinitarian power of intellect and free will.
The definition of “person” given by Boethius, a Roman philosopher and Christian martyr born in the fifth century, is an “individual substance of a rational nature” (Summa Theologiae, I.29.1). It was furthered by scholars in the Middle Ages and should guide all our bioethical decisions today. Catholic teaching has been refining the philosophical and theological understanding of the human person for its entire history.
Of all creatures, humans can know and be known, love and be loved — we can belong. “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357).
We owe God for our existence. Thus we also have obligations to others. This is so fundamental to our nature that even toddlers are taught that living in society requires an obligation to others. Such teachings are not the exclusive reserve of Catholic teaching, however — as the civil virtues of any community are built on such concepts. If pro-choice propagandists meant what they say — “My Body, My Choice!” — then they would decry any adult who imposes potty training on a child against his will. That one speaks for itself.
‘Parasites Don’t Have Rights!’
The meaning of the word “parasite” has changed considerably over history. Borrowed from Latin, the word originally referred to a person who lives at another’s expense. In ancient Greek, a similar word referred to a person who eats at the table of another.
Today we might say that someone “sponges” off another, taking what is not his due. But notice: The parasitic person still had the most basic human rights, derogatory as the word may have been. If the poor had no right to life, the word “parasite” never would have developed because the person would be dead instead of living at another’s expense.
In the 18th century, the term was adopted by modern biology to refer to an organism that lives on, in, or with an organism of another species, obtaining food, shelter or other benefits at the expense of the host organism, causing harm. In this sense, the word does not apply to the unborn child because the fundamental premise of evolutionary biology is that an offspring belongs to the same species as its parents.
We also no longer use the word “parasite” to describe the poor. We do not call immigrants, welfare recipients, the sick or the elderly “parasites” because we recognize that humans in communities depend on each other in various ways. It is a matter of distributive justice to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and believers and nonbelievers alike honor these basic human rights in our laws.
The Church teaches that all people have equal dignity and that it is, therefore, a sin for extreme inequalities to exist between groups of people. Such an injustice is in open contradiction to the Gospel. Instead, we are to strive for fair and humane conditions.
Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals “of the one human race” militates against social justice, equity, human dignity and international peace (Catechism, 1938). We are called to solidarity.
For the civilized and educated today, the word “parasite” is not appropriate in reference to humans. The Church has always been in the forefront of defending against injustice — but everyone from judges to janitors knows that a basic call for justice is the purview of any civilized society.
Those who use the word to refer to unwanted, unborn humans do so with the intent of dehumanizing the ones they want to kill. One only needs a kindergarten level of scientific knowledge to know better. Their choice to use the word is proof that they know abortion is wrong; otherwise, rather than obfuscating the issue with dehumanizing terms, they would just say, “Children Don’t Have Rights!”
‘Every Child a Wanted Child!’
The root of the word “child” is Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons up to the 12th century. It meant an unborn or newly born human being, synonymous both with a fetus and an infant. Today we still say that a woman who is pregnant is “with child” or in her “childbearing” years. The word expanded later to also mean a young boy or girl below the age of puberty. A “child” is simply any young human offspring. We have all been children.
The Catechism says that children are gifts and should be loved unconditionally (2378). There is a saying that shows the power of love to respect the dignity of who a person is. It goes like this: “How do you make an unlovable person lovable? Love him.” The same applies for children. If the goal is for every child to be a wanted child, then all the parents need to do is decide (that choice thing, again) to want the child from the very first moment of his or her existence.
When is a child conceived? The Church respects the boundaries of various disciplines and the limits of human knowledge. The fact is we cannot know the moment a soul is present in a human body because there is no way to detect or deduce it.
We say life begins at conception (the beginning of existence), but we cannot be sure what all the atoms and molecules are doing in that instant when the soul and body are first united. The Catechism wisely teaches us to err on the side of caution, “From the first moment of his existence a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person.”
We are to reason as far as possible and acknowledge that the youngest humans among us have “the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (2270). This applies to embryos, infants, boys, girls, men, women, the sick, the elderly — everyone.
But notice — the Church doesn’t solely rely on divine Revelation or some mystical experience of its saints to make such claims. Rather, acknowledging that such questions as “Is a child in the womb a human?” can and ought to find an answer in science, the Church appeals to our common sense.
Thus, logic, science and justice show that Church teaching is right on abortion, as much today as in the time of the apostles. Pope Leo XIII said in the 1893 encyclical on the study of Scripture, Providentissiumus Deus, that “truth cannot contradict truth.” The Church echoes this axiom into the present. That’s all the pro-life movement needs for a slogan.
Stacy Trasancos Ph.D., is the executive director of the St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.