The fundamental position of both the Roman Catholic church and the pro-life movement is that the most important of all considerations is the brute fact of a single individual human life. Every single human life is considered sacred, even at conception: more sacred than any other consideration. It is the quantity of life that is being defended, not the quality of that life.
As the Christian writer Tertullian said eighteen centuries ago: "That is a man [sic] which will be a man: you have the fruit already in the seed." And if it is to become a person, then either to actively stop conception from taking place, as birth control does, or to actively terminate the development of that zygote and fetus, as abortion does, is seen as a sin against the wishes of God, and must be stopped. As a conservative theologian might put it, "God demands it" — assuming they have this God-business right.
This is why those who think of themselves as pro-life have such zeal, fervor and such a deep commitment to stopping what they see as a murderous crime against not only the individual conceptions, fetuses and babies, but against God Himself.
Let's look more closely at this.
The pro-life argument against abortion is easy to reduce to its inherent absurdity. If one human life is good, then two are better, a million are better yet, and the seven billion we have on the earth now are miracles of life to be welcomed and encouraged. But why stop with only seven billion? Why not seven trillion? The question on this worldwide scale is not when to stop population growth, but how it can ever be stopped.
On a smaller, more personal scale: if an individual life, in and of itself, is always good, no matter how many children the mother has had by what age, no matter how many are crowded into a single woman's life, a family's life, or the squalor of inner-city ghettos, then how could anyone committed to "pro-life" ever argue for birth control or abortion?
Ironically, the best theological model for abortion as a moral choice — and often, a necessity — comes from the Roman Catholic Church, in a papal encyclical called Rerum Novarum , written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. It has been updated by the church three times, in 1931, 1961, (and 1991), to modernize the language and polish a few of the concepts. The title "Rerum Novarum" means "On New Things," which also fits its adaptation to today's issues of birth control and abortion.
This 30-page essay did more to change the social structures of the western world than the entire "Social Gospel Movement." It brought about revolutions in attitude that were absolutely fundamental in getting both churches and governments to change child labor laws and help establish workers' unions all over the world. And the encyclical had this power because it was, at bottom, a theological argument of the first order: in theological jargon, an argument about what God demands.
What God demands is not the absolute minimal undeveloped lives of oppressed human beings in dead-end environments. Pope Leo's God — and any god worthy of the name — demands that our labors enable us to live fully, to realize the full potential of human beings. That means time for education, leisure, time for relaxation with friends and family, time not just to bear life like a burden, to love it, to live it, like free and empowered human beings.
Pope Leo XIII contrasted humans with lower animals, which he called "brutes":
"The brute has no power of self-direction, but is governed by two chief instincts". These instincts are self-preservation and the propagation of the species". But with [humans] it is different indeed". It is the mind, or the reason, which is the chief thing in us who are human beings; it is this which makes human beings human, and distinguishes them essentially and completely from the brute. ("Rerum Novarum," in Seven Great Encyclicals, New York: Paulist Press, 1963, p. 3)"
And what is the role of the Church in all of this? "Its desire is that the poor, for example, should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and should better their condition in life; and for this it strives." And if conditions exist which rob humans of the possibility of living like people created in the image of God, if people found themselves in
"conditions that were repugnant to their dignity as human beings" if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age–in these cases there can be no question that within certain limits, it would be right to call in the help and authority of the law [to do what] is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the danger."
And why? Why must the Church and the law do these things? Because God demands it! Demands it, because humans must be given living conditions which allow them to develop fully to the limits of their potential as educated, intelligent, creative, and joyful people. It is for that they were created, and conditions which make that nearly impossible are not merely wrong: they are evil.
"On New Things"
Times have changed. The population of the world has increased five-fold since 1891, and 39-fold since the era when the Bible was written, when the world's population was estimated at about 180 million. The effect of overpopulation and under-education on the possibility of living like fully developed human beings is deadly. The pressures on single mothers and working families without the support of large extended families or social safety nets have never been this brutal. Neither the religious scriptures of the West nor established theological traditions have yet had to address this changed situation — these "New Things" — regarding birth control and abortion.
Now they do. And both the fact and the threat of more unwanted births and of more human beings is now among the most destructive variables that make it impossible for billions of people to grow into their true nature and highest possibilities. They will be driven instead, as Pope Leo said of the "brutes," by only two instincts: self-preservation, and reproduction.
In theology, we make two important distinctions between gods and idols. Idols are almost always more seductive ("seduction" means "to lead astray"). But idols — fake gods — cannot lead us toward a more full, integrated and authentic life. We know this is true about exalting money, power, sex or drugs as the gods that rule our lives. Now unrestricted breeding and overpopulation have joined the other anti-life forces. The wages of these reproductive sins that exalt quantity of life over quality of life are the death of many possibilities for the mother and the children who are brought into a home and a world that cannot and will not care for them.
Would you like to see what it looks like when human beings live only like animals, driven only by surviving and breeding? Go to Mexico City, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, or dozens more big cities, all over the world. Picture the ghettos, slums, and shantytowns of the world, and you will see the evil conditions, and the results of those evil conditions.
Do you want to see it up close, one-on-one? Look at pregnant teen-age girls, trapped in a system from which neither they nor their children are likely to escape. Nor are there many kinds of employment open to most of these women. Often lacking even high-school educations, what are they to do? They can be prostitutes and their boyfriends can be pimps, drug pushers and drug takers. Or they can be exploited laborers living at the edge of starvation and kept there by a system that can demand from them what it chooses and give them no more than it must.
It is perhaps the first time in history that those who want to defend their position as religious must begin to recognize that both birth control and abortion are not only an economic necessity today, but also a religious one. People cannot live like human beings in the squalor of the slums and shantytowns in which they will forever be defined, like brutes, by the basic animal instincts of self-preservation and breeding - and, of course, sexual and economic exploitation.
And when sex education doesn't exist, when birth control fails, and the only hope left for a woman, a family, a ghetto, a city, a nation or a world is an abortion; when an abortion is the only means left of removing evil conditions which threaten to return this human or these humans to the level of mere brutes, then the church, the state, and all who really honor the possibilities of life must not only condone abortions, but help women get them, safely and easily. God demands it.
The world doesn't need more people; it's already overcrowded. We will reach a global population of seven billion any day now. Reproduction is not a high calling: anything that lives can breed. The higher calling is asking whether we can be proper stewards of the life we already have. If we can't, it is wrong to let our higher possibilities be smothered by the fertile effects of forceful, sometimes forcible, mating calls. We are meant for more than that, and are urged - commanded - not to settle for less.
This demands widespread sex education: God didn't give us brains just to fill up our skulls. In a pro-life world of the highest order, condoms should be as plentiful as teen-age hormones, if we are to prevent our lowest capacities from putting all higher aspirations out of our reach. "Just say No" doesn't work any better for sex than it does for war. The more we understand about ourselves, the possibilities for our lives, and the costs and potential rewards of becoming a parent, the more likely we are to choose a path that is both beneficial to us, and worthy of God.
Davidson Loehr is author of the book