by Peter Steinfels
Co-director Fordham Center on Law and Culture
MY OWN REEXAMINATION OF the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.
First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.
Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.
Let me say just a word about how the first of those two convictions relates to my religious faith.
Fertilization, a remarkable process involving the union of twenty-three chromosomes from each parent, creates a new, unique, individual member of the human species, a physically dependent but genetically distinct and self-directing organism. That is a scientific fact, not one dependent on faith or religious teaching. However, to say that such an individual human life, from the completion of fertilization or at any later stage, including adolescence, deserves the full protection afforded individual humans generally is a moral claim, one informed by science but not dictated by it.
That moral claim is made by the moral tradition and community to which I belong, the Catholic Church. Since my Catholicism has been a matter of lifelong commitment, critical reflection, spiritual experience, and regular practice, its teaching is obviously important to me. By no means, however, is that the single basis on which I affirm that claim about unborn life. Like any other historically aware Catholic, I know that there are issues about which my moral tradition and community, in a history of many centuries, right up to the last, have been seriously, even shockingly, in error.
Furthermore, growing up Catholic I did not hear priests rail against abortion. To the contrary, given the reticence, perhaps I should say prudery, of that environment, the subject was seldom mentioned. On the rare occasions when it was mentioned, abortion was certainly assumed to be a grave wrong. So were many other things mentioned far more often. One of them, for example, was contraception, about which I later concluded that the hierarchy’s continuing condemnation was a tragic and self-destructive error.