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Ordo Fratrum Minorum

A Letter to a Pro-Choice Friend

A Letter to a Pro-Choice Friend


Dear Benvolio,

Recently, you reminded me of a discussion long ago, and you had asked me what it was that changed my mind. You remembered that 20 years ago, at a discussion in our church, I had defended rather passionately why a good Catholic might refuse to speak out against the abortion laws of our time. Now, I see things very differently. I am glad that you asked me about this. It deserves an explanation.

Back then, I argued on account of religious freedom, as I considered it a matter of faith. Insisting on my opposition to abortion to become law would seem like insisting on an article of my faith to become law. Theocracies repulse me, as they disregard the Christian ideal of freedom in the acceptance of faith. Therefore, I had considered it essential that we conduct the battle against abortion without any recourse to the imposition of laws. It seemed very clear to me.

It is true that in biology, the beginning of a new life cannot be pinned down to an exact moment in time. As a chemist, I am familiar with the principle of microscopic reversibility. At the atomic scale of individual molecules, no step is irreversible, and irreversibility on the large scale is an emergent event in a sufficiently large number of molecular events. So, there is no one molecular even that corresponds to the unalterable beginning of a new person.

However, I now see this as just another example of what philosophers call the continuum fallacy. Just because the transition is continuous does not mean that there is no difference. I cannot say when adding a grain of sand makes it a pile of sand, but I still can easily lift a few grains but not at all a pile of sand. There is a real difference, even when it the change is one tiny step at a time.

So, what is the embryo? A lump of cells, like any other such lump, with no meaning that reason can see? Well, hardly! Every other cell in a body will develop according to a developmental plan, to form or replenish a type of tissue that is part of the body. Or, when kept in the lab, it just stays what it is without developing any further. An embryo, however, is not part of the body in which it lives, as its growth is for its own purpose. It is already a new body, with its own future, dependent on its mother, but not just a part of it. An embryo is, by its very own nature, meant to live, together with the body through which it is nourished. It is a living body in a living body, and if all goes well, then both are going to live for many years to come. There is really nothing doubtful or confusing when it comes to the nature of the embryo: it is a human being, just as distinct and unique as every other being of its kind.

Now comes the part with which I struggled the longest: is it a person? Does it have rights, separate from the rights of the mother? Obviously, the embryo is already there long before it feels anything, let along is conscious. But is it a property, such as consciousness, that defines a person? A person is the kind of being that can be conscious, that can have the properties that allow self-expression and sharing of self with other persons, but it always has these properties only for some of the time. Yet it is the same person throughout its life. Such is our nature. Persons have a characteristic way of life: we can step out of our own centrality, we can truly understand others, not only how they in relationship to us but how they are in themselves. We can truly love other persons, even selflessly. But we always have these properties only for a while, intermittently and imperfectly but never permanently. Therefore, these properties cannot be what makes a human being a person. Instead, human beings are the way persons exist in nature. And this is why all human beings demand to be recognized as persons, with rights proper to their specific state, but always with the right not to be killed.

You are right—my opinion has changed. It is not even a religious argument any longer, but it is the way I have to come to understand what it means to be a person, and what obligations arise from this. You could argue that it still is a religious argument, as the term “person” is inseparable from its roots in Christian thought. Fair enough. However, the Christian concept of persons deeply influenced many people of good will. Knowing that human beings are persons and endowed with rights is something that has now found rather broad acceptance. And this historical development gives me hope that my views will prevail. I now understand why my pastor, in the discussion 20 years ago, responded by saying that abortion was a human rights matter, and that the right to life must be protected by law. Human rights are secure only when all human beings are recognized as persons. The rights of mothers depend on this principle, too. For there to be rights, the death of one person can never be the right of another.

Benvolio, I hope that you will understand, as so much depends on this matter. I remain in your service, and always in friendship,

Joachim, ofm