Not Even What They Want

October 3, 2017

As of this writing the House of Representatives is moving forward “on legislation that would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for instances where the life of the mother is at risk and in cases involving rape or incest.” [1] While the legislation has support from the White House, it is not likely that it will survive a filibuster in the Senate.

Catholic teaching on the subject is clear and unambiguous. “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), ¶2270) [2] Moreover, the “inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

“’The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.’

“’The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined....As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.’” (CCC, ¶2273)

Pope Francis beautifully expressed the humane underpinnings of this teaching last year in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia:

“Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the ‘property’ of another human being.” (¶83) [3]

By Casa Rosada
So the proposed legislation, from the standpoint of Catholic teaching, doesn’t go far enough. It still allows for the killing of the unborn in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

But it must be conceded that if such legislation were somehow to make it through Congress and be upheld by the Supreme Court, there would be an improvement on the current situation, where abortion is considered a protected constitutional right up until the point of viability. [4] A fetus doesn’t reach a 50% chance of survival outside of the womb until the 24th week of gestation. [5]

We probably won’t see too much in the way of fireworks over this proposed legislation unless, somehow, it looks like the Senate will pass it, and that doesn’t appear too likely at this point. But in debating the legislation on its merits, it is helpful to consider that the United States has, due to its constitutional restrictions, some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world. As an article in The Guardian last year pointed out,

“It is easier for a woman to get an abortion in conservative US states like Texas, Catholic European countries like Poland and Portugal – and even in parts of Latin America – than it is in Northern Ireland.

“Abortion laws in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are the most restrictive in Europe. Terminations in both jurisdictions are only permissible on the grounds of a threat to the life of the mother.

By Heidi Green
“In most other parts of Europe abortion is allowed without restriction up to between 10 and 14 weeks’ gestation. In most countries abortions can be carried out beyond this point, but only on specific grounds.

“So, for example, in Greece abortions can be carried out on demand up to a limit of 12 weeks. However, a limit of 19 weeks applies in cases where the pregnancy was the result of rape and 24 weeks where there is a threat to the life or health of the woman and in cases of foetal abnormality that would result in a serious congenital defect.” [6]

In light of all this, the proposal to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks appears modest. Moreover, it might better reflect American attitudes on abortion than the current state of the law. In point of fact, if “you were going to craft a law based strictly on public opinion, it would permit abortion in the first trimester (first 12 weeks) of pregnancy and in cases involving rape, incest or threats to the mother’s health. The law, however, would substantially restrict abortion after the first trimester in many other cases.” [7] Drawing the line at 20 weeks is actually more permissive than most Americans would have it.   

Still, the ban on abortion after 20 weeks has no chance of getting through Congress. And it really makes a statement that we can’t expect to get even that far.

Jack Quirk