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Catholic Social Teaching: Right to Life

Monday, May 19, 2014
Christians are not the only ones who can claim ownership over the values that form the basis of the right to life. After all, it is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art 3), “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Such a declaration was written after the atrocities of the Second World War, where it was revealed Nazi Germany ran death camps for the routine and industrialised murder of millions who were opposed to the Nazi ideology, or happened to be Jewish or Roma gypsy. This is not to mention the millions who were killed for ideological reasons in Soviet nations in the 20th century, who were either worked to death, murdered, or ‘disappeared’. There was a clear need to enshrine human rights into law. Through human history it is pretty obvious that we have an original sin as human beings. We always seem to have a tendency to descend into a state of barbarism. Destroying everything that has been built up often seems to be an easy option for humanity. Events in the 20th century show us the atrocities that we are capable of, the denial of a fundamental right to life. Evil seems to spread where there is a lack of the good, no hope for the future, and where extreme poverty and food insecurity prevail. 

When it comes to the right to life, we have a framework in a liberal democracy which sets out the basic principle that we cannot exterminate populations, or murder any individual. Despite this universal declaration, we continue to see overt breaches of the most basic of human rights, the right to life. State-sanctioned murder in Africa and the Middle East is happening to this day, for reasons such as apostasy from Islam or refusing to renounce Christian beliefs. Flourishing in the poorest parts of the world, groups of fundamentalists deny innocent people of their lives in an ideological pursuit, or for the goal of conquest, money or power. The spread of evil worsens when there is no intervention by good people, and evil takes a grasp when there is seemingly no other choice for those who do evil deeds. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred during the El Salvador civil war, said “For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As holy defender of God’s rights and of his images, the church must cry out. It takes as spittle in its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion, all that human beings suffer, even though they be unbelievers. They suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.”

Of course, there is the old trick of redefining what a human being actually is, to get around the universal declaration on human rights. A pervasive argument in Britain and developed nations today, is in the debate over abortion. At what point in a pregnancy does a human life begin? If we take the Catholic doctrine that life begins at the point of conception, then there is no termination or other biological intervention after a certain point that does not end up killing a new human life. Is the West, in its pursuit of liberty and emphasising the ‘choice’ of a pregnant woman over her quality of life, actually turning into a regime that is committing mass murder? It is understandable to see why the matter of abortion is so divisive. Our entire reasoning in Western thought is geared toward individual liberty, the right to choose how we live our lives and not be stifled with the supposed burden of a pregnancy. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted in Caritas in Veritate that Western society often portrays a paradigm of the ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant, the ‘risk’ of having children at an earlier age than we would want. But what we need is a paradigm shift to a more human way of looking at the whole area of the right to life, to shed a positive light on being a parent in less than ideal circumstances.

One argument that ‘pro-choice’ advocates make is that ‘pro-life’ is about protecting the unborn, but only until they are born. The pro-choice point here is that some activists in the political ‘pro-life movement’ lose interest after the point of birth in the human life, and are not interested in the welfare, health or education of the individual. To be for the right to life in a Catholic context in relation to abortion, means the ability of an expectant mother or couple, to fall back on their support mechanism which is the family, the wider Catholic community, and those providing welfare and other support for a new life that is brought into the world.

The pro-choice feminist writer, Germaine Greer once commented that the Cardinal Winning initiative in Glasgow was the first real alternative to abortion for pregnant women. The Cardinal Winning initiative helps women facing a crisis pregnancy, providing assistance to women and their families practically, financially, emotionally and spiritually. In England, the Life charity is a similar initiative. In her book The Whole Woman, Greer condemns the ‘victory’ of self-congratulating pro-choice lobbyists in securing the right of women to have abortions. She argues that women have won little and become enslaved by an abortion culture whose chief architects are "hyper fertile" men, politicians and corporate drug giants. In other words, a ‘choice’ is only possible if there are genuine alternatives. It’s just that in a Catholic context, the choice is an illusion. We can choose to do many things, like choosing to pay a sniper to kill off someone who makes my life difficult; but it is simply wrong and immoral, and is an evil act.

A warning from Pope Benedict XVI before his Papal visit to Britain in 2010 was that a dictatorship of relativism is creeping into Western society. Relativism is the belief that there is no such thing as a difference between good and evil, that there is no such thing as an absolute truth or valid argument. The 'dictatorship' is that in the public sphere we are no longer allowed to say anything that might offend anyone; Christians are pushed aside for claiming we have the truth on morals and what is wrong is always wrong. Isn't it said that the devil's greatest victory was to convince people that he does not exist?

Luke Doherty OP


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