Abortion as Betrayal

By Stith, Richard | The Human Life Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Abortion as Betrayal


Stith, Richard, The Human Life Review


Abortion is worse than ordinary murder, principally because it involves the betrayal of a dependent by a natural guardian. Furthermore, abortion is emblematic of wider lethal betrayals of radically dependent persons. All these betrayals are rationalized precisely by the victims' lack of autonomy-based dignity. Christianity counters by affirming the concern and respect due to those who helplessly suffer worldly disdain.

Suppose we were to find out mat over a quarter of the nation's grandparents are killed each year by their teenage grandchildren, often through deliberate dismemberment. Wouldn't responses such as "This is murder!" somehow understate the matter?

Yet such a reaction to the current right to kill unborn children throughout pregnancy is about as hard-hitting as one can find in most pro-life writing. At best, the sheer number of slayings may be brought to the fore, as Cardinal George of Chicago did most powerfully before the last election, when he called us a nation "drenched in blood."

But doesn't even the cardinal's language somehow understate the full horror of abortion, just as it would be insufficient to express our shock at the massive mutilation of grandparents? What lie still unspoken are the multiple evils involved in betrayal of weak and dependent persons naturally in our care. Besides being a living human being, the unborn victim of abortion has three additional characteristics: weakness, dependency, and membership in a natural family. Each of these augments the evil of abortion.

First, the victim of abortion is not an adult, but a helpless child. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) pointed out, in 1991, that abortion is part of "a true war of the mighty against the weak .... With the complicity of States, colossal means have been used against people at me dawn of their life...."1 When we read of troops or terrorists slaughtering the weak - the very old, the very young, the very disabled - this seems more inhuman than the killing of vigorous adults. There is something in us that naturally responds to weakness with compassion and deference. The Catechism supports this feeling when it states, "Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect" (#2276). When a blind man is robbed of a wallet, our humanity is more deeply injured than when a sighted person has his wallet stolen. The thief has committed an act not only wrong but shameful.

Hans Jonas has argued that our treatment of babies stands out as a kind of archetype for decency. He points to "the newborn, whose mere breathing uncontradictably addresses an ought to the world around, namely, to take care of him."2 Abortion, instead, tramples upon him. The legalization of abortion past ten to twelve weeks, the point at which even a child can recognize a child in the womb, is shameless, disgraceful, ignoble.

Second, the unborn child lives in a relationship of dependency. It is worse for a caretaker (a lifeguard, a nurse, a family member) to kill a disabled person than for a stranger to do so, because of the greater betrayal. This dimension of abortion was brought home to me when I was teaching in Ukraine. I saw a prolife poster there with an unborn child sucking its thumb and asked if the caption "He 3pajn> MeHe, MaMo" meant "Don't kill me, Mommy." I was told no, that it meant "Do not betray me, Mommy." Of course, I thought, if there is a life, then there is a child; if a child, then a mother; if a mother, then a betrayal.

And, our third point, a mother's betrayal is not just any betrayal by a caretaker. Parental duties are perhaps the most fundamental we can imagine. Pope John Paul ?, in Evangelium Vitae (#11), first criticizes abortion and euthanasia for being "attacks [which] strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty," but he immediately adds that even "more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family - the family which by its nature is called to be the 'sanctuary of life. …

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