Since the Supreme Court's historic 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade,
the issue of a woman's right to an abortion has fostered one of the
most contentious moral and political debates in America. Opponents of
abortion rights argue that life begins at conception - making abortion
tantamount to homicide. Abortion rights advocates, in contrast,
maintain that women have a right to decide what happens to their bodies
- sometimes without any restrictions.
To explore the case against abortion rights, the Pew Forum
turns to the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, a professor of moral philosophy
and academic dean at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmetsburg, Md. In
addition to his academic duties, Mindling serves as a consultant to the
Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Catholic Conference of
A counterargument explaining the case for abortion rights is made by the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, Professor of Moral Theology, Mount St. Mary's Seminary
David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer
Can you explain how your Christian faith informs your anti-abortion views?
I like the answer Martin Luther King gave when asked how his Baptist
views influenced his views on racism. And he said, "You don't have to
be a Southern Baptist to understand the immorality of racism. Yet
clearly my faith sheds light and gives conviction and courage and
clarity to my views."
I believe that in the Father's plan, Jesus' death on the cross was
for all human beings, and that the church carries on that saving
mission. Jesus entrusted all human beings to the care of the church
when he said, "Go, teach all nations." And in that light, I think the
church helps me to recognize that especially the most vulnerable people
are entrusted to believers. Jesus had a clear preference for vulnerable
people, and there is no more vulnerable group of people than the
unborn. And therefore, the commitment that I make to pro-life beliefs
is very much connected to the commitment that I have to Christ and his
church, which is to carry on his work.
Do you believe that a fetus has or should have the same rights that you and I have?
The word I'd use is dignity. The same dignity. Dignity is something
that I believe is an endowment rather than an achievement, and every
human being is endowed with a dignity because every individual is
created by God.
Dignity is not the result of my accomplishments. I have a dignity
that doesn't depend upon my size or strength, how long I've been alive,
what I've accomplished or the choices that I've made. And it's that
dignity that is the source and the foundation of all respect that we
have for one another.
If I believe in inherent dignity, then the child in the womb, the
child in the nursery, the child in the school or the adult teaching
that child all have a dignity that is universal and that requires
respect and protection.
And you believe this dignity extends from the point at which
human life is an embryo all the way to the point at which a person is
literally at death's door?
There is human dignity regardless of the life stage. So, yes, an
embryo has dignity because of its status as a human being, as does the
Now, because we're not the source of the dignity, it's not possible
for us to destroy it. My dignity is not my achievement, nor can I lose
my dignity in any fundamental sense, even if I perform very badly. I
see differences, not in terms of age, but in the degree of
Pro-life issues at the beginning of life have a certain pride of
place in the church precisely because of the incredible vulnerability
of this life and the absolute innocence of this life, and its own
inability to be an advocate for its own dignity.
And yet, as human beings we assign value to life at
different stages. People generally feel that it is more tragic when a
five-year-old child dies than when a pregnant woman miscarries.
Of course, our emotional attachment and experience with people does generate greater sorrow at their loss.
As a priest, I've certainly had funerals of children who were killed
in tragic situations. And they were excruciatingly, emotionally painful
events. At the same time, I know that in the tsunami or in Darfur,
there were many children who were killed. I don't find myself torn
apart by grief over these children because I haven't had the firsthand
experience of working with and talking with these children. The fact
that I might respond in a strongly emotional way to one death and in a
less strongly emotional way to another death tells me a lot about me,
but it doesn't reflect a difference in the basic dignity of the two
individuals who have died.
But we recognize that while our feelings give us good indications of
the value of life, they're not the only way we perceive that value. We
also perceive value using our ability to think and to reason and to
understand. And we can understand that this human life is worthy of
respect even if emotionally the things that normally trigger our
protective response are not triggering it in this particular situation.
Let me shift gears on you and ask: Is there ever a case in
which terminating a pregnancy is justified? If a woman is going to die
without an abortion, is there a valid reason to perform the procedure?
St. Paul is pretty clear: we shouldn't do evil that good would come
of it. The dignity of the unborn child is not lost because the mother's
life is at risk. The dignity of the unborn child isn't lost because the
mother would prefer not to have this child. The dignity of the unborn
child isn't something that the mother bestows on the child and that the
mother is free to take away at will.
But if a mother dies because she hasn't received an
abortion, her fetus may die as well. So some would argue that it would
be better to abort the fetus and save the mother's life as opposed to
losing both of them.
Let's use the word "murder" just because of its shock value. This
person is going to die unless we murder this other person? Would it be
okay, then, to murder? Would it be okay for me to murder to save one
life or two lives or three? How many lives would it take before it
would be okay for me to murder? I think we are not free to change the
moral quality of the act and say, "Well, I guess it's not murder then
because something good may come of it." Murder is always wrong.
Why do you think so many people support abortion rights?
Some pro-abortion rhetoric exalts the autonomy of the mother and
resists any suggestion that a woman's autonomy has any limits. It's an
understandable cultural phenomenon that we value autonomy and freedom,
especially when women's rights over the course of history have been
trampled and ignored. While there is a need to bring the legitimate
dignity and rights of women to the fore, some who argue for abortion
rights misunderstand that only pro-life advocacy respects the rights
and dignity of every human being, mothers as well as children.
Another reason people mistakenly support so-called abortion rights
is that we tend to value productivity and achievement. We're critical
of those who don't achieve. And this tends to make it harder for us to
recognize the dignity of those who are not achieving. And I can think
of nobody who is less achieving than the unborn child. And so, some of
the values that our culture rightly supports tend to make it harder to
recognize the dignity of the unborn child.
Let me give an example. You would think that the horror of killing
an unborn child would produce a natural repugnance. But our culture has
muted that repugnance and instead tells people that completing your
education is a good reason for you to have an abortion. We have placed
other values ahead of life itself.
To you, what does the fact that abortion is legal and that there are so many abortions each year say about our society?
First, it tells us that we are increasingly tolerant of violence
because we're willing to tolerate violence against the child in the
womb, which you would hope would be a very safe place; but now violence
has penetrated even this sanctuary. But we have become calloused to the
horror of abortion. The Pope even said that we live in a culture of
It also tells us that we have lost a sense of our own dignity. Jesus
says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," but the relationship between
self-love and neighbor-love is clear. If our society has trouble
recognizing the dignity and the worth of the small, weak, vulnerable
life in our midst - the handicapped, the retarded, the population of
those whose dignity is hardest for our society to see - then we
ultimately lose sight of and misunderstand our own dignity, and I think
that's culturally tragic. So being in favor of the protection of the
life of the unborn is a way to understand and to celebrate the very
dignity of all the rest of us.
But some would say the reality is that if we stop offering
women legal, safe abortions, we will quickly return to the era of
illegal abortions. And that means that some pregnant women will turn to
people who are not qualified to perform an abortion. Others will try to
self-abort. How do you respond to this argument?
It is incumbent upon everyone in the pro-life movement to recognize
that there are vulnerable mothers, that they need support and that the
crisis that they're experiencing has to be addressed - that there are
mothers who simply are unable to bear the burdens of pregnancy without
tremendous help and that there are mothers who are unable to raise
their children for whatever reason.
And so pro-life is not just pro-unborn life; it's pro-life. And in
order to be aware of the dignity of the unborn child, we have to be
aware of the dignity of that child's mother. But the solution to
protecting mothers at risk is not killing their unborn children, not
making abortion "safe and legal." The solution is to understand and
address the reasons why people feel that abortion is their only option
or their best option, and to understand the reasons why people would go
to extremes, even self-destructive extremes, to prevent the birth of
their children. So, yes, we need to help mothers as well as unborn
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.