Social Doctrine on Abortion

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published by the Roman Catholic Church clearly outlines how Christian politicians should treat abortion. Since Protestant churches are sorely lacking in applied ethical standards, we might learn from these documents both how to deal with unjust, evil laws, and how to anticipate martyrdom:

When — concerning areas or realities that involve fundamental ethical duties — legislative or political choices contrary to Christian principles and values are proposed or made, the Magisterium teaches that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political programme or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals”. In cases where it is not possible to avoid the implementation of such political programmes or to block or abrogate such laws, the Magisterium teaches that a parliamentary representative, whose personal absolute opposition to these programmes or laws is clear and known to all, may legitimately support proposals aimed at limiting the damage caused by such programmes or laws and at diminishing their negative effects on the level of culture and public morality. In this regard, a typical example of such a case would be a law permitting abortion. The representative’s vote, in any case, cannot be interpreted as support of an unjust law but only as a contribution to reducing the negative consequences of a legislative provision, the responsibility for which lies entirely with those who have brought it into being.

Faced with the many situations involving fundamental and indispensable moral duties, it must be remembered that Christian witness is to be considered a fundamental obligation that can even lead to the sacrificing of one’s life, to martyrdom in the name of love and human dignity. The history of the past twenty centuries, as well as that of the last century, is filled with martyrs for Christian truth, witnesses to the faith, hope and love founded on the Gospel. Martyrdom is the witness of one who has been personally conformed to Jesus crucified, expressed in the supreme form of shedding one’s blood according to the teaching of the Gospel: if “a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies … it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

One of the footnotes here points to John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, which says:

73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. “They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: “the midwives feared God” (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God-to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty-that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:10).

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”.

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

74. The passing of unjust laws often raises difficult problems of conscience for morally upright people with regard to the issue of cooperation, since they have a right to demand not to be forced to take part in morally evil actions. Sometimes the choices which have to be made are difficult; they may require the sacrifice of prestigious professional positions or the relinquishing of reasonable hopes of career advancement. In other cases, it can happen that carrying out certain actions, which are provided for by legislation that overall is unjust, but which in themselves are indifferent, or even positive, can serve to protect human lives under threat. There may be reason to fear, however, that willingness to carry out such actions will not only cause scandal and weaken the necessary opposition to attacks on life, but will gradually lead to further capitulation to a mentality of permissiveness.

In order to shed light on this difficult question, it is necessary to recall the general principles concerning cooperation in evil actions. Christians, like all people of good will, are called upon under grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil. Such cooperation occurs when an action, either by its very nature or by the form it takes in a concrete situation, can be defined as a direct participation in an act against innocent human life or a sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it. This cooperation can never be justified either by invoking respect for the freedom of others or by appealing to the fact that civil law permits it or requires it. Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).

To refuse to take part in committing an injustice is not only a moral duty; it is also a basic human right. Were this not so, the human person would be forced to perform an action intrinsically incompatible with human dignity, and in this way human freedom itself, the authentic meaning and purpose of which are found in its orientation to the true and the good, would be radically compromised. What is at stake therefore is an essential right which, precisely as such, should be acknowledged and protected by civil law. In this sense, the opportunity to refuse to take part in the phases of consultation, preparation and execution of these acts against life should be guaranteed to physicians, health-care personnel, and directors of hospitals, clinics and convalescent facilities. Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected not only from legal penalties but also from any negative effects on the legal, disciplinary, financial and professional plane.

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