A significant number of the Catholic bishops of the United States are confident in saying “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” (A sufficient number affirmed this statement to insist on adding it to the introduction to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, February 2020.) I agree. But my “detailed” diagnosis to dig in to the issue always brings me to the dizzying perspective of the prospects of science and technology in the 21st century. When I say science, I mean all of western science, for all of history, not the individual study of any particular data today. (On this I highly recommend the book Science Was Born of Christianity by Dr. Stacey Trasancos).
Let us go way back. Throughout most of history, it would be much more common – even a thousand times more common – for the Catholic Church to be ridiculed for being anti-family, because of its fervent promotion of celibacy and virginity, than to be accused of being anti-woman, because it wanted all pregnancies to be carried to birth. The majority of human beings, for the vast majority of history, wanted all pregnancies to lead to a healthy baby being born… because so-so many babies died of health problems within a few years, or even months or days, after their birth. As a modern demographic commentator has put it, the “population bomb” of modern times did not happen because people started “breeding like rabbits,” but because “they stopped dying like flies.” Don’t take this for granted as being too obvious a fact: it was the accumulated knowledge gained by western technological progress that allowed enough prosperity in modern times to stop our concerns about wide-scale infant mortality in the human race. The fact that we still hold modest concerns to address infant mortality rates should only highlight the fact.
Thomas Malthus had created the first modern “population scare” phenomenon. He predicted the 1800s would see too little growth in food production to sustain an exponentially growing world population. He might have been happy to know that our progress as a rational species soon proved his hypothesis wrong. Humanity proved that the same modes of progress, which could alleviate young mortality rates to lengthen the average lifespan of our race, also could secure enough food to sustain that lengthened lifespan for the average world citizen. There have been individual famines, even severe. But there have not been any apocalyptic, worldwide famines.
Did this success in health and in agriculture translate into a full modern flouring of human virtue? Consider again the mad rush of 20th century technological innovation. It was a great test upon our moral integrity of the human race. But as a whole, we failed, and are still failing. It will not surprise you that I define this failure by the standard of Christian virtue to indicate success. A global, anti-Christian psychological consensus has developed. Most of humanity has decided that since we caused so many human infants to live, we need now to have far fewer infants being born. And this modern (1800s-to-present) craze for “birth control” has grown broader and broader among a deepening schizophrenia, demanding greater license for sexual experiences, (of course, sexual experiences now manipulated to be detached from any demands of family rearing). Sex is wanted zealously. But children are now seen as the presumed threat to humanity’s fulfillment. The idea of marriage and family as affirming the “meaning of life,” to bridge the gap, is altogether lost.
The development of modern contraceptive technologies has gone hand in hand with a rejection of the fundamental Christian ethic that unites the 3rd and 4th Commandments. The Christian ethic is this: If we have true communion with God (“keep holy the Sabbath”), then we will radically value and cultivate the life of the human family (“honor your father and mother”). It is the entire modern project of the contraceptive world-view, for which abortion has been verifiably defined as a kind of justifiable and justified birth-control, to say that no God shall ever again command us “be fruitful and multiply.” (To understand this one should read the Supreme Court “Casey” Decision.) It is the abortion mindset: “we shall decide for ourselves when it is good, and when it is evil, to embark upon that precarious quest of raising up another human being. When we say it is ‘evil’ to bring a child into this world, at least into ‘my’ world, we will use those god-like powers of technology, as we want and how we want, to stop it. No Christian moralizing shall stand in the way of this freedom we have earned for ourselves, freedom from the tyranny of a covenantal God who would dictate the so-called ‘meaning of life’ to us.”
The particular sin that we referenced at the beginning of this consideration is conceived in that mindset. It is that philosophy about human life and existence that leads to actions about which we wince to speak openly in detail: the utilitarian practices that have the white coats of technological, medical advancements covering over them. When the wonders of modern chemistry, despite our best efforts, don’t kill all the unwanted embryos and zygotes, it is by far much quicker, cheaper, and convenient for society to kill the unwanted fetus in the womb, before the horrific accident of birth makes it too recognizable as a child. Because each fetus is only a few pounds, or mere ounces, of inconvenient flesh and human DNA, we think we are making progress by the efficiency of the whole system of legalized, endorsed, and sponsored abortion. It takes very little time and resources to dispose of the resulting “tissues,” and we can quickly all be about our business again, defining our own fulfillment of human existence, without overpopulated families getting in the way.
I do not in the least imply that God will send all kinds of punishments upon the world for the sins of abortion. Many evils have already been done, and they are here. The punishment God has given us for being a civilization that has rejected Christianity, is to let us have a civilization without Christianity. I speak as a cold analyst. Contraception and contraceptive-abortions need not come back upon us by a spiritual karma of some arbitrary, extrinsic divine wrath. It has already worked its evils by guaranteeing a demographic upheaval upon the world, such that we will hardly ever be free of the effects.
A quick word may be needed here about that “overpopulation” problem. It is not just ironic, it is fully contradictory and intellectually dishonest, to claim that a responsibility for the earth, for the environment, for the health of peoples can go hand-in-hand with a chemical and surgical domineering over our own biology in the matter of reproductive choices. Some future surprised and surprising civilization will entirely embrace our human biology in a genuinely-culturally-scientific mindset. That culture will cultivate fertility awareness based methods of family planning (AKA FABMs) to their fullest potential, and in the process prove that the same virtue ethic needed to moderate instinct through reason will be the virtue ethic employed to be responsible with our natural resources. I hope all nations and societies begin to see (like faith and reason together affirm) that human nature and virtue are intrinsically linked. Then all will at the same time figure out how technological, agricultural and environmental innovation and responsibility can sustain not only the populations and societies we now have, but indeed much larger ones.
John Paul II spoke much about the “Culture of Death.” It is a culture that demands others must die so that I may live as I will. Christianity demands that we die to self, so that we may find life, and cultivate it for others, even by the sacrifices of love. The harmony of science, of a true virtue ethic through human reason, and a renewed openness to Christianity are our only way forward. With those things, a world population of 20 billion will live relatively well and happy. Without them, our current 7.6 billion people will start dying off rather quickly, and the whole planet will end up all the more miserable because of it. What actually happens in the next century will probably be some messy mixture of those two prophecies, and there will be much good, and much evil, although prayer may tip the balance.
In the meantime, we need a revolution of virtue in healthcare. Seeing the drive to make all contraceptives “free for all,” seeing the necessarily-related compulsion to expand access and funding for abortion, I am not concerned so much to “count the resulting bodies.” I am concerned to count souls that this mindset will ruin over the next 100 years. The modern world has had enough martyrs. I pray that their blood quickly turn fruitful as the seed of a Church ready to love a God who is willing to allow such a broken world to exist, and then hold it is a gift – even more, as a divine romance – to use our powers of reason, of science, and of body (biologically speaking), to turn all things into a humble response of gratitude to that same God. A response of gratitude is prayer. A response of gratitude is love of family. A response of gratitude is local service to one’s neighbors, one’s state, one’s nation. And a response of gratitude includes a true defense of the dignity of human life against the equivocations, obfuscations, and deceptions of a culture of death.
I don’t know why God gave me a brain that has always loved science, and then turned to philosophy, and then to Scripture. Like Job, I know not even fully why I was born. But I know Who knows it; and I know Who will, without a doubt, show me one day. I do not decide for myself what is good and what is evil. But He who is Good, has decided, and He has already shown me in part, that He has decided for me, for the best. His decisions would not exclude the next 20 billion men and women to be born into this world.