The Unsubstantiated Decree: A Critique on Papal Condemnation of Abortion in the “Evangelium Vitae”

In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote the “Evangelium Vitae,” a letter directed at the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church. The primary topic of this encyclical is the sanctity, value, and inviolability of human life. Along with discussions of murder and euthanasia, the Pope includes a lengthy section in which he condemns abortion as a “particularly serious and deplorable” crime against life (Hurley 23); he immediately lists abortion alongside infanticide with no justification for how the former qualifies as the latter. Although Pope John Paul II repeatedly declares abortion to be the deliberate killing of an innocent human being in the “Evangelium Vitae,” he fails to establish how a fetus is an innocent human being or how abortion itself constitutes killing.

The pope’s first argument against abortion is the flat-out declaration that abortion is murder; however, this strong statement disconcertingly lacks any support. His first point is that “no one more absolutely innocent being could be imagined” than the human embryo; the Pope insists that the newly-fertilized zygote is the epitome of blamelessness and purity. A second point offered is that this embryonic human is “weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears.” This vulnerability of the mute fetus is argued to render abortion as an even more heinous version of killing. Finally, the Pope concludes his proclamation of abortion as murder by listing several purported reasons and situations which lead women into the decision to abort their pregnancies. But the Pope quickly condemns all of these reasons and situations; the list really only exists to set up a repetition of the original declaration of abortion as “the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” (Hurley 24).

A second argument offered by the Pope against abortion is a lengthy examination of everyone who could possibly bear responsibility for abortion. Beyond the mother who aborts her pregnancy, the Pope finds potential culpability in the father, the mother’s family and friends, doctors, nurses, legislators, administrators of health care centers, and people who “have encouraged the spread of an attitude of sexual permissiveness and a lack of esteem for motherhood.” As if this last group was not ambiguous enough, the Pope then insists that one cannot ignore “the network of complicity which reaches out to include” any international campaigns involved in or connected to the legalization of abortion. Such an extensive and encompassing list would seem to include nearly every person on the planet. Nonetheless, the Pope insists that abortion is the “most serious wound inflicted on society.” He also paints this extensive network of abortion participants as forming a “structure of sin which opposes human life not yet born” (Hurley 25).

The Pope’s final major argument against abortion begins with another insufficiently supported statement that the embryo is a human life. He cites the “clear confirmation” offered by “modern genetic science” which irrefutably proves that a unique genetic combination different from both the father and the mother is formed when a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell. At this moment of fertilization, “the adventure of human life begins,” declares the Pope; without any supporting line of logic, he states that this genetically unique human individual must necessarily constitute a human person (Hurley 25). Although the Pope does admit that “the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data,” he still insists that this genetically unique individual must be respected “from the first moment of its existence” in “totality and unity as body and spirit” (Hurley 25-26). In a final appeal to divine authority, the Pope concludes his argument with the insistence that all human beings “belong to God who searches them and knows them, who forms them and knits them together with his own hands, who gazes on them when they are tiny shapeless embryos and already sees in them the adults of tomorrow whose days are numbered and whose vocation is now written” (Hurley 26). This flowery insistence of divinely monitored embryos serves as the Pope’s final opposition to abortion.

There are many flaws in the Pope’s arguments. Namely, there is a troubling lack of logic or evidence to support these papal assertions. In his first argument proclaiming abortion as murder, the Pope indentifies embryos as “absolutely” the most innocent beings imaginable who lack even the defense of a newborn’s emotionally plying cries. But this sentiment actually serves as a detriment to his very efforts to identify the embryo as a human being. If the embryo is somehow even more innocent and defenseless than a newborn babe, it would suggest that there is in fact a perceptible difference between the fetus and the infant. This is entirely contrary to the Pope’s continual assertion of the fetus’ equivalence to a human child. Another flaw in this declaration of fetal innocence superseding infant innocence is the basic contradiction with the Catholic doctrine of original sin; because of Adam’s fateful indulgence in that querulous apple, Catholic catechism teaches that all humans are equally possessing of the stain of original sin. For the Pope to proclaim that a fetus possesses less of this original sin than a newborn infant is nonsensical; although both would be equally free of personal sin, neither could be considered more or less innocent according to Catholic doctrine. After using a list of supposed reasons and situations for abortion, the Pope once again utterly fails to support his statement that abortion is truly an act of killing. Simple repetition does not validate a statement.

The Pope’s second argument, an attempt to assign responsibility to a vast multitude of individuals, fails to coalesce into any coherent point in support of his central thesis that abortion is the killing of a human individual. Throughout the long list, he spans from the immediate parents of the fetus to extended friends and family, medical practitioners, medical administrators, and even out to unidentifiable groups in the international, nefarious “network of complicity.” This list degenerates so far into ambiguity as to apply to virtually anyone who could be slated as taking part in an action that directly or indirectly concerns sexual activity. But perhaps the most egregious flaw in this entire list of culpability is the utter irrelevance of it all. Simply listing all persons who could possibly be involved in the act of abortion does absolutely nothing to prove the wrongness of abortion. I could perform a similar exercise to expose the evilness of a peanut butter sandwich. First, I could say that I am guilty of constructing the evil peanut butter sandwich from a few delicious spoonfuls of peanut butter smoothed across two soft pieces of Wonder bread. Then, I could also blame my boyfriend for asking me to make him the evil peanut butter sandwich. From there, I could involve his family and my friends who support me in making the sandwich for him. Next, of course, I must necessarily involve both the supermarket clerk at HEB who sold me the peanut butter, as well as the owner of the market for stocking the diabolical spread in his stores. I can then extend my circle of culpability to include both the USDA for promoting the consumption of peanut butter, as well as any international corporations who seek to spread the evil treat around the globe. But how does this illustration of the potential players involved in my peanut butter sandwich serve to establish the morally repugnant nature of peanut butter? It doesn’t; such a lengthy list only serves as a distraction from actually establishing the subject—whether it be abortion of peanut butter—as wrong. The final illogical points of this argument lie in the declaration of abortion as a “great wound” inflicted upon society and the supposed construction of a “structure of sin.” However, given the preceding list which would seem to include nearly the entire world population, it is hard to then argue that this action in which so many people partake is somehow a wound upon society rather than simply a part of society itself. A wound implies a parasitic entity that cripples the society; instead, by arguing for the nearly universal participation in the act of abortion, the Pope has demonstrated that despite the far-reaching effects of abortion, the act has failed to implode our society. This “structure of sin” seems stoutly constructed, a further contradiction to the supposedly ruinous effect of abortion.

Finally, the Pope’s third argument is utterly rife with flaws and logical inconsistencies. His entire citation of the advances of genetic science in proving that an embryo is a unique genetic combination is, once again, utterly irrelevant and fails to establish the embryo as a human being. First, to consider a fertilized zygote as a definitive individual becomes quite a contentious statement in the event that the embryo later divides into two separate embryos, as in the case of identical twins. Were there two individuals hiding in that single-celled zygote? Did another individual suddenly come into existence at the moment the cells split? Even more troubling, these two separate embryos can subsequently fuse back into one single embryo; did one of the individuals “die” during this fusion? Perhaps most damning to the concept of zygotes as individuals is the case of chimerism, when two genetically-unique fraternal embryos suddenly fuse into a single embryo; the resulting fetus is known as a chimera and carries two separate genetic codes. What can we say of this fetus and its potential future individual? By possessing two unique genetic codes in one body, would a chimera actually be considered two separate people? Later in life, would this person then receive double voting rights, or maybe be charged twice for a movie ticket? The implications are absurd (Harris). But perhaps not as absurd as the Pope’s subsequent coupling of an admittance to soul’s untenable existence with a declaration that the zygote constitutes the unity of body and soul. Again, a lack of supportive evidence or logic is replaced by rote repetition of a statement or concept. The pope’s final appeal to divine authority crumbles as the paradox of omniscience rises up from the depths of religious rhetoric to overwhelm his argument with lucid logic. If God is truly an omniscient force who can foresee the future adult of this fertilized zygote, then it would seem to betray either His divine omnipotence or omnibenevolence to allow conception to occur in situations which are less than ideal for the fruition of embryonic development. Why allow rape victims to become pregnant, or daughters of incest to carry their fathers’ progeny in their wombs? Why visit pregnancy upon women whose bodies are physically incapable of carrying a fetus to term, and who face probable death if forced to do so? Why allow the dangers of ectopic pregnancies to plague unsuspecting women everywhere? I do not expect answers for any of these metaphysical queries; I am only attempting to deflate this appeal to divine authority and expose its inability to support the Pope’s conclusions about abortion. But even if the consistent presence of inconvenient and dangerous pregnancies is ignored, the extremely high rate of naturally-occurring miscarriages is still troubling; if the termination of a zygote is truly murder, then God himself has the bloodiest hands of all.

Throughout the reading of Pope John Paul II’s manifesto against abortion, I earnestly expected to find more detailed arguments in support of his position. Instead, I was met with unsubstantiated assertions delivered in tandem, as though rote repetition could somehow imbue the words with compulsory truth. Beyond the lack of evidentiary support or rational proofs, the Pope’s arguments were perilously riddled with illogical flaws themselves. However, perhaps the root of my discordance lies in the final sentence of the piece:
No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself and proclaimed by the church. (Hurley 27)
In this single statement, the Pope conflates the emotional context of an action with its rational analysis. What is written on the human heart is often quite different than what is determined by human reason; to deny the separation of these two aspects does an extreme disservice to the full cognitive capabilities of the human race. In light of this mistaken mélange of feeling and rationality, I am led to view the preceding arguments with less contempt for their inadequacies; instead, I feel a twinge of pity for the well-intentioned—but nonetheless harmful—misconceptions of the author.

Works Cited

Harris, Sam. “Stem Cells and Morality.” Machines Like Us. 25 July 2007. Web. 31 March 2010.

Hurley, Jennifer, ed. “Abortion is Not a Moral Choice.” The Ethics of Abortion. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001. 23-27. Print.

Pope John Paul II. “Evangelium Vitae.” Vatican: The Holy See. 25 March 1995. Web. 31 March 2010.

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Comment by Shine on April 10, 2010 at 4:47pm
Thanks, QM! :)


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