The Incoherence of the Catholic Pro-life Position

An iPub Editorial

By Ann Marie B. Bahr

Jesus Christ Glass Painting at the Catholic Church

The Catholic intellectual tradition contains some of the finest systematic philosophical reflections in the world, but I cannot make sense of its pro-life argument. I examine it here not out of animus toward the Catholic Church but because its internally contradictory claims are also found in debates in the broader society about abortion, animal rights, and the rights of persons in law and medical ethics.

Image Credit: Pixabay

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person” (paragraph 2270, my emphasis). The underlined words are derived from two different ontological and ethical positions, both used by contemporary Catholics, one of which was defined in pre-modern times and the other in the modern era.

The first (“human being”) draws upon the modern science of genetics. It refers to a member of a particular biological species: homo sapiens. It is used in pro-life arguments because the fertilized egg contains the entire DNA of a unique individual. Thus, it is argued that human life begins at conception. And so it does if we are talking only about a particular member of a specific biological species.

The term “person” derives from ancient Western drama, pre-modern theology, and law. It was used in ancient Greek drama to refer to the mask used by an actor. Early Christians used it to explain the Trinity, defined as three “persons” in one God. Jews and Christians used it to describe the biblical statement that men and women are made in the image of God (Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-27). It remains an important philosophical and theological concept today. For example, it is “persons,” not human beings per se, who have legal rights and responsibilities. Personhood is a robust concept designed to capture the most significant characteristics of humanity, e.g., the ability to reason, being a moral agent, having free will, being self-aware, displaying self-motivated activity, ability to communicate with other persons, and the ability to form relationships with other persons.

While “human being” and “person” overlap, they are not identical. One can be a human being but not a person; e.g., a child who has not attained “the age of reason” is not a legal person, and therefore s/he cannot be held legally responsible for a crime. And one can be a person but not a human being, as is the case with the three persons of the Christian Trinity. Other examples of non-human persons include angels, who are a rung above humans in the medieval “great chain of being,” and, some would argue, animals who are a rung below humans but seem conscious, self-directed, and can form relationships. Another indication that the two terms are not identical is that the older concept (“person”) has not faded with the development of the modern science of genetics. That is because attributes like moral agency and self-direction are necessary for the practice of law and medical ethics. It is persons, not human beings per se, who have rights and responsibilities. 

Thus, it is not true that “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person” (paragraph 2270 of the Catechism). Personhood and its rights develop over time. A two-year-old does not have the right to vote. A seven-year-old does not have the right to marry. We grow into our rights and responsibilities.

When I asked why a fertilized egg, which does not have the characteristics of a person, should have the rights of a person, I was told it was because the DNA contains all the information necessary for the development of a unique individual. The replication of that original blueprint creates the person. 

But does it? Do self-awareness, self-motivated activity, moral reasoning, relationality, and the ability to use language emerge from my genetic endowment? I suspect that the characteristics of personhood are instead the result of nurture and relationships that form as we grow from infancy through childhood and into adulthood. The experiences and the educational opportunities have been used for developing my ability to reason, the activities in which I choose to participate, my language and communication skills, the relationships I have with others, and my reflection upon my role in those relationships—these all shape who I am as a person. They create my identity. This means personhood and personal identity develop after birth, and even then, only gradually.

The Catechism also says, “357 Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, self-possession, and freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons.”  Precisely—this statement captures the traditional concept of personhood.

But to confuse identity with genetics means we are neither relational nor free. The fact that we hold persons to be legally and morally responsible for their actions means that they could have done otherwise; they are not enslaved people by birth, nor are they fated by destiny to do what they do. The modern application of this anthropological insight means that the self we will become is not written into our genes. It is nurtured by family, education, religious organizations, etc., but ultimately chosen by us as we choose which of the many paths we will follow. The legal and moral definitions of a person are premised on reason and free will, not genetics. If to be a person means to be rational, then I cannot be considered a person until I am able to reason well. Therefore, an uneducated human being has been deprived of a crucial part of their personhood. If to be a person means to have free will, then enslaved people have been deprived of a critical aspect of their personhood. Someone held in isolation, cut off from other human beings, has been deprived of a fundamental element of personhood. Indeed, our ideas about human rights are tightly interwoven with our beliefs about personhood as developed in the past millennia. It is persons and only persons who have rights. 

Perhaps one could argue that even though most rights are attained after birth, the right to life occurs at the moment of conception. Suppose we grant that premise (just for the sake of argument); in that case, we have an unborn but genetically complete human with a right to life and a female with a more extensive set of rights (perhaps including the right to complete her education and find gainful employment). The female also has a set of responsibilities (possibly other family members to care for, attaining and maintaining living quarters), while the unborn has none. It is easy to see that the unborn’s right to life and the rights and responsibilities of the pregnant female might conflict. This forces us to ask whether there is a hierarchy among rights. Does the right to life trump all other rights? This question arose when I noticed that a Catholic priest was privileging the first triad of “unalienable rights” (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) in the Declaration of Independence. When I asked why the reason given was that the right to life is the prerequisite for all the other rights. Accurate in a temporal sense, but does that give it a higher priority than other rights? The authors of the Declaration of Independence were among the many in the course of history who have been willing to sacrifice their life, if necessary, in order to gain liberty. I see no reason to assume that the founders prioritized life over liberty. 

It is, of course, a noble and beautiful decision to set aside one’s rights to education, career, etc., to give life to a child, and we should all be grateful to the woman who sacrificed a portion of her life to give us life. We should probably feel morally obligated to sacrifice something for her in return. But both the woman’s sacrifice and that of her offspring are freely chosen, compelled by conscience perhaps, certainly by gratitude, and hopefully by love, but not by legal or spiritual coercion. 

In conclusion, the Catholic Church needs to address the confusion that results from equating “human being” and “person,” given the non-identity of the two terms in ethics and law.  The Church also needs to recognize that what is needed is a balancing act between the right of the unborn to life and the rights and responsibilities of the woman. There are two lives to be considered, not just one. Finally, the Catholic Church needs to recognize that women are full persons with intelligence, moral agency, and decision-making authority. They may appreciate advice and assistance from someone who respects their autonomy, but they do not need anyone to direct their life and make decisions for them.


  1. Thank you for this. The idea of incoherence in the headline here is interesting. There isn’t much in our lives that is absolutely coherent. As we live our lives and thus context changes, it becomes clearer that our toe dip in the river of life is always changing. Adhering to valuable principles from the past is just as important as having faith in the new ideas of today and tomorrow. Trees need their expanding roots and to grow their leaves as well. How can we integrate both our roots and growth? What type of perspective or thinking can accomplish this?

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    • This is fascinating! My solution is your question! Here is what I mean: You use the organic metaphor of a tree whose roots and leaves are both growing. You ask how we can “integrate both our roots and growth”? In contrast, here is how I approached the disconnect between the conservative “right” and the liberal “left”: The “right” reveres the past and its traditions, and fears that we are in a downhill slide as we jettison elements of the past for new ideas and new ways. The “left” views many of the ideas and traditions of the past as dangerous to human rights and equity, and consequently believes we need a radical break from the past in order to progress as a species. I think that both perspectives are stuck in modern ways of thinking and therefore neither has a working understanding of the agrarian metaphors that shaped much of the Bible and much of classical philosophy. Jesus’ parable likens his words to seeds. The economies of both classical Greece and classical Rome were based on agriculture. The feudal system of the medieval period, a period in which the Church dominated society, was solidly based on agriculture. In all of these pre-industrial societies, change was viewed through the perspective of organic growth: seeds giving birth to new plants, vines sprouting branches, the cyclical processes of birth/decay/death/renewal, etc. In agrarian societies, the past flows into the present and the future; to cut oneself off from one’s roots is to die. Similarly, to refuse to change and grow is to refuse to live. The use of organic metaphors, like your tree, makes it clear that the river of life flows through us. (We don’t stand outside it and direct it, as we imagine we can do when we limit our thought to the realms of science and technology.) The tree, the seed, or the vine—none of these is making a choice between the old ways and the new ways. Each is simply growing, which means the new life emerging within it is rooted in the fertile soil of the past and carries the nutrients taken in by its roots up to the areas of new growth. Reasoning from an organic or agrarian perspective, the question we need to ask is whether the direction of change is leading to fulfillment of the seeds planted by past generations, or are we deviating from the path of life? We rely on our conscience to make a decision in the moment, but often it is impossible to answer that question objectively until we see the fruits of our decisions. Hence the need for guidance from a Being that can see way more than we can—that was the role of the Spirit in the pre-modern Church. Technically it still is, but I see decisions being made through top-down, deductive syllogisms rather than being based in a more traditional, bottom-up awareness of where the river of life is taking us. ________________________________

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