Apr 14, 2005 Print this article

Abortion and Moral Relativism: The Right to Life, a Mere Social Concession?

The universal consensus on the inviolability of innocent human life is one of the most profound characteristics of man's moral and juridical conscience.

Although violations of this principle have occurred since the dawn of history, beginning with the fratricide narrated in chapter four of Genesis, voluntary homicide was always considered a moral aberration. Through a negative formulation, the biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill"1 is guarantor of the principle according to which innocent human life is a sacred good. We had to reach the twentieth century to witness an appalling, general fading of such an evident principle.

As Pope John Paul II points out in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, "a new cultural climate is developing and taking hold, which gives crime against life a new and—if possible—even more sinister character, giving rise to further grave concern: broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment, but even authorization by the state so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health care systems."

Another point strongly denounced in Evangelium Vitae is the moral relativism that permeates the "new cultural climate": "Not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil."

The moral relativism reigning today has managed to muddle common sense as regards the value of human life; life and death have become trifling matters. Consequently, millions of human beings—the unborn—end their brief existence in the trash cans of abortion clinics or research labs.

In the view of advocates of abortion on demand, the new human life in the womb is no more than "potentially human biological material." He or she is a life from the biological standpoint, but not from the cultural and philosophical standpoint. It follows that to suppress the life of a fetus is to suppress a biological, not a human, life.

To provide a philosophical foundation for this absurd notion, the theoreticians of abortion resort to philosophical relativism and thus affirm that there is no such thing as immutable human nature. Being human and a human person, they say, are but historical, philosophical concepts that do not correspond to any objective truth simply because objective truth does not exist. Everything is subjective. Therefore, being and person are relative notions that may be defined arbitrarily, quite like the rules of a game. And those notions undergo the same process of evolution as do culture and peoples. "In this way," asserts John Paul II, "any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life."

Cultural Totalitarianism

This relativistic conception of man and the universe is the doctrinal mainstay of abortion, which conceives of the human person as a fabrication of society. Behind this reasoning lurks the modem Leviathan of cultural totalitarianism, of the "dictatorship of ideas," which comes about when theoreticians replace natural reality with their own ideas. Ceasing to be the instrument that allows us to know what man is, reason presumes to take upon itself the task of creating or inventing man. He who invents the idea man invents man: and he who invents man has dominion over him and disposes of him as he wishes, since he invents man to the "image and likeness" of his arbitrary thoughts and will.

Still in accordance with moral relativism, the right to life of the conceived child in the womb stems from a mere constitutive concession from the parents and society, which will be granted in the measure required by personal demands and those of professional scientific research. So-called inalienable rights do not exist, because every right is a social fabrication, the artificial fruit of mere juridical conventions.

As a consequence of such flawed conceptions, the life of the weakest and most innocent of human beings, the conceptus, is left to the mercy of the stronger, the parents and the State.

This is what John Paul II says in Evangelium Vitae when he refers to the "sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the 'right' ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but it is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way, democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism."

Now, the life of every human being ought to be respected because of what it is, not by virtue of a mere social concession, for every human individual is the holder of an objective, primary, and inalienable right to life.

Inalienable Right to Life

This is what the Magisterium of the Church affirms when teaching that:

"There are precisely a certain number of rights which society is not in a position to grant since these rights precede society; but society has the function to preserve and to enforce them. These are the greater part of those which are today called "human rights," and which our age boasts of having formulated."

The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods, and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental—the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority, in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others: all discrimination is evil, whether it be founded on race, sex, color or religion. It is not recognition by another that constitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition, and it is strictly unjust to refuse it."

The respect for innocent human life is a moral constraint from which no one may be released. So we are dealing here with a principle that admits no exceptions or legitimizing presuppositions. In other words, no pretext, whether personal advantage, genetic flaws, another's right, health, a mother's life or blemished honor, or so-called overpopulation, can morally justify procured abortion.

Writes the Pope in Evangelium Vitae: "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."

This abominable crime shall always be condemnable irrespective of appalling widespread practice. Even approval of abortion by a majority of the population could not make it justifiable.Pope John Paul II has stated that truth cannot be measured by the opinion of the majority.' To be sure, a change of mind in the people concerning unborn human nature cannot in any way make abortion justifiable. 

Rather, it would only show the degree and profundity of a tragic phenomenon: a general dulling of the moral sense. Again in Evangelium Vitae, the Pope ponders: "Everyone's conscience rightly rejects those crimes against humanity of which our century has had such sad experience. But would these crimes cease to be crimes if instead of being committed by unscrupulous tyrants, they were legitimated by popular consensus?"

Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality."

But relativistic as they are, abortionists could not fail to be contradictory. The most strident incongruence are observable, one of them being that no advocate of abortion would ever agree to suffer what they are willing and ready to have the unborn suffer. They are right with respect to themselves. They are dead wrong with respect to the unborn.