July 7, 1989

Pastoral Letter on The Supreme Court decisions regarding Abortion

In the aftermath of the significant recent Supreme Court decisions relating to the abortion question, you and I, together with many people of goodwill from the Protestant and Jewish communities as well as those who profess no formal religious ties, are going to be entering a period of unusual stress and strain. I am writing to you at this time because it is essential that we know where we stand and what the issues really are as we face a critical road in the defense of life.

It is important that all of us realize how crucial this issue is in our own lives. The society in which we live has been challenged in a very persistent way to define the world around us as a place without God and often without that basic morality of which God is the only foundation and the only guarantee. We are told that comfort and security, physical beauty and eternal youth are not only possible but necessary for our survival. They are held up as the real motivations that guide us in the decisions we make as to how we live our lives. We believe otherwise. We believe that kindness and justice, responsibility and integrity are the foundations of a good life.

In the question of abortion, therefore, we come to a root problem in our society. Here is a fundamental issue on which, although some good men and good women may differ, we who are called to be the family of the faith must know who we are and what we are challenged to believe.

Catholics were once known as the people who ate fish on Friday. This was merely a popular description, of course, and it did not touch the essence of what truly does make us different. We are the people who believe in the Lord Jesus, who accept Him as Son of God and Son of Mary, true God and true Man. We are the people who believe that He came to proclaim the Gospel of salvation, that He suffered and died on the Cross and rose glorious and immortal on that first Easter Sunday. We are the people who believe that He established a church founded upon the Apostles and upon their successors, the bishops, who, even to this day, in unity with the Successor of Saint Peter, are commanded by God to teach His message in truth and in courage. Part of that means that we are the people who believe in life. How much more beautiful — and how much more accurate — it is that we should be identified in this world not as the people who eat fish on Friday but as the people who are in favor of life. This is indeed part of what we believe; we believe in the dignity and the value of human life from the moment of conception until the moment God closes our eyes in death. We believe that God is the Lord of life and its only Master, and it is He who controls its beginning and its end. This must be the key in everything we do and believe.

The abortion question then is significant for us because it give us an opportunity once again to proclaim that essential message of the Gospel. We are the people who believe in life! Abortion is not a question of differing scientific views. It is not even a question of a right to privacy. It is certainly not a question of discrimination against the poor. It is a question of the right to life. Since the media sometimes can confuse and cloud the issues, and since political factors can often muddy the waters of the discussion, you and I must return time and time again to that one basic message. We are those who believe in life. That is the only issue. That is the only question.

This is a confrontation between those who defend the right to life and those who — sometimes for strong personal reasons and motives and truly often with goodwill — are not able to see the question as it truly is. Do not let yourselves become confused. This is a question of life. We believe that is human life in that little baby in its mother’s womb from the very moment of his or her conception, and we believe that that human life has the right to continue until natural death. Let us never cease to repeat that truth time and time again when we come into discussions on this issue. It is not a question of other issues. It is a question of the right to life.

I think it would be important to look at the three major arguments which those who do not see things as we do bring to our attention. These are points which the media often raises and which legal “scholars” present as objections to our position. Relying on the point which we made above, namely that the question is basically a right to life, let us look at these three issues one by one.

Some say that we are debating only a question of scientific or biological interpretation. They say that it cannot be proven that there is human life in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception. Even if this were to be granted for the sake of argument, namely that it cannot be absolutely scientifically proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is still the argument from common sense which we often cite in this connection. If a man is hunting on one side of a field and he sees an object moving across the field, he may not attempt to kill it unless he is absolutely sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is not a human being. The law does not accept the defense, “I thought it was a deer.” Our law demands that we have moral certainty that an object is not a living human person before we attempt to shoot it in a hunting expedition. By the same standards, it is not acceptable for our opponents to say, “We cannot be sure that it is human, and, therefore, we destroy.” We who believe that the child in its mother’s womb is truly a human person must defend that innocent child as we would defend the innocent man or woman walking in a field from a hunter’s bullet and not accept the hunter’s excuse, “I didn’t think it was human.”

Just as this is not really a matter of differing scientific opinions, it is also not a test of privacy. The right to privacy, whatever its constitutional justification, does not extend to giving a man or a woman the privilege to act in private against the rights of others. Our constitution does not allow a person to take the life of another innocent person so long as it is done in privacy. The Constitution protects us, whether in private or in public, from that kind of attack. It is true that each of us is guaranteed freedom from government interference in our own use of our legitimate liberties. What we are not guaranteed is that, using the excuse of that privacy, we can attack the basic right to life of an innocent person. All the legal explanations of a right to privacy fall by the wayside when we repeat, as we must, time and time again, that there is not right to privacy that can be alleged against another innocent person’s right to life.

Finally, the question of the rights of the poor and the discrimination against them is raised. This is clearly a false and unfounded charge. Those who are united in defense of human life have truly so often been the champions of the poor, and this is as it should be. How many of our resources, how many of our personnel, how many of our institutions were founded and are sustained purely for the care and the help of our brothers and sisters in need. The help and defense of the rights of the poor have been a major priority in the life history of so many faith communities, and this is true of so many other people of goodwill who do not belong to churches or synagogues but who are also united in the fight for life, in the defense of unborn children, and in the defense of the poor.

The argument that abortion should be a right of poor women is just not valid. We believe that the unborn children of poor women have as much right to live as the children of wealthy women. We believe that you cannot use abortion as the birth control of the poor. We believe that it makes no difference if the baby in the mother’s womb comes from a poor family or a rich family. It has been given the right to life by God, not by any one of us — not even by its mother or its father — and no one can take that right away. To say that a poor mother should be able to destroy her unborn child is as terrible as to say that the poor are not God’s people. On the contrary, we believe that the Lord truly loves the poor in a special way. We have heard the Lord Jesus speak of them so often with His Love. We must defend the children of the poor, unborn as well as born.

We are not entering an easy time in the abortion conflict. The recent Supreme Court decisions have changed the arena of the struggle, to some extent, to the legislatures of the fifty states. There will be many speeches and many positions taken, there will be editorials, and there will be media coverage that will sometimes editorialize in the place of giving factual accounts. But in all of this, let us not lose sight of the basic issue. We believe that God is the only Master of life, and it is only God who can give it and take it away. The child in its mother’s womb is its mother’s child and its father’s child, but it is also God’s child, because we are all God’s children.

This is not a Catholic issue. It is not a not a Christian issue. This is an issue where so many people of goodwill have joined together. We rejoice that none of us needs to stand alone here, because we are all joined in the crusade for life by people who, through their own faith, their own perception or their own experience, have been convinced of one first and most basic issue. It is the one with which we began this pastoral: this is a question of human life, and we believe that the child in its mother’s womb is a human person from the moment of its conception until natural death. We do not claim that the forces against life are bad people. They are often people who have convinced themselves that privacy and quality of life are more important that life itself. Our role is not to attack them, to belittle them or to accuse them of improper motivation. Our role is to be strong in the Spirit of the Lord and strong in our determination to make the point time and time again: “This is a question of human life. We have no choice but to defend the baby in its mother’s womb.”

May the Lord Who loves the little children give us strength and courage in this noble mission of ours. May the Lord Who calls us to courage and conviction give us the strength to carry on until we have truly affirmed the right to life in our society and especially the right to life of that little baby in its mother’s womb. May the Lord bless all of you, your families and your friends, and may He keep you strong in unity of faith and love for this crusade and for the road to holiness. This is my prayer for you at this moment of history and of truth. God bless you.

Faithfully yours in Christ, 

Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick
Archbishop of Newark