Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting’s January 23 New York Times online article, “Should Pope Francis Rethink Abortion?” advances the argument that the Catholic Church is simply wrong to maintain that “‘reason alone is sufficient’ to adjudicate” that the intentional killing of an innocent human being always violates the dignity of the human person.

Gutting writes,

“The ‘inviolable value of each human life’ does not imply that no abortion can be moral.  Here the case of rape is especially relevant.  It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception.  We might admire someone who has the heroic generosity to do this, but talk of murder is out of place.”

Gutting does not make the argument that the moral status of the unborn victim varies according to the circumstances of her conception.  Is he therefore implying that abortion in the case of rape or incest is a form of justified homicide, but homicide nonetheless?  Regardless of its merits, that at least is a serious claim that can be taken up; but it is also a concession that many pro-choice advocates are not prepared to admit—and one that I’m not sure Gutting himself is prepared to admit.

Then there are lines like the following:

“There’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans.”


“Allowing for exceptions to the moral condemnation of abortion in some of these painful situations would not contradict the pope’s overall commitment to the ‘value of the human person.’ Rather, it would admit what reason shows: There are morally difficult issues about abortion that should be decided by conscience, not legislation. The result would be a church acting according to the pope’s own stated standard: preaching not ‘certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options’ but rather the gospel of love.”

One might begin by asking what a potential human life is.  The concept of a human life with potential is apparent: A person whose capacities have not to a large extent been actualized through the developmental ingredients to which we all owe ourselves—time, nourishment, love—is a human with potential.  We are all, always, humans with latent potential.

If one is not a human, one cannot hope to become human; the concept of a “potential human life” is unintelligible.  If an organism develops human abilities, it’s because those human abilities were latent in the organism in the first place, needing only time and nourishment and love to develop.  This is as true of Gutting, Pope Francis and myself as it is of the 10-day-old child in the womb or the 10 month-old-child in diapers.

One might then ask according to what “gospel of love” the intentional killing of the innocent is acceptable, as Gutting avers, when one’s “conscience” determines that the innocent person is too much of a pain or inconvenience to allow continued life.

America’s abortion toll is climbing upwards up 55 million deaths since 1973—Planned Parenthood has announced that it performed nearly 330,000 abortions in 2012 alone.  One wonders what Gutting and those who think like him will say someday to the Author of the gospel of love that they so commonly invoke in defending abortion, an Author who famously said:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did unto me.”

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Additional student feedback

It is worth noting, first of all, that Francis’ claim that opposition to abortion finds sufficient foundation in reason alone is far from novel: John Paul II asserted that it could be known by natural reason in the same breath in which he pronounced it as dogma in paragraph 57 of Evangelium Vitae:
“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
There is no reason to assume that Francis meant anything other than what John Paul meant, nor to assume that Francis’ (supposed—I’ve not heard anything about it) allowance of contraception to avoid the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases is substantially different from Pope Benedict’s (in)famous comments on the same topic. Gutting is proceeding from the faulty assumption that Francis is deviating from the doctrines embraced by his predecessors: Even the “who am I to judge” comment was, at best, an expression of his willingness to reverse a 2005 decision Benedict had made with respect to not admitting homosexual men to seminaries. There is, as far as I can tell, nothing new in Francis’ teachings. His approach is different from Benedict or John Paul, but the content is the same.
—Timothy Kirchoff, senior, Director of Rodzinka
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Professor Gutting’s article voices an opinion that many Americans hold,  a ‘pro-life with exceptions’ opinion. However, this opinion, while it holds good intentions,  is misguided at best. Essential to the abortion debate is the question of whether a preborn child is a person. If the answer is yes, which science agrees it is, then this life holds intrinsic value that cannot be tossed aside even in ‘hard cases.’ We must treat all persons with love and compassion, but even in these difficult cases, killing a child is never the compassionate solution.
—Erin Stoyell-Mulholland, junior, President of Notre Dame Right to Life