Since the Supreme Court’s historic 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the issue of a woman’s right to an abortion has fostered one of the most contentious moral and political debates in America. Opponents of abortion rights argue that life begins at conception – making abortion tantamount to homicide. Abortion rights advocates, in contrast, maintain that women have a right to decide what happens to their bodies – sometimes without any restrictions.

To explore the case against abortion rights, the Pew Forum turns to the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, a professor of moral philosophy and academic dean at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmetsburg, Md. In addition to his academic duties, Mindling serves as a consultant to the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.

A counterargument explaining the case for abortion rights is made by the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, Professor of Moral Theology, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary

David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Question & Answer

Can you explain how your Christian faith informs your anti-abortion views?

I like the answer Martin Luther King gave when asked how his Baptist views influenced his views on racism. And he said, “You don’t have to be a Southern Baptist to understand the immorality of racism. Yet clearly my faith sheds light and gives conviction and courage and clarity to my views.”

I believe that in the Father’s plan, Jesus’ death on the cross was for all human beings, and that the church carries on that saving mission. Jesus entrusted all human beings to the care of the church when he said, “Go, teach all nations.” And in that light, I think the church helps me to recognize that especially the most vulnerable people are entrusted to believers. Jesus had a clear preference for vulnerable people, and there is no more vulnerable group of people than the unborn. And therefore, the commitment that I make to pro-life beliefs is very much connected to the commitment that I have to Christ and his church, which is to carry on his work.

Do you believe that a fetus has or should have the same rights that you and I have?

The word I’d use is dignity. The same dignity. Dignity is something that I believe is an endowment rather than an achievement, and every human being is endowed with a dignity because every individual is created by God.

Dignity is not the result of my accomplishments. I have a dignity that doesn’t depend upon my size or strength, how long I’ve been alive, what I’ve accomplished or the choices that I’ve made. And it’s that dignity that is the source and the foundation of all respect that we have for one another.

If I believe in inherent dignity, then the child in the womb, the child in the nursery, the child in the school or the adult teaching that child all have a dignity that is universal and that requires respect and protection.

And you believe this dignity extends from the point at which human life is an embryo all the way to the point at which a person is literally at death’s door?

There is human dignity regardless of the life stage. So, yes, an embryo has dignity because of its status as a human being, as does the 50-year-old.

Now, because we’re not the source of the dignity, it’s not possible for us to destroy it. My dignity is not my achievement, nor can I lose my dignity in any fundamental sense, even if I perform very badly. I see differences, not in terms of age, but in the degree of vulnerability.

Pro-life issues at the beginning of life have a certain pride of place in the church precisely because of the incredible vulnerability of this life and the absolute innocence of this life, and its own inability to be an advocate for its own dignity.

And yet, as human beings we assign value to life at different stages. People generally feel that it is more tragic when a five-year-old child dies than when a pregnant woman miscarries.

Of course, our emotional attachment and experience with people does generate greater sorrow at their loss.

As a priest, I’ve certainly had funerals of children who were killed in tragic situations. And they were excruciatingly, emotionally painful events. At the same time, I know that in the tsunami or in Darfur, there were many children who were killed. I don’t find myself torn apart by grief over these children because I haven’t had the firsthand experience of working with and talking with these children. The fact that I might respond in a strongly emotional way to one death and in a less strongly emotional way to another death tells me a lot about me, but it doesn’t reflect a difference in the basic dignity of the two individuals who have died.

But we recognize that while our feelings give us good indications of the value of life, they’re not the only way we perceive that value. We also perceive value using our ability to think and to reason and to understand. And we can understand that this human life is worthy of respect even if emotionally the things that normally trigger our protective response are not triggering it in this particular situation.

Let me shift gears on you and ask: Is there ever a case in which terminating a pregnancy is justified? If a woman is going to die without an abortion, is there a valid reason to perform the procedure?

St. Paul is pretty clear: we shouldn’t do evil that good would come of it. The dignity of the unborn child is not lost because the mother’s life is at risk. The dignity of the unborn child isn’t lost because the mother would prefer not to have this child. The dignity of the unborn child isn’t something that the mother bestows on the child and that the mother is free to take away at will.

But if a mother dies because she hasn’t received an abortion, her fetus may die as well. So some would argue that it would be better to abort the fetus and save the mother’s life as opposed to losing both of them.

Let’s use the word “murder” just because of its shock value. This person is going to die unless we murder this other person? Would it be okay, then, to murder? Would it be okay for me to murder to save one life or two lives or three? How many lives would it take before it would be okay for me to murder? I think we are not free to change the moral quality of the act and say, “Well, I guess it’s not murder then because something good may come of it.” Murder is always wrong.

Why do you think so many people support abortion rights?

Some pro-abortion rhetoric exalts the autonomy of the mother and resists any suggestion that a woman’s autonomy has any limits. It’s an understandable cultural phenomenon that we value autonomy and freedom, especially when women’s rights over the course of history have been trampled and ignored. While there is a need to bring the legitimate dignity and rights of women to the fore, some who argue for abortion rights misunderstand that only pro-life advocacy respects the rights and dignity of every human being, mothers as well as children.

Another reason people mistakenly support so-called abortion rights is that we tend to value productivity and achievement. We’re critical of those who don’t achieve. And this tends to make it harder for us to recognize the dignity of those who are not achieving. And I can think of nobody who is less achieving than the unborn child. And so, some of the values that our culture rightly supports tend to make it harder to recognize the dignity of the unborn child.

Let me give an example. You would think that the horror of killing an unborn child would produce a natural repugnance. But our culture has muted that repugnance and instead tells people that completing your education is a good reason for you to have an abortion. We have placed other values ahead of life itself.

To you, what does the fact that abortion is legal and that there are so many abortions each year say about our society?

First, it tells us that we are increasingly tolerant of violence because we’re willing to tolerate violence against the child in the womb, which you would hope would be a very safe place; but now violence has penetrated even this sanctuary. But we have become calloused to the horror of abortion. The Pope even said that we live in a culture of death.

It also tells us that we have lost a sense of our own dignity. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but the relationship between self-love and neighbor-love is clear. If our society has trouble recognizing the dignity and the worth of the small, weak, vulnerable life in our midst – the handicapped, the retarded, the population of those whose dignity is hardest for our society to see – then we ultimately lose sight of and misunderstand our own dignity, and I think that’s culturally tragic. So being in favor of the protection of the life of the unborn is a way to understand and to celebrate the very dignity of all the rest of us.

But some would say the reality is that if we stop offering women legal, safe abortions, we will quickly return to the era of illegal abortions. And that means that some pregnant women will turn to people who are not qualified to perform an abortion. Others will try to self-abort. How do you respond to this argument?

It is incumbent upon everyone in the pro-life movement to recognize that there are vulnerable mothers, that they need support and that the crisis that they’re experiencing has to be addressed – that there are mothers who simply are unable to bear the burdens of pregnancy without tremendous help and that there are mothers who are unable to raise their children for whatever reason.

And so pro-life is not just pro-unborn life; it’s pro-life. And in order to be aware of the dignity of the unborn child, we have to be aware of the dignity of that child’s mother. But the solution to protecting mothers at risk is not killing their unborn children, not making abortion “safe and legal.” The solution is to understand and address the reasons why people feel that abortion is their only option or their best option, and to understand the reasons why people would go to extremes, even self-destructive extremes, to prevent the birth of their children. So, yes, we need to help mothers as well as unborn children.

This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.