We are born to achieve. Once we achieve, we love to brag about it. Who knows, but those ancient cave drawings might have might have been a cave man’s brag about a big hunt. We make movies of a baby’s first steps, save straight-A report cards, and cover walls and shelves with awards and trophies. Achievement is important to us. So are the bragging rights.
The whole process may be best illustrated by the world of sports. Baseball pitchers closely track their earned run averages; there’s a Cy Young award to be won. Football quarterbacks throw for passer ratings over 100%; running backs push for 1,000 yards in a season. Hockey players dream of hat tricks: three goals in a game. And basketball players go for the triple-double: double figures in three of five statistical categories in a single game.
Our culture has rung up its own version of a triple-double, but it’s no achievement and certainly nothing to celebrate. The “triple” refers to three current social problems. The “double” refers to our double standard in dealing with them. Both are worth exploring.
The three social problems are well known. The recent deaths of two black men at the hands of police officers who were later exonerated ignited a powder keg of racial fury. As Ferguson, Missouri burned, protestors nationwide chanted, “Black lives matter.” In Indianapolis, a different protest was planned to coincide with college basketball’s premiere event, the Final Four. The protestors were upset with Indiana’s newly enacted law protecting the religious freedoms of those who opposed same-sex marriage. Protestors raised concerns that the law would be used to discriminate against gays. Many people branded supporters of the law as religious bigots. In Chicago, the local media jumped all over the Bears for signing a football player suspected of domestic abuse involving two women. In the minds of some, any inkling of domestic abuse appears to have become an automatic disqualifier.
Yet there is a double standard at work here, and it comes from a single source: legal abortion. Black lives do matter. But in 2011, nineteen black babies were aborted for every one black person murdered. In 2011, blacks comprised only 25.5 percent of the population of New York City; a whopping 46.1% of black babies were killed by abortion. There were no protests. Apparently, some black lives don’t matter. The gay-rights protests are missing the bigger picture. If science identifies a gene signaling a pre-disposition to becoming gay, the law supported by some gay rights advocates will subject future gays to the worst discrimination of all: abortion. As for domestic violence, we seem to forget that one half of all women who have undergone an abortion have been coerced, sometimes brutally, into having it. And some unborn baby girls are killed precisely for that reason. Sure sounds like domestic abuse.
Why the double standard? It goes back to a Roe v. Wade, where the Court was called to decide whether an unborn baby was a “person” entitled to Constitutional protection. The Court understood the stakes involved. “If the suggestion for personhood is established, [the case for abortion], of course, collapses for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Constitution].” Unfortunately, the Court ruled an unborn child is not a person. The ruling has allowed some to argue that even if an unborn baby is a human being, the baby is not a person. The argument is as wrong now as it was at the time of Roe.
When life begins is not a matter of law, religion, assumption, or popular consensus. It is a matter of science proven beyond doubt. Life begins at conception. At that moment a human being, understandably not fully developed, comes into existence. And with humanity comes personhood. Until Roe, that has been the common understanding. An 1828 dictionary defines a “person” as a living “human being.” It further recognizes that to be “born” is “to be produced or brought into life.” Literally, we are born at conception. From a medical perspective only, we are born when we pass out of our mothers’ wombs.
Those opposing the personhood of the unborn argue that we don’t become persons until we can experience the realities of thought, sensation, and relation to others. In short, they say that a person must be able to function in certain ways. It is a shortsighted, incomplete, and dangerous view of personhood. It is shortsighted because with each passing day, more is learned about an unborn baby’s ability to function. It is incomplete because function is not everything. Few people would disagree that following medical birth, a human being is a person. Yet a newborn cannot control bodily functions, or rationally think, or understand his existence. A person might lapse into a coma. Is he no longer a person? Then there are those elderly or the disabled who lose both mental and/or physical abilities. What are they?
It points to the danger of trying to define a “person.” There is a vast difference between describing and defining ourselves. We have certain describable functions, but they are not who we are. We are God’s greatest creations, people made of body, mind, and soul, an essence that exists regardless of how any individual functions at any given moment. But if we are allowed define our personhood, we risk limiting ourselves. Worse, we allow ourselves to be limited by others. If we say that the unborn are not persons, why can’t someone define a person as one who can walk and talk, or who can still walk and talk? It would open the gate to infanticide or killing the elderly. Years ago a lunatic defined Jews as “untermensch” — sub-human. He wasn’t crazy about homosexuals either. Giving anyone the right to define personhood means giving a power easily abused. As President Reagan said: “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.” Legal abortion is the ultimate in “might makes right.”
We are persons with inherent dignity from the moment God created us. What a great achievement it would be if we would recognize it. Now, there’s a reason to brag.
Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.