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Arguments Ever New Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 31 January 2012

January 23, the first weekday after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:  The March for Life was assembling in Washington, and I found myself, not in Jerusalem, but Athens (Ohio, that is), the site of the first university in the Northwest Territory, Ohio University (founded in 1804).  

Two young historians, Robert Ingram and my former student Paul Milazzo, had founded a program to bring to the campus voices and perspectives not usually heard there. They thought we should sound the argument on abortion to an audience composed of students, and even older people, who have probably never heard any serious argument on abortion.  

The jolting part, for many of these people, is to hear that the argument is a weave of embryology and moral reasoning. It begins with what science knows about human life from its beginning, but it then moves with the discipline of principled reasoning.  

The revelation, as ever, is that there is no appeal to revelation or faith. It is all what we might call “natural law reasoning” – and we throw in, as an aside:  “by the way, that has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church, that you don’t have to be Catholic to understand these arguments.”

The constant surprise is that the most elementary arguments, which we have been making for more than thirty years, still come as news to people, for those slogans without substance still hang on:  “It’s her body.  She has to carry it.”

Whether they carry the label or not, the answers still offer a version of Moral Reasoning 101. A British professor of history, knowing most of the answer himself, asked me to respond to the argument of his students that “it’s her body.”  

Well, it’s not solely “her body.”  Unless something is alive and growing in the womb, an abortion is no more “indicated” or relevant than a tonsillectomy. And it is a distinct human life, separate in its genetic definition from that of either parent.  

The right to one’s own body never entailed a right to destroy anyone else’s body. And if we are clear that we are dealing with an unjustified taking of a human life, the agent and the location are matters of indifference. So is the victim. 

We still recognize in the law, or in our moral understanding, the wrong of self-murder, or suicide. In fact, we recognize a whole class of things so wrong that people may not do them to themselves. They may not contract themselves into servitude or slavery; they may not participate in duels even with their consent, rent their bodies for the pleasures of others, or ask a doctor to sever a limb to satisfy a bet. 


         The Campus Gate at Ohio University in Athens

We had a name for this class of things:  we used to call them “unalienable” rights – rights we had no right to alienate or waive even for ourselves.

People seem curiously to forget that even the Supreme Court never established as the ground of its holding in Roe a sovereign right of a woman over her own body.  For the Court acknowledged that legislatures could insist that abortions take place only in a licensed clinic or hospital for the sake of safety. 

But with that move the Court ruled out the argument of the woman who might say:  “I can use an unlicensed abortionist for far less money, and I should be the sole judge of the risks I’m willing to take with my own body.”

The most notable surprise of this evening came from a professor quite in sympathy with the pro-life movement. He asked how we dealt with the claim that forcing a woman to carry through her pregnancy, against her own wishes, was a form of “involuntary servitude.”  
I thought that this kind of argument was made only in precincts of preciosity in the law schools, where professors with imaginations unanchored claim that the laws restricting abortion violated the Thirteenth Amendment (the Amendment that forbade slavery and “involuntary servitude”). 

Here the answers were indeed so axiomatic, so rudimentary, that they may not be noticed any longer. In the very “logic of morals,” a “wrongful” act is that which no one ought to do, that anyone may be rightly forbidden from doing. 

If we are talking about the taking of innocent life, a killing without justification, then no one suffers a wrong, or the deprivation of his rights, when he is restrained from carrying out a wrongful act.  As Aquinas – and Lincoln – taught, we cannot coherently claim a “right to do a wrong.”   

We cannot be said to be suffering the wrong of “involuntary servitude” or any wrongful denial of our liberties, if we are reminded that we are of course obliged not to destroy a life we have no justification in taking. 

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once complained to Rabbi Abraham Heschel that he was invited to Cleveland, but he would be giving arguments he had given so often in other places. And Heschel said something to the effect of “Why, Richard, do you think that the people in Cleveland have already heard what you’ve said in other places?” 

The pro-life arguments, for many people, still come as news. Those arguments are never out of season, and we should never tire of sounding them anew. Especially in those dark places found, most likely these days, in college towns.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Jacob R, January 31, 2012
Hadley Arkes gets it.

It's so obvious what a nightmarish holocaust this is yet so many people are dumbfounded by the thought that it might be wrong.

I wonder if your average Nazi was this oblivious to all the innocent lives being taken by the government he served.
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written by John Zaleta, January 31, 2012
Many of the arguments against abortion are made in excellent books that have no popular audience. It would be helpful to see a booklet that presents the natural law arguments in an accessible format for students and the general public. Maybe the kind of thing that could be placed at the entry of churches as well.
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written by Grump, January 31, 2012
Hypothetically, If one had known what Hitler would turn out to be, would one have argued that he should have been aborted? Or do we just blame that one on the Potter?
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written by Dan Deeny, January 31, 2012
Another excellent contribution by Dr. Arkes. It just so happens that several weeks ago at work one of my supervisors said that, while she herself would never have an abortion, she thought a woman had the right to control her own body. I have copied this article and will try to give it to this very decent lady. I wonder what will happen.
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written by Tom Springer, January 31, 2012
Excellent point about "the whole class of things so wrong that people may not do them to themselves." As a mundane example, consider seat belt laws. The government (not to mention insurance companies) finds it morally objectionable that humans beings should catapault through the windshield should they crash their vehicle into a fixed obstacle. So they mandate that we've all got to wear seatbelts or else pay a fine. Same goes with smoke alarms, basement egress windows and motorcyle helmets. If we willingly disable or opt out of using these safety devices, we're in violation of the law. I'm given no choice or say with regard to these potential risks "to my own body." But with abortion, the smallest, weakest and most vulnerable lives of all are stripped of that consideration. How could someone as smart as a Supreme Court justice fail to see that?
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written by Katherine, January 31, 2012
For John Zaleta:

Do you know about the organization Healing the Culture in the Seattle, WA area? They are currently in the final stages of developing a curriculum to present such natural law arguments to high school and college students. They might have what you are looking for.

I believe it will be more substantial than a booklet, but it is designed for a non-technical audience.
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written by Louise, January 31, 2012
"This is MY body"?

"Really? In what way is it your body? On what grounds do you claim ownership? Do you claim ownership in the same way that you claim that the hat that you bought is "your" hat. Did you purchase it? Did you make it yourself to your own design and specifications and plans? Do you have control over it? For example, do you control your height, your weight, the color of your eyes? How did you come by it that gives you the right to say, "This is mine."? Did you choose the date and circumstances of your birth? When the flu went around, did you say, "no, thanks?" Can you simply refuse to allow the inflammation of your appendix or gall bladder because, after all, it's YOUR body?

I can find no basis on which one can claim ownership of one's body--only stewardship of a gift given.
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written by Tony Esolen, January 31, 2012
Grump: The Catholic position, which is also the common sense position, is that human beings are free in their judgments (the more precise meaning of the term "arbitrium liberum"), because they choose between one good thing and another. For even people who do evil do so because they seek something they evaluate as good (though they are self-deceived in the evaluation, or the good they seek is vitiated by circumstance, as when a man attempts to go to bed with his neighbor's wife). No one, either, can tell what is going to happen even one moment hence. We can "blame" God for having created the person who would freely choose and freely choose and freely choose to become the monster Hitler; but then we had better also blame God for having created us, too. But God who created the universe from nothing can bring good out of the unreality that is our evil.

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written by Hadley Arkes, January 31, 2012
I'd like to thank my correspondents for the notes they've sent in today. I'd be interested to hear from Dan Deeny as to what reactions he gets from that lady to whom he was going to give this essay with its arguments--if he can risk giving it to his supervisor. I'd also be curious to what she would say when you add Mr. Springer's fine additions here. I'd alert people that we're forming right now in Washington,D.C. our new Center for Natural Law under the auspices of the Claremont Institute, and we may have programs--lectures, seminars--for students and for people newly sprung from law school. And for primers on moral reasoning and abortion, we can remind people of some of the books written by contributors to the Catholic Thing,including Frank Beckwith and the scribbler writing to you now. Thanks for all of your comments.
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written by Tony Esolen, January 31, 2012
This is a wonderful and cheering article, Professor Arkes!

The depth of ignorance concerning what Catholics actually believe would be shocking, were it not obvious that "educated" people are also ignorant of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the actual beliefs of the American founders, the Fathers of the Church, and on and on -- we aren't dealing anymore with people who cast themselves as new Greek sorts, like Schiller or Shelley, because the illuminati are dark about Aeschylus and Sophocles too. I find that my students tell me, when I discuss something like love, that they've never heard such things before -- nothing about, for instance, medieval art being centered wholly upon the question of love. Ah well ...
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written by KYpapist, February 01, 2012
At a picket one woman yelled, "It's my body and I can do what I want with it." I said, "So make it fly!"
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written by Dan Deeny, February 06, 2012
Dr. Arkes, Thank you again. Well, I gave your essay to my supervisor. She graciously accepted it. She hasn't said anything, yet. I don't expect her to, and I'm reluctant to bring it up again. It's a difficult subject, not suitable to the work environment. If the topic comes up again, I'll try to work Mr. Springer's comments into the discussion.

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