- Blessed John Paul II,
The Gospel of Life, no. 95 (emphasis added)
We issue this Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life
Activities: A Campaign in Support of Life to put forth "a precise and vigorous
reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and at the same time a pressing
appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve
life, every human life" (The Gospel of Life, no. 5).
As pastors and teachers, we proclaim that human life is a precious gift from God; that each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, self, and others; and that society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and nurture human life at every stage of its existence. These beliefs flow from ordinary reason and from our faith's constant witness that "life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 51)—a teaching that has been a constant part of the Christian message since the apostolic age.
A Consistent Ethic of Life
A wide spectrum of issues touches on the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity. As Pope John Paul II has reminded us: "Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good" (The Gospel of Life, no. 87).
Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion, the direct killing of an innocent human being, is always gravely immoral (The Gospel of Life, no. 57); its victims are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family. It is imperative that those who are called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice.
This focus and the Church's commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement one another. A consistent ethic of life, which explains the Church's teaching at the level of moral principle—far from diminishing concern for abortion and euthanasia or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life—recognizes instead the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper place within a coherent moral vision. As bishops of the United States we have issued pastoral letters on war and peace, economic justice, and other social questions affecting the dignity of human life—and we have implemented programs for advancing the Church's witness in these areas through parishes, schools, and other Church institutions (e.g., Communities of Salt and Light ; Sharing Catholic Social Teaching ). Taken together, these diverse pastoral statements and practical programs constitute no mere assortment of unrelated initiatives but rather a consistent strategy in support of all human life in its various stages and circumstances.
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia "does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23). We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas. "But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).
Pervasive Threats to Human
Where does one begin? Today, when human rights are proudly proclaimed and the value of life itself given public affirmation, the most basic of all human rights, "the very right to life," "is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death" (The Gospel of Life, no. 18). Sometimes very difficult or even tragic situations can be the basis for decisions made against life, circumstances that can diminish the personal culpability of those who make choices that in themselves are evil. But as Pope John Paul II points out, today the problem goes further: "It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret . . . crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights" (The Gospel of Life, no. 18).
The question "Where does one begin?" is easy to answer: "We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 21).
Thus some behaviors are always wrong, always incompatible with our love of God and the dignity of the human person. Abortion, the direct taking of innocent human life prior to birth, is always morally wrong, as is the deliberate destruction of human embryos for any reason. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are not acts of mercy but acts that are never morally acceptable. Direct attacks on innocent civilians during war and terrorist acts targeting noncombatants must always be condemned.
Our concern is only intensified by the realization that a policy and practice that result in well over a million deaths from abortions each year cannot but diminish respect for life in other areas. In this pastoral plan, then, "we are guided by a key insight regarding the linkage between abortion and these other important issues: Precisely because all issues involving human life are interdependent, a society which destroys human life by abortion under the mantle of law unavoidably undermines respect for life in all other contexts. Likewise, protection in law and practice of unborn human life will benefit all life, not only the lives of the unborn" (Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Reaffirmation , 5). This is why we focus here on the pervasive threat to human life arising from the widespread recourse to abortion, from public policies that allow, encourage, and even fund abortion, and from a growing effort to promote the taking of human life through euthanasia.
The Legacy of Roe v. Wade
In January 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States gave our nation Roe v. Wade and its companion decision Doe v. Bolton, and in so doing effectively removed every legal protection from human beings prior to birth. The legacy of Roe is virtually incalculable. In its wake it has left death and sorrow and turmoil:
These attacks on human life are carried out within the family and with the
active involvement of those in the healing profession—institutions that traditionally have protected
the weak and the vulnerable. Often they are carried out at the urging of fathers who, rather than
protecting their child, believe their only responsibility is to help pay for an abortion. And today,
those who support and provide abortion freely acknowledge that killing is involved, and choices once
treated as criminal and rejected by the common moral sense have become socially
In 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade—in large part, it said, because admitting error and reversing a prior decision would undermine the Court's authority. It said also that "people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail" (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). In other words, Americans had come to rely on legalized abortion as a backup for contraceptive failure.
In 2000, in Stenberg v. Carhart, the Court expanded the abortion liberty beyond killing in utero; it now wrapped in the mantle of the U.S. Constitution the practice of killing during the process of birth. Abortion has come to be seen by many not only as a "right" to end a pregnancy prior to birth, but as a guarantee that a child aborted will not survive. This is clear in regard to partial-birth abortion, as well as in the growing reports of children who, having survived mid- and late-term abortions, are put aside and left to die because they were not supposed to live in the first place.
Today, some seek ways to alleviate human diseases through research that involves the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Such research, it is claimed, will enhance human life, when in actuality it "reduces human life to the level of simple 'biological material' to be freely disposed of" (The Gospel of Life, no. 14). Often these embryos that are targeted for experimentation were created in laboratories by in vitro fertilization in attempts to assist couples struggling with infertility. Such efforts, however, embrace the manufacturing of human life without considering the consequences, including the many ethical dilemmas resulting from such misuse of scientific technology.
A Word About Violence
Our goal is to eliminate violence against unborn children, their mothers, and those who are dying. We unalterably oppose the use of violence in any form to achieve this objective, and we condemn the actions of those few who advocate otherwise. During the past decade, several persons involved in the practice of abortion have been killed, and others have been harmed, by tragically misguided individuals claiming to be pro-life. Such violence against human beings is indefensible. It is an offense against God's command: you shall not kill. It also unjustly stigmatizes the pro-life movement in the eyes of many Americans as being violent and intolerant. We abhor and condemn such violence unequivocally.
Abortion and Contraception
The Church's teaching and pastoral efforts on responsible parenthood are appropriately treated more fully in other documents. However, we address the issue here, because some promote widespread use of contraception as a means to reduce abortions and even criticize the Church for not accepting this approach.
It is noteworthy that as acceptance and use of contraception have increased in our society, so have acceptance and use of abortion. Couples who unintentionally conceive a child while using contraception are far more likely to resort to abortion than others. Tragically, our society has fallen into a mentality that views children as a burden and invites many to consider abortion as a "backup" to contraceptive failure. This is most obvious in efforts to promote as "emergency contraception" drugs that really act as early abortifacients.
With Pope John Paul II we affirm that contraception and abortion are "specifically different evils," because only "the latter destroys the life of a human being," but that they are also related (The Gospel of Life, no. 13). It is important to remember that means that are referred to as "contraceptive" are, in reality, sometimes also abortifacient. An end to abortion will not come from contraceptive campaigns but from a deeper understanding of our human sexuality, and of human life, as sacred gifts deserving our careful stewardship.
The Issue of Capital Punishment
The United States is the only Western industrialized nation today that utilizes capital punishment. Increasingly the bishops have spoken out against its use, and Pope John Paul II and individual bishops have sought clemency for persons scheduled to be executed. There are compelling reasons for opposing capital punishment—its sheer inhumanity and its absolute finality, as well as concern about its inequitable use and an imperfect legal system that has sentenced innocent people to death.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: "If...non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person" (no. 2267). Executing the guilty does not honor one who was killed, nor does it ennoble the living or even lessen their pain, for only love and forgiveness can do that. State-sanctioned killing affects us all because it diminishes the value we place on all human life. Capital punishment also cuts short the guilty person's opportunity for spiritual conversion and repentance.
The consequences of widespread loss of respect for the dignity of human life—seen in pervasive violence, toleration of abortion, and increasingly vocal support for assisted suicide and research that destroys human embryos—make it all the more urgent to reject lethal punishment and uphold the inviolability of every human life. "Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22). Thus we are called to extend God's love to all human beings created in his image, including those convicted of serious crimes. In so doing, we can help to make "unconditional respect for life the foundation of a new society" (The Gospel of Life, no. 77).
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