By Sophie Trist
In a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) expressed her support for reproductive justice not in spite of, but because of, her Catholic faith, urging other Catholics to do the same. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s take on reproductive justice weaves reproductive issues with social justice and consists of four core principles: the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, the right to nurture children in a safe and healthy environment, and the right to bodily autonomy and gender expression. Ocasio-Cortez then contends that her version of reproductive justice overlaps with Catholic social teaching’s stress on a preferential option for the poor and marginalized, access to education and healthcare, and the right to human dignity and a life free from violence. Front and center in Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas is the right to terminate pregnancies. Because abortion is an essential part of reproductive justice, it can never be squared with Catholic social teaching. In fact, by supporting the violence of abortion and urging other Catholics to do likewise, Ocasio-Cortez is encouraging her fellow Catholics to commit a grave moral sin and leading others to scandal.
The right not to have a child is absent in Scripture. No Catholic text even hints at such a right. There is, of course, the choice not to have children by abstaining from sexual intercourse or using natural family planning methods to eliminate or reduce the chances of getting pregnant, but pregnancy is a natural potential consequence of sexual activity.
Additionally, the NCR article ignores the fact that abortion is an act of violence, the taking of a human life. That is not religion, but science. Ninety-five percent of biologists, including very pro-choice ones, agree that life begins at conception. Faith and morality tell us that every human life has infinite worth and significance, including unborn ones.
The Catholic Catechism states, “Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable… The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constituted element of a civil society and its legislation… These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents… They belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origins” (CC 2271, 2273).
Indeed, scholars and philosophers of the early church made their views on abortion clear: it’s included in the Fourth Commandment prohibition against killing. In the first century, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Abortion is killing human life that is under God’s care, design, and providence.” In his 197 work The Apology, early Christian apologist Tertullian writes, “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb… To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one. You have the fruit already in the seed.” In a later essay, Tertullian draws on biblical passages about John the Baptist and Jesus living fully in their mothers’ wombs, arguing that humans are ensouled from the moment of conception. The Bible also speaks with reverence of unborn life: “Before I formed thee in the womb, I knew thee” (Jeremiah 1:15).
What Rep. Ocasio-Cortez misses is that the traditional Catholic position is one of a whole life ethic that is infinitely more just and progressive than her limited view. This ethic extends the right to a meaningful life to all humanity, born and unborn. There is no room for categories of humans who do not possess a right to live.
St. Pope John Paul II repeatedly wrote about the sanctity of every human life. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life, he states, “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… It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice, and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized” (No. 87, 101).
Abortion is an intrinsic evil, meaning that where the intention is to take a life, it can never be justified. The removal of an ectopic pregnancy, on the other hand, is morally permissible for Catholics because the intent is to save the mother, and the child dies as an unfortunate consequence. Opposition to abortion is such a key component of Catholic social teaching because it combines the Christian reverence for human life, made in the image and likeness of God, with the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Pope Francis also calls for a consistent ethic of life, saying, “The life we are called to promote and defend is not an abstract concept, but always manifests itself in a person in flesh and blood: a newly conceived child, a poor marginalized person, a sick person alone and discouraged or in a terminal state, one who has lost his job or is unable to find it, a rejected and ghettoized migrant.” Pope Francis has previously compared abortion to hiring a hit man to solve a problem and eliminate a more vulnerable person, and he stresses the current relevance of Evangelium Vitae.
It is vital that children be nurtured in healthy, safe environments. It is vital that parents of all races, classes, and genders have the financial, educational, and community support to raise flourishing families. But we cannot uplift one group of vulnerable people while denying another vulnerable group its most fundamental right to life. For people of faith and goodwill, the key role of abortion in reproductive justice efforts mean that we must abandon this lens and instead use a seamless garment or consistent life ethic approach. Like reproductive justice, the consistent life ethic does not view any issue in a vacuum, but weaves together a profound respect for human life at every stage with efforts to eliminate discrimination and increase access to support and opportunities so that ALL humans, from the womb to the tomb, can live a life of dignity free from violence.
The consistent life ethic is not exclusively Catholic, though it originated from Catholic theology. Christians of all denominations, non-Christians, secularists, agnostics, and atheists have all been inspired to uphold the position that life from conception to natural death is worthy of protection and celebration. I do not doubt that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s Catholic background has instilled a passion for social justice. She can take a major step in promoting the radical justice implicit in her Catholic ideals by expanding her concern to the most vulnerable in our society: the unborn.