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"Called to Eternal Life": Babies and Rights | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | September 10, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
"In the act of procreation of a new creature is its
indispensable bond with spousal union, by which the husband becomes a father
through the conjugal union with his wife, and the wife becomes a mother through
the conjugal union with her husband. The Creator's plan is engraved in the
physical and spiritual nature of the man and of the woman, and as such has
universal value. The act in which the spouses become parents through the
reciprocal and total gift of themselves makes them cooperators with the creator
to bringing into the world a new human being called to eternal life. An act so rich that it transcends even the life of
the parents cannot be replaced by a mere technological intervention, depleted
of human value and at the mercy of the determinism of technological and
instrumental procedures." -- John Paul II, Address to Pontifical Academy for
Life, February 21, 2004.
Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate, addressed the troubled meaning of the word "right."
Perhaps no word in modern philosophy has caused more trouble than this, at
first sight, noble word. Many a philosopher and pope has tried valiantly to
save this word from the meaning that it had when it first appeared in modern
thought, generally with Hobbes. The word, literally, has no meaning. Or
perhaps, better, it means whatever we want it to mean. It contains no inner
criterion by which it must mean this or that. In the state of nature, people
had an absolute freedom to do whatever they wanted. This freedom was called a
"right." The state arose both to protect this empty "right" and to prevent it
from justifying people killing each other off by doing whatever they wanted "by
The pope points out that the word "right" does not stand by
itself, but is always correlated to "duty." If we maintain that we have a
"right" to this or that, it must be someone's "duty" to observe it or allow it
or provide it. The danger of the word "right" is that it evaporates the world
of notions like generosity and gift, of things beyond the correlation of right
and duty. The highest acts among us are neither right or duties, but sacrifices
and graces. In a world of "rights," no one can do anything for anyone because
everything is already owed. In such a world, the words "thank you" have no
place. No more anti-Christian thought can be found.
If I think that I have a "right" to something, whatever it
is, then someone else, or the state, has a "duty" to provide it for me. I am a
"victim" if everyone else is not giving me my "rights." And if someone gives me
what I have a "right" to, no room remains for generosity, since what is given
is already "owed" to me. If I do not "have" something, it must be because someone
else is denying my "rights." Such a world is filled with complaints, not
services. Thus, in a rights world, when I receive a gift of what I want, it is
already mine "by right." No room is left for gratitude.
Within this context, no more pernicious notion can be found
than that of a "right to have a baby," a phrase we must think carefully about
since, at first sight, it seems that we do have such a "right. But a "right" of
this sort strikes at the very foundation of civilization. No one has a "right"
to have a baby. The origin of any baby is not wholly in one person, or in two,
but it includes what transcends them both. A man and a woman has a "right" to
marry if each is free to do so. Each also has a prior "duty" to respect what
We have a duty to recognize, even legally, the freedom a man
and a woman have relative to each other. It describes something in the nature
and diversity of man and woman. Their very being is to be related to something
that is not themselves. But a man or a woman by his or herself does not have,
independently of each other, a "right" to have a child. Two men or two women do
not have a "right" to have a child. Whatever it is a man and a man or a woman
and a woman do to each other in what is civilly called "same-sex" marriages, it
is not and cannot be a "marriage" as human nature knows it.
A "right" or dignity is involved here, if you will. That is,
the child has a right to have a father and a mother who are married to each
other and together are responsible for him. This duty stems from what a child
is, from his conception. What is original in each parent is not a "right to
have a child" but a duty to provide in the fullest sense what is born of them
in their relationship to each other. That they know and desire children is
itself dependent on their recognition of a duty to any child that they beget.
Even married couples do not have a "right" to a child. The
marital relation, no doubt, is the only one in which children ought to be
begotten, for the good both of child and of parents. It is the duty of men and
women to recognize this fact. No couple "plans" either that they will have a
child or what this child will be. The child is not and ought not to be
understood as the product of some human plan or plot.
Certainly, it is possible to know when a child is more
likely to be begotten at some times rather than others, but the purpose of the
act is not the same as the end of the act. The purpose of the couple is to
express their relation to one other, their love, whether a child naturally
results or not. If a child is begotten, well, fine; if not, fine also. The
"end" of the act in nature, however, is, in the right biological circumstances,
the conception of a child. The openness of the act to children is what makes it
a different act from any other existing among human beings.
Any actual, unique child as such, however, is always a gift,
never a plan, however much we use the word "natural family planning." The
couple promises that they will care for what is begotten of them. No couple
knows ahead of time what particular child will be conceived in them. They are
as much astonished at seeing their child born as anyone else, even if it looks
like either of them or one of the relatives.
There is no condition here, no "we will accept the child if
it meets our standards." Most "therapeutic" abortions deal with begotten
children that the couple decides, ex post facto, that they do not want. This latter view makes the relationship of man
and wife, relative to their children, conditional. We will only deal with what
"we" want, not what we are given. This is our "right."
When children are "engineered" in various ways, the notion
is added that we have a "right" to a "perfect" child, not just the child who
might show up. The definition of perfect varies. It is mostly a lethal weapon
against existing children of mortal beings. This "right" to perfection means
that anything less than "perfect" has no "rights." Whatever is deemed less than
perfect can thus be eliminated as a violation of our "rights." We have abundant
institutions willing to carry out this "right" to eliminate.
Anyone who has followed these life issues knows that the
direction of modern science and modern politics is to separate sex from
begetting. They are declared "independent" of each other. Sex does not relate
to children. It only relates to a "private" passing activity of no great
significance. The "need" to stay together is no longer visible. Any legal bond
is easily broken. This separation leaves many actual children in the hands of
the state or the medical profession or charitable folks who know what a child
State and medicine team up to respond to claimed individual
"rights" to have children by providing in civil law means to "guarantee" such "rights."
The "right to a baby" by oneself belongs, it is said, to every woman. It is
even theoretically extended to males, depending on technology. This process
implies a deficiency in nature in not supplying the means to fulfill the
"rights." Technology substitutes for this defect, if it is a defect.
Certainly the law allows single ladies of various
persuasions to fertilize themselves with medical aid. That is their "right."
Sperm and ova banks are easily available to supply whatever is needed. We begin
not from what is due to the baby but from the woman's "right." The baby is a
product of "right." When a woman decides not to have a baby, however begotten,
she has a "right" to destroy it. It is, after all, her choice, her "right,"
that the state must protect and aid in its fulfillment. The baby has no rights
because the woman or man has no duty to what is not wanted.
This situation is just the opposite to that of the normal
couple. They do not have a "right" to have a child. What they have is freedom
to live together in a certain stable relationship wherein children
might—but only might—be begotten. The future of the race depends on
this relationship, even when it is abused. The on-going security of the child
is ultimately based on the relation of husband and wife, on their bond. The
child in turn is a visible sign of the relation of husband and wife, but as a
gift, not as a "right."
Into that bond, the particular child, destined to "eternal
life," comes unexpectedly, unplanned, yet hoped for. No parent knows ahead of
time what he and she beget. It is always a surprise and a gift, even though
they know it is to be a "human" child born of them. What comes forth from their
relationship is beyond their personal intentions except in general. They know
what this relation is for. The child born is theirs, but not "planned" by them
to be this particular child that actually exists. The parents realize the child
is more than simply a product of their own calculations or even their love. He
is a new being, like themselves.
So no one has a "right" to a child. Among actual human
beings, however, we know that many, many children are begotten outside of this
situation where what-it-is-to-be-a-human-child is respected. If no child should
be begotten unless it is a wanted child—in the sense that it is accepted
and cared for by its actual parents in a proper family—then the fact is
that myriads are born in relationships that deviate from this norm.
This topic was once treated under the topic of
"illegitimacy." That word tended to confuse the way a child was
begotten—that is, in or out of a proper marriage—with the
ontological being of the child. However it came to be, a duty is owed to the
child to place it in the proper human conditions for his growth as far as possible.
Much of modern welfare in this sense exists to do in absentia of the family
parents are obliged to provide.
It is not an accident that the modern world is filled with
"child-care" institutions as well as with abortion providers designed to
eliminate "unwanted" children who have no "rights" against the will of the
begetters or the state. We do not see orphanages any more, though we do see
wards of the state. We see foster homes and adoptions. But so many children,
particularly those who might have "defects," are eliminated so that we do not
see those who, had they lived, might need parents or special care from their
parents and others.
It is not my intention here to go into the issues of
"scientific" interventions, apart from marriage, that result in children. The
general principle is we can find some moral ways to assist infertile couples
have children in the normal fashion. The Church, in Donum Vitae and other considerations, has consistently
maintained, however, that children should only be begotten if and when they are
begotten in a proper marital act. It considers that means that do not conform
to this norm are not proper, even if they successfully produce children. Almost
all such methods are products resulting in at least some unwanted conceptions
along with wanted ones. The "excess" are eliminated or used for "scientific"
The Church, in this sense, is much more romantic than
science. The Church says produce babies only in love. Science says produce
babies in laboratories through calculation. Think of what it means to a child
to be begotten in the latter way. And the Church is much more far-sighted than
the claim anyone has a "right" to a child. The Church understands it is the
child who comes first, not the "right" independent to a prior duty to something
other than oneself. A "right" to a child claimed apart from the duty to that
child to provide a proper grounding for it in being is intrinsically selfish. A
child is never to be "used" in this manner.
The child, however, no matter how conceived, is always a
gift, never the fulfillment of someone's so-called "right" or the product of
some scientific manipulation. And only when it is a gift can we appreciate that
all human life is beyond "rights." What it is to be a human being is not something
established by human beings. Something greater is going on in every instant,
even in the instant when children are begotten in ways contrary to the child's
dignity. This latter is why we accept and seek, as best we can, the good of
those children who are not privileged to be born in proper families. They are
deprived, by those who brought them into being, of what in principle belongs to
Our culture rejects, for the most part, the best and most
exalted way in which children should come among us. Thus, we have a society
filled with people who have not known what was naturally due to them. That is,
each child is to be born in a home in which each child has a father and a
mother who begot him and accepted him in love and generosity as a gift they did
not plan or devise. The actual child was not even in the thoughts of parents,
whose attention was on each other. Yet, they were prepared and happy to accept
that their relation naturally led to something beyond themselves, something
seen in the faces of their own children.
John Paul II said something that Benedict XVI also referred
to in Spe Salvi, namely that what is
begotten among human beings, each child, is intended "for eternal life." The
birth of a child has many consequences: familial, economic, and political. But
these are only the context of human life. What it is about is its destiny,
which is not finally the city, or even this mortal life itself. It is eternal
life. All begotten human beings have this end as their gift from God. It is this
which is put in the hands of parents when each child is born. Knowing this is
The state, as state, does not know these things, but it
often claims to control human life in such a way as to make the attainment of
this purpose difficult. The end of human life will be proposed to every human
life, even if it is begotten in the worst of modern or human circumstances.
This is why the Church has always been the first to attend to those who do not
come to be in safe families that love them. But the Church never wants it this
way from the beginning.
The Church remains on this score, as I said, the last
romantic institution in the world. It is the one saying all children should be
born not of "right," nor even of "duty," but of gift and generosity. And, as
most good parents will tell us, it is precisely their children who most taught
them what the words sacrifice, generosity, and gift mean. No "right" to have a
child can be found because there is something much greater, something we
deprive ourselves of, when we miss the truth every child is the result of a
gift given to us, not of a right we can demand.
Man and woman are free to marry. We have a duty to respect
this freedom. But once they marry, they are bound by what they are, by what
comes to be between them. This bond is intended to be a bond of love begetting
love, gift upon gift. When it is not, we have much of the modern world, with it
its science and institutions rushing to substitute for the family. "The
Creator's plan," John Paul II said, "is engraved in the physical and spiritual
nature of the man and of the woman, and, as such, has universal value." This is
not "rights talk" that we compose for our liking, but gift talk pointing to the
final end of each begotten human life, that is, to eternal life.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:
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| Edward Peters
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church
| Donald P. Asci | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act
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the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
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The Meaning and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, MTS
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Privacy, the Courts, and the Culture of Death | An Interview with Dr. Janet E. Smith
What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic
Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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