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"Called to Eternal Life": Babies and Rights | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | September 10, 2009 | Ignatius Insight

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"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 right."

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 marriage is.

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 really is.

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" purposes.

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 them.

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 their duty.

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:

Entering Marriage with Eyes Wide Open | Edward Peters
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act
Who Is Married? | Edward Peters
Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae | Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Male and Female He Created Them | Cardinal Estevez
The Meaning and Necessity of Spiritual Fatherhood | Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, MTS
Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
Abortion and Ideology | Raymond Dennehy
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond Dennehy
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.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci
The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley
The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

Visit 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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