Abortion Is, and Is Not, a Religious Issue| National Catholic Register

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

COMMENTARY: To portray the truth that life begins at conception solely as a religious belief appears to solve a real problem for pro-choice advocates.

Pro-lifers demonstrate against the legalization of abortion at the presidential palace in Olivos, Argentina, on July 30, 2018.
Pro-lifers demonstrate against the legalization of abortion at the presidential palace in Olivos, Argentina, on July 30, 2018. (photo: Spotlight Images Agency / Shutterstock)

Grattan BrownBlogsJanuary 18, 2023

It is surprising to hear people say, as the The New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias reported, that the proposition “Life begins at conception” is a religious belief. 

It is true that the Catholic Church, many other Christian churches, and many Christian and non-Christian congregations state publicly that life begins at conception in order to argue that elective abortion should be illegal.

But no religious authority ever reasoned to the conclusion that life begins at conception based on divine Revelation or any set of religious teachings. In fact, religious authorities got the question wrong in the past when they followed the widely accepted but underdeveloped science of their day, even when also following well-reasoned philosophy. 

In a famous example, the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas followed an Aristotelian philosophy of the soul combined with the science of his day to conclude that a male came into existence in 40 days and a female in 90. He thought that it took 40 or 90 days for sperm and menstrual blood to form the body of a human being.

Eight hundred years later, we know that the simple union of sperm and egg — conception — is enough to form the body of a human being. The zygote is a single cell with everything that it needs to exist, divide and organize the multiplying number of cells of the growing body of a new human being. 

“Life begins at conception” is a scientific and philosophical conclusion and is hardly a religious belief. Believers recognize that their religious traditions need science and philosophy and wonder how people could think that “life begins at conception” is an article of faith. 

But to portray the truth that life begins at conception as a religious belief appears to solve a real problem for pro-choice advocates. “Life begins at conception” is the most serious counter argument that abortion advocates face. If life begins at conception, then elective abortion at any point during pregnancy means using the death of the child to solve a social problem, for example to avoid overwhelming burdens of raising the child in extremely difficult circumstances. If “life begins at conception” were seen as a religious belief, then it could be dismissed as dependent upon religious authority and an inappropriate basis for civil law.

Although “life begins at conception” is not a religious belief, religions help people see the humanity of the embryo, as well as the mother. Religions teach that each person is valuable and loved by God. So it is no surprise that believers naturally wonder when each new, valuable person comes into existence. 

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Abortion Is, and Is Not, a Religious Issue| National Catholic Register

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