The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person

Is the death of a preborn human in the womb really a private matter? Who is not horrified by the evil of genocide? How can a terrorist bombing of a marketplace ever be justified?

“We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill,” says Living the Gospel of Life “or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem.”

From both divine revelation and natural law, we know that there is something special about human life. We are made in the image of God. Protection of human life and dignity is a natural instinct of all people and stands at the core of Catholic social teaching. The life and dignity of the human person is foundational to Catholic social teaching precisely because without it, no other rights have meaning.

While the preeminent debate about life has focused on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 1973Roe v. Wade decision, Catholic social teaching extols us to work against all intrinsically evil acts. An intrinsically evil act is one that it is always wrong.

The U. S. Bishops’ document, Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, includes abortion, human cloning, destructive research on embryos, genocide, torture, racism, and targeting of non-combatants as intrinsically evil. The Bishops did not intend the list to be exhaustive. With the pace of change in the modern world, they reasoned that any list could be out-of-date very soon. We are called as Catholics to oppose all intrinsically evil acts, everywhere and all the time.


Life is a gift from God. Our teaching calls for respect for human life in every situation, but especially for the most vulnerable. Who can be more vulnerable than a preborn child? In 1998, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics in which they said that “Roe effectively rendered the definition of human personhood flexible and negotiable. It also implicitly excluded unborn children from human status.”

In the Roe decision, the Court said that the life in the womb has no protection and no rights prior to the moment of birth, so extinguishing the life is permissible. Subsequent decisions have upheld that practice until 2007 when the Court ruled that restrictions on partial-birth abortion are acceptable.

Following the Roe decision, the bishops drew up a pastoral plan for pro-life activities. Besides political activities, the plan includes details on pregnancy services and post-abortion counseling.

Misconceptions and myths about abortion are common. Many Americans believe that Roe only allowed abortions for the first three months. What is not generally known is that a companion case, Doe v. Bolton, was decided simultaneously to Roe. Doe allowed a woman to secure an abortion for health reasons-which included such ephemeral reasons as a “sense of well being.” The upshot of the two decisions is that abortion is legal in the United States anytime during the pregnancy for any reason.

In 2005, there were 1.21 million abortions in the United States. Following are other little known abortion facts:

  • “Can’t afford a baby” and “not ready for responsibility” are the most common reasons cited by women seeking an abortion.
  • Planned Parenthood affiliates are reimbursed at a higher rate than other medical providers by the State of California.
  • The State of California spends about $33 million to pay for 95,000 abortions each year.

Public support for the flawed court decisions has been diminishing since a high in 1991. A 2005 Harris poll found the 86 percent of Americans think abortion should be illegal in the third trimester.

A very thorough library of information – from abortion statistics to proposals to care for mothers – can be found at the USCCB Pro-Life page.

Stem Cells, Cloning

In June 2009,the U.S. Bishops issued On Embryonic Stem Cell Research which deals with both stem cells and cloning. Many find it difficult to understand why, with such noble goals and promises, embryos can’t be used as a source of cells.

“The ends cannot justify the means” is a pillar of ethical argument. In this case, the “means” is the killing of an innocent human life and the “end” is a cure-which to date has not been forthcoming.

“Embryonic stem cells have never treated a human patient, and animal trials suggest that they are too genetically unstable and too likely to form lethal tumors to be used for treatment any time soon,” explains the Bishops’ statement. On the other hand, alternative research with adult (non-embryonic) stem cells has lead to treatments that are already available. This and other information on stem cells and cloning can be found in a short Q&A suitable for use in bulletins and other teaching instances.

Death Penalty

Consistency in the abhorrence of violence is the hallmark of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. In the Culture of Life and the Death Penalty the U.S. Bishops also point to the fact that state-sanctioned killing diminishes us all, the application of capital punishment is flawed and inconsistent, and that the state has other ways of punishing criminals. They especially call for compassion and care for the victims and families of the terrible crimes and evil that leads society to use the death penalty.

“In Catholic teaching the state has the recourse to impose the death penalty upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes if this ultimate sanction is the only available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life,” say the Bishops. “However, this right should not be exercised when other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.”

Pope John Paul II said that while the death penalty can be justified (and is, therefore, not an intrinsic evil), such cases in the modern world are rare, “if not, practically non-existent.”

War, Terror, Genocide

Even the listing of these issues is chilling. The Church recognizes the presence of evil in the world and the need of nations to sometimes defend themselves from great evil. “Just war” principles – which are often misused – spell out stringent requirements before a nation should enter into any armed conflict. War should always be the last resort.

But terror and genocide can never be justified. They are as intrinsically evil as abortion precisely because they involve the taking of innocent human life. Comprehensive exploration of these topics is available here.

The Church’s message of respect for all human life and dignity is a positive message, affirming the value of all human beings. Such a message should be proudly, consistently, and respectfully proclaimed.

Above all, remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God. As a guiding rule for our lives, there is no better truism.

Share this Post