Published September 22, 2021
George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference
Do Catholics “believe that human life begins at conception”—a formulation that’s become ubiquitous in recent weeks?
Well, yes, in precisely the same sense that Catholics “believe” that the Earth is spherical, not flat; that Venus is the second planet in the solar system; that a water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom; that blood circulates through the body; that the human heart has four chambers; and so forth and so on.
Catholics, as they say, “believe the science.”
Catholics do not “believe” that human life begins at conception in the same sense in which Catholics “believe” in the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, or in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or in the remission of sins through the sacrament of Penance, or in the Real Presence of Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Eucharist. To “believe” in these truths is, for Catholics, a matter of the assent of faith.
And that’s why it’s an unforced error for Catholics—including bishops, priests, religious, and laity—to use the language of “belief” in regard to the beginning of human life. The correct answer to the question of when human life begins is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of scientific fact. The product of human conception, an embryo with a unique genetic character, is “a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development” (to quote Robert George and Christopher Tollefson). One learns this, or used to, in high school biology. The human being who begins at conception develops through various life stages—embryo, fetus, child, adolescent, adult—through its own internally directed functioning, which begins immediately at conception. That is not, to repeat, a matter of faith or “belief.” It’s an empirical fact: a human life, and nothing other than a human life, begins at conception.
Big Abortion, its cultural allies, and its political water-carriers have muddied these linguistic waters for decades, arguing that the “Catholic belief” that life begins at conception is a sectarian claim with no scientific foundation. That is objectively, demonstrably false, and to make that argument is to traffic in a lie. Some tell this lie deliberately. Others, including those in high public office, tell it out of ignorance, stupidity, or convenience. Whatever the motivation or cause, the argument is scientifically ignorant: the functional equivalent of claiming that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really landed in the Arizona desert on the Apollo 11 mission.
And it should be called out as such.
The real question in the abortion debate is, was, and always will be this: What does a just society owe the indisputably human life that indisputably begins at conception? Properly catechized and coherent Catholics answer that question by citing a first principle of justice that anyone can grasp by reason: Innocent human life deserves the protection of the law in any just society. Properly catechized and coherent Catholics will then go on to argue that a just society will support women caught in the dilemma of unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. And apostolically alert Catholics will help those women find the help they need, which is readily available at crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country. What serious and coherent Catholics—presidents, governors, legislators, members of Congress, clergy of all ranks, and engaged citizens—will not do is ignore the science and claim that the matter of when human life begins is a disputed question. Nor will serious and coherent Catholics reinforce that spurious claim by speaking of the Catholic “position” on when life begins as a matter of “belief.” To do so is to play one of the duplicitous language games that have distorted the American debate on the abortion issue for far too long.
The hysteria displayed by supporters of the abortion license as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that affords an opportunity to correct the grave constitutional errors the Court made in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, will intensify in the months ahead: a sign, I suspect, of how weak Big Abortion and its allies know their arguments have always been. No serious or coherent Catholic will buttress those crumbling arguments by speaking of a Catholic “belief” in when life begins. Serious and coherent Catholics know when life begins.
Not because they’re Catholics, but because they know the science.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.