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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 4
Christmastide 2010

"Called to Eternal Life": Babies and Rights

by James Schall, SJ

“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 his 2008 encyclical Caritas in veritate, addressed the troubled meaning of the word “right”. Perhaps no word in modern philosophy has caused more trouble to both state and Church than this, at first sight, noble word. Many a philosopher — like Jacques Maritain — and pope — like John Paul II — have tried valiantly to save this word from the meaning that it had when it first appeared in modern thought, generally with the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The popes want the word to mean what is objectively due to the child. But in popular usage, it does not mean this — with the result in almost hopeless confusion so that we have a “right” to deny rights.

The word in modern political thought and popular usage, literally, has no exact meaning. Or perhaps, better, it means whatever we want it to mean. Both sides of a contradictory — right to abortion, no right to abortion — become equally plausible. The modern word contains no inner criterion by which it must mean this or that. In the state of nature, as Hobbes argued, people had an absolute freedom to do whatever they wanted. This freedom was called a “right”. As we see in Hobbes and his contemporary John Locke, 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”.

Pope Benedict, in dealing with this word, points out that the word “right” does not stand by itself. It 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 for it. In the pope’s sense, “right” does not stand by itself.

A further danger of the word “right” is also that it evaporates the world of notions like generosity and gift, of things beyond the correlation of right and duty. Benedict’s encyclicals have, on the contrary, been designed precisely to show the importance of gift and sacrifice. The highest acts among us, then, are neither rights nor duties, but sacrifices and graces. In a world of modern “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 then, according to this view, someone else, or the state, has a duty to provide it for me. So I am a “victim” if everyone else is not giving me my “rights”. “Give me my rights” replaces our own duty to provide for ourselves and others. In a “rights-based world”, when I receive a gift of what I desire, it is already mine “by right”. This view of rights leaves no room for gratitude.

Within this modern (mis)understanding of “rights”, no more pernicious notion can be found than the claim of an independent “right to have a baby”. This is a phrase we must think carefully about. 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, nor even in two — but it includes what transcends them both. If each person is free to do so, a man and a woman, each has a right to marry. Each also has a prior duty to respect what marriage is.

We have a duty to recognize, even legally, the freedom that a man and a woman have relative to each other. This freedom describes something objective in the nature and diversity of man and woman. Their very being is to be related to something else not themselves. But a man or a woman by him- or herself does not have, independently, 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 called a same-sex union, 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 for its own being and good requires a father and a mother who are married to each other. The parents are both together responsible for their child. This duty to the child stems from what a child is, from its conception. What is original in each parent is not a “right to have a child” but a duty to provide in the fullest sense for 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, no matter what its condition.

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 the child and the parents. It is the duty of men and women intelligently 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. One may hope that the child is conceived in the love relation of the parents — but when conceived, the child comes as a gift, not as a planned product.

Certainly, it is possible to know when a child is more likely to be begotten at some times rather than others, but the purpose or intention of those who beget 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. However, the end — or goal — of the marital act in nature is, in the right biological circumstances, the conception of a child. The openness of this act to children is what makes it a different act from any other existing among human beings. Each child that is begotten, moreover, is also intended by God — is unique, unrepeatable. More is always present than the parents.

Any actual, unique child, however, is always a gift, never a plan, however much we use the phrase “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 by them. They are as much astonished at seeing their child born as anyone else — even if it looks like one 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, they do not want. This 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 conception of children is 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 used as a lethal weapon against existing children of mortal beings. This “right” to perfection means that anyone less than perfect has no rights — and can 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. According to this view, sex does not relate to children. It only relates to a private, passing activity of no great significance, and 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.

The state and medicine team up to respond to the claim of individual “rights” to have children by providing means to “guarantee” such “rights” in civil law. The “right to a baby” belongs, it is said, to every woman. This “right” 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”. Thus, technology substitutes for this defect in nature.

Certainly the law allows single women 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. But we begin not from what is due to the baby but from the woman’s “right”. The baby is a product of a “right” — not the end (or fulfillment) of begetting. When a woman decides not to have a baby, however begotten, she also has a “right” to destroy it. It is, after all, her choice, her right, that the state has the duty to 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 of 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 ongoing 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 parents know ahead of time what they 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, unlike any other, is for. The child born is theirs, but not “planned” by them to be this particular child that actually exists. The parents realize that 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 — the fact is that myriads are born in relationships that deviate from this norm.

This was once treated under the topic of “illegitimacy”. That word tended to confuse the way a child was begotten (i.e., in or out of a proper marriage) with the ontological being of the child. However he came into being, a duty is owed to the child to place him in the proper human conditions for his growth as far as possible. Much of modern welfare exists to do, in the absence of the family, what parents are obliged to provide.

It is not an accident that the world is filled with institutions to care for unwanted children, as well as with abortion providers to eliminate these children who have no rights against the will of their begetters or of the state. Though we no longer see orphanages, we do see wards of the state, 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 would result in children. The general principle is that we can find some moral ways to assist infertile couples to conceive children in the normal fashion.

The Church, in Donum Vitae and elsewhere, has consistently maintained, however, that children should only be begotten if and when they are begotten in a proper marital act within a family. The Church considers that any means of conception that does not conform to this norm is not to be used, even if such means successfully produce children. Almost all such artificial methods result in at least some unwanted conceptions along with wanted ones — and the “excess” children are eliminated or used for “scientific” purposes.

The Church, in this sense, is much more romantic than science. The Church says to produce babies only in love. Science says to 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 to claim that anyone has a right to a child. The Church understands that it is the child that comes first, not a right independent of a prior duty to something other than oneself. To claim a right to a child apart from the duty to that child is intrinsically selfish. A child is never to be used in this manner.

The child, no matter how conceived, is always a gift, never the fulfillment of someone’s so-called right or the product of scientific manipulation. And only when this gift is recognized can we appreciate that all human life is beyond the modern notion of unrestricted 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 that are contrary to the child’s dignity. This is why we accept and seek the best we can the good of those children who are not privileged to be conceived and born into real families; for these children are deprived by those who brought them into being of what in principle belongs to them by nature.

Yet in our society, we too often reject 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, every child is to be born into a home in which he 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.

Pope John Paul II said something that Pope 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 that 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 within 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. The Church is the one that says that 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 taught them what the words sacrifice, generosity, and gift meant. No unlimited right to have a child can be found because there is something much greater. We deprive ourselves of greater good when we miss the truth that every child is the result of a gift given to us, not of a right that we can demand or manipulate.

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 science and institutions that rush to substitute for the family as it should be.

Pope John Paul II said: “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”. This is not rights talk that we compose for our liking, but gift talk that points to the final end of each begotten human life — that is, to eternal life.

Jesuit Father James Schall has been professor of government at Georgetown University since 1977, is a well-known columnist for Catholic publications, and is the author of many books and countless articles. An earlier version of this essay was published in Ignatius Insight online magazine, and appears here with the author’s kind permission. His article “The Dignity of the Person Must Be Recognized...” appeared in the Eastertide 2009 issue of Voices.

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