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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 4
Christmastide 2013-2014

Refuting the Anonymity of Eugenic Abortion

by Rita Joseph

“I have called you by your name; you are Mine” -- Isaiah 43:1

This article was originally an address to the “Rise Up Together in the Service of Life” conference, held September 29, 2013, in Auckland, New Zealand. It has been edited slightly for publication in Voices.


When Pope Francis addressed the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations on September 20, he condemned eugenic selection of human beings as a “widespread mentality of the useful.” He warned, “The ‘throw away culture’ which today enslaves the hearts and intelligences of so many, has a very high cost: it requires eliminating human beings, especially if physically or socially weaker.”1 

Eugenic abortion is a part of that “culture of waste.”  Currently around the world some 90% of human beings diagnosed prenatally with conditions such as Down syndrome are aborted.  Eugenic abortion has deep utilitarian roots. Way back in 1920, two distinguished German professors — the jurist Karl Binding, and Alfred Hoche, a professor of psychiatry — published The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life.  Hoche and Binding argued that “… the principle of ‘allowable killing’ should be extended … to retarded and deformed children.… The right to live must be earned and justified… Theirs is not a life worth living; hence their destruction is not only tolerable but humane.”2 They stressed the therapeutic goal: destroying life unworthy of life is “purely a healing treatment … a healing work.”3

Those today who promote eugenic abortion make the same claims. They do not see that each child is a unique human being — they insist that children with disabilities can be easily replaced by superior children who will have greater well-being and be less trouble for parents, families, and authorities. Eugenic abortion is promoted by the medical profession as a reasonable “reproductive choice” for mothers to make and as a humane or necessary “quality of life” decision.

Reason and science

So it is timely that Pope Francis has asked all medical personnel to remember that human life is “always, in all its phases and at every age, sacred and is always of quality … There is no human life that is more sacred than another, as there is no human life that is qualitatively more significant than another.”

And in saying this, the pope appealed to “reason and science.”  And he is right.

Both reason and science confirm that each unborn child is already in existence, being protected and nurtured in his/her mother’s womb. With astonishing accuracy, we can locate the child within definite coordinates of space and time.  The child is not a generic, anonymous fetus. We can identify the child’s father, and whether the child is a son or a daughter. We can ascertain long before birth that the child is a unique member of the human family, biologically, genetically, and genealogically.

Protecting innocent human lives from lethal “treatments” is a matter of justice — it does not need to rely on any particular brand of religion. It’s an irrevocable part of universal human rights law that is recognized by all rational human beings.

The human embryo is a living human being.  Every human being has a right everywhere to equal protection of the law, including in utero, where the child is temporarily living. This new human being is not out there in the ether, not in some lawless limbo land beyond our universe, beyond the reach of the law, beyond the law’s jurisdiction and responsibility to protect.

It is a very old principle of legal justice that if there is to be a preferential option it should be for the voiceless, for the defenseless. Justice should not be weighted towards the articulate, the more powerful individuals or groups. This is a grave juridical obligation required by the rule of law.

The law must never condone the obliteration of a child’s identity. When the law legalizes eugenic abortion, that is exactly what the law condones. The child is all too often incinerated or disposed of as toxic medical waste.

The child is given no name, no memorial.

A mother with child goes into the hospital or abortion clinic and only the mother leaves alive.

The records omit the names of the children aborted.

But these children were here.

They were on earth.

They were photographed by ultrasound technicians, their heartbeats monitored. 

They were a real and lively presence in their mothers’ wombs.

Every unborn child is already here, has a right to exist, a right to be born.  Every child has the inherent and inalienable right to membership of the human family. That membership is inclusive of all the billions of natural variations of abilities and appearances and personalities and problems. Though we are not endowed with equal abilities, we each have an equal right to be born, a right to be given, before as well as after birth, equal protection of the law against lethal medical interventions.

With or without disabilities, every unborn child is a human being. Disability is a mere externality to a child’s inherent humanity.  It can neither impinge on the core humanity of each child nor deter, disrupt, prevent, or degrade the inherent value owed to each and every child as an equal member of the human family.

It is not age or size or independence or being “perfect” that confers inherent dignity and inalienable rights, it is just being a human.

This is the irrevocable legal basis of all human rights.

The transcendent dimension

In the pope’s address to doctors September 20, the Holy Father asked them to help “recognize in human life the transcendent dimension, the imprint of the creative work of God, from the first instance of conception.” 

Here today I am going to try to do my bit to help recognize that transcendent dimension.  It is this dimension that provides the truth to enable us to defend and to rescue a little unborn child diagnosed with Down syndrome, spina bifida, or some other condition targeted for eugenic abortion by a “culture of waste,” to use Pope Francis’s phrase. It is transcendental truth that holds the potential to recognize and reinstate that child as “the creative work of God,” always “sacred … always quality.”

When we contemplate the immensity of God, our first reaction is humbleness.  It is as humble human beings that we mark our own place on this speck-like planet spinning in the cosmic vastness of a seemingly indifferent universe.  It is with humbleness that we register our own presence within this tiny sliver of time in the infinite lengths of eternity.

And yet, we come into existence as privileged creatures. In the vastness of the created universe, we alone are called by name.  Of all creatures living we alone are privileged with free will and intellect.  We alone are created in the image of God. The gift of intellect equips us to search, to explore for truth, to marvel at, to appreciate the exquisitely ordered universe that makes life on earth possible and good.  And how precious the gift of free will to fragile human beings set amidst the awesome mathematical precision of a formidably imposing universe! 

In Jeremiah 1:5, God says to each one of us: “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you…”  And in Isaiah 43:1: “I have called you by your name; you are Mine.”

And God named Himself to Moses and to us: “I Am Who Am.”

Each one of us conceived is made in the image of God, each one is called by name.  Each shares in the “I” and the “Who” and the “AM” of God’s name. Each one is conceived as “who” not “what.”

“Things have a price … but persons have a dignity”

When we speak of each embryonic human being, we must call each by name.  We must use the personal pronouns I, you, he, she, never it. Never, never, never “it”! Each tiny new human being is a person, a subject never an object, a somebody, never a mere “thing.”

As Pope Francis said in his address to doctors: “Things have a price and are saleable, but persons have a dignity, they are worth more than things and they have no price.”

This is the truth that we have to proclaim to the world today. Because in a sense, the root of all the evils in our world stem from our failure to recognize our true human dignity, which doesn’t come from what we do or what we are able to do but from who we are.

Free will privileges us to belong to God.  We are not “things” to be owned, but are gifted with intellect to recognize God and with free will to choose to belong to Him.

Each unborn child in light of the grandeur and purposefulness of the universe

Yet, we are tempted to downsize God.  We tend to doubt the possibility of His extraordinary love and concern for each one of us.  We tend to be misled by the impossibly inadequate calculus of our own extremely limited capacities.

Nevertheless, to even begin to get a true inkling of God’s infinite love and personal care for each one of us, perhaps we need to use the intellectual gift of imagination fired by the knowledge that science has brought to us, knowledge of the grandeur of the universe and its purposefulness. 

Last March, the Planck space probe looked back at the afterglow of the Big Bang, and reported results that added about 80 million years to the universe’s age, putting it at 13.81 billion years old.

The probe enabled further corrections:  the cosmos is expanding a little more slowly than originally thought, has a little less than estimated of that mysterious dark energy.  Scientists assure us that these are small corrections in calculations about the universe, whose numbers are so massive.

Brian Greene, a Columbia University physicist, called the findings “a wonderful triumph of the mathematical approach to describing nature… It’s an amazing story of discovery. The precision is breathtaking … measuring temperature variations in space — which arose from processes that took place almost 14 billion years ago — to one part in a million.  Amazing.”4

It is amazing indeed.  The object and purpose of our intellect is to seek the truth. We are able to see now far beyond our own little backyards, past small creeks, past mighty rivers, beyond the fertile valleys and plains, across fearful deserts, far beyond the great oceans and the tallest mountain ranges. With increasing clarity now we see beyond earth’s boundaries, beyond even the sun and the moon and the stars of our little galaxy, beyond the boundaries of our solar system even to the edges of the universe. 

And we see that it is good.

And when we come back to earth, we see the same awesome order in quantum physics, in the smallest particles of the tiniest molecules.

And we see it in a tiny human being, newly conceived in his/ her mother’s womb. 

And we remember:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Mt 10:29-31) And again, we remember the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to rescue the one.  “In the same way it is not the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.” (Mt 18:12-14)

For God’s infinite love, for His Divine providence, immense numbers present no difficulty for bringing good, even out of suffering.

Each child conceived and born is a reaffirmation of life, of the goodness of life.  Each child — a gift of inestimable value.  Even an imperfect, pain-ridden, pathetically shortened human life is yet a triumph over nothingness, a triumph of a heroic will to live. Each of these more easily wounded children have defied immense odds just to be alive and to stay alive. Each one is a hero. 

As are the parents who love and care for these heroes — they have loved them and suffered for them and with them, and day after day, night after night, have affirmed each fragile presence here. They have supported their children’s will to live and kept their children from deadly harm. They have acknowledged them as their sons and daughters and comforted them. Their triumph has been to love them and to go on loving them in an all too often hostile world.

This is heroism in the true sense of the word. Our world would be poorer without them.

A little less than the angels

Human life is “always sacred … always of quality.”  Truly abortion of one of these little ones on the grounds of disability is utterly repulsive — it is a sacrilege.

You see, each little child conceived in a mother’s womb is sacred — twice-blessed — sacred not just because the child is created in the image of God but because God Himself once took on the image of this little child.

Because of this double image, every child is truly sacred.

Because once upon a time, in real time and at a real place, the Son of God took on the image of His created ones.  He became a human being.

In taking on our human nature, He is conceived, and grows in His mother’s womb for nine months, He is born and lives and dies among us, for us, as one of us.

In this incomparable mystery of the Incarnation, God visits His people, not only sharing our human lives but sanctifying them, making each life sacred, raising every human being to a dignity and worth greater even than that given us originally in the Garden of Eden, before the first sin.  Remember what we sing in the Easter Vigil? “O happy fault to have won for us so great a Savior!”

In the mystery of the Incarnation, we see our Father’s magnanimity, we see this extraordinarily generous gesture: we see the divine ease and grace and power and beauty with which God transcends the limits of our human understanding of what is scientifically possible…

In this magnificent mystery of the Incarnation, the Infinite One becomes small in His mother’s womb — so, so small — as small as each one of us when we were conceived.

And so the Old Testament asks: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?  Or the son of man that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honor: and hast set him over the works of thy hands. (Ps 8:4-6)

But the New Testament asks and answers a different question: “Who is man?”

The question was answered once and forever by Jesus from the Cross.  We are truly the beloved sons and daughters of God, each of us called into being by name to be redeemed by the personal love of a personal Savior, and destined for resurrection and eternal life. 

No child is ever conceived without God’s “yes”

And so there is nothing so amazing, so wonderful in this amazing, wonderful universe than a man and a woman in an act of love co-creating with God, Creator of the heavens and the earth, a tiny new human being, an exquisite new little son or daughter created in the image and likeness of God Himself.

In this deep existential truth about the inimitable preciousness of every unborn child, there is no room for rejection on grounds of some temporal disability or other. 

Our answer to the mentality of the “throw away culture,” says Pope Francis, is “a decisive and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life.” “The first right of a human person is his/her life. He/she has other goods and some of them are more precious [than others]; but life is the fundamental good, condition for all the others.”5

This is true.

No child is ever conceived without God’s “yes.”

No human being comes into this world as a mistake.  Every human being is created. No one comes by accident or by chance into an indifferent, higgledy-piggledy world. Each one comes always purposefully, into an exquisitely ordered universe. Each one comes into being at conception with a divine blueprint that is unique, an individualized vocation to love and to be loved, to live a life of meaning, of value, to live a difficult life with grace and courage in profound defiance of the suffering, moral chaos, and evil visited upon us for the time being by the evil one through the Fall of our first parents.

The object and purpose of free will — to choose the good

The problem of evil is perennial.  The temptation to consign the frail and the disabled to destruction instead of to human care grows stronger. It threatens to destroy our own humanity as we begin to lose our most truly human capabilities — the capacity for altruism, for compassion, and for unconditional love. And shattering once again our hard-earned human solidarity, the evils of abortion and euthanasia threaten to plunge us all back to jungle law, survival of the fittest, to regenerate ruthless contempt for the smallest and the weakest by the strongest, the most articulate, the most powerful.

When nations were shattered after World War II, people of all races were shocked by the “barbarous acts,” the pogroms, the “disregard and contempt for human lives.”6 Science had no answers to dispelling evil and restoring good. Science has plenty to tell us about what we are but not about who we are and what we ought to do as moral beings privileged by our Creator with intellect and free will.

For almost a hundred years leading up to World War II, while huge advances in science were being made, Western civilization had turned away from natural law principles and developed a positivist law built on an ever-changing social consensus with few fixed moral standards.  Moral laws were easily changed by manipulating subjective public opinion: they were based on utilitarianism and relativism, not on universal principles.

When Nazi authorities responsible for the eugenic abortion and euthanasia programs were brought before the Nuremberg judges, the Nazis admitted that they were moral relativists, and they challenged their accusers to be consistent with the moral relativism widely accepted in pre-World War II jurisprudence.7 

Today we have reverted to the very same positivist legal basis upon which the entire Nazi enterprise of “necessary killing” was mounted and justified as lawful. When the judges at Nuremberg studied the utilitarian focus of the Nazi legal system, they recognized and identified very clearly the truth that positivist law provides woefully inadequate protection for human beings in vulnerable situations. The Nazis’ ideological reinterpretation of laws that should have protected the weakest and the most vulnerable were rationalized on grounds of necessity.  The utilitarianism of the Nazis’ positivist laws was rejected and condemned at the Nuremberg trials. 

And so all the countries of the world came together to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which they agreed to return to recognition of natural law principles as the true basis for justice. 

All the human rights of the Universal Declaration are premised on the second preambular paragraph of the UN Charter of Human Rights (1945), which reads: “… to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.”

Spurred by the scarifying experience of Nazi depravity, nations agreed that human rights are grounded in respect for human nature.  Charles Malik, rapporteur to the Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration, confirmed this: “The doctrine of natural law is woven … into the intent of the Declaration.”  If rights were merely products of positive law, he said, they could change but if they “express my nature as a human being, then there is a certain compulsion about them: they are metaphysically prior to any positive law.”8

And so for a short time — post-World War II and pre-Cold War — in a moment of grace and chastened honesty, the nations of our troubled world did unite to recognize natural-law rights and responsibilities.

Here at last was universal consensus that we could no longer live as though there is no natural law.  And for many this was realization also of the more profound truth that we could no longer live as though God does not exist.

Our Creator delights in the discoveries of our human intellect 

Our Creator delights in right use of human intellect to discover truth that advances the common good. There are many truths — scientific discoveries of a material nature — discoveries in medicine like the polio vaccine and antibiotics are good, as are the discoveries in cosmology by the Planck space probe.

But they can’t hold a candle to the timeless moral truths rediscovered conscientiously and set down in the Universal Declaration principles: that each human being has equal dignity and worth, that everyone shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, the inalienable right to be treated as a person, never as an object, a means, or a thing.

And then there are the most valuable truths of all, the discovery of transcendental truths, the truths that bridge earth and heaven, time and eternity.

And Pope Francis shall have the last word on one of these truths: “Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world. And every elderly person, even if he or she is sick or at the end of his or her days, bears in himself or herself the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded!”

That, indeed, is one of the most important truths of all.


1 Pope Francis, Address to International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, September 29, 2013.

2 Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 178.

3 Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986), p. 46.

4 “Universe is older than we thought, Planck telescope reveals,” Associated Press, March 21, 2013.

5 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974, 11.

6 “Whereas disregard and contempt for human lives have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble.

7 See closing statements by the defense lawyers and the defendants in Nuremberg trials record, especially in the RuSHA/ Greifelt case.

8 From a speech on human rights to the US Chamber of Commerce Committee on International, Political, and Social Problems held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, November 4, 1949. The Universal Declaration begins with “recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family … the foundation … of justice … in the world.” This was recognized at the time as “… a statement of general principle which was independent of the existence of the United Nations and had an intrinsic value of its own.” A consensus was established that “human rights constitute a law anterior and superior to the positive law of civil society.”


Rita Joseph, of Canberra, Australia, is a member of the editorial board of Voices, and has represented family concerns at United Nations conferences. She writes and lectures on social issues, with a special interest in the universally agreed natural law foundations of modern international human rights law. She has lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. She is author of Human Rights and the Unborn Child (Leiden & Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2009.) 


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