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John R. QuinnJanuary 24, 2023
Retired San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn, left, is pictured in a 2004 photo in Saginaw, Mich. (CNS photo/Brett McLaughlin)

Editor’s note: This article initially appeared in the April 1, 1989, issue of America as “Abortion: The Axe at the Root of Human Rights.”

Thomas Jefferson revealed a profound insight when he said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.” He clearly saw the unbreakable link between the sacredness of life and human freedom. Our Founding Fathers firmly believed and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence the conviction that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness does not derive from laws or from governments. They bequeathed to this nation as its very foundation stone the conviction that the right to life and to liberty are transcendent rights inherent in the human person by reason of creation. They are not a grant from the state. They were not given to the people of the United States by King George III or by George Washington. Nor are those rights given to us by any President, Congress or Supreme Court. They are simply part of what it means to be human. Consequently they are immune from violation by the government, and it is the chief responsibility of the government to protect and insure the inviolability of those rights.

With the complicity of powerful segments of medicine and law, massive numbers of abortions have bred an increasing insensitivity to the sacredness of life.

But a very dangerous thing is happening in our country, and the time has come for thinking people to open their eyes. There are now more than a million legal abortions in our country every year. In order to make this possible, powerful segments of two of the noblest human professions, medicine and law, have abdicated their integrity and embraced fictions that permit them to support abortion. Medicine, though it knows better, has agreed to abjure its service of life and destroy what it clearly knows is unborn human life in the mother’s womb. That the life in the mother’s womb is human life is clearly demonstrated by the fact that in 1974 a national commission was created for the protection of human subjects of biomedical and behavioral research. The commission was to report to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Objections were raised against experimenting on the unborn child in the womb. Those who favored these experiments pointed out: “In spite of the enormous database that exists regarding fetal well-being in the sheep and other laboratory animals, little of this is directly applicable to the human situation. Anatomical peculiarities and physiologic differences have meant that these models do not provide sufficient data to answer these questions in a human situation…No animal species has proven ideal as a model for human amniocentesis studies.” It is obvious, then, that the scientists wanted to do research on unborn human infants precisely because they are human and not animal.

Similarly, large segments of the legal profession, who should know better, have permitted themselves to be instrumentalized into creating, as a justification for abortion, a “right to privacy” that does not exist in the Constitution of the United States and that, even if it did, could not rationally or logically be interpreted as a reason to destroy innocent, unborn human life.

A mixture of fiction and fantasy, this pervasive abortion psychology, which has so profoundly enchanted and held captive two of the greatest human professions, has inflicted a very deep wound on the American conscience.

With the complicity of these powerful segments of medicine and law, massive numbers of abortions have bred an increasing insensitivity to the sacredness of life. There seems to exist a pathological incapacity to comprehend the obvious truth that if human life is not inviolable in the mother’s womb, if law and medicine can authorize the killing of the unborn child, there is no true logic that can forbid law or medicine or the state from destroying life at any other point in its development. Even capricious reasons such as the parent’s desire to have a child of a sex different from that of the child in the womb are now being used for abortion. Now that such a consciousness is pervasive and deeply ingrained in the population, who will prevent its spread to the handicapped, the elderly, those some may consider inferior? The state is already intruding more and more arrogantly into the sphere of the rightful authority of parents. For instance, a teen-age girl who must have parental consent to have her ears pierced does not require parental consent to destroy the unborn child in her womb. Yet there seems to be a growing acceptance of all these things and too little appreciation of their inner logic.

There are connections and dynamics that people must awaken to. Several years ago I was asked to speak on the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops on economic justice at the national convention of a Jewish organization. During the discussion period that followed, a gentleman rose to make the observation: “No Jew can ever afford to be indifferent to poverty because it was poverty that permitted the rise of Hitler.” Similarly, no thinking American can be indifferent to abortion. Because if life at one point is no longer inviolable, why is it inviolable at any other point in its development? If human life in the mother’s womb can be destroyed, what logic can prevent the destruction of the life of incurables in mental institutions, of the chronically ill, of the “unproductive” elderly and of others who may be regarded as a “burden” on society? The right to life is the fundamental right. When the right to life is not sovereign but can be violated for any reason whatsoever, then all other rights are also in jeopardy. Abortion is the axe at the root of the tree of human rights.

When the right to life is not sovereign but can be violated for any reason whatsoever, then all other rights are also in jeopardy. Abortion is the axe at the root of the tree of human rights.

Practical, even plausible reasons, as it was thought, underlay the well-known medical experimentation of the Nazi regime: the advancement of science, the improvement of the German race. But immoral and irresponsible experimentation contrary to the rights of the person opened the door to the grim policy of extermination marked by euphemisms about social good and the good of the nation. Once medicine allowed itself to be instrumentalized for purposes in conflict with its profession, it lost its soul; and the advancement of science, instead of being a road to human enrichment, became a Molech of destruction, justified by those who engaged in it. As the Nuremberg trials revealed, those on trial saw nothing wrong in what they did.

And so one of the most frightening things about abortion in the United States is that society has become used to it and sees nothing wrong in it.

Something has happened to the soul of a nation when the destruction of unborn human life becomes a means of insuring privacy. What has happened to the soul of our country when those who are for life and seek to defend it and who call law and medicine to the ideals of their profession are called fanatics, while those who abjure the ideals of their profession and who promote the destruction of life are said to be enlightened, practical people of common sense?

If the soul of a nation is to be great, it must have great moral horizons. It can never allow its judgments touching the inviolability of life to become the pawn of expediency or allow itself to subordinate the right to life to any other consideration.

A sophisticated radar and satellite reconnaissance system gives our military a continuing and meticulous grasp of even the smallest thing that could be dangerous to our country’s well-being. Nothing is too small to be noted and reviewed because our freedom and security are too overwhelmingly important. If we are to survive in the full enjoyment of human rights, we desperately need an inner reconnaissance system in the heart and soul of our nation that will alert us to the profound danger for human rights that lurks in abortion. No matter what other considerations may be raised—the problem of unwanted children, the problems of ineptly performed abortions, the problems of women who may have been victimized— the fact remains and must be understood that abortion is the destruction of unborn human life. That is the real and most fundamental problem and constitutes the most pernicious danger to the whole edifice of human rights.

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