Twenty years ago, Pope Saint John Paul II denounced the moral impoverishment, particularly abortion and euthanasia, that devalues human life in his encyclical Evangelium vitae. He described Christ’s central message that we “may have life, and have it abundantly,” which is the eternal life He came to bring that also gives “full significance” to “all aspects and stages of human life” (1). John Paul rails against a false notion of freedom and autonomy that is used to justify crimes against life, but actually inverts freedom and leads to the opposite of human good. An authentic understanding of freedom, freedom for excellence, is much needed in our culture to explain the goodness of life and opposition of abortion.
John Paul II does not wholly blame the individuals who face “difficult or even tragic situations” when facing abortion, and notes that such circumstances can “mitigate…subjective responsibility.” Rather, he locates the problem “at the cultural, social and political level” where legalized abortion is disturbingly interpreted as “legitimate expressions of individual freedom” (18). As he goes onto explain, this notion of freedom is fundamentally backwards and opposed to true democracy.
True freedom is the ability of every human being to seek their own good and potential; it is an expression of their intrinsic worth as made in the image of God and naturally harmonizes with the good for humanity as a whole and therefore does not involve killing or harming the human person. Law naturally recognizes this in the case of adults; we have a prohibition against murder, assault, and even illicit drug use that harms the individual himself and thus the wider social community of which he is an inseparable part.
John Paul praises the development of “human rights” in the Western tradition as the basis for constitutions and government. He says that “the various declarations of human rights and the many initiatives inspired by these declarations show … there is a growing moral sensitivity” that acknowledges the “dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class” (18).
Yet the practical denial of the value of every human life in abortion and other crimes, he says, “is still more distressing…precisely because it is occurring in a society which makes the affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast” (18). The United States and Western Europe posit our flagship virtue as the virtue of securing rights for all. America’s Declaration of Independence famously and rightly recognizes the foundation of society as affirmation of the rights of all humanity to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And how tragic the contradiction when we say that some humans are not persons or do not have lives worthy of living simply because their end is likely to be swift.
John Paul excoriates the mentality which equates personal dignity with the “capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible communication” (19). In such a biased approach, the dignity of the unborn and the dying is rejected. In contrast, their dignity exists simply on the grounds of being human, of being made in the image of God. Even without an explicitly religious context, this dignity is what all declarations of human rights recognize. They are “human” rights, not rights of “humans who can communicate.” While secular democracies now abridge the rights of “fetuses” and the elderly, saying that they are not “persons,” it would be absurd to deny their humanity, which begs the question of the legitimacy of distinguished between “human” and “person”.
Actual human rights would recognize the freedom of these weak members of the human community, though they are “completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection” (19). Protection and love for these weak ones is the only authentic expression of human value; to dispense with them because of their weakness is to act as though we are fundamentally positioned competitively against or other members of our human family rather than in solidarity with them.
This atomistic view of self becomes a “promotion of the self,” that “is understood in terms of absolute autonomy,” and when this happens, “people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself” (20). This defensive form of freedom is nothing more than the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak who have no choice but to submit” (19). John Paul II continues that this is tragically “the exact opposite of what a State ruled by law” is supposed to be. Governments, in classical philosophy, are meant to end the anarchy of the strong against the weak by enshrining protections for the weakest members. The culture of death, he says, “is a threat capable, in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of democratic coexistence: rather than societies of ‘people living together’, our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted and oppressed” (19).
“God entrusts us to one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension” (19). This solidarity, relational freedom, ties us to the broader human community and sees individual growth and development as linked to the growth and development of all. In this way, a use of freedom that harms others is no true freedom.
Consider that forbidding murder does not make American citizens less free; on the contrary, it makes citizens free to thrive in a peaceful environment. Likewise, a prohibition on abortion does not abridge anyone’s rights or make anyone less free. On the contrary, it recognizes with love the humanity of the growing child and demands help for a struggling mother from the wider human community. Abortion, in contrast, leaves a woman alone and hurting when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.
St. Thomas Aquinas argues that man’s freedom is found precisely in his ability to act for an end goal. “Since man especially knows the end of his work, and moves himself, in his acts especially is the voluntary to be found” (Summa Theologica II-I, 6, 1). Man’s truest freedom is when he acts for the true good and highest end, which is eternal beatitude with God and on earth a life of flourishing, not merely his own pleasure. All acts of the will, or choices, are made for a perceived good. Though those who seek abortion seek it for an illusory good, the woman is more free when she chooses the higher end, which would be the life of the child and solidarity with that child. True freedom, then, expresses not mere power or compulsory force of the agent, but rather a formative knowledge of the good to be sought in human life—that is to say, as we make choices for the good, we actually become better. So freedom is not an indifferent principle, but a force for human development.
Our nation, every nation, would only benefit from promoting authentic freedom and a culture of life that values the development of all its citizens, not just the strong ones.