From Protozoa to Partial-Birth Abortion
I was recently walking through the faculty room of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, where I have taught theology and Spanish for eleven years, when I overheard two colleagues discussing microbiology. One colleague is a specialist in microbiology, and the other is a specialist in human anatomy and physiology. Within my colleagues’ conversation, the word “protozoa” came up, and it stopped me in my tracks. That word, which I had not heard in quite a long time, evoked a long-stored memory from deep within me, and in that instant, I recalled learning about protozoa, as well as that of other single-celled organisms when I took biology as a sophomore, likewise at Bishop McNamara High School (I am a proud alumnus of the Class of 2000), during the 1997-1998 school year, just under twenty years ago.
What startled me about the word protozoa was that its etymology suddenly dawned on me. Through my theological studies, I know enough Greek that I noticed that “protozoa” is from the Greek for “first” (proto) “living things” (zoa). In other words, we regard a one-celled organism to be so significant that we deem it, rightly so, as the first [category of] life. I shared the word’s meaning with my two colleagues, and a brief discussion of Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes used within scientific terminology arose within the conversation. I then shared with my colleagues how I frequently remind my theology students to investigate the etymology of a word in order to determine its ultimate significance. Although I am not a practicing scientist, I greatly value, appreciate, and celebrate the wonders of the physical sciences insofar as they allow us to better fathom their origins in God, manifested by the observable – not to mention unobservable – wonders of the universe.
I left the faculty room thereafter, but continued ruminating upon the status of life that is afforded to single-celled organisms, which were essentially the initial forms of life on earth, billions of years ago. And here we are now, well into the twenty-first century, with human beings, beginning as a zygote through the union of the mother’s egg cell and the father’s sperm cell, not recognized as life. If you can trace the trajectory of this logical conclusion, this factor demands multiple questions from an ethical standpoint.
Have you ever been lost, but it took you a while to realize it? We all remember that crucial moment when we thought to ourselves, “Where am I, and how did I get here?” Is it a fair assessment to deduce that this is what we are now asking ourselves in terms of the moral life within many developed countries, of which the United States is emblematic? When did we determine that it was acceptable to not hold the unborn to be a special category of life worth defending (instead referring to them as “blobs of tissue,” merely “fetuses,” or even “parasites”), or to speculate that although the unborn are living, growing humans with their own DNA and bodies, they somehow do not have any human rights? At what point did we disregard the most visceral of human instincts, of a mother and father’s need to protect their child, as negligible? At the most egregious end of the tipping point, just when did we turn a blind eye to partial-birth abortion, claiming that we oppose it and that it is appalling (indeed, it is as unspeakably reprehensible as its name implies, and you can research its ghastliness), yet excusing away the reality that those in the highest levels of government, some of whom are professed Christians, support this procedure? When mere seconds coupled with an inundation of medical-linguistic arbitrariness are all that separate a legally enshrined procedure from being necessarily regarded as infanticide, have we lost our way? Where are we as a “civilization”?
Speaking of the United States specifically as a case in point, it is uncertain what pro-life legislation will look like days, weeks, months, years, decades, or even centuries from now. As an African-American, I often recall that slavery in the United States was legal and defended for over two centuries by the highest court in the land. The abolition of slavery was overwhelmingly assisted by those working from the ground up, as education and awareness spread. Although it was the government that formally ended slavery, society crawled toward justice before it was able to march toward justice. Thus, it is unreasonable for those of us who celebrate all human life to rely solely upon Supreme Court nominees, individual politicians, or intellect-suppressing political machinations to defend human life. Of course, public servants must be encouraged and supported to do so, but the change must come from within the rank and file of society, as a grassroots effort to remind our fellow citizens that all human life, from the moment of conception through the moment of natural death, is sacredly inviolable. And this is not merely a “religious” stance, because it is a Christian principle because it is moral, not moral because it is a Christian principle. In sum, the pro-life stance is easily reinforced by making recourse to elementary rhetoric about what constitutes human life.
We must likewise be sure to support mothers and fathers after their children are brought into the world, lest we hear yet again that we are “pro-birth, but not pro-life,” which actually turns out to be a facile quip when confronted with the reality that the multi-faceted delivery of charitable social services to all realms of society is what the Catholic Church around the world readily undertakes. In the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia from his weekly column dated August 10, 2015, titled There is No Equivalence: “As Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once wisely noted, Catholic social teaching is a seamless garment of respect for human life, from conception to natural death. It makes no sense to champion the cause of unborn children if we ignore their basic needs once they’re born. Thus it’s no surprise that – year in and year out – nearly all Catholic dioceses in the United States, including Philadelphia, devote far more time, personnel and material resources to providing social services to the poor and education to young people than to opposing abortion.”
We must ensure that we strive for a culture of life by speaking to others (our family members, neighbors, friends, colleagues, associates, and even strangers) first and foremost about the value of all human life. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, murder-ridden inner city settings, capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, and other situations that disregard human life outright are incompatible with our constant quest for restoring values of righteousness within society. It is no surprise that we have found ourselves in this current set of violent circumstances, because whenever we push God out of society, something will take his place, and that thing is never good, let alone does it come anywhere close to sufficing. Ideally, as far as we historians can estimate, it is valuable to, frankly, learn from history. One would think that, with the twentieth century having been the sheer bloodiest in human history, between the many millions killed between World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, the Soviet regime under Stalin, and so many other obliterations of human life, we would learn from the past. Let us not turn a blind eye to the horrors of abortion.
Unborn children deserve better. Their parents deserve better. The at least one out of every five Americans (a modest figure) who have not been allowed to be born since the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973, have deserved better. We must speak for the value of all human life, because not only does an innocent, helpless, vulnerable, unborn child have exceedingly greater worth than any protozoa, which are still regarded as being alive, but we must hence never waver in recognizing others’ common humanity in light of Jesus’ assertion: “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Hopefully Christ’s equation affords us greater worth than protozoa as well. Fortunately, our faith allows us to reinforce that hope with rationale that is tantamount to enduring certainty.