During a recent debate, Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, explained his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape as follows:
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is a gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Much has been made of this quote in the media blizzard that followed, but most misunderstood his meaning. It’s a matter we have difficulty discussing in our modern rational and scientific society. Although he referenced God’s intent, I see Mourdock’s comment as originating from the idea of intrinsic or objective evil as explored by Pope John Paul II in the 1990’s.
There were several encyclicals of Pope John Paul referring to abortion as an objective evil. A couple examples are The Gospel of Life published in 1995 and The Splendor of Truth in 1993. The pope was afraid the moral fabric of our society was fraying as a result of rational thinking and science. The problem has been exacerbated, as the pope saw it, by our increasingly debating and testing our ethical boundaries. He therefore saw the need to declare certain acts intrinsically evil in and of themselves, including abortion and the death penalty.
But what did John Paul mean by objective evil? Let’s consider three possibilities. An act can be evil because of an intent to do something wrong, because the circumstances surrounding the act make it wrong, or because that act is intrinsically wrong independent of the intentions or the circumstances. The pope declared abortion objectively evil, the third possibility, for two reasons: First, abortion is objectively evil independent of the intention or motive of the participants because it ends a life independent of whether or not those participants understand what they are doing. Second, abortion is objectively evil independent of circumstances because the goal of the act is always to end a life. If the act succeeds, a life is ended. Since human beings are made in the image of God, ending a life is always an act of evil. Good never comes from evil. There is no language in the history of the Catholic Church of a “necessary evil.” This is the claim of the pope’s encyclicals and I believe the orientation behind Mourdock’s comments.
I disagree with this position on several levels. First, the cross of Jesus Christ is an example of good coming from evil. The murder of Jesus could be considered the worst crime that was ever committed, but it resulted in the greatest good for humanity — salvation. Second, this entire discussion raises the question of whether or not evil can even be objectified. How can we take a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted mystery which human beings do not understand —evil — and put it into a box called abortion?
Finally, I know of no book in the Bible that takes the inscrutability of evil and reduces it to such a one-dimensional act as abortion. Instead, evil is presented in a way that human beings in every place and every time can understand. It is given a personality, a history, a motive, and a future. In essence, evil is personified rather than objectified. He is even given the proper name of Satan. Satan might do an abortion; Satan might allow an abortion to happen, but Satan is not abortion in and of itself. The very sentence doesn’t even make sense.
For these reasons, although I think Mourdock was misunderstood, I still think he was wrong. Abortion must be judged by the intentions and the circumstances, including rape. It cannot be objectively evil.
Bruce Meyer writes about the relationship between the physical universe and the pursuit of spirituality.