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Abortion and Human Equality
How to return the debate to the essential questions 41 years after Roe.

Francis J. Beckwith

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One of the underreported important celebrations over this past year was in June in Rome. Pope Francis hosted an event in the name of the late pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) in thanksgiving for human life. Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, was among the speakers and participants in a weekend-long event focused on prayer, penance, and education. At Baylor, he is assistant director of the graduate program in philosophy and co-director of the Program on Philosophical Studies of Religion. He is author of many books, including Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic, and Defending: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. In this interview we focus on the topic of the last one, as the nation marks 41 years of Roe v. Wade.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What are your thoughts as D.C. is about to see a March for Life against 41 years of legal abortion in America?

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Francis J. Beckwith: Even though the advocates of the belief that unborn life lacks moral status have had over four decades to completely inoculate the wider culture from the sanctity-of-life ethic (through the media, the academy, and entertainment), they have been astonishingly unsuccessful in doing so. The March for Life, and the increasing numbers that participate every year, is as clear evidence of this failure as one could have imagined. And what makes it more astonishing is that no one in the march has a self-interest in its cause succeeding, since no one who marches is an unborn child.


LOPEZ: In what ways is the abortion debate really about human equality?

Beckwith: No one — not even the most sophisticated advocate of abortion choice — denies that the unborn are human beings, but one can only exclude them from the community of those whose lives we must respect if one claims that they lack some morally significant characteristic that is possessed by mature and healthy human beings.

If this is true, as some abortion-choice advocates maintain, then some human beings are so intrinsically inferior to others that they not only lack moral status but they can be killed without justification. Consequently, according to this perspective, possessing a human nature in and of itself is not morally significant. This is why in Defending Life I call some abortion-choice supporters Anti-Equality Advocates (AEAs).


LOPEZ: Is there an irony in the twin January memorials of Martin Luther King’s death and the Roe v. Wade decision?

Beckwith: When Dr. King eloquently defended the equal dignity of all persons, his words were deeply rooted in the theological tradition in which he grew up and received his religious training. This is why, for example, in his famous letter from Birmingham jail, he penned these words about the early Christian church: “They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.” And yet, how ironic it is that we now have an African-American president who, while surely a living testimony to how far we have advanced due to Dr. King’s work, would not support legislation that bans the near infanticide of partial-birth abortion or protects the born child that survives an abortion.



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