Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Upholding Life

James W. Skillen


December 3, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(This is a continuation of our series using edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for the Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

The sixth Guideline for Government and Citizenship, titled, simply, Human Life, addresses the difficult questions surrounding abortion. The Guideline begins: “Government’s responsibility for the political community begins with the protection of (a) the lives of its citizens and (b) the life-generating, life-sustaining institutions of marriage and family.” This includes protecting women, whether from pregnancy or from back-alley abortions.  However, it is a mistake to pit the unborn (or partially born) child against the pregnant mother’s right of autonomy.  Life-generation and human community together form the foundation of human life. Absolute autonomy of any man or woman is a false and unobtainable ideal.

While many pregnancies occur in circumstances that are less than optimum for the future well-being of an unborn child, we must recognize that “the generation of new human life belongs, by the Creator’s design, to married couples, who bear primary responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children.” In other words, government’s responsibility to protect life entails protecting and promoting marriage and family life.

Therefore, the ideal of autonomy for either a man or a woman is a mistaken starting point. Through sexual intercourse, a man and a woman have already participated in an act that represents their dependence on and obligation to one another. Of course, rape or incest represents a violation of a woman’s dignity and in no way represents her willing entrance into an obligation toward that man or for a child that might, as a result, have been conceived within her. Government, therefore, also has the responsibility to protect women from such violations and to punish the perpetrators as a fundamental part of the government’s responsibility to protect life and the life-generating process in marriages and families.
“When pregnancy and childbirth occur outside of marriage or at a time of marital or family crisis,” the Guideline continues, “difficulties arise that typically call for the assumption of extraordinary responsibilities by extended family members, supportive friends and neighbors, churches, social service organizations, and/or public authorities. All such assistance should aim to support and nurture life, marriage, and the family, rather than to encourage abortion.”

Furthermore, we should consider abortion to be a last-resort option. This is the burden of the Guideline’s fourth affirmation: “Abortion entails the taking of human life and is a violation of the life-generating process. Therefore, abortion should not be allowed under public law as an ordinary or standard means of family planning, or for the social and psychological convenience of those responsible for pregnancy.”

The fifth affirmation follows directly from the fourth:  “As a life-ending act, abortion should never be legalized as a freedom right of those responsible for a pregnancy. Government bears responsibility for decisions that involve the taking of life. Consequently, abortion should require public-legal authorization, and then only under circumstances of unusual danger to the pregnant woman.”

The taking of life, including the life of the unborn, should always have to be justified in terms of very high standards of human dignity, rather than the life of the unborn being justified by very high standards of autonomy.

The final affirmation of this Guideline continues the theme of community building in favor of life: “With respect to the reasons why pregnancy sometimes arrives as an unwanted burden to a woman, government should do everything in the sphere of its responsibility to support adequate health care for pregnant women and for infants, encourage pregnancy counseling, promote adoption, and strengthen foster care.”

All of these means of sustaining and enhancing life depend on human communities and the interdependence of people and institutions. No one is autonomous.  Government must also play its part in protecting life in a more comprehensive way than simply penalizing those who take life. Government must uphold all the life-generating and life-sustaining institutions through which human creatures depend on and nurture one another in life.

—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”