25 March 2020

SPUC Chief Executive, John Smeaton

Final John Paul

On this, the 25th anniversary of the publication of Evangelium Vitae, I appeal to my fellow pro-life leaders in Britain and around the world radically to review strategic approaches to legislative campaigns and law-making. Given the scale of the catastrophe we are experiencing – in terms of the number of lives destroyed the greatest catastrophe in the recorded history of humanity – we urgently do need to consider whether the more or less universal policy pursued by pro-life groups of campaigning for laws which expressly permit the killing of certain unborn children needs to be completely abandoned: for example laws which expressly permit unborn children to be killed in the case of rape, or disability, or before the human heart begins to beat.

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II reminded the faithful that a law which permits the killing of certain unborn children is not a law at all. It’s an unjust law which, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas “ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence”[1]. Pope John Paul II, in this connection, citing the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and its 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion[2], spells out Catholic teaching in Evangelium Vitae, 73: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it’”.

The meaning of what Pope John Paul II says in this paragraph from Evangelium Vitae, number 73, is 100% clear, and yet pro-life leaders, myself included, have backed legislative changes which of themselves expressly permit abortion in certain circumstances on pragmatic grounds, arguing that such legislative changes are an improvement, big or small, on an existing law and will save lives.

However, campaigns for legislative changes of this kind send the message to friends and opponents alike that abortion can be the right thing to do. Is it not likely that one of the reasons why the evil of abortion is so overwhelmingly accepted in particular circumstances by our fellow citizens, including by our fellow Catholics, is that pro-life groups have almost universally been prepared to accept legalised abortion ourselves in certain circumstances?

The truth is abortion is an intrinsic evil, like the murder of a newborn child for example, which can never be tolerated for pragmatic reasons.

Imagine a member of a national legislature putting forward legislation to stop the killing of white children and who did so in a legal form expressly permitting the killing of black children. It would clearly be wrong to vote for such a law and to campaign for such a law, however many lives, allegedly, such a law might save.

Many of us have justified our campaigns in support of unjust laws by quoting the very next paragraph of Evangelium Vitae, number 73, where Pope John Paul II famously wrote: “A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on … In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.” 

For 25 years – since the publication of Evangelium Vitae – perhaps the majority of pro-life and church leaders have interpreted this paragraph as meaning that politicians may vote for, and campaigners may campaign for, laws which of themselves expressly permit abortions. But this is contrary to reason. In the paragraph immediately preceding this one, Pope John Paul II wrote: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is … never [my emphasis] licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it".

What part of “never” do we not understand?

According to Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, “the principle (or law) of non-contradiction is the firmest.” Aristotle says that “without the principle of non-contradiction we could not know anything that we do know”[3]. On the basis of the principle of non-contradiction, therefore, it’s not possible for this statement to mean both that one can vote for an unjust law and, at the same time, that one cannot vote for an unjust law – on the basis of one’s motives in doing so or for any other reason.

In other words, pro-life leaders and philosophers need to stop tying themselves up in knots trying to work out what Pope John Paul II meant when he wrote about limiting the harm of existing legislation; instead, we should simply recognise and follow the unchanging and unchangeable truth taught by the Catholic Church that an unjust law ceases to be a law at all and becomes instead an act of violence for which it’s never permissible to campaign or to vote.

I will reflect on what other lessons we can learn from Evangelium Vitae in part two of my blogpost tomorrow.


[1]Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2um. 

[2]98 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (18 November 1974), No. 22: AAS 66 (1974), 744. 

[3] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Aristotle on Non-Contradiction: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-noncontradiction/