Prolife Web sites regularly display the faces of adorable infants and small children. This is a savvy move. Anthropologists and psychologists say that the structure of a baby’s face (a head “too large” for the body; a high forehead; large, round eyes; short, narrow features; and full cheeks) elicits a particular set of responses from adults. We are biologically programmed to nurture and protect babies; our normal impulses toward self-protection and aggression are quelled in their presence. A baby’s face advertises, “I am not like an adult. I bear you no harm. Take care of me. I am innocent.”
Who can be blamed for wanting to protect the blameless? Yet if it’s simply the blamelessness of the unborn that motivates our desire to keep them from harm, we’re missing the point of Christian anthropology. We protect the unborn not because they are perfectly innocent; we protect them because they bear the image and likeness of God—the very same image and likeness they will bear when they are no longer defenseless and cute.
St. Augustine certainly wasn’t fooled by the cuteness of babies. In the Confessions, he memorably describes how even the tiniest, cutest members of the human species can be morally flawed. He writes, “I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast.” Brutally unsentimental, Augustine tells us that in the sight of God, “there is none free from sin, not even the infant who has lived but a day upon this earth.” Augustine’s views were highly influential on official Catholic teaching. According to the Catechism, “Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice.” In order to remove this “sin with which we are all born afflicted...the church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.”
The doctrine of original sin fell into desuetude after Vatican II. To the extent that popular presentation of the doctrine of original sin had devolved into an unhealthy preoccupation with the eternal fate of unbaptized infants, its temporary disappearance wasn’t entirely bad. But it may be time to bring it back, in a suitably nuanced form.
In their paper “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” Stanford law professor John Donohue and University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt made the controversial argument that legalized abortion accounts for the “large, widespread, and persistent drop in crime in the 1990s.” (Neoconservative Bill Bennett referred to the study recently on his radio program.) The argument is as follows: The women who are most likely to seek abortions are teenagers, the economically disadvantaged, and the unmarried. They are also the women who are statistically most likely to give birth to children who will grow up to engage in criminal activity, since the lack of a stable and nurturing home environment “is strongly linked to future criminality.”
If we assume that the argument against abortion rests on the absolute innocence of unborn life, Donohue and Levitt’s argument poses a problem. We could, of course, challenge the data. But what if it is correct? Then we can be tempted to draw a distinction between the “innocent” baby in the womb (whom we protect) and the “guilty” teenage criminal (whom we condemn). Sometimes, the distinction is drawn so sharply that it obscures the fact that the baby and the teenager are one and the same. The unborn child is seen as a flawless symbol of humanity, rather than as a unique and flawed human being. The teenager is dismissed as unworthy of our concern. This is a dangerous temptation: it’s easy to love humanity in general, but it’s hard to love individual human beings, warts and all.
If we keep in mind the doctrine of original sin, however, we can put the Donohue/Levitt argument in proper perspective. First, it may well be correct. We shouldn’t be surprised that many women who seek abortions don’t have the resources to nurture their children. Neither should we be surprised that children who aren’t provided with basic nurturing turn out to be prone to wrongful behavior. The doctrine of original sin affirms the essential sociality of human beings: We shape one another’s character for evil and for good. The Catechism unblinkingly recognizes the “negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures” that are the fruit of human sinfulness.
Second, even if it is correct, the Donohue/Levitt argument does not provide a justification for a pro-abortion social policy. We protect human beings—even human beings in the womb—not because they are entirely innocent of sin. We protect them because they are made in the image and likeness of God, despite their sinfulness. We see the very same imago Dei in an unborn baby and the juvenile delinquent she will become fifteen years later. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not mesmerized by cuteness.
Third, the Donohue/Levitt argument shows why we can’t separate life issues from social-justice issues. If an unborn child matters not because she is a symbol of humanity, but because she is a particular human being, we need to ensure that she is cared for after she is born. To do that, we must care for her mother too: a woman’s educational level is one of the most powerful predictors of the welfare of her children. By caring for individual children, their mothers, and their fathers, we improve the lot of society as a whole by minimizing in the right way the factors that lead to criminal behavior. In Catholic teaching, sin has both a social and a personal dimension. So does redemption.
Related: Our Community, Our Choice by Anathea Portier-Young
About the Author
Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.