Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oh Canada! – The Culture of Death North of the Border

This story from Toronto’s National Post (here) reports a rise in the use of “selective reduction” in Canada.

“Selective reduction” (an Orwellian euphemism if ever there was one) is of course a procedure in which one or more of the unborn children gestating inside his or her mother’s womb is chosen for extermination.  Potassium chloride is injected through a needle into the fetal heart of the child “selected” for “reduction,” causing the child’s death in utero.

The reason for the procedure may be that the child’s sex is not to the liking of his or her parents; or because the child has some congenital disorder; or it may be to avoid the normal risks (e.g. premature birth, lower birth weight) attendant to a multiple pregnancy. (For a longer article on “selective reduction” in the Washington Post from 2007 see here). 

The article from the National Post says that the procedure has “become increasingly common in the past two decades amid a boom in the number of multiple pregnancies.”  The story notes in passing that the rise in multiple pregnancies (a 40% increase in multiple births over the last 20 years) is due to the now common use of various assisted reproduction techniques including IVF.

Reflecting the seismic shift in ethical norms that has taken place with the legalization of abortion and the seemingly unquestioned acceptance of assisted reproduction the article notes that “[t]here seems to be little ethical debate around reduction for triplets or more.”  What is new, according to the story, is “a growing demand for reducing twins to one, fuelled more by socio-economic imperatives than medical need [sic], and raising vexing new ethical questions.”

For example, the anonymous woman interviewed in the story who underwent the procedure said of herself and her husband: “We’re both career people.  If we were going to have three children two years apart, someone else was going to be raising our kids. . . . All of a sudden our lives as we know them and as we like to lead them, are not going to happen.”

For this woman, then, parenthood doesn’t necessarily involve acts of self-sacrifice and abnegation made in love for the sake of one’s child – a defenseless human being wholly dependent upon the care of others.  Rather, children are items to be fit into a life-plan – a plan that has certain features fixed in advance that children cannot be allowed to alter, even where their creation has been deliberately and painstakingly sought by techniques designed to achieve this very end.  No matter.  Where convenient they are made to fit in.  Where not, they are discarded as so much refuse.

Although the article doesn’t say that the couple used some kind of assisted reproduction, it does say that “[b]oth parents were in their 40s – and their first son just over a year old” when the woman became pregnant for a second time.  Thus, despite the woman’s claim that the news of her carrying twins “came as a complete shock” it seems fair to read this with some skepticism.  To satisfy present needs, the rewriting of history often begins before the ink is dry.

There has been resistance in some Catholic circles to the use of the phrase “culture of death,” and not without reason.  The fear is that invocation of the phrase by pro-lifers will not be helpful, that it will immediately cut off the opportunity for meaningful conversation with the proponents of abortion.  While such prudence may be well-advised in attempting to engage in conversation with those on the other side of the life issues, the testimony of the woman interviewed in the article leaves no question as to whether the “culture of death” is an apt description of a certain mind-set that is now comfortably at home in the West:

“I’m absolutely sure I did the right thing,” she said.  “I had read some online forums, people were speaking of grieving, feeling a sense of loss.  I didn’t feel any of that.  Not that I’m a cruel, bitter person . . . I just didn’t feel I would be able to care for (twins) in a way that I wanted to.”

The absence of any remorse, any sense of loss at the deliberate destruction of one’s own child is what is truly chilling.

Isn’t this the transformation of sin into virtue so that the person “can feel self-justified?” (Veritatis Splendor ¶104)

Doesn’t this reflect the loss of the “sense of sin” (Reconciliato et Paenitentia ¶18) brought about by “creating and consolidating actual ‘structures of sin’ which go against life”? (Evangelium Vitae ¶ 24)

Doesn’t this manifest a profound corruption of the human conscience?

And isn’t that the social malady that John Paul II so provocatively – and accurately – labeled the “culture of death”?

The comments by readers of the story expressing their disgust at the woman’s actions and attitude show that even where this malevolent culture has taken root, the seeds of a "culture of life" still persist.  It is our task to nurture this good seed, to bring about its full flowering in thought, word and deed.



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The deadening of conscience manifests itself in many ways. Communion lines are long, but confessional lines short. How can God forgive a sin if the sinner doesn't even desire mercy or thinks she needs it?

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 23, 2010 6:35:45 PM

The Seventh Commandment declares that we are never to bear false witness against our neighbor. One implication is that we are never to deceive our neighbor, but always to stand for the truth for his or her sake. This is not so easy to do, and millions of martyrs have found out the hard way, but it is obligatory for us. If this is a Culture of Death, we are duty bound to declare it as it is. Let the murderers, like this Canadian woman, look to their own safety. We can no more turn murder into policy than we can make silk purses from pigs' ears.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 23, 2010 7:09:41 PM

One would think in a true culture of death people would not go to great lengths to have children, even if they choose to "selectively reduce" the number they have during pregnancy. A true culture of death could only exist in a horror film, and not for very long.

I think it might be wise for people not to think of themselves as "the culture of life" and those they disagree with (like the Canadian woman) as being part of "the culture of death," but rather to think of the war between a culture of life and a culture of death going on within each individual, with almost everyone being influenced by opposing forces. I don't think one could claim to be entirely in John Paul II's camp if he or she were strongly opposed to abortion and strongly in favor of capital punishment.

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 23, 2010 7:41:59 PM

Every individual draws a line between what is living and what is not, and a line between what life is human and what is not. The problem with labeling something as a "culture of death" is that label ignores subtleties. It says: "you and I disagree about where to draw the line: therefore, you're evil".

It's clear from what she said that the woman did not view her actions as the destruction of human life. She saw it as the prevention of human life from beginning. You may disagree, but it's wrong, then, to say that she's a part of a culture of death.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Dec 23, 2010 10:46:42 PM

“The absence of any remorse, any sense of loss at the deliberate destruction of one’s own child is what is truly chilling.”

I agree wholeheartedly. This reminded me of Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s chilling retelling, in his book “The Hand of God,” of the abortion he performed on a woman carrying his own child. The woman loved Nathanson and she wanted to keep the child, but Nathanson, just beginning to build an ob/gyn practice, told the woman that he wasn’t ready to marry her and that he couldn’t afford to support a child. He demanded that the woman terminate the pregnancy as a condition of continuing their relationship.

Nathanson: “What is it like to terminate the life of your own child? It was aseptic and clinical.” After a detailed and unemotional description of the procedure he performed on the woman, Nathanson relates that “[t]he procedure went on without incident, and I felt a fleeting gratification that I had done my usual briskly efficient job and left the operating room while she was still struggling up from general anesthesia.” He then dispassionately viewed the pregnancy tissue to assure himself that it had all been “evacuated.” After dictating some operation notes, he recounts that I “made my way to the locker room to change my clothes while exchanging the usual badinage and cheery greetings with the other nurses and physicians and orderlies in the halls along the way to the lockers.” About the fact that he had extinguished the life of his own unborn child, Nathanson said that he “had no feelings aside from the sense of accomplishment, the pride of expertise.”

Given that there are approximately 3,000 abortions a day in the U.S., it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the callous disregard for life, but if Dr. Nathanson -- co-founder of NARAL, abortionist who by his own count performed 75,000 abortions, and convert to Catholicism—could make a paradigmatic shift in his thinking, there is still hope that hearts and minds will be swayed to recognize the unique and irreplaceable worth of every unborn child.

Posted by: Bill Collier | Dec 23, 2010 11:17:04 PM


While I agree with John Breen that "culture of death" is an apt description, I also agree with him that it's likely counterproductive to use it when trying to wins hearts and minds on the issue of abortion. I'm confused, however, by your comment that the woman in the story saw the "selective reduction" as "the prevention of human life from beginning." Leaving aside that it is a biological fact that human life begins at conception (are any of us willing to concede that we weren't "human" during any point in the continuum of our earthly existence?), I don't think the facts contained in the newspaper story support your conclusion. There's nothing there indicating that the woman labored over her decision because she was torn by the moral issue of when human life begins. Her decision was purely socio-economic. That's underscored by the fact that she wanted one but not two babies. It would be inconsistent on her part to recognize the human nature of the twin she wanted to keep, yet deny the humanity of the twin she allowed to be aborted.

Posted by: Bill Collier | Dec 23, 2010 11:48:09 PM

If we don't tell this Canadian woman that what she did was wrong, why would she ever be inclined to change? There may be only a fine line between prudence and cowardice, but it is a line that I think I should rather not follow, and I advise others to avoid it too.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 24, 2010 7:04:01 AM

Here is a quotation from the Roman Catechism, which if memory serves was formulated at the Council of Trent. It was a favorite of Pius X:

There is no clearer statement of this rule than the one found in the Roman catechism of the Catholic church. It reads, “There are some exceptions to the extent of this prohibition to killing. The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment, such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the state is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent life (The Fifth Commandment, 4).”

We recoil in an unthinking way from capital punishment these days in part because in our orderly societies, it seems that we do not need it to keep the peace. But we also have to ask ourselves if, as the catechism would have it, this is not also sign of our indifference to the sanctity of human life.

We bear in mind that no pope has the power to abolish any teaching. His authority is to refine and sometimes to discover, but what was true is always true. This doctrinal statement, though old, is definitive.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 24, 2010 11:58:16 AM