Sunday, January 10, 2010


I read recently someone suggesting that we need to respect all life, even the potential life in the womb. It sounds like a wonderful pro-life sentiment, but it has its dangers, among other things because it’s inaccurate.

What is in the womb is not ‘potential life,’ but ‘actual life.’ I am speaking somewhat philosophically here, but the distinction is important. All of us have potential in our lives—a baby has the potential to grow through adolescence to adulthood; a graduate has the potential to find a job; a married couple has the potential to have children. All this is as much as to say that we, as creatures, are always in process toward actualization: becoming real. This process continues until we die—at this point, we have actualized as much as we will, and there will be no potential left for us in this worldly existence. From that point, it is up to God's loving power to continue the process of actualization in us...

But from the beginning we are not ‘potential life’ but ‘actual life’: with conception, biologically and spiritually the process has begun. It is now only a question of ‘potential in our lives.’ Potential life by definition is not yet life, and this would mean that an abortion is not the taking of a human life but only of a potential life. Can you see the “slippery slope”?

Egg and sperm are indeed ‘potential life.’ Most (in the case of males, the vast majority) of these seeds will never become ‘actual life.’ But once a conception does occur, something completely new and other now exists, and it ought not be able to be threatened by arguments that are the moral equivalent of “…because I’m bigger than you.”

Perhaps to reinforce our moral perspective we should, as a Church, try to make a conscious shift in our vocabulary. Even without the insights of George Orwell in Animal Farm, we know that what we call something affects how we view it, use it, or abuse it. So I suggest that we stop using phrases like “getting pregnant” (which too easily can sound, to our consciences, like “getting measles”) and return to the older language of “expecting a baby,” or the even older “being with child.” One would think that our medical-technical ability to produce ultrasound images of the child in utero would point us in this direction.

It’s a nice hope: truly to respect all life, even the actual life in the womb.


  1. Fr. David,
    Thank you for being a (Special)voice for our brothers and sisters in danger of being discarded as not yet worthy of having dignity in their particular place or stage of being. God Bless You...and Thank You.
    Lisa Adams

  2. Well said! I love it, and hopefully I can get it into the Catholic Week this week! Thank you, Father!