Will the Real ‘Culture of Life’ Please Stand Up?

Leah Mickens

Since the publication of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the phrase “culture of life” has been used by conservative Catholics to describe their ideal society that would be free from abortion, contraception, voluntary sterilization, stem-cell research, and euthanasia—a society in which human life is valued at all points from conception to natural death. Juxtaposed against the “culture of life” is the “culture of death,” which judges the value of human life from a utilitarian perspective and deems certain categories of people, such as fetuses, infants, the handicapped, and the elderly, to be burdens that can be killed at the pleasure of the state. John Paul II described the culture of death as:

. . . An idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of “conspiracy against life” is unleashed.

The Roman Catholic Church has expended a great deal of effort to promote its vision of a culture of life via political lobbying, education at the parish level, grassroots activism, and the use of the Holy See’s status as a permanent observer state at the United Nations to influence the outcomes of international treaties and agreements. The rhetoric of the culture of life has influenced conservatives outside of the Catholic Church, including former president George W. Bush, whose domestic agenda included the signing of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and the restoration of the so-called “Mexico City policy,” which forbids channeling taxpayer money to organizations that promote or perform abortions. While the late pontiff’s flowery rhetoric about valuing the lives of the weak and disadvantaged sounds as if it could be compatible with certain aspects of secular humanism, a further examination of the Catholic Church’s stance on life issues and bioethics reveals that the culture of life is antithetical to building a society that encourages human flourishing.

The most obvious point of divergence between secular humanism and the culture of life is the latter’s single-minded obsession with ending legalized abortion. According to Evangelium Vitae, the number-one evil in the world is legalized abortion, and re-criminalizing the procedure is more pressing than addressing environmental degradation, global poverty, warfare, racism, or any other issue that affects living, breathing human beings. Catholic moral theology maintains that abortion constitutes the deliberate murder of a unique human being who just happens to reside in its mother’s womb, and it is never permissible. What makes abortion particularly egregious, according to Evangelium Vitae, is that it is an act of violence against a defenseless child by its mother, an inversion of the “natural order” in which mothers protect and nurture their children. Therefore, any culture of life would ban legalized abortion at every point in pregnancy with no loopholes for pregnancies that endanger the life of the mother or result from rape.

However, studies indicate that criminalizing abortion does not reduce the demand for the procedure but merely sends those seeking and supplying it underground. The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that 47,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions, mostly in the developing world where access to medical care in general is difficult to obtain and adherence to religious dogma and traditional gender roles restricts the ability for women to obtain reliable birth control. WHO indicates that the regions of the world with the highest instances of unsafe and illegal abortions are Latin America, the so-called “heartland of Catholicism,” and sub-Saharan Africa, where Catholicism and other forms of conservative Christianity are finding new adherents. For example, although procuring or assisting in an abortion is punishable by imprisonment in Chile, 35 percent of pregnancies in that country end in abortion, which adds up to roughly 135,000 abortions per year. Clearly, the presence of a strong Catholic culture isn’t diminishing the demand for abortion.

While there is a great deal of hand-wringing about the abortion of disabled fetuses among proponents of the culture of life, there is not the same level of concern about the welfare of disabled children and adults. For example, a quick perusal of the website of the Washington, D.C.–based Culture of Life Foundation (which claims to present “complex moral issues made simple”) reveals dozens of essays about the immorality of using euthanasia against severely disabled infants, why disabled fetuses should not be aborted, and the evils of using in-vitro fertilization to screen out embryos with genetic defects—but nothing about removing the physical and social barriers that make life difficult for the disabled. Similarly, self-proclaimed “culture of life” proponent Rick Santorum regularly uses his disabled daughter, Bella, as a prop for the antiabortion cause but opposes the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as any concrete plans for health-care reform. Santorum’s opposition to the UN Disabilities treaty is based on his fear that it may interfere with the right of parents to religiously homeschool and use corporal punishment, because it states that disabled children have rights independent of their parents and contains a provision asserting that the disabled have a right to reproductive health services. The disabled are fetishized in the culture of life discourse as “precious gifts of God” but not valued as autonomous individuals with needs and wishes (including those of a sexual nature) that may differ from those of their parents and/or caregivers.

In fact, the traditional way for Catholic societies to deal with problematic members of the population—from unwed mothers and their children to the disabled—was simply to warehouse them in institutions run by religious sisters and/or brothers and then not think about them. These institutions, usually overpopulated and understaffed, had high mortality rates—which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing from the perspective of the workers, since the odd flu or typhus epidemic could reduce the number of dependents they had to care for. The full horror of the Catholic “warehousing principle” was on display in twentieth-century Ireland, where the Catholic Church held a monopoly on social services and created an ingrained culture of abuse that the country is only just now beginning to comprehend. The substandard conditions at homes for the sick and dying run by culture-of-life superstar Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity order are also characteristic of the warehousing principle at work in the modern world. From a secular-humanist perspective, it is hard to see how crowding poor and vulnerable human beings in squalid institutions until they die an ignominious death can be considered part of a culture of life.

Opposition to contraception is another key component of the culture-of-life ideology. Contraception is forbidden by Catholic natural law theory, which states that the teleological end of sex is reproduction and that any sex act that does not remain “open to life” constitutes the misuse of human genitalia and should be considered a grave sin. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II heaped scorn upon the so-called “contraception mentality,” claiming that it is:

. . . rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.

From this perspective, the use of contraception is always a selfish act committed by couples who find children to be a burden and insist on using sex in ways not intended under natural law for their own base gratification. Once society ignores the true meaning of sex, which is to be open to the possibility of having children, then destroying human life through abortion becomes a minor concern.

Aside from the fallacy of ascribing a “natural end” to sex, the culture-of-life mentality, where every sex act must lead to a potential pregnancy, needlessly romanticizes childbearing and childbirth, both of which are fraught with health risks for the women who undertake them. Pregnancy can led to anemia, depression, ectopic pregnancy, gestational diabetes, hyperemesis gravidarum (nonstop nausea which can cause dehydration), preeclampsia, and placental rupture. Women in childbirth can suffer from puerperal pyrexiai (infection of the female reproductive organs due to childbirth or miscarriage), various types of hemorrhages, toxemia, or obstetric fistulas.

The medical advances of the past one hundred years or so have greatly curbed maternal death in the West, to the point where most people take for granted that a pregnancy will lead to the birth of a healthy baby and a mother who can be up and about in a few days. Aside from improved medical and surgical technology, the primary reason for the decrease in maternal deaths during childbirth is due to contraception and the practice of having fewer children, with considerable gaps between births; the simple act of being pregnant two or three times (or not at all) prevents women from being subjected to the health problems that can result from more frequent childbearing. However, women in the developing world are not as lucky; WHO indicates that 800 women in the developing world die from complications due to childbirth every day. For women living in extreme rural poverty, bereft of education, health care, or control of their bodies, being pregnant can and often will send them to an early grave. Even the United States is not immune from the tragedy of maternal death; it has the dubious distinction of having the highest mortality rate for infants and mothers in the developed world. While Evangelium Vitae and Humanae Vitae—Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception—both stress the need for “responsible parenthood,” the Church’s insistence that every sex act must lead to a potential pregnancy ignores the legitimate health and economic reasons many couples choose to have small families.

In conclusion: I don’t think there is much room for dialogue between proponents of the culture of life and secular humanists on what constitutes a society that enables human flourishing. Simply advocating a crude pro-natalism, as culture-of-life adherents do, does not equal advocating a society that places a high value on helping its citizens achieve a high quality of life or one that allows individuals to reach their full potential. Given the large number of women who die from complications due to pregnancy and childbirth every day, I say that any real culture of life must include access to a full array of family-planning services as part of a public-health program. It is irresponsible to deny women the ability to plan their own fertility when hundreds are dying each day from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, I would say that the culture of life as envisioned by John Paul II is the real culture of death, because of its cavalier disregard for the health and safety of women. Neither would a real culture of life warehouse the disabled and sick without any regard for their quality of life or their bodily autonomy. As intoxicating as John Paul II’s flowery rhetoric about protecting the weak and vulnerable may be, a political agenda based on Evangelium Vitae will only lead to increased misery for the very people a culture of life is supposed to protect.

Further Reading

Leah Mickens

Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of southern U.S. history. Mickens is a frequent contributer to Free Inquiry.


Catholic rhetoric about a “culture of life” may sound humanistic, but when clearly understood it is the opposite.

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