On Abortion: Paul Ryan and Two Simple Questions

Almost a year ago, I was watching the Biden/Ryan Vice-Presidential Debate on television when the following exchange occurred:

MS. RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is indeed historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And please, this is such an emotional issue for so many —

REP. RYAN: Sure.

MS. RADDATZ: — people in this country. Please talk personally about this if you could. Congressman Ryan.

REP. RYAN: I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course, but it’s also because of reason and science. You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean, and to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, “Bean.” (Chuckles.)

Now, I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life.

Now, I understand this is a difficult issue. And I respect people who don’t agree with me on this. But the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Before I tell you my reaction, let me point out that you can find the whole transcript here. And you can watch a video segment on this part of the debate here. Ryan had a few more comments after the ones I excerpted, but they all dealt with Biden and the Democratic party. And of course Biden gave his answer to Raddatz’s question, which is another topic for another day.

Though it goes without saying, let me also note that abortion is a highly controversial issue and that there are plenty of very real, very important emotional elements to the debate over it. But like Biden’s answer, I consider those elements to be other topics for other days. In this here blog post, I want to stick to the basic logic at the heart of the debate. And I want to give my reaction to Ryan’s answer, which is:


What a terrific opportunity he missed! Sure, the “bean” story was cute, but Ms. Raddatz asked a question that gets right at two of the most precarious fault lines in American political discourse: (1) abortion and (2) religious influence on matters of public policy. Here’s what I think Representative Ryan should have said:

Reason and science informed my understanding that life begins at conception. My faith taught me that life matters – that human life is valuable and worth protecting.

For all the angst and gray areas and moral confusion over the issue of abortion, I think the logic at the heart of the debate is really very simple. It involves answering two basic questions: (1) When does life begin? And (2) (When) does life matter?

Here’s my thinking on that first question:

  • Conception is the only dividing line to which you can look for a clear differentiation between being and not being, therefore it is the only logical point at which life can begin.
  • That is, on this side of the line we have an egg with Mom’s DNA and a sperm with Dad’s. On that side we have a new being, a “zygote” with half of the DNA from each. Never again in our development do we see such a fundamental change.
  • From that point on, our cells divide and multiply. We grow exponentially. But we do not, in essence, change. We do not require anything but shelter, nutrition, and time to develop into a form that is easier for our eyes to identify as human.

If you were not to define conception as the point at which life begins, at precisely which other point on the continuum of development would you settle on?

  • Are we not alive when we look like a simple cluster of cells but we are alive when the cells have organized themselves into a spine and brain and heart?
  • Are we not alive when we’re free-floating embryos, but we are alive when, a moment later, we attach to our mother’s uterine wall?
  • Are we not alive before a physician can detect a heartbeat, but we are alive once our heartbeat has been witnessed?
  • Are we not alive before the 24th week of our mother’s pregnancy (the point at which today’s medical technology is capable of keeping us alive outside the womb), but we are alive once we’ve reached that 24-week mark?
  • Were we alive at 24 weeks a hundred years ago, when we would have died from being born so early?
  • Are we not alive when we’re lodged in the birth canal, awaiting our final exit from our mother’s body, but we are alive moments later, lying in her arms?
  • Or, are we alive when our mother wants us, not alive when she doesn’t?
  • Does our life depend on our physiology, or others’ perceptions of us?


Okay, that’s enough with that one. Let’s move on to the second big, basic question: When does life matter? Or perhaps even, Does life matter? As far as I’m concerned, this is really the crux of the abortion debate, as well as the other life-related controversies: capital punishment, euthanasia, how we view people with disabilities, etc. The real question regarding abortion is not so much, “When does life begin?” It is, “At what point do we think life is worth protecting?”

And that’s where we have to look really hard at ourselves.

  • First of all, do we even believe that human life is worth protecting? Do we have a rigid “survival of the fittest” mentality, or do we believe that there is something special about the human person?
  • Second, if we indeed believe that human life, in the broad sense, is worth protecting, then which individual human lives are we honestly thinking about? Are we thinking about those we love? Are we thinking about those with whom we share beliefs, culture, class, race, nationality? Those who seem able and good? Or are we also thinking of the “other”?
  • Third, if we believe that some human lives are worthy of protection and we’re also thinking of those who are unlike ourselves, then do we take the final step? Do we believe that every single individual is inherently worthy of life, just by virtue of being human?

If we can’t make that leap, where do we draw our lines? Do we draw them at age, at health status, at conduct, at convenience, at others’ desire for the individual? Do we draw them along those ancient lines of family, faith, tribe, class, etc.?

  • Is a life only worth protecting when s/he is at a convenient age, in good health, innocent of crimes, wanted by the people around her/him, and a member of a favored family/tribe/class/nationality?
  • Is a life worth protecting when a certain few of those conditions are fulfilled?
  • Or, is a life always worth protecting?

And what about those babies – those zygotes/embryos/fetuses – whatever you want to call them? Reason tells us that, from the day they’re conceived to the day they die, they’re alive. But at what point do we think they are inherently valuable and worthy of protection?

  • Are they worth protecting once they’ve reached a certain developmental stage? Once modern medicine is able to keep them alive outside the womb? When they were conceived through a consensual encounter? When – and only when – their mothers want them? When they are judged to be perfectly healthy and convenient?
  • Is a baby’s life worth protecting when a certain few of those conditions are fulfilled?
  • Or, again, is a baby’s life always worth protecting?

My Catholic faith – the one I share with Representative Paul Ryan – teaches that human life is always important. It always has value. It should always be protected. Rep. Ryan indeed got something right when he said, “My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.” I don’t know enough about him to understand exactly what he means by “take care” and “vulnerable” and “make sure people have a chance.” But I know that the Catholic Church is eminently consistent in its message: People have a right to life, from conception to natural death. People also have a right to the basic necessities of life: namely food, shelter, and health care. (In my opinion, to advocate for one – the “right to life” or “social justice” – but not the other is to miss the point.)

I accept the Church’s teaching on the inherent value and dignity of life. As a Catholic, I believe that people are precious – every single one: The beautiful, treasured, long-wanted newborn in his mother’s arms; the unborn child of a woman contemplating abortion; the baby girl thrown away as trash because she was unfortunate enough to be born into a culture that favors boys; the child with a congenital disease or developmental disability; the frail person suffering an illness that will surely take her life; the person who committed a crime that not only irreparably hurt others, but also harmed his own soul. They all count.

Reason and science informed my understanding that life begins at conception. My faith taught me that life matters – that human life is valuable and worth protecting.


Care to answer any of the dozens of questions I listed above? Leave a comment! And I do (cringe) really mean that.

6 thoughts on “On Abortion: Paul Ryan and Two Simple Questions

  1. Speaking as someone pro choice, I would never attempt to deny that a zygote is alive and is a member of the human species. But for me it’s about competing rights and needs and while the developing embryo is without a brain stem, consciousness, self awareness and ability to feel pain, it hasn’t achieved anything like personhood and its rights do not trump that of its mother. One of the rights the woman has is the right of self determination, including when she reproduces. To suggest otherwise is to firmly insist is that as soon as a woman gets pregnant, she becomes an incubator and can be compelled to remain an incubator.

    When it comes to euthanasia and the death penalty, you’re now dealing with full persons who bring with them lives, memories, pain, relationships etc. They not only have value in and of themselves, but they also have relationships with other people, so if you tamper with that person, you’re tampering with all the people they’re connected to. The death penalty is a punishment upon multiple people, only one of whom did a crime. That’s my interpretation, anyway.

    • Thanks for your comment. I do appreciate the thoughtful response.

      I suppose I fail to see the difference between “member of the human species” and “personhood”. Like my little logical exercise on when in the “continuum of development” life begins, when would you ascribe personhood at beginning, if not conception? There does not seem to me to be any other obvious point. You mention a brain stem, consciousness, self-awareness, and ability to feel pain. The brain stem and ability to feel pain, at least, both occur within the first half of pregnancy. Consciousness might too. (My pregnancy books says that babies can make conscious movements, like sucking their thumb, by 19 weeks.) Regarding self-awareness, who can really say? I don’t know if an infant is self-aware. So we’ve got a scattering of points there, at least one for each quality you seem to require to consider a human a person. I don’t see why we bother with such semantics. A life, a human, a person — they’re all different ways of saying the same thing.

      I think you hit much closer to the point when you write about competing rights and needs. To you, the right of the mother to self-determination trumps the right of the baby to live. To me, the right of the baby to live trumps the right of the mother to self-determination. We’ve made different judgments there. And that’s the crux of the abortion debate — different judgments on which rights take priority. It should not be about the semantics about when one becomes a life/ a human/ a person. I think we keep getting pulled back there because to choicers, abortion becomes a lot more palatable if you don’t think of it as killing a baby. And to lifers, pointing out that a baby is killed makes abortion obviously (to them) wrong. I wish we’d just go ahead and set aside the debate on semantics and instead hash out where we really are on the competing rights and needs.

      As for where I am, I’ve got to come down on the side of the most fundamental of all rights — the right to life. Without this one, all the others — speech, religion, due process, etc. — they’re all meaningless. Life is more basic. So it comes first.

      I also really, truly believe that each and every human life is special. It pains me to hear about children killed by war or by domestic violence or by abortion. Violence is violence. Death is death. Tragedy is tragedy.

      I thought your euthanasia/death penalty paragraph was interesting. First, because you seem to assign one’s value to one’s having relationships with others. That’s hard for me to accept as someone who sees intrinsic value in human beings, but I appreciate the rationale. Interesting.

      I was also interested in your capital punishment argument because I’m more used to hearing from anti-abortion people who are pro-capital-punishment. To them, the distinction is one of innocence: abortion is wrong because it kills innocents; capital punishment is acceptable because it kills the guilty. To you, the distinction is based on relationships. Like I said: interesting.

      Thanks again for your comment.

    • We exist as part of a community. What we do impacts others. I probably have a unique view of euthanasia – I think that at the end of life pain relief is paramount and sometimes the amount of morphine needed to relieve pain will be lethal. But euthanasia is usually someone who is in their right mind asking someone else to do a lethal act and that I have problems with, not least because it’s asking someone to violate their Hippocratic Oath, it’s assuming their life only has value to them personally and doesn’t take account of other people. (Also, in practical terms, we know that where euthanasia is practiced freely in the US, the amount of money spent on palliative care goes down.) But I’m not hard and fast on euthanasia. It’s complex.

      Capital punishment is grotesque. Not only are too many innocent people put to death, but the whole thing is demeaning to the people on both sides.

      The developing embryo may be a person. Who knows? But that does not impose an obligation on its mother, any more than my friend’s kidney disease imposes an obligation on me to donate a kidney.

      And in practical terms, there are good reasons why abortion needs to stay legal. There’s the question of illegal abortions, for a start, and what they do to women, because women will always seek abortions. Women are also best placed to know what they can cope with and some women can’t cope with pregnancy, either ever or at a particular stage in their life. But at the end of it all, an existing woman is more important than a potential human. Her relationship with her own body is her most profound and intimate relationship. Full stop. It’s up to her how her body is used.

    • Thank you for a wonderful post Julie. B(bodycrimes) you raised fair reasons to why you think abortion generally should be permissible. I do not think the reasons abortion in general wrong is because of the attributes we grant them (person, ability to be aware/conciousness or to feel pain etc or future potentiality). I think abortion in most cases is wrong as it is wrong to kill you or me now. It is not because of our ability to feel pain, conciousness or our future potential life that make it so wrong for us to be killed now because we could think of states of affairs where we lack those and still it is wrong to be killed.

      Example: Think I went into a temporary comatose at 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. In this period I am not able to feel pain, and do not have ability of awareness because I am unconcious. You and I will agree that is wrong to kill me between 12:00-2:00. I argued elsewhere that the reasons it is wrong to kill us is the same with kill unborn.

      Woman’s rights over her body does not extend to unborn just as it does not extend to the born. If you are familiar with my Jane counterexample I made a case for the former, but for now I can offer other examples. If you agree that women cannot use their bodies to kill others, example Jane cannot use her body to push John off the cliff, or use her body to sit on her 1 second born child to death, then you agree that women’s right over their bodies does not extend to other beings. If the unborn is other being, then women’s rights to control their bodies does not extend to the bodies of other beings inside them.

      The case that abortion should stay legal because women will always seek abortion is irrelevant. We should not mix the ethical question with legal ones. Some things are not moral but legal example cheating ones wife/husband. It being legal does not necessary mean moral. I think abortion, in general, is immoral but I will offer different cases to show that it should be illegal. It is one thing to show it is immoral and quite another to show it ought be illegal.

  2. Julie, I love reading your views on things, especially the hard things like abortion. I have a differing viewpoint, especially as I wear the “loss” mommy hat. I know a few other loss moms who made the decision to end their pregnancies because they were given a horrible prognosis (fatal ones) for their baby and wanted to put an end to suffering of their child. I do believe that life starts at conception and I hope I never have to make the decision they did. They too believed that their baby was alive, but they also believed that their baby was suffering and therefore used abortion to end that suffering. They not only grieve for their lost child, but they have the added grief of living with the decision they had to make. And my issue with the debate is the people who want to completely ban abortion. What about these loss moms I know? With a complete ban, they would have had to continue these pregnancies, knowing that their baby was not going to survive. And possibly be in pain the entire time. It’s for women like these that I lean pro-choice. Who am I, who is the government to make this decision for other moms? It is not my place to tell them to stay pregnant and let nature take its course. It is my place to love them, regardless of their decision and support them the best way I can…by being there to listen and not judge them. And let them know they did the right thing for them, whether it be to abort or not, with the information they had at the time.

  3. Julie, thanks for tackling this subject. It is not easy and I believe it is absolute. You did a wonderful job of separating faith informed action from secular. Thanks. I am bookmarking this link so I can send others to it! Blessings.

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