At Your Beginning

our-lady-signIn many Vietnamese families, there exists a beautiful and unique tradition. When a baby turns three months old, he is given a party and an entire pig is roasted in his honor. The family feasts on the pig and rejoices that the baby has reached this milestone. Yet, one may ask, why is this such an important milestone? Why make such a fuss over three months? The reason is simple and beautiful: the family does this because their child has reached a major milestone. Their child is actually a year old because he has spent nine months in the womb. He is one year old because life begins at conception.

This tradition is all the more telling because it has been fostered in a culture that is not traditionally Christian. The belief that human life begins at conception is not idiosyncratic to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is a belief held by many cultures before they were touched by the Gospel message. It is, in other words, part of the natural law written on the heart of man. Independent of divine revelation and of evangelizing influences, many cultures have held this truth to be self-evident. The Hippocratic Oath, composed over 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, and sworn by medical professionals to the present day, contained in one of its original forms a prohibition against both euthanasia and induced abortion:

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“…I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner, I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce an abortion…”

This oath was written centuries before Christian ethics touched mankind. It was not until 1964 that all references to respect for human life from the point of conception were expunged from the oath.[1] The starting point of human life, the threshold beyond which destruction becomes a culpable act, has always been apparent to mankind, even when he willfully chooses to ignore it.

Does it really matter that cultures, Christian or not, have espoused the belief that life begins at conception? What relevance does this have for the contemporary pro-life movement? In a climate in which many pro-life concerns are dismissed as ploys to “impose our religion on other people,” this fact can have immense importance. The value placed on unborn human life from antiquity to the modern day, in cultures Christian and otherwise, testifies to the universality of the pro-life message. The only uniquely Catholic thing about this message is its catholicity, its absolute universality. As Blessed Pope John II so many times reminded the world, the Church never seeks to impose herself on the world. She never imposes, but only proposes. In seeking to promote a reverence for human life in all its stages, she proposes to the world a return to the natural law and to the dignity that makes mankind the unique crown of creation and raises him above the savagery that surrounds him.


[1] Information about the Hippocratic Oath was obtained from The Hand of God by Bernard M. Nathanson, MD.

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