Our recent celebration of Mother’s Day and the Church’s dedication to Mary during May stand in a certain paradoxical contrast to the current media obsession regarding Roe v. Wade. That is, the contemporary public discourse seems to be almost exclusively rooted in a discussion of rights that entirely bypasses any consideration for the nature and dignity of motherhood. On the one side, so-called “pro-choicers” defend abortion as a woman’s “right,” and in response, “pro-lifers” defend the dignity of the person by appealing to the unborn child’s right to life.
From this “rights” perspective, it is actually quite easy to see why even many well-meaning individuals can become unnecessarily confused on this issue. Namely, it seems as if one must decide between the mother’s or the baby’s rights, and in a society that esteems democratic ideals, it becomes increasingly impossible to judge whose rights should have precedence.
Certainly, if all we have to work with is a thin notion of individual rights, we will be left perplexed when it comes to resolving the issues of justice and equity between the mother and child. Real justice, however, can never be achieved unless we transcend this short-sighted individualism and rights-centered approach.
Here, the Church’s philosophical and theological wisdom becomes eminently beneficial. The Church has never looked at justice first in terms of “individual rights.” Rather, Christian theology and the doctrine of creation necessarily turn this rights-centered approach on its head.
Through philosophy, one can recognize that God exists, that He is perfect, and that He doesn’t require anything added to Him for His happiness or fulfillment. However, this leaves theologians with the difficult task of trying to understand why God created anything at all. Ultimately, the best
theologians can present is that God’s act of creation is completely gratuitous — that is, creation can only be understood as a gift, pure and simple.
This mystery of creation as a gift is at the very core of Christianity and should fundamentally shape how we view life. Creation means that our very existence is an undeserved gift. Every life—yours and mine and every other creature in the world—exists only because of a perfect, good, and loving God. It is God, the Lord of Life, Who deemed that each creature should exist, and has created everything and everyone for Him—to glorify Him.
And in the case of the human person, who has been created in God’s very image and likeness, God has offered a further undeserved and inestimable gift: the gift of redemption. Each of us owes literally everything to God—our existence, our souls, and yes, even our bodies.
Hence, if we acknowledge God as the sole Author and Lord of Life, then every single life, including our own, will be viewed as a gift-to-be-received. What is the proper response to a gift? If we were raised well, we know that our first response should always be gratitude to the gift-giver. By practicing gratitude, we first acknowledge that every life is a precious gift that is given by a Good and Loving God.
Let’s now return to examine how shifting away from an individualistic notion of rights and toward a language of gift as seen through creation might fundamentally reshape our discourse on motherhood, abortion, and the right to life.
By acknowledging life as a gift given by the Lord of Life, we then see the child in the womb of the mother not merely as “a product” of egg and sperm uniting. The child is given her soul—the principle of her life and personal identity—directly from God. Her spiritual reality is not given by the biological material of either parent. Rather, the child’s life is essentially given and fashioned by God Himself.
Thus, through the language of gift one can see why motherhood itself is not fundamentally a “right” that authorizes one to “produce” or discard children at whim. The Christian knows that children are not objects designed by man, but are persons created by God.
Notice how this perspective and language of gift transcends the shallow view offered by a rights- centered perspective. It does not view life and motherhood as a rivalry of competing rights – the mother’s or the child’s. And it is only from the perspective of gift that one can begin to recognize that motherhood does not in fact threaten the woman’s ability to flourish as a person. Rather, God has designed the woman, in the very structure of her body, to be naturally suited to receiving and nurturing this gift of life.
Furthermore, the language of gift communicates the sacredness of human life and therefore calls both men and women to recognize their natural duty to defend and protect this gift. It does not thereby ignore the woman’s health and wellbeing, which is also an inestimable gift. However, seeing both motherhood and the child’s life as gifts naturally directs the political order to find creative solutions to protecting both goods (the well-being of the mother and of the child), and it refuses to settle for unjust “compromises” that would violate the sacredness and dignity of a gift from God, the Lord of Life.
If the perspective of gift is taken seriously, it will in fact lead a society to consider and defend the natural institutions that nurture and protect the gift of life. It thereby promotes the permanency and exclusivity of marriage between a man and a woman, since both fathers and mothers have vital and irreplaceable roles in the rearing and education of children.
Here, then, I suggest that our contemporary infatuation with rights might be remedied by turning to St. John Paul’s rich insights communicated through his theology of the body. St. John Paul’s teaching is thoroughly permeated by the language of gift. He famously terms love as the “gift of self,” that is, an imitation of God’s own loving gratuity manifested through creation and redemption.
Most fundamentally then, the language of gift, as opposed to the language of rights, brings one to transcend the ego and our concupiscent tendency toward a self-centered entitlement. St. John Paul famously says that it is only through the gift of self that one fully finds oneself. We do not then find justice by first asking what we are owed; as Christians, we know that in truth we owe everything to God.
Thus, before we can arrive at a fruitful discussion of rights, it is quintessential that we begin by assuming a posture of gratitude in response to God the Father and Lord of Life. From this stance, we can then seek to know how we can be just and prudent stewards of all the gifts that God has entrusted to our care.
For this reason, St. John Paul encourages women and men to look to Mary’s example as the first and greatest of Christians, for it was Mary who received God’s gifts with total trust, surrender, and openness. Recognizing the importance of Mary’s “Fiat” (Yes) to the Lord’s invitation to become the Mother of our Redeemer, St. John Paul then adopted the papal motto addressing Mary: “Totus Tuus” (“All Yours!”). Mary, too, recognized that she belonged entirely to the Lord, and from her perfect humility, trust, and obedience, became the fitting temple to receive and bear the greatest gift of all eternity — the gift of Jesus Christ. Thus, she is for us, the perfect paradigm of motherhood and a model for how we all should respond to the Lord, even when we do not fully grasp His plan in our lives. (“How can this be?” – Luke 1:34)
Thus, if we are to regain a sense of the dignity of motherhood, the sanctity of life, and authentic justice, we would do well to distance ourselves from rights-centered thinking, and instead, follow St. John Paul’s example in fostering devotion to the blessed Mother. Through entrusting ourselves to Mary and following her own example of faithfulness, we will come to recognize how God indeed “has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.”
Patrick Gordon works as a content creator for TOBET and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Dallas.