One of the candidates for his party’s presidential nomination, Pete Buttigieg, recently offered an unusual justification for abortion. He said in a radio interview that there are “a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath.” He added that people might “draw the line” at different places to indicate when life begins, but what he implied is clear: The baby in the womb cannot breathe on its own, so it can be considered not yet alive in a biblical sense, and therefore it can be aborted.
Previously in the radio interview, Buttigieg had said people who oppose abortion “hold everybody in line with this one piece of doctrine about abortion.” What he meant by “piece of doctrine” is apparently the pro-life position that the child in the womb is a living human being and therefore cannot be killed. Buttigieg seems to think that he has found—in the Bible, of all places—a way around that reasoning. In his reading of Scripture, the baby isn’t alive until it draws breath. Until then it can be eliminated.
People on the pro-life side responded quickly to Buttigieg’s statement. Some quoted from Psalm 139: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb…My bones are not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, fashioned in the depths of the earth.”
It would be hard to find a more eloquent defense of life before birth than that. It does not mention breath, but it leaves no doubt about what is in the womb: a living human being.
Buttigieg’s attempt to justify abortion has no merit. Although the unborn infant does not breathe on its own, breath is present and moving in its life from the beginning: the breath of its mother. Her breath makes it possible for child to be conceived, to grow and to develop the organs and systems that will sustain its life when it is born. The unborn baby lives on breath that is delivered not by its lungs but by its circulatory system. That doesn’t make it less alive than a newborn; it simply indicates an earlier stage of development.
Moreover, the baby in the womb develops at a rapid rate; consider that it grows from two cells to an infant capable of life outside the womb in just nine months. Growth and development indicate the presence of life. Moreover, medical science is making it possible to save prematurely born infants at ever-earlier ages. No “line” exists that determines when they become alive.
It is absurd to suggest that an unborn baby in the early stages of gestation, whose lungs are not fully formed, is not truly alive because it can’t breathe independently. And if breathing independently determines whether someone is alive, what does that imply about people who use a respirator? Many have needed a respirator because of injury, but no longer needed it after they recovered. Were they somehow less than alive while a machine enabled their lungs to function? Others use a respirator periodically. If they were not alive, they would not need a respirator.
Pete Buttigieg should stick to politics and leave scriptural exegesis to biblical scholars.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops designates October as Respect Life Month. It’s a good time for us to look at abortion and how it affects our lives and our society. It’s also important to assist women in troubled pregnancies; opportunities abound through organizations and local programs including parish-based outreach.
I heard a homily a while ago by a priest who spoke about our human tendency to forget that life is a gift from God, that all we have comes from God, and that it is God, not ourselves, who directs our lives and measures out the span of our existence.
“We live on the borrowed breath of God,” he said.
How blessed are we when we come to know that, and when we work to preserve for everyone, born or yet to be born, that precious borrowed breath.