A Message from the Administrative Board of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

September 7, 1983

Ethical Reflections on Respect for Life


Never before in history has human life been so menaced on our planet, in its growth and in its very existence.  All of us live under the shadow of fear cast by the spectre of a nuclear war.  Governments of both left and right – in the name of national security – strip their own citizens of basic human rights.  Economic policies on both the national and international level create social injustice destructive of the dignity of both individual and family life.  In our own country, however, the most flagrant attack upon life, because it is a direct attack upon the most defenceless, is seen in the flood of abortions in recent years.

As a Conference of bishops we have spoken out against all such attacks upon human life.  We believe that there is an inter-relationship among them.  To be silent in the face of any attack upon human life is ultimately to weaken respect for all human life.  At this time as we affirm our respect for life from its very beginning, and reaffirm the position of the Church on abortion, we do so mindful of the radical anti-life position which abortion represents.

We call the ecclesial community and all society to a true dialogue on this question which is both delicate and complex.  With this in mind, we reflect first on the sacred character of human life and on the right to conditions which allow the full development of every life.  As Pope John XXIII affirmed: “Every human being has a right to life, to physical integrity and to the necessary and sufficient means for a decent living.”  These reflections are followed by suggestions for positive actions by both the Christian community and society in general.


1.The right to life is inviolate

a)The value of human life

The great Charters of Human Rights recognize that certain rights are proper to the human being by the very fact that one is human and that one’s value goes beyond criteria of production, corporal or psychic usefulness to which the person is often reduced.  Among these rights, the first and the most  fundamental is the right to life, since it is this right which makes all others possible and gives them their rationale.

The unborn child is a human being from its very conception.  This fact has been established by biological science:  “Genetics show us that the characteristics of each being, particular traits, the shape of one’s face, the colour of one’s skin and hair are very precisely defined by the primitive writing contained in the fertilized egg”. 2. At conception begins the slow and complex process of the maturing of a being distinct from its mother, growing towards its full human stature.  From the very beginning until the end of one’s life, it is the same human being who is called to undertake a continual evolution.  “Mothers know very well that the child they carry becomes, well before its birth, the partner in a secret dialogue, the attraction of a love already begun”. 3.

To desire to find solutions for the dilemma of abortion only at the technical level or within economic or legal considerations, is to dismiss the eminently spiritual nature of the human being.  Life comes from God and can only find its full meaning in Him.

b) The human being loved by God

For believers of the Judeo-Christian tradition, human life has a sacred character.  The human being “created in the image of God” is called to participate in realizing that love which God wanted for humanity.  That is why the love of God is working from the very beginning of life: “It was you who created my in-most self and put me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13).  Thus every human being is wanted by God and loved for him or herself: “Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, and fail to cherish the child of her womb?  Yet, even if these forget, I will never forget you.  See, I have branded you on the palms of my hands” (Is 49: 15-16).

It was to reveal to us the ultimate signification of human destiny that Jesus, Son of God, Himself became one of us.  “Perfect man, He entered world history, taking that history into Himself and recapitulating it”. 4. In accepting the human condition in all its dimensions, except sin, the Word of God testifies that nothing that is human is foreign to Him.  Therein lies the determining motive which allows human life, for us His disciples, to take on an inestimable value: it is sacred.  Moreover, the Gospel encourages us to care for our neighbour, in particular…the poorest and those most in need: “Insofar as you did this to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).  From this point of view, therefore, do not unborn children demand of us all our solicitude precisely because they are weak and voiceless?

In this light then to procure an abortion constitutes a radical attack on human life.  It is the destruction of an innocent living being, without defence and loved by God; it is an insult to God the Creator.  No individual nor any collectivity can take to itself the right to life or death of any human being, however small or helpless it might be; “Thou shalt not kill”.  Doing so would be to assume a power which belongs to God alone, who is master of life and death.

Nor can we neglect the consequences of an abortion: for the mother, whose bodily integrity is attacked leading at times to sterility and other physical and psychological disorders; for children born from subsequent pregnancies, the possibility of premature birth, of mental or physical deficiency; for the family, interpersonal relationships between spouses as well as between parents and children, compromised in so many ways, for the medical personnel involved, anguish, nightmares, guilt, depression, etc.

For the above reasons, the Church is strongly opposed to abortion: “God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to humanity the noble mission of safe-guarding life, and we must carry it out in a manner worthy of ourselves.  Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” 5.

Medical research and techniques which allow illness in the child to be detected before birth, if they are undertaken with a view to possible healing, are a hope for humanity.  On the other hand: “It is clear that endo-uterine research tending to the early identification of defective embryos or fetuses in order to eliminate them quickly through abortion are to be considered corrupt at their origin and, as such, morally inadmissible.  Equally unacceptable is every form of experimentation on the fetus which may damage its integrity or worsen its condition, unless it is a matter of a last resource attempt to save it from certain death…Medicine will scrupulously refrain from any kind of treatment which could be considered a disguised form of induced abortion…It is necessary for all responsible persons to be in agreement in reaffirming the priority of ethics over technology, the primacy of the person over things, the superiority of the spirit over matter.” 6.

c) The human being has a right to a decent standard of living

Human life today is menaced in many ways besides abortion.  One need only think of the arms race and the dangers of a nuclear holocaust, or of the pollution of the atmosphere and the waters by industrial waste, or of the social injustices generated by economic systems based on having rather than on being, or of the increased number of suicides, particularly among youth, of violence in all its forms or of the various ways the dignity of women is attacked.

We cannot remain indifferent when any aspect of respect for life is threatened. “We are convinced”, wrote Pope Paul VI, “that any efforts made to safeguard the rights of the person effectively serve all human life.”  That is why over the last several years, the Canadian bishops have raised questions dealing with a number of the fundamental needs of the human beings: the right to food, to decent lodging, to work, to culture and self-determination; the rights of the native peoples, of the aged, or workers, invalids or victims of a handicap.

When we have intervened in areas such as peace and disarmament, the economic crisis or capital punishment, one sole motive moved us: to serve human life in all its forms and at all the successive steps of its evolution.  Pope John Paul II described it in this manner:  “When the rights of minorities are fostered, when the mentally or physically handicapped are assisted, when those on the margin of society are given a voice – in all these instances the dignity of life, and the sacredness of human life are furthered…”

When, in the name of “quality of life”, individual freedom, egocentric well-being and the fear of a changed life-style become idols to which we sacrifice even human life, particularly that of the unborn child, we must cry out a very resolute no.  The value of life always remains superior to the quality of the environment on which it depends.  Here we are dealing with the meaning of human existence.  A procured abortion confronts us with a fundamental choice: “The option for ‘quality of life’ to the point of suppressing life and the option for ‘respect for life’ to the point of accepting upset and suffering.” 9.

That is why, while realizing the pain lived by women who see themselves, with no choice but to have an abortion, we still have the obligation to affirm that such an action is a mistaken solution.  The Church, in order to be faithful to her mission, must find new means and solutions which would give people hope and lead to forgiveness and reconciliation.


1.Demand laws which respect life

As pressures mount to liberalize the law and to make abortion more easily accessible, we reaffirm all human rights and the specific right for a child to be born.

We repeat the message addressed to Christian families in the world of today by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio: “…The Church condemns as a grave offence against human dignity and justice all those activities of governments or other public authorities which attempt to limit in any way the freedom of couples in deciding about children.  Consequently, any violence applied by such authorities in favour of contraception or, still worse, of sterilization and procured abortion, must be altogether condemned and forcefully rejected.  Likewise to be denounced as gravely unjust, are cases where, in international relations, economic help given for the advancement of peoples is made conditional on the programs of contraception, sterilization and procured abortion.” 10

To governments we recall that the State has as its mission the preservation of the rights of every person, of protecting the weakest and most disfavoured.  Human law cannot go against laws written by the Creator in the heart of every human being: even if social convention contradicts them.  The State “cannot declare to be right what would be opposed to the natural law, for this opposition suffices to give the assurance that a law is not a law at all”. In this regard, it is important to not underestimate the educative value of law.  Certain behaviours often come to be considered as moral because civil laws allow or tolerate them.  Yet, a law which allows abortion is radically immoral.  A Christian cannot accept such law either in its concept nor in its application: “Nor can a Christian take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.  Moreover, a Christian may not collaborate in its application.  It is, for instance, inadmissible that doctors or nurses should find themselves obliged to co-operate closely in abortions and have to choose between the Christian law and their professional situation.” 12

Public matters must be responsibly conducted within the framework of the moral order and with a view to the common good, assuring for each citizen the effective benefits of the rights which fall to life within the womb of the mother or at any other stage of development.  In this regard, we give our support to all those citizens who fight for respect for life and who are engaged in trying to change laws which attack the dignity of the person and imperil the very meaning of human life.

2. Create structures which welcome life

Services need to be organized to aid the pregnant woman in difficulty, the young pregnant adolescent, the unwed mother and her child, the young adolescent father, and their families.  Help is also needed for battered women and those looked down upon or abandoned; for those who are the victims of sexual exploitation through pornography or prostitution, to help them rediscover their dignity and to develop, knowing that they are loved by those around them.

We also recommend that each diocese bring together health professionals with various competencies and Christian aid agencies to meet the needs of those who find themselves in difficult situations, particularly the pregnant woman, her partner and her family, helping them to live through this suffering and grow as persons, couple and family.  This work must take into account all the dimensions of the human person.  Within a Christian perspective, complete development can only be possible when the human being is reconciled with oneself, with others and with Christ.  We encourage parents, educators and Christian communities to promote these organizations and to support their projects.

The young should be encouraged to prepare themselves for the roles that they must assume in the near future in order to construct a society truly respectful of human life and dignity.  We must be sensitive to the anguish and the despair which haunts them as they face life and the future.  With Pope John Paul II, we wish to say to youth:  “Your thirst for the absolute cannot be quenched with ideological substitutes that lead to hatred, violence and despair…With the vivacity that is characteristic of your age, with the generous enthusiasm of your young hearts, walk toward Christ.  He is alone in the solution to all your problems.  He alone is the way, the truth, and the life; He alone is the real salvation of the world.  He alone is the hope of mankind.” 13

Of late there has been introduced into contemporary mentality an unjustifiable dualism which separates the realm of human nature from the realm of the spirit.  We strongly encourage institutions, universities and schools in the human and medical sciences, to help their students acquire an integrated vision of the human being and not to reduce their teaching to techniques and biological mechanisms.  “The spiritual dimension of man is indispensable for a true harmony which is personal, familial and social.” 14

Education towards respect for life

Any initiative which promotes respect for life should find its roots in convictions and values that signify the very depths of human life.  Thus, attitudes of justice and equity which are the pillars of society can only develop within an education which takes into account the human being in its totality and in its relationship to others.  Parents have the primary duty of raising their children in a warm family atmosphere which favours a total personal and social education of their children.

We believe that sexual education plays a particularly important role in teaching respect for life.  “Education in love as self-giving is also the indispensable premise for parents called to give their children a clear and delicate sex education.  Faced with a culture that largely reduces human sexuality to the level of something commonplace, since it interprets and lives with selfish pleasure, the educational service of parents must aim firmly at a training in the area of sex that is truly and fully personal; for sexuality is an enrichment of the whole person – body, emotions and soul – and it manifests its inmost meaning in leading the person to the gift of self in love.” 15

Those collaborating with parents, be they welcome centres, nurseries or schools, have the same responsibilities towards these children confided to their care.  Sex education in schools must reflect the same values as parental education (see above) and be given the careful attention by parents it deserves.  In this context, we are in no way renouncing education to chastity, the virtue which places instinct at the service of love: “In the Christian view, chastity by no means signifies rejection of human sexuality or lack of esteem for it: rather it signifies spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness, and able to advance it towards its full realization.: 16 When programs of sex education in our schools are reduced to technical and biological information, directed towards the exploitation of erotic pleasure and teach the use of contraceptives, we witness a serious reduction of the meaning of sexuality to simple genital sex.  Instead of developing a responsible attitude for life, this disposes youth to favour abortion.  We firmly oppose this sort of biased education.  It is a flagrant injustice to our youth.

4. Responsibility of the media

The influence of the media of information on both private and public life imposes a responsibility to form a healthy public opinion respectful of life so that society can develop in reciprocal respect for all its members. We wish to draw the attention of producers, writers, performers and others in responsible positions, to the importance of their role as influential educators of individuals and groups.  The use of these means of communication demands that the information given respects the moral laws and the dignity of the human person.  That is why particular attention must be given to the content so as to not weaken these values.

5. Support for pro-life groups

We note with joy that many Christians have dedicated themselves to the cause of respect for life working for the defense of the rights of the unborn child.  We encourage respect for persons and self-control, and all initiatives that contribute to the growth of love and guarantee the freedom of partners called to a responsible participation in the mystery of the creative love of God.  Our support also goes to the health workers and those in the social services who assume their responsibilities and who are opposed in conscience to any attack on the life of innocent beings; to those who are working for a redirection of society in justice and peace thus favouring an always deeper respect for any human life including that of the weakest and most dependent.


It seems that in order to counter the anti-life mentality which is prevalent in our present society, we need to rediscover and recommit ourselves to the full meaning of life and demand laws that respect human life.  That is why each one of us must personally and collectively work to renew society and to promote an education which takes into account all dimensions of the human person.

In coming to the assistance of the little ones and the weak, the Church stands for life against the pessimism and selfishness which casts a shadow over the world, since “in each human life, we see the splendour of that ‘Yes’ and that ‘Amen’ who is Christ Himself”. 17

Henri Legare, O.M.I., Archbishop of Grouard-McLennan, President.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 7, 1983


  1. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, No. 11.
  2. Dr. Jerome Lejeune, Conference at Notre-Dame de Paris, October 10, 1982, in “L’homme nouveau”, December 19, 1982.
  3. Declaration of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on Abortion,
    February 7, 1968, p. 1.
  4. Vatican II Council.
  5. Idem, ib., 51.3.
  6. John Paul II. Pope’s Address to Pro-Life Movement Congress, December 5, 1982, in the Osservatore Romano, January 3-10, 1983 edition, N. 1-2 (766) p. 19.
  7. Pope John Paul II quoting Paul VI in a Homily entitled “Let us Celebrate Life!”, October 7, 1979 at the Capitol Mall in Washington, taken from the Osservatore Romano, November 5, 1979, edition No. 45 (606, p. 7 and 10).
  8. Pope John Paul II quoting Paul VI (see previous note).
  9. P. E. Chabot, Lavortement Lavortement…” D, No. 6, June 1983, p. 5.
  10. Familiaris Consortio, No. 30.
  11. Declaration on Procured Abortion, Sacred Congregation for Doctrine and Faith, No. 21, English Translation No. 120, cf Official Document No. 372.
  12. Idem, ibid., No. 22.
  13. John Paul II, Pope Addresses Students, taken from the Osservatore Romano, February 12, 1979, edition No. 7 (568)d p. 8.
  14. Dr. Michel Copti, Conference, 5th Assembly of Health Workers, Lumiere et paix, Vol 6, No. 6, Novembre-Decembre, 1982.
  15. Familiaris Consortio, No. 37.
  16. Idem. Ibid., No. 33.
  17. Idem. Ibid., No. 30.