The General  Instruction of the Roman Missal designates Jan. 22 as the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. Jan. 22 (Jan. 23 if Jan. 22 falls on a Sunday) was selected because, on Jan. 22, 1973, our Supreme Court legalized abortion throughout the United States.

I’ll never forget a question that my wife Carla and I were asked over 10 years ago when we were teaching a Confirmation class. During our small group discussion with about 10 high school students, we asked them if they had any questions about anything – the Church, her teachings, God, life, etc. We tried to make it as safe as possible so they could get real and have their deepest questions addressed respectfully and without judgement. One young lady, about 15 years old, timidly raised her hand and asked: “Why do Catholics hate girls who get abortions?”

While I was delighted that she felt safe enough to ask such an important question, my heart was deeply saddened by the social context it revealed. How did we get here? How has the Church’s deep love and concern for the vulnerable unborn child, its innate respect for all human life, somehow been reduced to “hate” (or a least total disregard) for the girl/woman who faces this painful situation?

On this pivotal issue, our country is divided. We seem to have set up an ultimatum that we must choose one or the other. To love the child is to hate the mom. And, if I am honest, pro-lifers can insinuate that anyone who supports abortion must hold the baby in some type of contempt. Most people I know who support legal abortion hold that position out of love and compassion for the mom, not out of any hate or disdain for the baby. How can both sides be driven by love, and remain so starkly divided?

Perhaps it is because we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating whether abortion should be legal or illegal, maybe we should back up to the potent underlying question: “When does human life begin?” And not accept a simplified, dismissive answer like “I’m not sure” when so much is at stake. We all seem to know and agree that a 1-day-old is entitled to the same human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a 30-year-old. It doesn’t matter that the 1-day-old is totally dependent on her parents (not “viable” to survive on her own), or that parenting a 1-dayold baby can be very disruptive to her parents’ lives. Nobody in our society (I hope) would question that this 1-day-old has attained 100% of her human rights.

Somewhere between her conception and birth, she became “fully human.” From this universal societal agreement, the next logical questions are “when?” and “why?” Exactly when did she become fully human along this journey? And, exactly what “requirements” did she have to meet to achieve this status, to move from the category of inanimate tissue to a human being? Is it a beating heart, brain activity, the development of a nervous system, the ability to feel pain, the formation of fingers and toes and facial features? Is it her place of residence?

The Church’s clear answer to these questions is that our little one became fully human the moment she was conceived, created by God in collaboration with her biological parents. And the “requirement” for this fully human status is that, at that instant, she became a daughter of God, the most-high King of Kings, created in His very image. She need not do anything, prove anything, achieve anything to earn that status.

This logic of the Church applies consistently across all humanity. Not only our 1-day-old, but those of us with physical handicaps, intellectual challenges, mental illness, the elderly, sick and dying.

There are no other “requirements” (for example, an ability to live independently of others, to contribute to society, to impose no burden on anyone) which impact a person’s humanity and human rights. And we can’t “lose” those rights.

Our full humanity ends only upon our natural death.

Many Catholics, including me, accept both the science and beauty of the Church’s position. And many people, including some Catholics, struggle with the implications of it. Their compassion for mothers with unwanted pregnancies compel them to seek an alternative conclusion. Often, in my experience, this alternative conclusion is a wholesale rejection of the Church’s view or the assuming of a “political position” on the matter. Both responses ignore the underlying question that remains unanswered: When does human life begin?

The question that, when answered in earnest, brings clarity to the entire matter.

So, my invitation for those (inside and outside the Church) who struggle is to let yourself struggle. Don’t accept wholesale dismissals or political generalities. Educate yourself regarding the process of fetal development and wrestle with the question of when life begins and why? What might be some rational “requirements” for a life to be considered fully human? And what are the implications of applying those same requirements to all human life… to the 1-day-old, the physically/intellectually/mentally challenged, the

I am not suggesting that the Church’s teaching is up for a vote.

Or that this issue is just a matter of individual opinion. I am only suggesting that, for Catholics and others who struggle with the Church’s teaching, it seems reasonable to expect a coherent argument for an alternative conclusion about what makes a life fully human.

The nuances of this conversation are bound to be more fruitful than our current generalizations and labeling/shaming of each other.

Lastly, in addition to the well-being of the baby, it is our responsibility as Catholic Christians to love her mother too. To join our U.S. Catholic Bishops in doing this, visit the USCCB website link for Walking with Moms in Need at: https://www.usccb.org/prolife/walkingmoms-need.

May we pray this year as Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Evangelium vitae:

A great prayer for life is urgently needed, a prayer which will rise up throughout the world. May an impassioned plea rise to God, the Creator and lover of life, from every Christian community, from every group and association, from every family and from the heart of every believer.

And may our prayer mirror today’s prophesy from Isaiah and its fulfillment in Jesus. That we, who now sit in darkness will see a great light, and on us dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light may arise!