Virtues for the protection of life

What virtues do we need to protect someone’s life? When we understand that each person has a value in herself, we reject actions that humiliate, mistreat or incur someone’s life. The person herself, the target of these actions, may complain in this situation, seeks for her rights. But what if this person has no capacity of his own to defend herself or depends on others to protect her life?

We are talking here about the lives of babies and pregnant women during pregnancy, for whom, according to different legal and philosophical currents, the principle of human dignity is recognized (Ribeiro; Pinheiro, 2017; Sarlet, 2010). We can assume that parents, family, community, and the state play different roles in protecting the life of the mother and the unborn child. Nevertheless, many countries have opted to decriminalize abortion to some extent (Studlar; Buns, 2015), adopting public policies and directing public resources to fund such procedure. Often the state takes on contradictory, opposing practices, which in this case falls on the issue of abortion vs. life protection.

In this context, each person’s contribution becomes even more important for the construction of the common good. Consider for a moment the question: How can I act to protect the lives of babies and pregnant women? We argue that the substantive answer to this question demands that one be honest with itself, to understand human nature in its integral and multidimensional form (Ramos 1989), which in turn is not the same as an academic or scientific knowledge of the issue, but rather the ability to recognize the personality of the baby in formation, who is already someone even before birth (Spaemann, 2015). In this sense, we are talking about a noetic knowledge – nous – capable of grasping a principle of action, which is followed by a practical wisdom – phronesis – capable of realizing this principle according to the reality of one’s life (Berti, 2002). Such a principle is something we are able to grasp through emotional affection or bonding with the baby in the womb or as we take responsibility for the life in formation of a new member of the community. With this, we want to bring to reflection the ability of ordinary citizens to naturally recognize the principle of dignity, and life as a basic human good (Finnis, 2011) through noetic rationality and practical wisdom (Aristotle, 2009; Berti, 2002), without having a legal or philosophical knowledge on the subject. For actions to protect life, moral virtues are still needed: temperance to avoid excess, fortitude to persevere in times of difficulty and justice to maintain interpersonal relationships.

This is the perspective we see as objective possibilities for pregnant women. There are three other perspectives in which we can discuss virtues for the protection of life: as a father, in the role of family and community and, finally, in the role of actors in the public sphere, including the state. In the following paragraphs, we will briefly discuss a preliminary view from the perspective of the pregnant woman, followed by a discussion of the role of the community, trying to imagine what moral virtues are necessary to defend life during pregnancy.

We start with the pregnant woman. Upon knowing that she is pregnant, a pregnant woman may decide to continue the pregnancy, even if it was not a planned pregnancy, even if she has financial or job difficulties, or instable relationship with the child’s father. That is, regardless of the difficulties, she can choose to have the baby. But what impels her to do that? We may previously suggest that, in addition to courage, pregnant women express fortitude in the face of adversity by taking responsibility for having a child. Throughout pregnancy they also need to take care of their health and nutrition so that the baby also develops properly.

We once heard from a pregnant woman attended by civil society organizations from a needy community: “it is taking responsibility, it is a life that is there”. In this sentence we see the simple expression of a citizen who recognizes her role in facing this life in formation by assuming the responsibility to protect her, even in unfavorable socioeconomic conditions of her family.

On the other hand, one of these conditions alone could be alleged by the pregnant woman not to continue with pregnancy, as justification for committing an abortion. But it’s a life that is forming in the womb, isn’t it? Does the pregnant woman recognize life forming in her womb as someone? And the dignity of the baby in formation? In addition, the pregnant woman may indeed face a difficult socioeconomic condition, may be depending on other people to have the child, may need significant help from the state. Does she know how to seek or get the support she needs to be able to raise her children? Our experience accompanying civil society organizations that help pregnant women allows us to note that not all pregnant women express this concern for the life in formation. We can cite some elements that contribute to such behavior: difficulties of all kinds, economic, social, social vulnerability, violence; drug involvement, meaninglessness or a lack of purpose in life; decisions taken solely in the self-interest; not recognize the fetus in its dignity. The virtues, in turn, could be encouraged to cope with these difficulties. Figure 1 relates such difficulties to possible virtues that could help.

Elements that make protection against intrauterine life difficultVirtue that could be developed  
Difficulties of all kinds, economic, social, social vulnerability, violenceFortitude: willingness to resist and uphold a decision, remain true to your conscience, even in the face of strong opposition; It is the sacrifice of oneself for the achievement of just and prudent goals.
Drug InvolvementTemperance: the ability to direct or subject passions to reason, avoiding the temptations of pleasure and power.
Lack of meaning or purpose for life (telos)Magnanimity: to reflect about life purpose and the final end of life; be able to glimpse a better future by recognizing their conditions and values. (Havard, 2011).  
Decision-making based predominantly in self-interestPrudence: knowledge about the reality for prudential decision-making, considering the circumstances and context in which they live, including the impacts on others.  
Not recognizing the fetus and its dignity as a human person in formationHumility and justice. Humility is related to living in the truth of oneself and acknowledging the truth of the other; It is an invitation to serve. Justice – giving each one what is their own and taking responsibility for others.  

Figure 1 – Difficulties for life protection from the perspective of pregnant women in vulnerability

Source: prepared by the author, based on descriptions of the virtues of A. Havard (2011).

As a society, it is up to us to build and intensify civil society actions that can contribute to the protection of these lives. The state alone cannot attend to pregnant women in order to consider the unique circumstances and particularities of each woman, each family and community. For this reason, local community-based organizations have great potential in reaching those families and pregnant women who are unattended by health services, social care and other public policies. In addition, volunteers working in such organizations are engaged with such a problem, in fact wanting to contribute to such people. Poorer communities often face problems of crime and violence, which requires the courage of those involved to care for pregnant women, especially if the practices involve home visits, as well as a posture of humility and openness to welcome and listen, understanding the circumstances of each pregnant woman.

In this article we discuss some virtues that can contribute to the protection of life during the gestational period, considering the perspective of pregnant women, as well as the role of the community, such as civil society organizations. With this, we try to defend the idea that recognition of the dignity of the human person begins when one recognizes the baby in formation as someone, a new member of the community, and that this is something that we can naturally grasp from our own constitution as a human person. In order to protect life in formation, we still need to exercise virtues such as prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, courage and humility in order to cope with the difficulties faced by pregnant women and communities.


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