Last week, I had the amazing opportunity of presenting the pro-life case to two separate medical ethics seminars. These were small groups of pre-med students at a secular university (the University of Kansas), most of whom would never darken the doorsteps of a Catholic church, and many of whom had never heard an intellectually-serious argument against abortion. I started the conversation with Steve Wagner’s “10-second pro-life” argument:
If the unborn is growing, it must be alive.
If it has human parents, it must be human.
And living humans, or human beings like you and me, are valuable, aren’t they?
The core of my presentation was that (1) intentionally killing innocent human beings was unethical (and a dangerous proposition to consent to in any case); (2) the unborn fetus is a human being, and (3) the unborn fetus is a human person.
Humans and Persons
The difference between (2) and (3) is important. (2) is a demonstrable biological reality (the fetus is a genetically-distinct member of the species Homo sapiens), and virtually no knowledgeable pro-choicer denies this. The fetus is a human being, and anyone who says otherwise is ignorant of the science or confused or arguing in bad faith. But the moral and ethical question is whether it’s ever okay to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Closely connected to this is the argument, on the pro-choice side, that some human beings aren’t “persons.” So that’s why (3) is important.
Many modern philosophers give definitions of “personhood” that emphasize the present ability to feel pain, or to reason, or to exercise self-awareness, etc. The problems with all of these definitions are that they’re both over-inclusive and under-inclusive: apes, dolphins, magpies, etc. count as persons on some or all of these lists, while babies, the elderly, the very sick, the numb and the sleeping frequently don’t.
To illustrate this, I used the Harambe example: when faced with a toddler in the cage of a potentially-dangerous adult gorilla, zoo officials killed the gorilla to save the human. But to many pro-choice philosophers, gorillas are persons and toddlers (or at least babies) aren’t. The utilitarian Peter Singer came close to admitting this outright in an LA Times piece in which he said “as animal advocates, we don’t automatically deem the life of a boy as exponentially more important than that of a fellow primate.”
A better definition of personhood is the classic formulation given by Boethius (480-524): “an individual substance of a rational nature.” The key word here is “nature.” It’s not about what you’re currently doing (reasoning, feeling pain, etc.), or even what you’re currently capable of doing, but the kind of being that you are (or the kind of nature that you have). You’re a human being even when you’re not doing uniquely-human things. You can be totally numbed through morphine and deep in sleep, incapable of contemplating or feeling any pain, and you don’t lose your personhood in those moments. To say otherwise, is to say that nobody is a person. They just have personhood for a while.
Abortion, Life of the Mother, and Cannibalism
About half of the class (in each case) was dedicated to Q&A, and students had all sorts of questions, comments, and objections. Of these, one of the strongest was about abortion in cases of the life of the mother. A student asked, given those cases in which continuing a pregnancy will kill a woman, isn’t it more pro-life to save her by performing the abortion? Another student chimed in: isn’t our refusal to perform an abortion in this case a declaration that we care more about the fetus than the mother? To make their objection even stronger, I pointed out: what about those cases in which continuing the pregnancy means the death of the mother and the child? How can pro-lifers possibly be against that?
Because the pro-life position is a position that murder, the intentional taking of innocent human life, is always wrong. Sometimes, that commitment to never murder means more people might die. To illustrate this, I gave an example loosely based on a real life example (Regina v. Dudley and Stephens):
“Say that the two of you are lost at sea, and you run out of food. It wouldn’t be okay for either one of you to murder and cannibalize the other, even though the alternative is that you both starve. In saying that, I’m not saying that either one of you is more valuable than the other. I’m saying murder is never ethical. The same is true here. It’s not okay to murder the mother to save the fetus, or to murder the fetus to save the mother. Either murder is always and everywhere wrong, or it’s not. It might be understandable why someone would kill an innocent person to save themselves in these cases, but that doesn’t make it okay.”
Perhaps at this point you want to object: maybe it should be okay to murder in such extreme circumstances? Well, be extremely wary of going down that road.
In 1986, William F. Buckley penned a New York Times op-ed that argued that “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tatooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.” Imagine for a moment that this plan had been taken seriously by the Reagan administration. Would it have been okay to then go further and murder everyone with AIDS (or likely to have AIDS) to try to save a greater number of people in the long haul? (I’m not saying Buckley was arguing for that – I’m saying his proposal makes such a dsytopia imaginable).
So this is ultimately where the abortion argument brings us: are we committed to the principle that murder is always wrong, even what the principle is painful to live by? Or do we want to start allowing murder when convenient?