Friday, August 26, 2016

When We Already Know That Every Zygote Is a Baby, Why Waste Time Looking at Scientific Evidence? A Footnote

I have a few more things to say about about the dishonesty of those who want to use natural law theology to argue that a zygote has unique genetic material indicating its ontological status as a full human person, but who simultaneously want to pretend that the fact that the majority of zygotes are aborted naturally has no importance in the natural law discussion of abortion. I'm adding to what I wrote yesterday about these matters. You'll encounter this morally dishonest argument frequently among right-wing "pro-life" Christians, and notably among right-wing Catholic ones, precisely because natural law theology appeals to nature and the Creator of the natural world as it builds its moral arguments.

You can, in fact, see it on full display right now in the NCR discussion thread to which I pointed you in my previous posting. As my previous posting noted, there's a fundamental moral dishonesty in the claim that one scientific finding (namely, the conceptus has a unique genetic status and clearly has the potential to be a unique human being) counts in natural law arguments about abortion, but another scientific finding (namely, the vast majority of zygotes are aborted naturally after conception) has no import at all for the discussion of the morality of abortion. In this discussion thread, you'll even encounter the claim that science is not clear on the issue of whether a majority of fertilized ova fail to develop and are aborted. Science has long since been quite clear about this scientific fact, as Renee Reijo Pera notes for Stanford Medicine's News Center: as she states, "Two-thirds of all human embryos fail to develop successfully."

But note, too, that what those pushing the first scientific finding refuse to discuss is not the question whether a zygote has unique genetic material and the potential to be a unique human being, but the question whether a zygote has full human status from the moment of conception. If we grant the conceptus such status, then we're confronted with the problem of explaining the conundrum created by the scientifically proven fact that nature is designed to work in such a way that most zygotes do not implant in the uterine wall, but abort.

If those zygotes are full human persons and if the Creator of nature has designed the world to work in this way, then the Creater is an abortionist — or, to use a word often preferred by "pro-life" Christians, a murderer. And, of course, this is why those who want to use natural law reasoning to support the position that a human person is fully present from the moment of conception, relying on the scientific finding that every conceptus has unique human genetic material, refuse to grant the equally important scientific finding that nature is designed to abort most zygotes.

Let's focus a bit more carefully on the argument that what has the unique DNA of a human person has the ontological status of a human person. In the discussion now taking place at the discussion thread to which I've just pointed you, you'll see over and over the "pro-life" claim that, because a zygote has the unique DNA of a single human person (except, of course, zygotes do sometimes "twin"; they split, forming more than one unique human person, thereby vastly complicating the claim that the conceptus is a unique human person from the moment sperm and ovum unite), it has the ontological status of a post-birth human being.

Human life begins at the moment of conception, this line of logic maintains — though the question is not about when human life begins, but whether a human person is fully present at the moment of conception. And then the argument adds that the moment-of-conception definition of when a human being is fully present in the womb is proven by science itself, since the conceptus has unique genetic material.

A clipping of my fingernail has my unique genetic material. When I have had DNA tests done for genealogical purposes, I have swabbed the inside of my cheek with a Q-tip and sent the cells captured by the swab in for DNA analysis, because every skin cell in my body has my unique DNA stamped into it.

I do not for a moment imagine, however, that I should give a funeral to every clipping that falls from my fingernails as I trim them, or that I should baptize the cells of my cheek swab before I put them into the mail to send off for DNA analysis. The argument that because a conceptus (or a fingernail) has the unique DNA of a human person, a conceptus (or a fingernail) actually is a fully formed human person to be equated with a post-birth human being, is a weak argument. It is a weak argument because what needs to be hashed out in these discussions is not what we should make of the fact that the zygote carries unique human genetic material carried by the zygote or even whether it has the potential to become a post-birth human being.

The point that needs to be clarified is whether we should grant the ontological status of a person to the conceptus, and why we should make that decision. Should we do so because the zygote has the potential to develop in time into a post-birth human being? That's certainly a weighty consideration, but if we make such a declaration on the basis of the genetic potential of the zygote alone, then what are we to make of the fact that nature is designed by its Creator to abort most zygotes? Do we really have sound reason, as not a few "pro-lifers" maintain, to declare that anyone who procures the abortion of a just-fertilized zygote is guilty of the heinous crime of murder — when, in the natural course of things as nature itself is designed by the Creator, most zygotes will abort? Naturally so.

It seems to me that what the "pro-life" argument wishes to push — and without either a sound scientific basis, a strong moral basis, or a convincing logical basis — is the argument that the components of human life themselves, from zygotes to fingernails, are somehow "sacred," and anyone who messes with those components via abortion, IVF, stem-cell technology, contraception or even masturbation, etc., is guilty of messing with the stuff of life in a way that claims godlike status for human beings intervening in nature in this way. There is an entirely unconvincing logic of creeping fetishization of the components of human life running through much "pro-life" thinking, so that not only is the conceptus fetishized and imagined as a living, breathing baby whose heart is pumping, whose nervous system is formed, which feels pain — but the sperm and the ovum are equally fetishized, a point made well by Alexandra in the discussion thread to which I point you above. 

In the moral thinking of many right-wing pro-life Christians, every sperm is certainly sacred, and every zygote is super-sacred — because life.

Because human life. Because unique human life.

Because fingernails and skin cells, with their DNA unique to a human person.

Do you see how strange this logic becomes when it's carried to its ultimate conclusions? The reason the Catholic moral tradition in its magisterial iteration has clung to this logic is because it is deeply rooted in the pre-scientific assumption of Aristotle, which was baptized by Thomas Aquinas, that only the sperm counts in the process of human reproduction, since the female body is, Aristotle and Aquinas thought, only an incubator for the sperm, which in their pre-scientific (and male-entitled) worldview, contained all the stuff of life in itself.

Hence Aquinas' well-known conclusion that masturbation is a more grave sin than the rape of a woman by a man, since the latter has the potential to result in conception, whereas the former spills the seed of the man on the ground — a kind of murder. Running through the "logic" of the magisterial understanding of human sexuality in the Catholic tradition, and of those who promote this understanding, is the pre-scientific presupposition that what really counts in the process of reproduction is what the man does, what the man has to offer, who the man is. Women are secondary to this analysis, as mute, passive recipients of what the male body has to offer.

And so it seems to me entirely reasonable that many women respond to these misogynistic, pre-scientific arguments still being pushed by the Catholic magisterium by noting that these arguments are being pushed by men. By men who claim to be celibate . . . . And it seems reasonable to me that many women responding to these arguments insist that the discussion of the Catholic teaching on human sexuality and on abortion needs to be informed by a hermeneutic of suspicion about why men (ones who claim to be celibate, at that) assert such a right to control human sexuality and human bodies — and, above all, female sexuality and female bodies. When viewed through the optic of feminist hermeneutical suspicions, the logic of the Catholic magisterial approach to human sexuality and abortion enfolds a whole world of hidden presuppositions about who counts and who does not count, about who has the right to define what is inviolable, sacred, holy or heinous, and who does not enjoy that right.

Men count. Every sperm is sacred.

Men count. They make the definitions, after all. They hand down and enforce the definitions (though I freely admit that old boys of the opposite gender often willingly do the bidding of powerful men in enforcing the logic of the 'pro-life' system.)

Women are the objects to be controlled in this system of thought. As are gay* people, whose sexuality is ipso facto unnatural, according to the logic-makers spinning the "logical" arguments of the "pro-life" worldview . . . . The sexual acts of gay people violate every norm possible regarding the sanctity of human life, after all.

I'd add a specifically political hermeneutic of suspicion to the hermeneutic of suspicion I am sketching here regarding the magisterial position about human sexuality and how that position informs the magisterial understanding of abortion: in the 2016 U.S. election, who are "pro-lifers" supporting? Those who tell us that every life is precious and every zygote is sacred, and that faithful Christians ought to cast their votes on the basis of the issue of abortion alone: where are their voices when gay people are killed in an act of mass murder at a gay nightclub, or as the humanity of African Americans in our country is increasingly under assault by a racism that is now out in the open in the U.S., as one of our two presidential candidates legitimates it?

I have long had the distinct impression that not every life counts for the Catholic and evangelical "pro-life" movement. The response of that movement to Donald Trump has not dispelled that impression. Anything but.

* Gay = LGBTQI

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