Monday, October 12, 2009

Engaging the Issues: Abortion as Murder, Genetic Evidence about the Beginning of a Human Person

As the posting I just uploaded notes, I’ve fallen behind in recognizing and responding to comments about my postings of the last several days. I appreciate the lively discussion about my weekend comments re: the abortion and health care debate. And I intend to take note of those postings soon, except when they’re part of a discussion between several respondents on which I don’t want to intrude.

For now, I do want to engage several comments in the two weekend threads that, in my view, deserve attention. The first of these has to do with the question of whether abortion is murder.

I brought that topic up in a comment in the thread following Saturday’s posting. And then I said more about it in Sunday’s posting.

As I’ve noted, from early in the period following Roe v. Wade, when the Catholic response to that Supreme Court decision began to develop, I attended public seminars at some Catholic universities at which highly respected theologians questioned the accuracy or wisdom of the tactic of some pro-lifers to call abortion murder.

And then all careful, reasoned discussion of the topic of abortion got shut down in Catholic circles, and anyone working in Catholic institutions and asking for further discussion of this topic (as well as of sexual ethics and women’s ordination) was likely to find himself or herself out of a job and/or silenced. After what happened to Charles Curran, Catholic theologians have trodden very gingerly around these questions.

And, in my view, the result has been disastrous, not just for the church, but for the pro-life movement in general, insofar as it seeks to engage the general public and not merely true believers on the political and religious right. That movement has moved more and more away from reasoned discussion as its primary approach to shifting cultural views of life-oriented issues, and more and more towards what I called shouting and shoving in my weekend postings.

As I noted in those postings, I remember attending a seminar about abortion and the pro-life movement at my alma mater, Loyola University in New Orleans, not very long after Roe v. Wade came down. And as I also noted, I remember several elderly, very traditional, middle-of-the-road Jesuit theologians noting in that seminar that it is inaccurate and dangerous for some pro-lifers to call abortion murder.

Why did they make this assertion? In the first place, in traditional Catholic moral theology, the moral meaning of an act depends not merely on the act itself. It depends as well on what one intends by an act.

If a man backs his car over his wife and kills her without intending to do so, he is guilty of involuntary manslaughter. If he backs his car over his wife and kills her while fully intending to kill his wife, having premeditated the act, he is guilty of murder.

Same act. Two different intentions. And those different intentions radically alter the moral meaning of the act.

As those wise, traditional elderly Jesuit mentors noted in their seminar about abortion more than thirty years ago, when we call abortion murder, we are implying (and assuming) that anyone who chooses an abortion is deliberately, with malice aforethought, choosing to kill another human being.

And yet many of those who choose an abortion do not think about what they are doing in those terms at all. Many of those who choose an abortion in the very early stages of pregnancy (e.g., those who take the morning-after pill) are not at all convinced that they are ending a human life.

The decision of many of those who choose to end a pregnancy is anything but a deliberate, premeditated decision to murder a baby. The use of the term “murder” to characterize abortion in general muddies the waters and does not contribute to careful analysis of all that is going on in decisions to end a pregnancy, or all that is going on in the complex moral and civic debates about abortion.

And so, in part because that discussion was decisively shut down in the Catholic church, we have ended up with a pro-life movement that slings around the phrase “baby killer,” without making any distinction between what people believe, based on scientific evidence, is happening at the earliest stages of conception, as opposed to the later stages of pregnancy.

And we’ve ended up with a pro-life movement in which those shouting baby-killerare often likely to promote capital punishment, wars against our religious “enemies,” the denial of health care coverage to poor citizens including undocumented immigrants, racist ideologies, and abuse of gay and lesbian citizens. We’ve ended up with Randall Terry showing up at a Human Rights Campaign to wave a picture of a dismembered fetus.

What’s that all about? And how does it promote the pro-life movement and its central claims? How does it do so in any constructive, reasonable way that might bring more thinking, concerned people into the pro-life camp?

The second point I want to address is the claim that contemporary science validates the Catholic magisterial teaching that a human being is fully present at the moment of conception, from the moment sperm and ovum unite. Again, this is a claim that demands much careful, reasonable reflection. It demands discussion between a number of constituencies, including the scientific community.

If this claim means that there is unique genetic matter—DNA uniquely different from that of either the father or the mother—from the moment of conception, then that’s certainly a piece of information that needs to be taken into consideration by those debating abortion from a religious and/or philosophical standpoint.

But to say that there is unique genetic matter in the fertilized ovum is hardly the same thing as saying a human person is fully present in the zygote. As one respondent points out in the weekend threads, if a human person is present when sperm and ovum unite, what are we to make of the phenomenon of twinning—the division of some zygotes to form two and not one person at a point further down the road from conception? And what to make, as this poster also notes, of the fact that the twinned zygote also sometimes recombines into one zygote again?

The genetic and biological evidence is far more complex than the human-being-fully-present-at-conception position would like to have us believe. Given its complexity, if we want to promote an ethic of life and convince others in a pluralistic society, we need to do our homework and sit down with those others at the table and talk—not scream at them about their murderous ways and refusal to recognize that taking the morning-after pill is killing a baby.

The vast majority of fertilized ova do not implant in the womb. Nature is designed so that most concepta naturally abort. If they did not naturally abort, we’d be overrun with so many people in a short time that the resources of the earth would not sustain its population. One could well argue from a theological standpoint that God designs procreation in such a way that the majority of fertilized ova spontaneously abort, because life on this planet would be insupportable otherwise.

And, as other posters have noted, there’s a process, a time-coded one, by which those zygotes that do develop implant themselves in the uterine wall. That process does not occur at the moment of conception. Some of those who think about the morality of abortion nowadays have seen in this contemporary scientific finding evidence to support the very traditional theory of Aristotle and Aquinas following him, that the fetus does not attain the status of a person—does not become “ensouled—until the moment of uterine implantation.

I have great difficulty imagining Aquinas, or contemporary believers or citizens who see a difference in the ontological status of the conceptus and the implanted zygote, as murderers or advocates of murder. We would have long since been better served, if we want the ethic of life to be taken seriously, to permit reasonable discussion (and education) about these issues.

Finally, it’s important to note that raw scientific data will never resolve complex questions about precisely when a human person is present in the process of conception, or when human life ends. These are both scientific and philosophical decisions. They require both scientists and philosophers at the table.

And yes, they also require religious adherents and theologians around the table. But not as final authorities issuing fiats that shut down the discussion.

Not, that is, if those believers hope to be taken seriously in a pluralistic society where reason and not ecclesial fiat is the path to moral consensus.