Credo for Conservatives IV: More Abortion Debate

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Two more Arguments, from God and from rationality.


Nature gives us the sort of answer she always gives–general rules and statistical averages to which there are exceptions. [Cf. David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature III.12 ) From the Christian perspective nature is the tarnished mirror in which we can only glimpse, obscurely, the true reality.  A face-to-face encounter with nature’s Creator is possible only to those who study his Word and participate in his sacraments.  If there are sincere Christians who believe that the taking of innocent human life can be justified on any pragmatic grounds, they are mistaken, dreadfully mistaken, …

and while it is possible for opponents of abortion to respect those secular antagonists who build their arguments on ecological necessity and constitutional law, they can have nothing but contempt for religious leaders who either defend abortion or make the all-too familiar argument that, while they are opposed in principle, they would not want to impose their views on anyone else.  This is something new under the sun, the apostles of an evangelizing religion who do not wish to impose their views!  This frivolous attitude among many (particularly liberal Protestant) theologians was condemned by the signers of the Durham statement as rebellion against God.  Since reverence for innocent life has marked the Christian faith from the very first, distinguishing it from all other religions of the ancient world, a surrender of the Christian position on life is apostasy of the worst sort.

In a secular nation, the Christian position cannot be the basis of law, although individual Christians must recognize that, quite apart from the Old Testament’s prohibition on murder, the whole spirit of the gospels is an affirmation of life.  If the church has sometimes been unclear on the biological and spiritual status of a fetus, it has never departed from the position that the natural and divine end of marriage is the procreation of children.  To frustrate that end is always (to put it as mildly as I can) less good than to fulfill it, and to destroy what we know to be a human life, no matter how “embryonic”, can never be justified.

Activists in the pro-life movement do not hesitate to describe abortion as murder, but many Christians refuse to accept that equation.  This reluctance may have something to do with our perception that the moral attitude, in the case of a woman having an early abortion, is different from what her condition must be if she picks up a child and dashes it brains out.  To some ears, this distinction will sound like blasphemy.  Why not call it murder, which is what it was, until recently?  Is motivation the sole criterion by which a crime is to be judged?  No, not motivation but intent, which can be an important, although not the only criterion.  In the case of a brutal mass-murderer–a Jeffrey Dahmer or Richard Speck–a jury would bring in a verdict of innocent by reason of insanity, if they were persuaded that the murderer did not recognize the consequences of his actions, if, for example, he truly believed that his victims would reassemble themselves, as in a cartoon, and walk out the door.

The jurors would bring in a similar verdict if the killer thought he was killing rats, not human beings.  In the opposite case of Sophocles’ Ajax, the hero slaughtered sheep under the delusion that he was killing the Greek leaders who had dishonored him by awarding the arms of Achilles to his enemy Odysseus.  The intended victims, you may be sure, did not pardon their comrade because he had been tricked into butchering sheep.  It is generally accepted that “injuries… done in ignorance are mistakes when the person acted on…is other than the actor believed.”  [Aristotle, Eth. Nic. V, 1135b]

But, it will be objected, this opens the door to a blanket pardon for all genocidal murderers who look upon their victims as less than human.  Depersonalization of victims is the hallmark of ideological dictatorships that shave their victims, put them in uniforms, assign then numbers, and deny them their dignity.  The concentration camp is only the most grotesque form of bureaucracy, and it is all too easy for functionaries in such a system to grow indifferent to the needs and suffering of the less-than-human.  With all this said, a humiliated prisoner with a shaved head remains, for all that have eyes to see, a human being, and if a torturer chooses to believe propaganda, rather than to trust his own senses, he must bear the moral burden of that choice, and even if we assign much of their blame to the system that produced them, torturers are in a morally worse condition than the man who kills for revenge, for lust, or for greed.

However, the moral condition of women who abort their children may be closer to that of Ajax than Eichman.  In the common Greek view of murder, of course, the fact of killing is the principal consideration.  In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the furies think that Orestes’ confession is enough to establish his guilt.  There can be no mitigating circumstances.  At Athens they put animals on trial who had caused the death of a human being and threw “homicidal” rooftiles into the sea.  Yet even the Athenians recognized motive and intent in assigning punishment.

Of course, in treating abortion as a “problem” rather than as homicide,  we are putting the mothers who have them on a moral level below animals and rooftiles.   In one sense, this is a reasonable position: the morally numb are, in a moral sense, scarcely human.  It is, no doubt, the duty of a good Christian (and of a morally responsible pagan) to make sure that women who kill their babies will some day realize, if only for their own good, what they have done.  However, it is probably not helpful, from a Christian perspective, to label women who have had abortions as murderers and baby-killers: passionate language may only stiffen the mothers into a self-righteousness from which there is no return.  What is important, though, is to bring them to a realization of what they have done, because the mere fact of killing is not nearly so deadly to the moral sense as the coldness and indifference to life that is inculcated by the public acceptance of prepartum infanticide.


Most modern schools of philosophy base morality on the principles of reason, and the principal accounts of moral development emphasize growth in moral reasoning rather than moral behavior.  [Cf. The Morality of Everyday Life] To be a human person in this sense would mean that an individual is conscious of his own existence and capable of making rational decisions, including the decision to remain alive.   On this reasoning Michael Tooley concludes that infants, born and unborn, are not persons and do not possess a right to life; mature higher mammals, on the other hand, may well be persons.  Some animal rights advocates have reached the same conclusions: It is wrong to kill elephants and primates but not human babies.

When an hypothesis is not only counter-intuitive but contradicted by the experiences of the human race, it is hardly worth the effort to refute it.  To comprehend the absurdity of the rationalist position, it is useful to look at at the less extreme form made by some libertarian philosophers, e.g. Tibor Machan, in their attacks on animal rights: only rational creatures are possessed of rights; animals are not rational, therefore…  But to define humanity in terms of a few brain functions–analytical reasoning, in the case of libertarians, and “the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences” in the case of Tooley–is entirely capricious.  One might just as well define personhood in terms of good looks or table manners.  The various uses of the word humane (etymologically identical with human) ought to be a clue.  In the intellectual sphere, “humane” refers not to the power of reasoning but to the entire course of studies that use to make up a liberal education–literature, rhetoric, philosophy, history, and so on.  Humane letters meant, preeminently, the study of Latin and Greek.  Why not restrict full personhood only to the classically trained? (I’m ready, but is Tooley?)

On the other hand, “humane” also refers to those gentler qualities of mercy, kindness, and decency that characterize civilized man at his best.  We are kind to animals not because the beasts are possessed of rights, but because it is a fulfillment of some higher nature that is developed under civilization.  Is a dog-beater, then, not a human person?  Can he be killed with impunity?  No sane person would answer, “yes”.  On any scale we choose–rationality, concept of self, kindness, Latinity–we might plot a graph of human personhood with a cutoff point that includes some but not all people.  But what if, for example, I happen to have higher standards than you–much higher standards.  What if your cut-off point is, say, fifty points below your own IQ of 130, and what if I have an IQ of 180.  I used to put this question in a less extreme form to feminist students, pointing out there IQ was, by my estimate, about 20-30 points lower than my own.  If they wanted to justify killing a baby with Downs Syndrome, because it could never go to college, why was I not justified not just in flunking but in annihilating stupid college kids?  If a similar scale of kindness or self-concept could be designed, we might imagine a race of beings so far off the charts that they would regard the best of us as pieces of meat that have been trained to stand on their hind legs.

Tooley imagines that mere fact of membership in Homo sapiens confers no special privileges.  What is the difference, he asks, (51) between an unborn human and an unborn kitten?  It is obvious, he thinks, “that if we encountered other ‘rational animals,’ such as Martians, the fact that their physiological makeup was very different from our own would not be grounds for denying them a right to life.” (54)  But what is obvious to professors of philosophy may be opaque to the rest of the species and, indeed, to members of other species.  Among the mammalian species to which man is most nearly related, intraspecific killing is not at all common.  Competition for power among wolves or chimpanzees rarely results in the death of one of the competitors.  Primate species employ a variety of methods to avoid murder and to insure peace within the social unit.   (Cf. Franz de Waal).  War between chimapanzee (or human) tribes is another matter, and it is one of the features of war that the combatants suspend their ordinary revulsion against killing members of their own kind.

Every human being, born or unborn, child or adult, is a summary record of human evolution; he is a record of our history as a species, a summation of our experiences.  We cannot look another man in the eye without seeing ourselves in a mirror, and even chimpanzees and gorillas can make us oddly uncomfortable, as if we can still see something of ourselves but in the distorted shape of a funhouse mirror.  Most of us shrink from murder, because all murder is a kind of suicide of the species: We are killing, as it were, a little part of our common humanity.  That is why so many human societies have hedged in even involuntary homicide with taboos and purification rituals.  Is this all done in recognition of the victim’s “concept of self”?

It is possible for human groups to define the species in such a way as to exclude foreigners or the deformed or even female infants, but it would be the most exotic of societies that generally denied human status to all its own infants.  To do so at this stage of civilization would be to redefine humanity in strictly academic terms, giving Ph.D.’s with presumed higher intelligence–a very dangerous presumption–a status above the unreflective, the irrational, the stupid.  What a comforting reflection this, must be for an unappreciated college teacher.

If Prof. Tooley were to meet his rational Martians, he might be suprised to discover that their only “human” quality is their intelligence.  The Martians not only know no Latin, but they are capable of neither mercy nor kindness to any living creature, not even to other Martians.  If such creatures invaded our planet, would we really be prepared to grant them human rights?  Even if they were less brutal than I have made them out to be, their rights could be based only in covenants made between the two species.   Of course, a god could tell us that both species were made in his own image (as in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy), but short of that deus ex machina, we might find the Martians entirely alien and far less “human” and less like persons than the dogs and cats who share so much of our own evolutionary history. [Cf. evolutionary biologists who have made  an argument that the species should be redefined in evolutionary terms.]

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