Life-sized Personhood

Review by Daniel Muth

Is the unborn my neighbor? What if the question is unanswerable? Taken together, five books claim that, for Christians at least, the answer is and has always been yes.

In The Ethics of Abortion, Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount, systematically examines the arguments in favor of legal abortion and finds each one fatally flawed. He begins by examining claims that personhood begins after birth. Various arguments have been advanced: that personhood is dependent on desire, that it requires self-awareness, that this self-awareness must be experienced over time, that one must have the ability to plan for the future.

Kaczor dispatches the first of these by, among other things, noting the Buddhist goal of extinguishing desire as a condition of achieving Nirvana. Do Buddhist masters thereby cease to be persons? Since everyone suspends self-awareness each day by sleeping, most advocates unconvincingly append the requirement that this ability must have been already realized and may only be sloughed off temporarily. The uncertainties associated with coma patients are cited as consistent counter-examples: how does one determine with certainty whether a given loss of consciousness is temporary? The ability to plan develops over time and depends on skills that are not in themselves more plausibly indicative of personhood than are others. Arguments for life beginning at birth and at various prior stages are examined and rejected based on similar arguments. Birth, viability, quickening, and so forth are all both variable and arbitrary.

The Ethics of Abortion
Women’s Rights, Human Life,
and the Question of Justice
By Christopher Kaczor.
Routledge. Pp. 246. $39.95

Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos
A Critical Analysis
of Pro-Choice Arguments

Edited by Stephen Napier.
Springer. Pp. 283. $179

The Sacredness of Human Life
Why an Ancient Biblical Vision
Is Key to the World’s Future
By David P. Gushee.
Eerdmans. Pp. 477. $35

Women, Sex, and the Church
A Case for Catholic Teaching
Edited by Erika Bachiochi.
Pauline Books & Media. Pp. 251. $19.95

The Early Church on Killing
A Comprehensive Sourcebook
on War, Abortion,
and Capital Punishment
Edited by Ronald J. Sider.
Baker Academic. Pp. 224. $27.99

Is, however, such a divide-and-conquer approach really tenable? Specific arguments may fail, but what about the penumbra? Some abortion rights advocates offer the gradualist view, in which personhood develops with time and thus the wrongness of ending that person’s life increases with his age. This may be workable in some ways, but it does not fit with the on-off nature of killing and therefore cannot successfully avoid the question of when personhood begins. Kaczor argues that life begins at conception and that human embryos are persons whom it is wrong to kill.

Kaczor considers a number of other related questions, including functional vs. ontological definitions of personhood (resolved in favor of the latter) and the hard cases for both sides: rape, incest, sex selection. Throughout, he is unafraid to point out that every previous effort made to distinguish between human beings who may be killed and persons who may not has resulted in gross injustice. Is there any reason to believe that such will not be the case with efforts to legitimize abortion? The defenses of abortion evaluated by Kaczor give no particular grounds for optimism.

It is sometimes said that European publishers do not so much sell books as hold them for ransom. That is a shame, since the price will substantially limit the reach of Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos, the third volume in the Philosophy and Medicine portion of Springer’s Catholic Studies in Bioethics series. In it, a number of mostly Roman Catholic scholars argue forcefully for the full personhood of human beings at the embryonic stage of development.

The touchstone article by Alexander Pruss of Baylor University is unsubtly titled “I Was Once a Fetus: That is Why Abortion is Wrong.” Whatever one thinks of the title, the argument is careful and compelling. You are substantially identical to who and what you were as an embryo. A fetus becomes a grownup, not a person. Several companion pieces address specific objections to the notion of substantial continuity of the human person from conception through adulthood.

The second section, on scientific considerations, includes a review by University of California psychiatrist A.A. Haspesian of literature related to fetal pain and the medical case for early onset fetal sentience. A second piece by the University of Utah’s Maureen Condic offers a biological definition of the human embryo that lends clear scientific support to the aforementioned continuity of the human organism based on its development as a functionally integrated body. The book closes with considerations of the legal and political aspects of pursuing justice for unborn human beings.

On the whole, the volume is more challenging then Kaczor’s and therefore more rewarding. As with most philosophical discussions — and the heart of the book is the philosophical case — there’s plenty of dry and bloodless reading herein. Given the level of passion that the subject rightly invokes, I’d have to count that a feature rather than a bug. If the authors are right — and I think their case is compelling — it is by calm deliberation and careful analysis rather than storming the barricades that the Christian Church can make her best contribution to the cause of justice for all.

In The Sacredness of Human Life, Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, a well-known Baptist moderate, supplies possibly the most important volume of this lot, a fully developed, carefully considered evaluation of the sacredness — Gushee argues (unconvincingly) that this is a better term than sanctity (primarily because the latter is used by conservatives) — of human life. He begins with the essential character of the human imago dei as the starting point for both Testaments’ consideration of the subject and the foundational biblical assumption of the incalculable worth of every individual life.

The biblical view is traced through the life of the early Church and the writings of the Church Fathers. Gushee sees Christianity as having subsequently drifted badly from Christ’s vision and provides three illustrations of the Church divided within herself on life’s sanctity: the Crusades vs. St. Francis, Spanish colonists vs. Las Casas, and Christian anti-Semitism vs. early Anabaptists. Alas, as with so much of the book, this section is painfully, often inexcusably, unbalanced. The crusaders and conquistadors cackle and twirl their mustaches, largely out of context, as if the only plausibly Christian response to the pleas of Alexius I Comnenus was to send the Franciscans to negotiate with the Turks; or that the Spaniards’ perception of American natives could not possibly have been adversely affected by the horrific stream of human sacrifice that met their eyes upon their first visits to the Central American mainland. Gushee could have made his point with less heavy-handedness.

As his historical review moves through the Enlightenment toward modernity, Gushee’s evaluations improve immensely, as he provides judicious assessments of the strengths of the former period and shows how some of its signature weaknesses contributed to the sundry barbarisms of the latter. He holds up Nietzsche as the great intellectual harbinger of the 20th century’s cataclysms, summed up in the appalling statistic of 107 million lives cut murderously short. This uses a low-end estimate for those killed by Mao (to whom may be attributed another 30 million or so), discounts military and civilian casualties in all the century’s wars (which could nearly double the figure), and only includes the top 14 genocides of the 20th century. Not for naught has history been called a butcher’s bench.

Since he has expertise in the area, it is understandable and somewhat welcome that Gushee then explores the Nazi horror as his chosen illustration of modern barbarity, but given the well-worn nature of the territory it is also somewhat disappointing. I would have liked to find out just how Leopold II managed to slaughter 8 million in the Belgian Congo between 1886 and 1908. Surely, Mao’s crimes demand more of an accounting. Nevertheless, the point is well made that straying from the biblical vision of the infinite value of the individual comes at a terrible price.

The last section of the book examines challenges facing the 21st century. Abortion is the first challenge, with the author noting that the practice exists primarily to prop up a disastrous sexual revolution, the burden of which falls disproportionately on the poor. He notes the need for a more holistic approach to caring for the poor, but fails to give due credit to those Christians who have generally taken just such an approach via crisis pregnancy centers. He also examines bioethical challenges, the death penalty (again, a sadly unbalanced discussion), human rights, nuclear weapons, human trafficking, global health, poverty, and environmentalism. Albeit at times frustrating, this is a thoughtful, heartfelt, and deeply Christian treatment of a vitally important topic.

Through the ages, the Church Catholic has generally been superior to her surrounding culture in the empowerment and equality she offers to women. The various authors of Women, Sex and the Church — some academics, some well-educated stay-at-home mothers, all women — argue that this remains the case today. While appreciative of modern feminism’s positive effects in the workplace, the authors generally consider the movement’s embrace of the sexual revolution to be elitist and short-sighted, particularly for poor women.

The first four chapters capture the main argument of the book. In the first, Laura Garcia of Boston College examines the Church’s view of the complementarity of the sexes (physical and ontological), finding it well supported by sociological and biological data. She then argues for Christianity’s understanding of freedom as the self-giving of interdependent people as superior to the more secular understanding of freedom as unfettered autonomy. In subsequent chapters, Cassandra Hough and then Jennifer Roback Morse make the case, respectively, that nonmarital copulation is harmful to women in ways it is not to men and that marriage is uniquely advantageous.

Erika Bachiochi, the volume’s editor, argues that Catholic teaching on abortion is fully consonant with feminist concerns. In addition to affirming the dignity of unborn children, the Church upholds the dignity of their mothers as women by seeking to preserve rather than attack the deep maternal bond. Other authors in the volume argue that the Vatican’s teachings on contraception, infertility treatment technology, public vs. private callings, and even the all-male priesthood are parts of a godly humanism that serves rather than violates the freedom and dignity of women.

In The Early Church on Killing, well-known evangelical theologian Ronald Sider seeks to bring together in one volume the extant writings of pre-Constantinian Christian authors as they pertain to abortion, capital punishment, and warfare. Most of the book consists of a guided tour of, inter alia, the Didache, First Clement, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Cyprian, Archelaus, and Arnobius of Sicca. Long stops are made along the way with Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius, the three with the most to say on the subject, and whose views are most strongly supported by Sider.

The translations are clear and Sider’s introductory and connective notes are helpful and judicious. While there’s no substitute for reading entire patristic works, the selections are generally substantial enough to provide context and the ancient authors are always a joy — and challenge — to read.

He concludes that there was little or no dispute among early Christians that abortion is homicide and must be rejected outright. All early Christian writers who addressed the subject were in agreement and there is no evidence of dispute. Likewise, capital punishment was universally rejected. The situation apropos of warfare is more ambiguous. Sider notes consistent rejection by early writers alongside clear evidence of Christians in the Roman military. His conclusion that the latter represents a failure of some to live up to their leaders’ standards is admitted to be somewhat belied by lack of evidence that the change effected upon Constantine’s accession was particularly controversial.

Regardless of whether one finds Sider’s conclusions compelling, the book makes a valuable contribution to Christian discussions of human dignity. Particularly for those of a Catholic bent, however, the question of subsequent development cannot be avoided. Christian thinking on both war and capital punishment certainly did not end in the fourth century and venerable traditions can be appealed to by Christians who do not necessarily side with Origen or Tertullian on these matters.

What of abortion? The Church may well have been unanimous in her first three centuries, but should not the possibility of progress in this area be considered as well? Such a case would appear dubious. As more than one of the books in this collection point out, modern science seems to be on the side of the early Church. What other form of advancement might be pointed to? Some may think it a lack of women’s voices in the Church, though the essayists of Women, Sex, and the Church call such easy generalizations into question.

As these books show, a broad ecumenical consensus would argue that legal abortion presents Christians with a political rather than moral problem. The morality is clear: abortion is homicide. What is less so is how we should live and, being Christians, witness in light of this fact. When the Church emerged from the pain and purity of being a persecuted minority to enter the halls of worldly prominence, she adjusted her teachings on war and capital punishment as a result of her responsibilities in a sin-soaked world. What is required of Christians who inhabit a technically advanced but philosophically superstitious society that is naïve about technology’s ability to separate copulation from procreation?

Christians have a duty to be clear-eyed about the world they inhabit, and the question of how to eradicate abortion is worthy of debate. There is room in the Church for those who wish only to make it less necessary and for those who wish to make it simply unthinkable. There is room for debate on how Caesar should write his laws. There is no room for us to be uncharitable — to one another, to our suffering sisters, or to the smallest and least who inhabit their wombs.

Daniel Muth, principal nuclear engineer for Constellation Energy, is secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors.

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