Philosophical Reasoning and "Delayed Personhood"

[Crosspost to Catholics in the Public Square]

Over the past week I’ve immersed myself in a provocative debate with Nathan Nelson of the blog Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Our debate began with my response to a post of his — “Returning to Christendom” June 25, 2005 — in which he contends that Catholics make a grave mistake in seeking common ground with evangelical Christians (“extremist Christians” or the “Christian Right” in his words), due to the latter’s belief in “dominion theology” and, according to Nathan, implicit desire to establish a theocracy. Examples of this collaboration would be Fr. Pavone standing beside Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry in the defense of Terry Schiavo and “the vast majority of neoconservative Catholic leaders [who] endorsed and actively promoted a man who clearly does believe in dominion theology for President of the United States.”

According to Nathan, such collaborations are ultimately detrimental to Catholics because “When the common enemy of the Evangelical Right and the Catholic Right has been eliminated, the Catholic Christian minority in this country will be in very real danger from the theocratic government ruled primarily by evangelical Christians.” Consequently:

[Nathan Nelson]: I consider the alliance between Catholics, Orthodox, and mainstream Protestants on the one hand and evangelical Christians on the other to be an unholy alliance that will eventually come back to bite the Catholics, Orthodox, and mainstream Protestants. The majority of evangelical Christian leaders do want a theocracy, and have said so publicly, and the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the mainstream Protestant Churches are helping them reach their goal. . . .

Dialoguing and aligning ourselves with extremist evangelical Christians who want a theocracy would be tantamount to rational Muslims sitting down to dialogue and align themselves with Wahabi Islam and al-Qaeda.

Given the absurdity of this comparison (Randall Terry the Christian equivalent of Osama Bin Ladin?) one might be tempted to abandon the discussion at this point, but in the course of further comments I decided to explore the reason behind Nathan’s charge that Fr. Pavone seeks “the enforcement of Catholic doctrine at the state level.” While Nathan asserted the charge against Pavone was made with reference to contraception, he maintained it would equally apply to any Catholic supporting anti-abortion legislation with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Before long, we had arrived at the philosophical core of our disagreement:

[Nathan Nelson] Regardless of how one tries to paint the picture, Catholic teaching on abortion is Catholic teaching on abortion. The debate is not a debate about the scientific beginning of human life — everyone agrees that occurs at conception — but the beginning of personhood. When is this human life to be considered a human person? Current Catholic teaching — and it is current Catholic teaching, not Catholic teaching throughout all time — says that the embryo is to be regarded as a human person from the moment of conception. This, of course, is not consistent with what Aquinas and the Church Fathers thought about the beginning of personhood, but that’s beside the point. The point is that we’re not having a debate about the beginning of life in this country, we’re having a debate about the beginning of personhood. For Catholics these days, the beginning of personhood is conception. But for Jews, the beginning of personhood comes some time later. Whereas the beginning of life is a scientific issue, the beginning of personhood is a philosophical and/or ethical issue that has a lot more grey area than Fr. Pavone, George Weigel, et al. are willing to admit.

Which of course brings us to the question: Is the contention that the unborn are persons an essentially Catholic proposition or is it one that can be defended by reason alone? That is to say, absent of appeal to Catholic dogma and divine revelation?

If the argument that Nathan is proposing sounds familiar to readers, it should. It’s the same argument advanced by Senator Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election, in an interview with Peter Jennings. It was addressed by Amy Welborn and myself (“Senator Kerry may be human — but is he a person?”, CatholicKerryWatch July 23, 2004).

It was also made by Ron Reagan during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, making the case for embryonic stem cell research (Ron Reagan and Functionalism, Revisited CatholicKerryWatch July 29, 2004).

The Defense of Personhood – Three Worthy Articles

In responding to Nathan, I had recommended the following articles, which I believe would be helpful to our readers and anybody considering this matter:

  • Distorting Catholic Doctrine, Newsmax.com. April 16, 2004. Phil Brennan interviews George Weigel on Senator Kerry’s “systematic misrepresentation” of the nature of Catholic teaching on the life issues:

    “What belongs to everyone, since this is a national candidacy, is the responsibility to make clear that when Kerry says the Church’s pro-life teaching is a sectarian position which cannot be imposed on a pluralistic society, he is willfully misrepresenting the nature of the Church’s position – by suggesting that this is something analogous to the Catholic Church trying to force everyone in the United States to abstain from eating hot dogs on Fridays during Lent.”

    “This is simply false . . . The Church’s pro-life teaching is something that can be engaged seriously by anyone. You don’t have to believe that there are seven sacraments to deal with this, you don’t have to believe in the primacy of the bishop of Rome to engage this position. You don’t even have to believe in God to engage this [pro-Life] position because it’s a position rooted in basic embryology and in basic logic, and anybody can engage that.”

  • Human Personhood Begins at Conception, by Peter Kreeft. Medical Ethics Policy Monograph Stafford, Virginia: Castello Institute. Boston University professor and Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft begins:

    Non-Christians and even Christians can take opposite positions on abortion even when they think rationally, honestly, and with good will. The continuing controversy over abortion shows that it is a truly controversial issue. It is not simple and clear-cut, but complex. Just as the choices for action are often difficult for a woman contemplating abortion, the choices for thought are often difficult for open-minded philosophers.

    Everything I have said so far is a lie, in fact a dangerous lie.

    In a hard-hitting passage, he explains exactly what is at stake in the debate over personhood and why it matters:

    Are there any human beings who are not persons? If so, killing them might be permissible, like killing warts. But who might these human non-persons be? Jews? Blacks? Slaves? Infidels? Counterrevolutionaries? Others have said so, and justified their genocide, lynching, slavery, jihad, or gulag. But pro-choicers never include these groups as non-persons. Many pro-choicers include severely retarded or handicapped humans, or very old and sick humans, as non-persons, but this is still morally shocking to most people, and many pro-choicers avoid that morally shocking position by including only fetuses as members of this newly invented class of human non-persons, or non-personal humans. I think no one ever conceived of this category before the abortion controversy. It looks very suspiciously like the category was invented to justify the killing, for its only members are the humans we happen to be now killing and want to keep killing and want to justify killing.

    Kreeft proceeds to make a sound case for the personhood of the fetus, presenting (in Thomistic fashion) a number of arguments commonly employed to explain why the unborn child is not a human person, and then soundly refuting them.

    He reveals the philosophical premises of those who through pure sophistry attempt to separate personhood from humanity:

    There is a common premise hidden behind all seven of these pro-choice arguments. It is the premise of Functionalism: defining a person by his or her functioning or behavior. A “behavioral definition” is proper and practical for scientific purposes of prediction and experimentation, but it is not adequate for ordinary reason and common sense, much less for good philosophy or morality, which should be based on common sense. Why? Because common sense distinguishes between what one is and what one does, between being and fun functioning, thus between “being a person” and “functioning as a person.” One cannot function as a person without being a person, but one can surely be a person without functioning as a person.
  • God’s Reasons (1998), by Princeton University Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George, on the relevance of appeals to religious authority have a role in public policy debate. Nathan remarks: “Without having yet read the essay, I can already tell you that I reject any assertion that appeals to religious authority have a place in the formation of public policy,” and launches into an explanation of why he believes this is the case. Had he actually read the essay, he would have discovered that Dr. George agrees with him:

    Appeals to religious authority have their place. That place is plainly not, however, in philosophical debates, including philosophical debates about public policy.

    Do such appeals have a legitimate place in political advocacy? I think they do, but at the same time, I have some sympathy with Professor John Rawls’s proposition that such appeals are legitimate only where they are offered to buttress and motivate people to act on positions that are defensible without such appeals. . . .

    Many, perhaps most, serious religious believers in our society believe . . . that God is a God of justice, who cares what the public policy of our society is on morally significant questions — e.g., abortion, euthanasia, and marriage and sexuality, not to mention capital punishment, civil and human rights, military policy, economic justice, etc. And a great many believers, though not all, believe, as I do, that God wills that the unborn, handicapped, and frail elderly be protected by law, and that the institution of marriage as a permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman be preserved against what we believe are the corrupting influences of sexual immorality.

    But we also believe not only that there are reasons (apart from revelation) for these policy positions, but also that these reasons are (or, at least, are among) God’s reasons for willing what He wills. Indeed, it is our view that often the identification of these reasons by philosophical inquiry and analysis, supplemented sometimes by knowledge derived from the natural and/or social sciences, is critical to an accurate understanding of the content of revelation in, say, the Bible or Jewish or Christian tradition.

    George goes on to demonstrate exactly how the case for the humanity of the unborn can be made independantly of appeal to religious authority. (He has little patience for those who attempt to distinguish between human beings in the biological sense and beings in the moral sense, or “persons.” For George, a honest and dispassionate consideration of the scientific evidence suffices to establish

    “the fact that each of us was, from conception, a human being. Science, not religion, vindicates this crucial premise of the pro-life claim. From it, there is no avoiding the conclusion that deliberate feticide is a form of homicide.”

A religious defense of Roe v. Wade?

In what seems to me rather odd behavior for a Catholic blog that characterizes itself as one “[seeking] to joyfully proclaim the fullness of Catholic social teaching for progress in the American government and politics in general”, Nathan actually defends Roe v. Wade as a protection of the “right to privacy” and a necessary bullwark against the encroachment of Christian theocracy:

I am not dodging the issue. I am stating quite clearly that the personhood of human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses in early stages of development is questionable. I am saying that the Catholic Church’s belief regarding human zygotes, embryos, and early stage fetuses, cannot be imposed upon a secular democratic society that believes in religious liberty. In other words, I am saying, quite clearly: Roe v. Wade should not be overturned simply because Christians would like it to happen. Such an idea is totally contrary to American democratic principles. Roe v. Wade is, thanks to the Constitution’s guarantee to the right to privacy, the law of this land. Anyone who doesn’t like it should work through socio-economic means to reduce the number of abortions, or perhaps they should leave the country and find one that more suits their theocratic tendencies. I hear Vatican City and Saudi Arabia are nice this time of year.

In the article I mentioned above, Dr. George turns this argument on its head, noting that many of those who defend abortion now find themselves in the curious position of defending the choice to abort one’s child as a distinctly religious one — against those who ground the right to life in an appeal to human reason:

. . . people on the pro-life side insist that the central issue in the debate is the question “as to when the beginning of life occurs.” And they insist with equal vigor that this question is not a “religious” or even “metaphysical” one: it is rather, . . . “scientific.”

In response to this insistence, it is pro-choice advocates who typically want to transform the question into a “metaphysical” or “religious” one. It was Justice Harry Blackmun who claimed in his opinion for the Court legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973) that “at this point in man’s knowledge” the scientific evidence was inconclusive and therefore cold not determine the outcome of the case. And twenty years later, the influential pro-choice writer Ronald Dworkin went on record claiming that the question of abortion is inherently “religious.” (See Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).) It is pro-choice advocates, such as Dworkin, who want to distinguish between when a human being comes into existence “in the biological sense” and when a human being comes into existence “in the moral sense.” It is they who want to distinguish a class of human beings “with rights” from pre-(or post-) conscious human beings who “don’t have rights.” And the reason for this, I submit, is that, short of defending abortion as “justifiable homicide,” the pro-choice position collapses if the issue is to be settled purely on the basis of scientific inquiry into the question of when a new member of homo sapiens comes into existence as a self-integrating organism whose unity, distinctiveness, and identity remain intact as it develops without substantial change from the point of its beginning through the various stages of its development and into adulthood. (I explain this point more fully below. Also see Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, I995) and Dianne Nutwell Irving, “Scientific and Philosophical Expertise: An Evaluation of the Arguments on ‘Personhood’,” Linacre Quarterly, Vol. 60 (1993), pp. 18-46.)

With the vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court and both sides gearing up to address the merits of the President’s nomination, we can expect the host of “life issues” to play their part. As we prepare for the oncoming debates, it is important to recognize the philosophical grounds on which the advocates of abortion, euthanasia (“mercy killing”); embroyonic stem-cell research and human cloning make their case, and to recognize as well false arguments that are erected in the attempt to restrict the role of American Catholics in shaping a culture of life and a nation that truly ensures the right of life for all.

* * *

As a supplement to this post I recommend “Church Teachings and the “Delayed Personhood” Ruse” (August 12, 2004), by Dianne N. Irving (LifeIssues.Net). According to Dianne:

Having written a 400-page doctoral dissertation precisely on this issue over 13 years ago which analyzed in excruciating detail the “delayed personhood” positions of over 23 different bioethics arguments still used today, and having been immediately engaged in the various “disputes” since then, it is my considered opinion at this point, at least, that these current “delayed personhood” debates are nothing more than a huge, very sophisticated, and very successful RUSE — a rhetorical attempt to confuse good people in order to do things that most people would instinctively know to be fundamentally and unequivocally unethical.

Dianne has compiled for our benefit a list of teachings by the Church — stated verbatim — on the issue of “personhood.” As the reader will discover,

. . . the issue of whether “personhood” can be empirically, philosophically or theologically proven and/or documented is IRRELEVANT. What is relevant — morally speaking — is whether or not a human BEING is known to already exist. If this is empirically knowable — which it is — then it automatically follows that there is also a “person” present immediately as well. This is because of the philosophical and theological “anthropology” that the Church has traditionally used for centuries on which to base her formal moral teachings — informal personal theological speculations aside.

Again, although “personhood” can be reliably reasoned back to as beginning immediately when the human being begins to exist (using the accurate empirical facts of human embryology and human genetics), the issue is morally irrelevant for purposes of these debates — and has been turned into nothing more than a rhetorical ruse to confuse people. Rather, these moral teachings are grounded in the inviolable dignity and equality of every single human BEING from the first moment of their existence. And this is clearly, unambiguously stated in the following direct quotations — over and over again.

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