Is It a Deer or a Man? We Need to Be Certain.

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In a recent spontaneous question and answer session with reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, President Joe Biden responded to the leak of a draft opinion of Justice Samuel Alito where Justice Alito argued that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey must be overturned. Biden, attempting to defend legal abortion, stated, “Roe says what all basic mainstream religions have historically concluded, that the existence of a human life and being is a question. Is it at the moment of conception? Is it six months? Is it six weeks? Is it quickening, like Aquinas argued?”

First, when Biden claims that “all basic mainstream religions” have concluded that when human life begins remains a question, he is simply incorrect. The Catholic Church teaches decisively that human life begins at conception. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2270, reads: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” I have no idea where our “devout Catholic” president gets his catechesis, but he needs to find a better source, one that correctly reflects the teaching of the Church of which he so often and grandiosely claims membership. As for St. Thomas Aquinas, it is true that, following Aristotle, Aquinas speculated that human life begins at “quickening” when the mother can first feel the child moving in her womb, because this is when Aquinas speculated that the soul is infused in the fetus. Even still, Aquinas rejected abortion at any point in the pregnancy as a grave moral evil, because it was a rejection of God’s gift of life. Of course, we now know that the one in the womb is active long before the mother can feel him or her. “Quickening” occurs only when the child is large enough that the mother can appreciate her child’s movements.

By implication, Biden was offering the common pro-abortion argument that, since we don’t know when human life begins, we can justify legal abortion. We should not place undue burdens on women in crisis pregnancies, forcing them to bring a pregnancy to term, when we don’t even know with certainty that what is being aborted is a human life. Pro-lifers generally respond by insisting that science tells us when human life begins. According to science, human life begins as the moment of conception. Indeed, medical journals are clear and consistent in affirming that human life begins at conception (fertilization).

Yet, the debate continues, with arguments from various perspectives of when human life really begins and what really constitutes life. Nathan Nobis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College. In a Salon article published just last month, Dr. Nobis argues that, while the one in the womb is biologically alive, he or she is not biographically alive. Nobis explains what he means by biographical life: “This meaning of someone’s ‘life’ is about the ‘story’ of that person: who they are and what their life, their existence as a person, is like.” Nobis concedes that “Abortion foes will insist that biologically alive embryos and beginning fetuses have the moral right (and should have the legal right) to become biographically alive” [emphasis in original]. But Nobis asks why? He then simply states, as if it were widely conceded, that “To scholars who study the ethical arguments, there seems to be a broad consensus that anti-abortion arguments are not strong enough to determine policy and law.” To demonstrate evidence for this “broad consensus,” Nobis links to another Salon article critiquing pro-life arguments written by … Nathan Nobis! Honestly, if these are the types of philosophical arguments the pro-abortion side is offering, I have great hope for the success of the pro-life cause. It seems patently obvious to me that Nobis is making a distinction without a difference in order to create grounds to justify abortion. Distinguishing between biological life and biographical life is a convenience human society cannot afford to make, for the risk is pretty high, if not near certain, that such a distinction would be exploited to justify killing all kinds of people.

In the article mentioned above that Nobis references in order to demonstrate the “broad consensus” among “scholars” that find pro-life arguments lacking, Nobis (joined by Jonathan Dudley, MD, Postdoctoral Fellow in Molecular Genetic Pathology at Johns Hopkins Hospital), argues that ending the life of the human being in the womb is comparable to other medical procedures that also end the lives of human beings, but are embraced as morally acceptable and not subject to the rancor surrounding abortion, namely: organ donation and limiting the care of anencephalic babies to palliative care. Since ending the lives of human beings in these cases is morally acceptable, so should abortion be morally acceptable, even if it means ending a human life.

Nobis and Dudley make the point that there is no moral outrage in ending the life of a human being who is brain dead by harvesting her organs. She is biologically alive, they insist, and the process of removing her organs one by one is eventually what kills her. This argument is absurd. First of all, we need to be clear that brain dead is dead. Yes, I know about those cases where someone was declared “brain dead” who miraculously woke up on the gurney in the emergency room. But these cases don’t prove that brain death is not death; they only prove that the diagnosis of brain death was incorrectly made in these cases. There are about a dozen elements that contribute to the diagnosis of brain death. Unfortunately, there is no consistent national policy to determine how many of these elements need be present to make the diagnosis. Some hospitals employ all or most, while others only two or three. When too few elements are used to make the diagnosis (for whatever reason), mistakes can be made, especially if doctors are too quick or too inexperienced in making the diagnosis. But my point is, Nobis and Dudley are incorrect in saying that harvesting organs from a person whose body is being kept “biologically alive” by artificial means is ending their life. Their life has already ended, having been ended by whatever it was that caused brain death. They are not even biologically alive. The purpose of keeping a brain-dead person’s body on a mechanical ventilator that keeps them breathing and their heart pumping is to secure the quality of the organs until they can be harvested. It is not to keep the person herself alive. She is already dead. The person’s life ended long before the organs were harvested. If such were not the case, harvesting essential organs from a person still alive would properly cause a moral uproar.

Nobis and Dudley argue, as well, that limiting the care given to an anencephalic baby to palliative care also constitutes ending the life of a human being that is morally acceptable. Again, they are wrong. The prognosis for anencephalic babies, those born without a developed brain, is devastating. Put simply, anencephaly is incompatible with life. Nobis and Dudley argue that these babies could be kept alive on machines, so limiting care to palliative care is, in effect, ending their lives. Even if this were so (and I doubt it), it has long been the position of the Catholic Church and most medical ethicists that no one is morally obliged to indefinitely employ extraordinary means to maintain life when that life would come to a natural end except for the use of those extraordinary means. There’s a big difference, a morally significant difference, between directly taking a person’s life, even the life of one who is actively dying, and simply allowing the natural process toward death to continue unabated. “A medical procedure that ends of the life of a human being” is a strange way of describing the decision to allow someone who is dying to die.

Going back to the question of when human life begins and the importance of that question to the debate surrounding abortion, it’s important to understand that the answer to that question need not be settled in order to condemn abortion. Even if we concede the pro-abortion argument that we don’t know when human life begins, abortion cannot be morally justified. Why? Because if we don’t know when human life begins, then we don’t know that the one in the womb is not a human life. If we are not morally certain that an action will not take a human life (and in this post, I am assuming innocent human life) then we are morally obliged to desist from that action.

A couple of classical conundrums:

Consider a hunter in the woods. He notices a rustling of the branches in some bushes just beyond him. Is it a deer? Is it another hunter? He doesn’t know. The information he has at this point isn’t adequate to answer that question. It may be a human life; then again, it may not be? Is the hunter morally allowed to shoot toward the rustling bushes in hopes that he kills a deer and not a man? Of course not! The hunter needs more information before he can shoot. If he learns with certainty that it’s a deer, then he can shoot. But only if he knows with certainty that he will not be killing a man. In short, he must know that he is not taking a human life. If there’s any doubt, he cannot morally make the decision to shoot. Even if he never finds out with certainty, one way or the other, so that he misses the opportunity to bag a deer, he is obliged not to shoot. If he shoots while still lacking knowledge, he has committed a grave moral evil, even if he lucks out and discovers that he has killed a deer and not a man. Why? Because the dignity of human life is not given by humans and not earned by humans, but is given by God unconditionally. As such, innocent human life is not ours to take. Even when killing is justified, such as in self-defense, we ought to tremble at what we do.

Consider a contractor who has the job of razing a condemned building. Just before he gives the go ahead to his crew, he sees what appears to be movement through one of the windows. Is it the shadow of a tree? Is it an animal? Is it a man? He doesn’t know. Can he give the go ahead to his crew before he finds out? Of course not! Even if it means searching the building and calling off the job until the next day, he must know that he is not going to kill an innocent human being before he may proceed.

Those who argue that abortion is morally acceptable because we do not know when human life begins have it backwards. We must know with moral certainty that we are not killing a human being before we can act, rather than withholding our action only when we find out with certainty that we are not killing a human being. Abortion rights proponents who argue that abortion is morally acceptable because we don’t know when life begins are effectively telling the hunter to shoot and the contractor to raze the building, ignoring any concerns that they may be killing someone. Abortion, then, even if we don’t know when human life begins, represents a profound disrespect for human life, because it recommends that we act in a way that may take a human life even when we are not certain.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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