Life Begins

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embryo.jpegIn comments on my Bishops v. Biden post below, Thomas Peters of the Americanpapist blog and others take me to task for failing to understand that the bishops are simply acknowledging what today’s embryology textbooks teach; namely, that human life begins at conception. And since we all (should) believe that human life ought not be killed, therefore the bishops’ position should not be considered confessional. Q.E.D.
But the beginning of something is not ontologically equivalent to being the thing. To take a humble example, if 18 boys gather to choose up teams for a baseball game, the first team “begins” when the first boy is chosen. That is to say, a process gets under way that, if not stopped, will result in a team. But there is no actual team until the ninth boy is chosen. Agreeing that “life begins” at conception does not clinch the anti-abortion argument, as the bishops claim.
Ontology aside, it is simply the case that many morally serious people and morally serious religious traditions (to say nothing of the American Constitution, as currently interpreted) do value life developing in the womb differently from life after birth. For example, Orthodox Judaism values the life of the mother more highly than the life of the fetus.The point is this: It’s a matter of moral judgment, not “objective fact,” to say, as the bishops do, that the fertilized egg which constitutes “the beginning of life” should have all the legal rights belonging to a newborn infant. That’s a position based not on embryology but on an assessment of the worth of embryonic life. It is a moral judgment that many Catholics and non-Catholics share, and that many Catholics and non-Catholics do not. It bears the force of the bishops’ authority only for Catholics. That is why it is, as Biden contends, confessional.

  • SDG

    Once again you misrepresent a document you seem not to have understood.
    Most egregiously, you falsely attribute to the bishops a claim they plainly did not make: “Agreeing that ‘life begins’ at conception does not clinch the anti-abortion argument, as the bishops claim.” The bishops didn’t “claim” that, and you know it, as your own first paragraph makes clear. Rather, the bishops advance two separate theses, one scientific and biological, the other moral. Since they don’t claim that the scientific point alone “clinches” the argument, why do you say they did?
    You also badly distort the plain scientific point that conception marks the beginning of human life by equivocating on the meaning of “beginning.” “Beginning” does not here mean “set in motion a series of events that will eventually bring to fruition.” In that sense, “conception” is NOT the beginning of human life, since before that comes ovulation, insemination, etc. Rather, conception marks the beginning of human life in the sense that the conceptus is an individual human life. The zygote is alive — it is growing and developing — and it is genetically fully human, not sub-human. Human life — the thing itself, not just preliminary stages — begins here.
    You say “many morally serious people … do value life developing in the womb differently from life after birth.” The distinction between who is “morally serious” and who is not is as fuzzy as your efforts to ascribe differing values to life at differing stages. Is Peter Singer a “morally serious” person? He extends the “less-valued” state of disposable human life to at least 30 days after birth. One of our presidential candidates has voted to deny rights to born babies who survived botched abortion attempts.
    Whatever agenda you bring to the abortion discussion, you do a disservice to many morally serious pro-life Catholics and others by distorting their views and stated opinions. We get enough of that from the MSM. Can’t our fellow believers do better?

  • Mark Silk

    Talk to me about the Orthodox Jews, SDG, not Peter Singer.

  • SDG

    How about let’s talk about the bishops first?

  • Brian Walden

    Your analogy doesn’t seem to match up with biology. Conception isn’t analogous to the the first boy being chosen, it’s analogous to the 9th boy being chosen. Just as a new and complete team exists at the picking of the 9th boy, at conception a new and complete human organism exists. All of us are the exact same organism we were when we conceived; we all did not exist as organisms before that moment.
    The Bishops do not claim, as you say, that an embryonic human “should have all the legal rights belonging to a newborn infant” – they say it should have a basic right to life in accord with it’s dignity as a human being. You are correct that this is a moral claim, but it’s not a specifically Catholic nor even specifically religious one. In fact, you seem to agree on this point when you say that “we all (should) believe that human life ought not be killed.”
    You accuse the bishops of making a moral assessment of the worth of embryonic life. They do no such thing. Instead they claim what is recognizable to everyone through simple reason, that all human life has the same basic dignity nomatter what stage of life it’s in – embryo, fetus, infant, child, adolescent adult, middle age, old age, or at the dying moments.
    Ironically it’s you who makes the moral assessment of the worth of embryonic life. The bishops have rightly concluded that you, not they, have “the burden of explaining why we should divide humanity into the moral “haves” and “have-nots,” and why [your] particular choice of where to draw that line can be sustained in a pluralistic society.”

  • frank kirkpatrick

    Mark is exactly right: the issue is not one solely about or even primarily ‘scientific fact’. It is about the moral worth or status accorded to something. The Catholic position is, for religious reasons not scientific ones, that the moral worth of the fetus begins at conception. But others can hold, on moral grounds, that while life begins at conception, such life does not acquire the same moral worth as living human persons, until some time after conception. So Silk is right in claiming that science alone cannot determine the moral status of a being: that is the function of a moral judgment which, in this case, derives from a religious worldview.

  • Mark Silk

    While I could do without SDG’s ill temper, I think we’re making some progress here.
    Let me clarify. Thanks to advances in biological understanding, everyone (presumably) agrees that a person’s complete genetic package is in place at the moment of conception. And what embryology shows is that in the course of a normal pregnancy carried to term, that package proceeds through various stages: blastocyst, embryo, fetus, and live birth. The bishops’ position (as conveyed by my interlocutors) is that once the genetic package is created (be it in the womb or in a fertility clinic test tube), it is a human life (being? person?) that enjoys if not the full legal rights of a newborn infant at least a “right to life” equal to the “right to life” of every other human being or person.
    Those who disagree with the bishops’ position do not dispute the embryology. What they dispute is the bishops’ evaluation of the status of embryonic life. Orthodox Judaism accords greater worth to the mother’s life than to the embryo’s. The LDS Church doesn’t believe there is a human life until the blastocyst implants in the uterine wall (to return to my baseball analogy: there’s no team until the players take the field). The LDS Church does not object to embryonic stem cell research because it involves the harvesting of pre-implantation blastocysts.
    The point here is that the science is not determinative. What’s determinative is how individuals and institutions evaluate the science. The evaluations differ–including among religious institutions that are, in one way or another, pro-life. Those who take the bishops’ line are entitled to regard such views as wrong, but it would be grotesque not to treat them as morally serious.
    On the issue of whether the bishops’ position is confessional, let me add that I do not believe all Catholic moral positions assertedly derived from natural law should be considered as such. Consider the death penalty. Catholics who support the death penalty are not denied communion, are not kept from speaking at Catholic schools, are not treated as bad Catholics. But Catholics who accept the bishops’ position on when life begins but who understand that to be a religious doctrine rather than a universally applicable moral principle, are. The bishops’ position has effectively become a new article of faith, alongside the historic creeds, separating the sheep from the goats.

  • Pastor Rick Warren asked Sen. Obama, “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”, Obama responded that “answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” In a Sept. 7 interview, Obama further explained that he meant this was a “theological question.” Sen. Biden apparently thinks its a theological question, too, as does Mr. Silk.
    But one problem with this approach is that any concept of “human rights” presumes that lawmakers can distinguish who is a “human” to whom such rights attach. Any definition they choose is going to agree with some religious views and disagree with others.
    Well then, some may say, in a pluralistic society, we will just have to all agree that human rights begin at live birth. But wait a minute — Obama’s record clearly shows that he doesn’t agree with that proposition, either, at least not in the abortion context.
    As an Illinois state senator, from 2001-2003 he led the opposition to the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, The bill, only three sentences long, simply recognized any infant who was completely expelled from the mother, and alive, as a legal person. Obama explained in 2001, and has never recanted, that he opposed this bill because he believed it was unconstitutional to define a “previable fetus” to be a legal person – even though the bill only applied if the baby had achieved “complete expulsion or extraction from its mother,” and was alive. (Obama’s statements are quoted verbatim a White Paper issued by NRLC, which also contains numerous links to primary documents, which is posted here:
    I am a critic of Roe v. Wade -– but even among persons who defend Roe v. Wade, most consider that ruling to confer a right to terminate the lives of unborn humans inside the womb, and do not believe that it diminishes the legal status of a baby who is fully born. (Indeed, a bill virtually identical to the one that Obama opposed passed the U.S. Senate 98-0.) Yet, there really are some people who believe that Roe v. Wade goes further, and requires that a “previable fetus” (Obama’s term) who is the subject of an abortion must remain classified as a non-person no matter where that “previable fetus” is located. In this vision, the so-called “previable fetus” who happens to be outside the mother is still in the process of being aborted, and that entire process (which Obama regards as constitutionally protected) will end only with the death of the newborn. By his actions and his explanations of those actions, Barack Obama showed himself to be among those who hold this expansive vision of the “right to abortion.” In Obama’s view, to declare the fully born and living but “previable” human to be a legal person does indeed interfere with “abortion” and does indeed conflict with the full and proper application of “Roe v. Wade.”
    Thus, in Obama’s view, even a live birth is not enough to confer “human rights,” in the abortion context at least. Viewed in light of this history, his answer to Rick Warren takes on additional significance.
    This is not a merely theoretical question. In testimony on the legislation, one nurse testified regarding “induced-labor abortions” performed at the hospital which employed her: “It is not uncommon for a live aborted babies to linger for an hour or two or even longer. At Christ Hospital one of these babies once lived for almost an entire eight-hour shift. Last year alone, of the 13 babies that I am aware of who were aborted at Christ Hospital, at least four lived between 1-1/2 to 3 hours, two boys and two girls.” The nurse testified that another aborted baby “was left to die on the counter of the Soiled Utility Room wrapped in a disposable towel. This baby was accidentally thrown in the garbage, and when they later were going through the trash to find the baby, the baby fell out of the towel and on to the floor.” Another nurse testified that she “happened to walk into a ‘soiled utility room’ and saw, lying on the metal counter, a fetus, naked, exposed and breathing, moving its arms and legs.”
    Obama’s commitment to defend the practice of abortion without qualification was so absolute that it led him to reflexively view the issue of babies born alive during abortions through the prism of his concept of Roe v. Wade, and worse, to conclude that a breathing, squirming, fully born pre-viable human baby is still covered by Roe v. Wade. But when he ran for higher office (U.S. Senate) in 2004, he realized how difficult that position would be to defend in the world outside the halls of the Illinois Senate. That is when he began to misrepresent the contents of the bill that he had opposed.
    When we released newly uncovered documents on August 11, proving that Obama had in fact voted against (and killed, in a committee that he chaired) a bill virtually identical to the federal born-alive bill that passed Congress witout dissent, Obama said we were “lying.” That charge led to this judgment by the independnet Annenberg : “Obama’s claim is wrong . . . The documents from NRLC support the group’s claims that Obama is misrepresenting the contents of SB 1082 [the 2003 Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act].”
    Here’s the entire text of the bill that Obama voted against, and killed in the committee he chaired, on March 13, 2003.
    I would like to know if Mr. Silk believes that this bill proposed to enact a “confessional” principle.
    Douglas Johnson
    Legislative Director
    National Right to Life Committee
    Washington, D.C. 20004
    Legfederal // at // aol-dot-com

  • SDG

    Frank writes: “Mark is exactly right: the issue is not one solely about or even primarily ‘scientific fact’. It is about the moral worth or status accorded to something.”
    Mark is not right about the issues I have raised, which have to do with what the bishops actually said — which is *not* that the *abortion* question is “solely about or even primarily ‘scientific fact’.” I am simply pointing out that Mark has repeatedly misstated what the bishops said, which I think is a disservice to readers and to the state of the conversation.
    I’m not sure why Mark has drawn the conclusions he has about my temper. FWIW, I think my language has been strong but dispassionate, but Mark or anyone else is free to draw any conclusions they wish.
    At this point it s/b clear to everyone that the abortion question involves — both in fact, and in the bishops’ statement — two question, one scientific, one moral.
    Mark, you attempt to clarify the scientific question by stating: “Thanks to advances in biological understanding, everyone (presumably) agrees that a person’s complete genetic package is in place at the moment of conception.”
    I have no quarrel with this formulation myself. I might ask one question: You say that what is complete at the moment of conception is “a person’s complete genetic package.” What “person” would that be? Not the mother or father, obviously. *Whose* genetic package is it, then? To whom does the possessive of your sentence refer?
    In any cast, the American bishops, in something like thirty separate statements over the last three weeks, have generally taken a slightly different tack in formulating the scientific question: They have repeatedly pointed out that, from conception forward, the zygote/embryo constitutes *a human life*. This is not *logically* identical to declaring that “personhood” or “the soul” begins at conception, but it has the virtue of constituting an objective, scientific fact, not a philosophical, religious or moral opinion.
    The zygote/embryo is certainly biologically alive — it grows and develops as only life does — and it is neither a part or a subset of either of its parents (as are haploid ova and sperm), but an individual, distinct, new member of the human race. It *is* a human life, a human being. This may not automatically tell us what moral status it has, but it is not a disputable confessional judgment.
    The second question is a moral question: What members of the human species are accorded rights? The bishops clearly articulate this as a moral question, and they offer a moral answer — with a moral challenge.
    The moral answer of the Catholic Church is: All members of the human species should be accorded rights. The moral challenge recognizes that different people answer the moral question differently, drawing the line between moral “haves” and “have-nots” in different places — and those different answers are all incompatible. Whose definition of moral “have-nots” should we accept, as a pluralistic society?
    Mark, you’ve pointed to Orthodox Jews who draw a line between the born and the unborn. By this standard, I take it that you would permit a woman to terminate a full-term pregnancy, but once the baby is born she no longer has the right to kill her child. That is to say, at that point you would impose your morality on the parents and say “Regardless what you believe, you may no longer kill this child.”
    Yet we live in a pluralistic society where people draw lines in different places. By what right do you impose your values on Singerite parents who believe they should have the right to decide not to be parents 29 days post partum? Conversely, by what right do you consider a full-term baby more disposable and less deserving of rights than a baby one hour post partum?
    In the sad history of Western civilization, humanity has been cruelly subdivided into countless groups of moral “haves” and “have-nots.” Blacks, women and Jews have all at different times and in different societies been disenfranchised from rights enjoyed by others. I think there is a moral credibility to the Church’s cry: “No more. Every human being deserves the protection of society. Society has no business disenfranchising any members of the human race.”
    Your comments about the death penalty suggest that you may not have a clear understanding of the Church’s teaching on this subject. The Church does not teach that the death penalty is absolutely contrary to natural law, as is murder in all its forms, including direct abortion. The Church does not absolutely exclude the death penalty as always and everywhere wrong, and recognizes a legitimate range of opinion on the subject.
    Not so with abortion. Like slavery, apartheid and genocide, abortion is a cancer in any society that tolerates it and a direct affront to human dignity. All men of good will, whatever their beliefs, are called and obliged to recognize and defend the rights of all.

  • Mark Silk

    Let me just say this. I find a moral force in the bishops’ position on abortion that I find lacking in the bishops’ positions on contraception and same-sex marriage, two other arenas in which they feel entitled, on natural law grounds, to expect all people of good will to reason as they do. The moral argument at the heart of the abortion position is of the slippery slope variety: At conception we have a complete genetic package that may or may not be a human being, or a person, or have a soul, but at some point it may get to all those metaphysical states and so it should be treated as something belonging to the human species that enjoys an absolute right not to be done away with from the moment of fertilization. My view–which is also Roe v. Wade’s–is that the right is not constant all the way through, but grows in the course of a pregnancy. Early on in the process, I find the moral force of the bishops’ position easily outweighed by the moral force of contrary positions having to do with the right of women to control their bodies and of the desire of infertile couples to have children via in vitro fertilization and of medical research to make use of embryonic stem cells. Those positions become fewer and, for me, morally weaker as the pregnancy proceeds.
    I can sympathize with a pro-life view that sees legalized abortion as a moral stain on society. I don’t see it as a cancer on society–in the sense that it somehow spreads a moral contagion through a body politic as a whole; i.e. weakening its ability to take moral stances. The bishops are entitled to take the position they do. I wish–for the sake of society–that they hadn’t turned abortion into the preeminent moral issue of our time, and made it a touchstone of religious orthodoxy for a quarter of the American population.

  • Socrates G. Domingo

    I am a Catholic and I personally oppose abortion which I consider murder, and gay marriage which I consider against the law of God. However, enforcing my spiritual beliefs upon anybody else by force of law and beyond the force of evangelization is not only wrong and counter-productive, it is also against the teachings of Christ who refused to establish his own temporal kingdom or government, or oust the Roman Empire, to establish the Kingdom of God.
    SDG’s (9/10/08) argument for the proposition that life begins at conception seems to be based on the moral determination made by some Christian churches, particularly the Catholic bishops, evangelical Christians, and other Protestant denominations.
    It totally ignores the moral views of other major religions, particularly Orthodox Judaism, Islam, Hindu, and Shinto, most of which recognize personhood to begin at birth. In other words, by adopting the Christian theology (or moral teaching) that “Life begins at conception.” as a basis for Abortion Statute, SDG’s argument in favor of abortion law seeks to enforce orthodox Christian religious theology and morality upon the entire breadth of the nation’s multi-cultural population.
    While I am passionate about my beliefs and faithfulness to the Christian and Catholic dogma, I refuse to be drawn to the temptation to force my beliefs upon others in the manner that the Spanish Inquisition suppressed Christian evangelists by the force of law.
    Evangelization by force of reason and the Spirit may be hard, but is is the only truly Christian way of conversion. Otherwise, religious intolerance will place us in the same moral equivalency of Fundamentalist Islam.
    I recognize the right of any country such as the United States to define its own society’s morality (such as in defining when life begins. It calls for a reasoned non-violent, constitutional debate, and amendment under our constitutional process. But is does not justify character assassination of persons who do not agree with our own thinking such as when one calls Obama a terrorist, Anti-Christ, communist, socialist, murderer, etc.
    If child murder, as Christians define Abortion, is morally reprehensible, I submit to you that character assassination of a living person out of the womb is equally so.
    S. D. Domingo