Unholy Dying, Part II: Viability–The Receding Horizon

It no longer makes any sense to distinguish between the fetus before or after the first forty days or the first trimester or even between the status of a human life before or after birth.  In this latter case, we run into a problem of infinite regression as in the famous paradoxes of Zeno.   In order to defend Parmenides metaphysical argument that motion and change were incompatible with reality—that is, absolute reality—Zeno challenged his master’s critics by constructing a series of paradoxes.  

In one of the simplest, he uses the metaphor of a single runner in a race: Before a runner can complete the course he must run half the distance, but before he can complete half the distance, he must run half the half and so on ad infinitum.  So using the same method we may ask, If it is not licit to kill the infant the day before it is born, what about the week before, the month before, three months before?  If we draw the line at the first trimester or 90 days, what about 89 days or 88 or 87 all the way back to the moment of conception.  Similarly, if abortion is licit six months before birth, why not five or one or one minute before?  And what differentia distinguish a minute before from a minute after.  "A day, a week, a month, a year," sings Yum Yum (in The Mikado) of her bridegroom under sentence of death.  "Life's eventide comes much too soon," comes Poobah's answer.  The progress of growth from conception to adulthood is continuous, and the human species does not go through the metamorphoses of butterflies.  

Feminists, in devising their defense of abortion, usually have recourse to somewhat strained analogies.  Judith Jarvis Thomson, giving "A Defense of Abortion," rejects this conclusion by the familiar analogy of acorns turning into oak trees: "It does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are."  Of course an acorn is not an oak, any more than human beings are trees or birds.  From a biological perspective, we are highly developed mammals, or, if we want to be more specific, big-brained apes that propagate sexually and live in groups where females assist each other in rearing the offspring and males defend the group.  What humans have to do with species that reproduce by wind pollination of flowers is behind my limited powers of imagination.

From at least one perspective, however, the acorn "really is" an oak tree, since the mature stage of development is the fulfillment of the seed's potentiality.  In discussing contraception, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe used the oak/acorn analogy to illustrate the difference between "an act's intrinsic character and... the character it has by incidental circumstances."  Just as most acorns fail to grow into oaks, most couplings result in no children, but since "acorns come from oaks and oaks come from acorns; an acorn is thus as such generative (of an oak), whether or not it does generate an oak."     

Apart from Anscombe’s analytical objection, the oak analogy is seriously flawed.  To be precise, an acorn is not at all the equivalent of a fetus; at best, it is in the condition of a fertilized ovum before cell division begins to take place.  Most acorns do not actually grow into oaks--they are eaten by squirrels, fed to pigs, or rot on the ground, and even if they do successfully mature into great trees, the value of each oak individual is very low, except to the timber industry. 

 For such an analogy to work, we should have to imagine the rare--or, better still, the only--seed of a uniquely precious tree, something of great and irreplaceable worth.  If a vandal deliberately destroyed such an acorn, we would not assess the damages at the worth of an ordinary nut; we would punish him for the destruction of the valuable tree which can never exist.  If an adult human life is both unique (genetically, at least) and precious (if only to itself), then destruction of the fetus is tantamount to killing the adult human being that will never now exist.  

     What the oak/acorn analogy obscures is the obvious fact that in everyday life, we routinely value things for their potential, rather than their present worth.  If a windstorm destroys a half-grown garden, we do not sigh and say, “Well, it could have been worse!.  At least we did not lose any mature plants or ripened melons.”

Or consider this analogy.  Suppose you have taken a photograph for which a gossip magazine will pay $1000.  You are an old-fashioned art photographer who uses a non-digital camera that requires film.  If a friend of the subject destroys the film, he has caused a loss of more than the few dollars the film has cost.  The true worth of the film can only be measured by the picture that will be developed.  Similarly, a young athlete suffering injuries as the result of negligence will sue not just for medical costs and personal sufferings but for the loss of his potential future earnings.  

No argument can be put forward for abortion that cannot be applied to infanticide.  When does a woman's right to control her body stop?  If she gives birth in the wild, does a mother have a moral obligation to nurse a newborn and warm it with her body?  If circumstances, e.g., rape, incest, or deformity, are sufficient causes for terminating a pregnancy, why don't the same arguments apply to newborns?  And if viability or independence are the criteria, most parents can testify that their twelve year olds would probably not last very long, if they were forced to provide for their own necessities.  

Unlike many proponents of abortion, Garret Hardin was neither an ignoramus nor a fool.  As an ecologist, he was keenly aware that population growth was a major cause of environmental deterioration,  and as a thorough-going materialist, he valued human life only insofar as it was constructive and not parasitic on the natural world.  He was too intelligent not to perceive the arbitrariness of most defenses of abortion, but he preferred not to face the rational consequences.  Calling fetuses mere "blueprints for human beings," he argued on merely practical grounds that women will not want to have earlier abortions.  After this sophistry, he declared that "To a scientist, Catholic theology seems very much caught in a web of words that have only a tangential contact with the substantial world," a description that applies to his own bad-faith logic that derives from a political objective.  To be fair to the hard-headed materialists, many of them conceded the basic point:  That if abortion is justifiable, so is infanticide.   

If infanticide is the logical skeleton in the pro-choice closet, many pro-lifers try to shun the most obvious conclusion of their own line of reasoning: If all life is equally worthy and deserving of protection, therapeutic abortions, even when undertaken to save the mother's life, are unequivocally murder.  Practical considerations, such as the value of a mother to her living children, cannot be considered, unless we are willing to justify the sacrifice of a born child's life to save the mother.  Besides, physicians rarely know for sure that the completion of a pregnancy will result in the mother's death.  Many abortions of this type are performed only to eliminate a high or even moderate risk to the mother's life.  If human life is human life—with no casuistic allowance to be made for exceptional circumstances or particular duties— then there are no merely pragmatic circumstances that justify the sacrifice of an innocent person. 

Of course, one effect of this line of reasoning is to privilege the life of born children above all other human life and above all other moral constraints.  This is why Catholic women are willing to defy the Church’s teachings on artificial methods of propagation and offer to put their wombs in service to another woman’s child.  If the virtues occupy, as Aristotle and Saint Thomas have insisted, then we should be looking for the mean between the two extremes, that of killing unborn children for any or no reason and that of sacrificing all other interests and principles in order to save the life of an unborn child.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Eric Peterson says:

    It seems clear from the science that there is no “moment” of conception. Conception is a process described and shown here: https://ir.library.osaka-u.ac.jp/repo/ouka/all/78608/JCellSci_125_21_4985.pdf which culminates in human life. There is a point where the process is ongoing and infinite halving is possible between any point before human life and the point of human life. I believe there should be a more complete criteria for human life than such an impossible moment, and I believe that would allow for other definitions of human life such as initial cell division, or a particular stage of growth.

    Any selected criteria will have the same halving problem however, and it’s a slippery slope.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    It seems clear from the science that there is no “moment” of conception. Conception is a process …..
    That has no beginning? I don’t mind these snapshots of “science”. Biological, Chemical, Cellular, and even if philosophical skeptics like David Hume resisted causality (except his search for the causes of causality) for experience, there is still more to the experience of conceiving than the process of cellular biology.
    Again I don’t object to these reductionist explanations of life or even the equivocation of cellular biology for plants and animals of every sort. Yet, it’s the differences in life and lives of all sorts however that has always held my interest from trees to insects, the vast swarm of animals to feeble toothless old human crones. I am pretty sure cellular biology cant cover all of this but am not offended by those who try.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Robert, thanks for the comment. I had decided not to say anything because I am not at all sure I understand the point Mr. Peterson is making. I would, however, begin by pointing out it is a bit irregular to say “the science” and provide one article written by Japaneese scientists.

    Then, I don’t see how the fact–if it is a fact–that a process that may take some period of time to culminate in conception has to contradict the notion of “a moment. Consider the matter from several points of view. First, taking the long view, the mother and father are products of a series of matings that have produced their specific genetic makeups which then are joined in the unborn child. Presumably, if we spoke in Scriptural terms, we could trace it all the way back to Adam and Eve. Then, too, there is the process of two people being attracted to each other, perhaps falling in love, perhaps even getting married and then joining. Where do we draw the line?

    Taking the microscope view, however, we might also be able, a la Zeno and his famous paradoxes, to divide every milli-second of the processes described by the Japanese scientists to the point that no existing computer could represent a point in time that infinitesimal. None of the stagex in their process would then have any real existence, so with the moment of conception there would also disappear the sequence of developments they describe.

    But setting all this aside, I still don’t understand what possible significance any of this has for the question at hand. I have pointed out more than once that people have always quibbled about matters like the moment of conception and the point at which the soul is joined to the body. Yet those who thought the union came at some point in the pregnancy later than the procreative act–say in the third month–also regarded abortion as a mortal sin, because it frustrated the ends of nature which, for Christians, have been established by the Creator.

    Perhaps Mr. Peterson has something to say to enlighten us on this point.

  4. Eric Peterson says:

    Thanks Robert and Tom for the replies. Yes Robert I believe there are many possible forms of human life. Already there are human beings grown in test tubes and used for various purposes or experiments. There are only two responses I can think of, that doing that is simply a sin or viewing those human beings triggers our own human empathy. We have the unique ability to see the pain of others. Of course that can also be reduced: what is the sensation of pain? How much sensation is acceptable? I don’t think there’s any way off the reductionist slippery slope that I put myself on. I readily acknowledge that. But I am stuck choosing between a reductionist or holistic response and I choose reductionist.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Oh I understand completely Mr Peterson and it is the world we live in today. There are of course others still existing but the predominant view is as you describe. It’s getting more and more difficult to see or understand any other. It is what we teach and are taught.
    And as a great figure from the Middle Ages said, If you concentrate hard on the state you are in, it would be suprising if you have time for anything else.
    An old Marxist convert explained to me the means of production do usually determine a peoples ends but not necessarily so. Atomic weapons, poisons, insecticides etc do influence how we fight, eat or farm but more by custom and culture than necessity. Thank you for responding and your honest comments.

  6. Michael Strenk says:

    “…I believe there are many possible forms of human life. Already there are human beings grown in test tubes and used for various purposes or experiments.”

    This is just a continuation of the tendency of many motivated people to use other people to their own ends. We have had various forms of slavery for millennia and this continues. Child labor on farms or in the trades was logical, child labor in industry became necessary for dispossessed families for physical survival and could be explained if not excused on this basis. Children have always been used for all sorts of disgusting purposes for as long as humanity has existed, including being sacrificed in the womb, often along with the mother. Now “scientists”, who are in fact some sort of demonic priest class, are perfecting ways to pervert human nature right down to its physical form. The devil and his servants are incapable of creation, only perversion and manipulation, and they are certainly not capable of doing good, as the theological definition of evil is the absence of good. If we are talking of chimera between humans and some other life form with which they are experimenting, I doubt that these creatures, if at all viable, can be considered any more human than a bear after consuming a human, but if viable they should be shown the same care and respect due to any domestic animal. None of this is in any way necessary, or, indeed, even excusable, for any beneficial physical or spiritual purpose. It should not be permitted. It is cannibalistic.

    Man is made in the image and likeness of God. God became man by taking on flesh through the agency of a willing human mother. As the Son is an ever existing person of the Trinity, there is no point at which he did not exist in the womb and, in fact, existed before entering. Make of this what you will.

    Forgive me if I am not understanding Mr. Peterson’s argument. I am no philosopher or, for that matter, theologian, but there seems to be a dark reasoning here that I assert must be challenged and rejected.

  7. Robert Reavis says:

    “there seems to be a dark reasoning here that I assert must be challenged and rejected.“
    Mr Strenk,
    Yes I think it should be rejected but not challenged. Augustine and Benedict saw similar problems and offered different solutions. Augustine argued and Benedict acted. Personally I prefer the monastic, if you can find it, to the monotonous modern monologue, but I admire the friendships of both soldiers and monks and think they have a lot in common.