In Defense of Human Life: 'The abortion debate is about who and what we are.' - Francis J. Beckwith

By the time this column appears, the U.S. Catholic bishops will probably have issued their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility. I hope the first two words of the title are retained, for they represent the particular challenges American Catholics face when they address the public square on matters of abortion and embryonic stem cell research.



To “form” is to inform. And information is vital to sound judgment, especially one’s moral judgment, one’s conscience. The problem is this: there is a great deal of ignorance and misinformation about human embryological development.

Take, for example, a recent article by Garry Wills, “Abortion Isn’t a Religious Issue,” that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was featured on National Public Radio. Wills, a gifted scholar and writer who has had considerable training in philosophy and theology, manages to confuse the reader thrice in three short paragraphs.

“It is certainly true that the fetus is human life. But so is the semen before it fertilizes.” Does he really mean to compare a 23-chromosome reproductive cell that, by itself, is a biological dead end, with a 46-chromosome zygote (or fertilized ovum) that is the beginning of a unique human existence? I guess he does. Semen has the potential to become something other than it now is if it is united with an ovum. That something else is a new being, a human being with potential, not a potential human.

After aligning himself with a group of thinkers who claim that there are human beings who are not persons, Wills states that “a functioning brain is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest.” Does this mean that if a birth happens three days before six months, the premature baby has no functioning brain? Does it mean that all muscle activity and movement prior to six months does not require any integrated brain function?

Such a muddle of misinformation indicates how huge a task the American bishops face if they wish to help “form” moral judgment. Surely they want Catholics to engage the debate with more than an argument from authority. More surely still, the bishops must know that in order to influence political discourse, evidence and reasoned argument, not religious conviction, is the only way to be effective.

An outstanding example of such argument can be found in a new book published by Cambridge University Press. It is Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, by Francis J. Beckwith, a professor of philosophy and jurisprudence at Baylor University.

In the first third of his book, Beckwith does three things. 1) He examines moral reasoning and offers a defense of objective moral standards against the claims of relativism. 2) He provides a legal analysis and critique of Roe v. Wade and subsequent abortion case decisions. 3) He argues that a pro-life position, even though it may correspond to religious conviction, is not based upon faith. Rather, it is based upon scientific evidence and the answer to the question, “Who counts as a member of the human community?”

Defending Life’s middle section begins with a review of the scientific data, especially genetic, cellular and embryological data, supporting the conclusion that a human being’s life begins at conception. He meticulously (and successfully, I believe) engages the evidence and data that challenge his own position.

The sixth chapter, serving as the linchpin for Beckwith’s case, presents the “substance” view of person: an individual being of a certain kind. Activities, growth and fulfillment do not constitute human personhood, but reveal it. Human actions and performance are possible only because there is a kind of living being or organism, a substance, which can do them. Lacking an operational ability to think, whether at the beginning of life or at the end, indicates immaturity, trauma, disease or senility; it does not indicate loss of personhood. It is here that Beckwith establishes his premise that an unborn human entity, “from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.” In addressing the objections of writers like David Boonin, Judith Jarvis Thomson and Ronald Dworkin, Beckwith offers convincing support that the substance view has superior explanatory power, while it avoids counterintuitive results of a non-substance view.

Beckwith concludes with applications to present controversies over embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning—creating a nascent human being only to use and destroy it. Throughout the book he charitably and thoroughly engages those who oppose him. Defending Life is a model of how a pro-life position is effectively mounted. One might hope that defenders of abortion would as thoughtfully engage his arguments.

I at least hope that our own bishops will take up this work and, upon reading it, offer it to every parish library in the country. They might also request that lay leaders, especially physicians, lawyers, teachers and business persons, enlist such a book in their efforts not only to form their own consciences, but also to inform and elevate the somewhat cheapened and knee-jerk moral discourse over the issue of abortion.

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11 years 2 months ago
I am disappointed in Fr. Kavanaugh’s seeming to equate “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” to the single issue of abortion. That thinking got us the Pro-Life President whose actions have caused tens to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and a veto of the S-CHIP legislation that would provide basic health care for the children of our working poor. Having said that, the abortion issue is complex in a pluralistic society. People of good will, both religious and not, have reached different conclusions about the moral acceptability of abortion. Simply being “against” abortion without dealing with the poverty and injustice that contribute to abortions is ineffective and even disingenuous.
11 years 2 months ago
Perhaps the server left off my last paragraphs. ...making us vulnerable to the charge of being “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life”. I intend to read Beckwith’s book. Perhaps he offers some understanding as to why a third of fertilized eggs (concepti) fail to implant and develop. I have difficulty conceptualizing why God would ensoul so many that have absolutely no chance of establishing a relationship with God.
Edward Ryan
11 years 2 months ago
Kavanaugh says that Beckwith makes the point that disability at the beginning of life or the end of it does not determine personhood, yet the bishops deny the Eucharist to individuals with severe disabilities who cannot distinguish ordinary bread from the Body of Christ. Haven't the Bishops effectively classified these individuals as nonpersons? This position weakens the argument that a woman with a fetus that is disabled should not abort her child. The Bishops should change their guidelines on receiving the Eucharist before issuing any statement.
Nicholas Clifford
11 years 1 month ago
"How huge a task the American bishops face," Father Kavanaugh writes, "if they wish to help 'form' moral judgment." Yes indeed; but is it not possible that a large part of the problem might be of their own making? Might it not be that the single issue of abortion has become for them a rallying cry, not only to oppose the act itself, but to try to reassert their tattered authority after the events of the last several years? Here we have a body of men, a number of whom ignored their pastoral responsibilities, permitting children to be harmed by those under their jurisdiction, and who have now racked up a debt estimated at anywhere from $1.5 to $3 billion which not they, but the Church, will have to pay (precisely how remains a mystery). Yet for this enormous financial burden and for the even more enormous moral burden, not a single one has lost his position, thanks either to his fellow American bishops, or to the bishop of Rome. (Cardinal Law, let us remember, was ousted by public opinion, and rewarded almost as soon as he reached the banks of the Tiber). Is it any wonder that their moral authority is in shreds? Is it any wonder that they have picked the easy issue -- abortion, rather than, say, social justice, or peace -- in their attempt to rally Catholics to their support? And is Father Kavanaugh correct when he write that "surely they want Catholics to engage the debate with more than an argument from authority?" Do they in fact understand any arguments other than those from juridical authority? Are they willing to listen seriously to any outside the little circle of those who agree with them? Or do they simply want, as one noted Catholic writer has recently said, to talk to each other, ignoring not only lowly layfolk, but even their own priests, while occasionally glancing worriedly over their shoulders at Rome? They are supposed to be teachers of the faith. But how many of them know what it means to teach, as opposed simply to command? Take two sentences: "He told me to pray" and "He taught me how to pray." Would they understand the difference? Perhaps when and if they really learn it, they will once again be able to make their voices heard and respected in an age when, Heaven knows, we badly need such a voice.
11 years 1 month ago
The Church has always taught that it is possession of an immortal soul which distinguishes us from other creatures.Teaching on when God infuses the soul has varied. If God infuses a soul at conceeption, what happens if twinning occurs say eight days later? Muslims place ensoulment at four months like Thomas Aquinas. Anglicans place it at 15 days when there is no longer any possibility of twinning.


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