When speaking against the death penalty to secular audiences, I try to work in a plug for the unborn. So, once as a guest lecturer at Princeton, I lamented the passing of Paul Ramsey, a Princeton ethicist who demanded that abortion at any gestational stage be distinguishable from infanticide. I equally lamented the current celebrity of Princeton’s Peter Singer, an ethicist who justifies both abortion and infanticide. I had hardly finished my point when a student piped up proudly: “Yes, but we also have Robert George!”
Indeed, Robert George—along with the likes of Mary Ann Glendon, Daniel Sulmasy and John Noonan—has challenged pro-choice orthodoxy from within our most elite academic institutions, where it seems most entrenched. One need not share his political compass to count George an asset in a country that abides over a million abortions annually. George merits reading, close reading. The 28 essays assembled in Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism range widely in focus.
George imparts an inspiring vision of liberal-arts education and sounds sobering alarms over the steady increase in out-of-wedlock births and our “unbridled culture of pornography.” He calls out universities that champion racial diversity amid stifling ideological homogeneity; he skewers the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy for excising God from its reprint of the Gettysburg Address. He pitches to economic conservatives the importance of social conservatism: if the family fails, the state fills the void.
At certain points, the breadth of George’s discussions costs him depth. The death penalty wins mention in his case against Mario Cuomo but draws no condemnation; subsidiarity eclipses the counterbalancing imperative of solidarity; and health care as a human right becomes merely something of which it is “certainly not unreasonable to speak.” These cannot be the ultimate views of a counselor to our bishops who condescends a mite toward the “contemporary dissident Catholic.” George covers a lot of territory, but he burrows in on two issues: the humanity of the embryo and same-sex marriage.
Taking up for embryonic life threatened by research, George eschews faith and dogma. He reasons from science. “From a purely biological perspective, scientists can identify the point at which a human life begins. The relevant studies are legion. The biological facts are uncontested. The method of analysis applied to the data is universally accepted.” With fertilization comes “a new, complete, living organism.” Its development is internally controlled and directed. Nothing interrupts its physical continuity or species membership. An embryo did not become you; it was you. “You were once an embryo just as you were once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus.” When we deny protection to this embryo, even for noble research, we no longer respect human beings for what they are but for some acquired characteristic.
Some would abandon an intrinsic-value approach in favor of linking respect to capacity for certain mental functions. George urges us to recognize the mental capacities the embryo enjoys in root—if not immediately exercisable—form. George searches out and slays counterargument after counterargument.
Yet one puzzle needs further work: twinning potential. Very early on, the embryo can divide into two, making for twins. How can we say one person becomes two persons? George points to the flatworm. A whole flatworm, once divided in two, becomes two whole flatworms. A single organism before; two organisms after. The flatworm analogy does not catch, especially after George has put his axe to the pro-choice camp’s likening of fertilized eggs to acorns and people to oak trees. The divisible flatworm seems curious. The divisible person seems absurd. And George’s fallback argument—that twinning “increasingly” seems to represent natural cloning—requires both elaboration and a more apposite footnote.
Same-sex marriage figures prominently in five of George’s essays. Employing natural law, George attacks the very notion of same-sex marriage and, more effectively, forces us to confront a couple of line-drawing problems side-stepped until now. Marriage, George contends, distinctively involves “a bodily union made possible by sexual-reproductive complementarity of man and woman.” By dint of this complementarity, the “mating pair is a single organism.” This permits between husband and wife a “one-flesh union” that is the “justifying point of marital intercourse,” that makes for “conjugal marriage” and that objectively and exclusively implies fidelity and permanence.
The infertile man and woman can partake of conjugal marriage. For “acts that fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation are acts of the procreative kind even where the nonbehavorial conditions of procreation do not obtain.” Same-sex marriage, though, radically redefines marriage and further weakens an already “wounded” institution. It subverts the “stabilizing norms specific to marriage.” “Permanence, monogamy and sexual fidelity” become mere “subjective preferences.”
For many Americans, George’s marital metaphysic will stand up poorly next to the reality—just down the block or a few family relations away—of a committed gay couple with children. So take or leave George’s argument that a same-sex marriage cannot be a genuine marriage. Acknowledge, though, that same-sex marriage proponents have largely enjoyed a pass on issues of limits. George’s arguments make that much clear. Why doesn’t the “consenting adults” principle allow for polygamous marriages? Why not let a post-menopausal sister marry her brother? As Robert Sokolowski pondered in these pages, why can’t a pair with no interest in mutual sexual conduct marry for the legal benefits and protections? And what are the limits on requiring acceptance of same-sex marriage? Must the justice of the peace with religious objections preside over a same-sex wedding or may she claim conscientious objector status? How about the government-paid chaplain? The local wedding photographer or cake designer? George insists that acceptance of same-sex marriage inevitably requires coercion of these folks.
This brings us to the lamb-fox-lion problem and this book’s greatest disappointment. An old Protestant knock on our church is that she is a lamb in minority, a fox in equality and a lion in majority. In truth, this knock can be credibly leveled against most any institution or interest group or individual. With the upper hand, we are all tempted to reign like lions.
Now, George pleads powerfully for the claims of conscience when those claims belong, for instance, to doctors and pharmacists whom some in the American College of Obstetricans and Gynecologists would force, despite grave objection, to perform abortions or dispense abortifacients. And he decries as “trampling conscience rights” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s contraception-abortifacient mandate. But how about the rights of those whose consciences he judges faulty?
Should not society respect some sphere of personal autonomy for even erroneous moral navigation, provided no direct harm comes to others? Is George’s concern Conscience and Its Enemies or only Correct Conscience and Its Enemies? George seems noncommital, sending signals in different directions. No good. George observes that today’s same-sex marriage debate is not about criminalizing anything. Yet in 2003, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “deplored” as disrespectful to the family the Supreme Court’s striking down of a Texas statute that made consensual homosexual sodomy a crime. If George would defend such thinking, he should resign himself to a perpetual game of lamb-fox-lion in our legislatures, a game leaving little room for conscientious objectors or for reasonable minds that differ to live out their differences.
He should also resign himself to the risk of more disastrous judicial overreaching. Do not forget the origins of Roe v. Wade. The Connecticut legislature outlawed contraceptives even for married couples. This begot Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned Connecticut’s statute on the grounds of marital privacy. In less than a decade, Griswold begot Roe and the ensuing catastrophe.
We voters can do better than judges at protecting conscience. First, though, we must resolve to safeguard even the conscience we count as flawed.