DISCLAIMER: I freely admit that the following description / discussion about debates I, as a pro-choice advocate, have engaged in with pro-life people is purely anecdotal. I do not claim to have exercised any kind of scientific rigor in compiling and writing the following, nor should such be inferred. Still … that being said … sheer consistency should count for something. In writing this column, I could recall no exceptions to the following pattern. Anyway, make of the followlng what you will …
I am personally pro-choice, and several years ago, I began to engage in at-times-rather-heated though -usually-civil conversations and debates with pro-life people, almost always conservative evangelical Christians, regarding pro-life vs. pro-choice positions on abortion. Many of these debates / discussions took place in the pages of Christianity Today in the "Comments" section of articles devoted to the morality and religious aspects of abortion. (I no longer read Christianity Today, and so have had no discussions of this nature recently, but I have engaged in similar debates with other pro-life people in other fora, e.g., Facebook, and have found the following pattern repeated faithfully.) The pattern goes something like this …
At the beginning of the debate, I would ask my pro-life interlocutor why they are convinced that the fetus is human from – to use their phrase – “the moment of conception”. (At the time these earlier debates occurred, I had not worked out my critique of “the moment of conception” locution in any detail, as I have since done here and most especially here. So I just accepted uncritically the ontological implications of the phrase “the moment of conception”. If I could push the “Rewind” button on those earlier debates, however, the idea of “the moment of conception” is one of the most salient critiques of the pro-life abortion ethos I would deploy.) My debate partner would always – I can recall no exceptions – respond as to the human-ness of the fetus in a tone of voice an elementary-school teacher might employ when talking to an exceptionally dull third-grader. “Of course the fetus is human,” the response would go (I am paraphrasing), “because the fetus has two arms, two legs, a head, a full suite of DNA, in other words, the fetus has all the attributes that make a human being … well … human.”
I would then usually point out that all those attributes could, with equal justification, be ascribed to a cadaver. “So,” I would ask, “do cadavers in, e.g., hospital morgues and in mortuaries being prepared for final rites qualify as human?” The response at that point would be something along the line of “Well … but the dead body is still a human dead body!” Pressing the point, I would say “OK … yes, it is a human body. But it is a dead human body. Does a dead human body have constitutional rights? Can it run for office? Can it vote? Can it marry? Can it serve on a jury?” Without using the exact words, I was pressing the issue of phenotype and genotype, and arguing that, while a cadaver is – yes, to be sure – fully human as to both phenotype and genotype, even that does not suffice to make the cadaver a human person that must be accorded full civil and political rights. Why should a fetus be any different, if the only defining characteristics of the human-ness of the fetus are purely physical (phenotypic and genotypic)?
At that point in the debate, I would tell my antagonist two things, both of which tended to seriously ruffle some feathers, the former of which was a statement and the latter of which was a question: (1) by referring only to phenotypic and genotypic issues, all they have achieved is to conclusively demonstrate that which was never in dispute, i.e., that the fetus is a piece of highly sophisticated meat; (2) given that you are a believing and observant Christian, why have you left out the most critical and sine qua non element that defines a human person – fetus or otherwise – as a human person. To be specific, why have you left out spirit / soul / sentience – choose your own favorite word – out of your catalogue of human-person-defining characteristics? Is that omission not, at the very least, paradoxical? “Basically,” I would continue, “you are arguing, as long as the fetus has the phenotypic and genotypic traits you have enumerated, that spirit / soul is strictly optional.”
I would conclude by asking my debate partner – by this point, “debate” would usually be too tame a word – when the hay-yull we went down the Rabbit Hole with Alice. When did Good and Evil switch sides and become mirror images, like in that old Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror? At that point, the debate / discussion / rhetorical pro-wrestling match would almost always be terminated with prejudice.
Anyway, if the conservative evangelical position should be determinative, then we are left stuck with the question of how, if human beings are just “meat-dolls,” chunks of glorified ground round, how do we end up with, e.g., Mozart? Or pick your own luminary: Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Picasso, Einstein … how do we get from meat-doll to Monet? This is not to deny, Gnostic-like, that the meat is unimportant: Mozart needed hands to write his musical scores; Picasso, to hold his brush; Einstein, to write his equations; etc., etc., etc. The meat is a necessary condition. But is meat a sufficient condition?
According to the conservative evangelical account of the human-ness of the fetus, the answer to that latter question is “Yes”. All Mozart needed was just … meat. According to this “meat-centric” account, it was just meat that created that gloriously galloping first movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in C. (Listen to it. Even if you are sitting down, if you can avoid dancing, I feel very sorry for you!) No spirit needed. No soul. Just meat. Ditto Haydn’s sublime String Quartet in C-maj. Op. 3, No. 5. (Same admonition: listen to it! Imagine meat writing something like that.) Again, no spirit needed. No soul. Just meat. At least, those are the conclusions we are left with if we accept the conservative evangelical “meat-doll ontology” of the fetus.
Actually, I am predisposed to be more charitable to the advocates of meat-doll ontology than this. I believe that, at least in their heart of hearts and judging by their rhetoric on other issues, evangelical pro-life people know better. They are better than their own avowed meat-doll ontology vis a vis abortion. I believe that conservative evangelical Christians are so passionate about rescinding Roe and Casey, and thus outlawing abortion, that they -- perhaps unconsciously, perhaps inadvertently -- skate over the "soul / spirit issue," not because they believe that issue to be unimportant, but rather they know that, if they were to include spirit / soul in the attributes of the human person, that the resulting anti-abortion law would crash and split apart upon the rocks of the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Note, first, that there is no legal definition of the term "person." Note, secondly, that the only available definitions of such are in essence religious. So any law that seeks to make abortion illegal on the basis of the human-ness of the fetus -- i.e., as a spirit- / soul-possessing entity -- would be immediately unconstitutional. Consequently, the only laws forbidding abortion that could possibly pass constitutional muster are laws that avoid the issue of spirit / soul -- and are therefore predicated on the meat-doll ontology. But such laws get you no farther toward forbidding abortion than laws forbidding animal cruelty.
So what is my answer? you ask. What is it that makes a human person a human person? What is it that makes Mozart Mozart? That makes Haydn Haydn? That makes Bach Bach? That makes Picasso Picasso? That makes Dante Dante? That makes Einstein Einstein? Fair enough. Yes, of course, no doubt there are differences in the way the brains of Mozart, Dante, Einstein, et al., are neurologically "wired". But, while such differences in neurophysiology would be a necessary condition, that assertion is still on the level of meat. So we are back to the issue of spirit / soul / sentience as a sufficient condition: is being Mozart just a matter of meat, as the meat-doll ontology implies? All versions of historical Christian anthropology staunchly deny that such is the case. All such teachings insist that human persons are not just meat. So then what is the je ne sais quoi that gets us beyond mere meat and to, say, The Divine Comedy or the general theory of relativity? If the fetus is just glorified meat, then what is the basis for the pro-life assertion that destroying a fetus is destroying a person? My answer, as in the two "Skeptic's Collection" posts I link to at the beginning of this column, is this: I have no idea. Not the foggiest. All I am certain of is that if that "extra" is in essence in any sense religious, it is inconsistent with the US Constitution, and therefore not enactable into law.
In other words, it beats-a hell outta me. As I said before in one of the two linked columns above, that is one of Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns": something I know I do not know. Questions like that confront us with Mystery -- note the capital "M" -- and that Mystery cannot be comprehended by the categories pertinent to mere meat. We should assume an attitude of epistemological humility in the face of such, and avoid the pretense that we know more than we know, in fact, more than we or anyone can know -- and therefore decline to pontificate.
So when it comes to distinguishing Mystery from mere meat, we all have a "steak" in such an attitude ... OK ... yeah ... I know ... sorry!
James R. Cowles
Steak … No photographer listed … CC by SA 3.0
Fetus … DRSuparma … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Pro-life protester … Luke Anscombe … Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Pro-choice protester … jordanuhl7 … Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
First Amendment … dbking … Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Abortion On Demand sign … Debra Sweet … CC BY 2.0
Misty / foggy landscape … MaxPixel.net … Public domain