Friday, July 17, 2009
We are convinced that abortion is an awful thing.
Being so convinced, however, we must be able to say why; in the absence of reasons, there is no way that "we" might be convinced of the awfulness of abortion - at most, "I" could assert its awfulness.
Many people, even among Catholics, seem to think that this is the case, that we either do not or cannot go beyond the "I" of the speaker in his assertion of a certain confessional concomitant, that doesn't involve all men. In other words, that it is just a question of opinion concerning the beginning of life, when we can say a human person has taken shape.
First, when we say "person", we mean someone endowed with rights, like the famous ones about which the Declaration of Independence speaks.
LD and I discussed of the possible import of the Declaration of Independence on the discussion.
How about its famous "We hold this truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal..."?
I wanted to play it by objecting to the self-evidence, but he retorted that this stems from the concrete experience that led to the Declaration. It is not therefore an abstract logical category to which one can object.
Another question is the meaning of 'equal': how does it square with all the differences physical and moral we can find in people, men and women? But also this, even though of the utmost importance, doesn't lead to what I want to say now.
The whole point is in that "all men". The Declaration could be signed in good faith by people who owned slaves, starting from the same Jefferson who wrote it.
In short: we can hold that it is self-evident that all men are created equal. But, how do we define man?
Hence, the argument I want to make is this.
Historical and ethnographic evidence shows us that there is no society in which it doesn't hold the maxim, "Thou shalt not murder," by which they proscribe the taking of innocent human life - but this begs the question, for human beings are distinguished from other animals by their belonging to a certain group. Those in the group are human - those outside it might resemble humans, though they are not, or not quite, human (the examples abound, from Aristotle's barbarians to the inuit, whose name means quite simply, "the men" to the black slaves on a Southern plantation).
So, there is nothing evident in the extension we give to our holding homicide, slavery, torture, etc., as forbidden.
This extension comes from our holding "all men created equal", which we first encounter in the chilling symmetry of, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." The natural similarity of all men was then established as equality.
We need to recall, at this point, that the natural extension of the definition of man in physical space, to embrace all men wherever they come from, went hand in hand with the extension in time: i.e. with the prohibition of infanticide and abortion.
Given the essential continuity from conception on in the growth of the baby, a continuity that is not broken by birth, the humanity of a child is socially established when the child is accepted, and this acceptance is symbolized by the giving of a name to the newborn. It is pertinent to note that, under Roman law, the term foetus was a legal category that applied to a child from the moment of conception to the moment its father embraced it, at which point it became infans. When we read in the Didache that Christiani non abiceunt foetus, we encounter a principled rejection of the practice of infanticide - and a fortiori, of abortion.
In plain words: one extension involves the other, and negating the rights of a person to the baby from the moment of conception leaves the rights of all born men without any rational ground in nature.
With no awareness whatsoever of the implications, contemporary abortion rights activists would have us return to the primitive pagan Roman understanding of things; chillingly, in the third generation of abortionism, more than a dim awareness of the direct implications for the rights of newborns is present to many abortion rights advocates, as illustrated by, e.g. the President of the United States' erstwhile nay vote in the Illinois Born Alive Act.
Perhaps we ought not be so surprised he did not, or could not quite bring himself to quote the Declaration of Independence in his inaugural.