Redefining Humanity


Gerard Vanderleun recently posted a thoughtful and moving essay on the topic of abortion, and his own personal reflections and experiences with it.

The crux of the abortion dispute is, as mentioned above, the question of when human life begins. At this point, we all know the opposing political and religious positions. At some point, human life begins and the fate of the fetus is either at the absolute will of the mother or it is not. Nevertheless, it is still hard to say exactly when humanness happens since: 1) We do not agree on the term “human,” and 2) as a result, all evidence on this issue remains anecdotal once you strip away the slant of the “research” that supports your preferred result.

When does the fetus become human?

This question, on one hand, seems all-important, yet at another level seems absurd beyond belief. It is a question which would never be asked were it not for the idea of ending a pregnancy by abortion. What reason would there be for such a question? A woman becomes pregnant, and is expecting a baby: this is the expectation of motherhood since man and woman first began procreating. In its natural course, barring unforeseen problems, a child is born — a unique instance of humanity, a living being like none other before or after. It is only in the context of deliberately interrupting this process — ending the pregnancy deliberately — that the question of of the humanity of the unborn fetus has been raised.

That such a question is raised with any seriousness is evidence of a profound denial — the denial required to end an unborn child’s life in the womb. To raise the issue of the humanity of those not yet born, to imply that the fetus is anything other than a human being, is to salve the deep discomfort of the soul inherent in the termination of a life. For we know, innately, that the unborn is alive, and human, and to justify its extinction we must engage in extraordinary contortions of conscience. Thus we say the fetus is an extension of the mother’s body, which it clearly is not; we refer to it as a blob of tissue or protoplasm, dehumanizing its unique and extraordinary human potential; we call it a “potential human”, as if at some magic point a switch is thrown to turn on its humanity — while never stopping to define what that humanity is, or why there is no humanity in the split second before our chosen transition time. We draw false and foolish analogies: the fetus is no different than a skin cell, or a “sacred sperm”, or a tumor — thus denying the extraordinary creation which occurs when the genetic map of two parents fuses into a new life, with an infinite capacity for uniqueness, change, experience, and creativity of its own. For we are created to create; we are engendered to engender; we are conceived to conceive again in an endless and infinite way: to conceive new ideas, new works, new accomplishments, new relationships, new failures and successes, and new life itself, in the generation which we ourselves engender.

From the moment of its conception, that which we so dismissively call a “fetus” begins a journey extraordinary beyond imagination. Using the inscrutable road map of its unique DNA, the developing human undergoes constant change and growth — a process which ends not at birth but some 25 years later when its full physical maturity is reached. Organs form; primitive cells differentiate into complex systems dedicated to tasks both present and future. Before its mother knows of the pregnancy, at 6 weeks, the heart and circulatory system is formed, and the heart is beating; the primitive cells forming the brain and spinal cord are in place and developing; facial features, including eyes, ears, mouth and nose are evident. By 8 weeks, fingers, toes and fingernails are present, as is the digestive system. By 12 weeks, virtually every organ system is formed and differentiated; the rest of the pregnancy is almost entirely about growth and the maturing of these intact systems. The information map for this extraordinary yet orderly complexity — and for far more, including intellect, personality, gifts and skills, — and yes, liabilities — is contained in the fertilized egg in its entirety. We are what we will be, from the the instant of our conception.

We deny what is self-evidently human for many reasons. Our secular and utilitarian culture has lost its sense of wonder at the miracle of that which is the creation of a new human life. Our children are no longer gifts but burdens, impeding our acquisitional materialism and imposing themselves on our pursuit of self-interest and self-gratification. We must dehumanize first, then destroy, the unborn child, that we may live out the delusional fantasy of unrestricted sexual license without consequences; that we may continue the self-deception that somehow we are masters of our own destiny; that we may perpetuate the fraudulent vision that our relationships are about self-fulfillment rather than sacrifice for the good of our progeny and the society and culture in which they will partake.

In introspective moments of regret we may mourn the potential loss, the wistful thought, that we have aborted a Beethoven or a Ben Franklin. Yet even this mild melancholy misses the point, showing the shallowness of our own humanity, as we find comfort in the rarity of such genius, while dismissing the loss of that far more tragic: the loss of the common, in all its richness and variety. It is not the loss of a Mozart we should mourn; it is the empty place where a merchant, a mechanic, a muse, a minstrel might have stood. It is the compassionate mother, the inspirational teacher, the clever repairman or comical co-worker who will never live to enrich the lives of others in ways trivial and transcendent. Our losses are incalculable, because we have destroyed them before we knew their worth. We sacrifice our hope and our future on the altar of calculated convenience and cold rationality.

It is not merely the loss of those who might have lived which we suffer; it is we who survive, who make these mortal choices, who are changed as well. For if the humanity of our children is fungible, redefined, discarded and spent on the expediency of convenience and self-interest, such expediency will not long remain in the dark chambers of the abortion suite. We will, in banal, measured, rational steps, soon judge the humanity of all with the same jaundiced eye. The disabled, the mentally ill, the elderly and frail will soon find our cold and rational eye cast upon them, as we find their lives ever more a burden, ever more useless and wasted, all too easily discarded as we pursue our utopian vision of perfection through self-worship.

Yet our Darwinian dream marches on, leaving the weakest to fall by the wayside in our evolution from compassionate humans to rational beasts. Survive we may — but at the ghastly price of wagered humanity lost.

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21 thoughts on “Redefining Humanity

  1. Dr. Bob,

    The reason I read this blog is that you are an obviously intelligent man who writes well and has found a way to believe things I cannot. Your faith informs your writing, and I value that. It offers me a perspective other than my own.

    Though I am an atheist, I bow to no one in my opposition to abortion, and so I thank you for what you have written here. Well said.

    But I want to emphasize that support for abortion does not logically follow from atheism. To the contrary, there is no scientific or materialistic case to support the claim that the fetus is not human, as I have argued elsewhere.

    yours, etc.

  2. I appreciate your kind words and your integrity, and thank you for reading.

    Your point in your linked post on the subject is excellent. Humanity-deniers will point to an attribute of our humanity, which when absent, makes us non-human. There’s no evidence, as you point out, that a newborn’s brain works differently in any significant way than that of an 6 or 8 month fetus; and certainly the newborn is incapable of the rational thought processes of an older child or adult (in fact, such reasoning indicates that this pro-abortion argument shows an absence of rational thinking, thereby making those who use it less than human, no? But I digress…).

    Absence, loss, or underdevelopment of a part of that which makes us human does not negate the whole; we are not less human if we lose the ability to speak, or are born without arms, or are only able to suck milk from our mother’s breast but not walk to the refrigerator to get our own.

    From a purely non-religious perspective, we are human because that is our nature — it is who we are, hard-coded into our DNA, which manifests itself in time from conception to our full maturity as adults.

    The Christian perspective adds another crucial aspect, the spiritual: the capability and desire to touch, to understand, to deepen a relationship with the transcendent, with that which is beyond the material but very much a part of our humanity. But the argument that all belief about the humanity of the fetus is simply personal opinion/faith/superstition is entirely specious, as you have pointed out so well.

  3. In introspective moments of regret we may mourn the potential loss, the wistful thought, that we have aborted a Beethoven or a Ben Franklin. Yet even this mild melancholy misses the point, showing the shallowness of our own humanity, as we find comfort in the rarity of such genius, while dismissing the loss of that far more tragic: the loss of the common, in all its richness and variety. It is not the loss of a Mozart we should mourn; it is the empty place where a merchant, a mechanic, a muse, a minstrel might have stood. It is the compassionate mother, the inspirational teacher, the clever repairman or comical co-worker who will never live to enrich the lives of others in ways trivial and transcendent. Our losses are incalculable, because we have destroyed them before we knew their worth. We sacrifice our hope and our future on the altar of calculated convenience and cold rationality.

    What an insight! We are, as they say, not worthy.

  4. “Before its mother knows of the pregnancy, at 6 weeks,”

    I knew that I was pregnant before the first week was out. Of course, we were trying for it, which makes a differemce, and I was paying attention to what my body was doing. Anyway.

    Recently I have decided that abortion is a triumph of fear over hope. The prospective mother, for whatever reason, fears the changes the new life will impose upon her. So many people fear change to a pronounced degree instead of embracing it as inevitable— and often for the better.

    It is a good thing to choose hope over fear. In abortion as in all issues, we should try to remember that.

  5. Once during my years in a Catholic seminary I heard this argument given by the rector. He stated that the issue of abortion is not a question of “rights” (“I have the right to do what I want with my body” or “the baby has a right to live”); it is rather a question of the natural process of human procreation. I need not expound since you have made it very clear what is meant by “natural process”. Clearly the pro-choice movement is nothing more than a justification of promiscuity and other forms of self-gratification. Unfortunately, I have not heard this argument given anywhere else. Thank you for voicing it so well.

  6. This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read ~ thank you, Dr Bob, for writing in such a succinct & compelling way.

    Is it permitted that I do a copy & paste to send this to my parish priest? I will certainly credit you with the article.

    I do not feel comfortable with giving him the url, because of the image at the top of the column.

    And sorry also to have strayed slightly off-topic; I’d have sent you an email, but don’t see where any address is listed.

    If you wish to reply in an email, I believe you have the address available. Thank You!

  7. Excellent piece, as always! I remember some young women–and one or two no longer so young–who suffered great emotional turmoil, once they face the reality of what they had done, in killing their unborn children. They had bought the assurance, at the time, that “it’s just a piece of tissue.” One suffered physically, from PID, although her abortion had been done in a hospital; she thought she would never be able to conceive, again, and it did take some years.

    One woman, who had aborted her first pregnancy at 12 weeks (many years earlier) had also accepted the claims of that nationally-endowed abortion factory; however, she had since learned that, by 12 weeks, the fetus can no longer be sucked through a tube, without first have its arms and legs ripped off. If that’s true, it’s as barbaric and Hitler-esque as the so-called “partial-birth” abortion!

    The driving fear/rationalization I heard from more than one college student, when I was teaching, was “My parents would have died, if they’d known I was sexually active, let alone pregnant!” I finally defied one student to bring me the statistics on parental deaths, in that context.

  8. As a physician, I will never understand the abortionist. In my training in the mid 60’s we performed some abortions and had to obtain the permission of one of the professors in order to proceed. We gave the flimsiest reasons in some cases and always got the go-ahead for the abortion. We thought we were doing the best thing for the mother in each case and had not a care for the baby. Now, many years later, I am so repulsed by the concept of abortion I look back at myself in horror at how blind I was to what I was doing. I only performed one or two abortions and I told myself I was doing the best thing for the mother. I have never read an abortionist’s thoughts on this, but I have to think he or she places all value on the mother and her wishes and what he or she thinks is best for her. Then, the abortionist is the enabler and accomplice in what seems to me to be the ultimate act of cold self-centeredness.

  9. I have held off leaving a comment here because I know mine is not only a minority opinion but one frowned upon by both “sides” of any discussion of abortion. As an advocate of choice who also believes abortion is immoral I feel marginalized before I write the first word, but I respectfully submit a couple of thoughts.

    The abortion debate is made worse, not better by mixing faith, law and nature. We all want true faith to be congruent with both law and nature, but even the most casual observer can see that is not the case. Rather than ask “When does the fetus become human?” I suggest a clearer and less inflammatory question: “When does the fetus have constitutional protection?”

    This is a political hot potato which has been mentioned but avoided at the national level by leaving the issue up to the courts and states. Those concerned with the issue are advised to give the matter serious thought before FOCA comes up again in Congress. Many people don’t realize that abortion is currently a matter for states. Congress cannot act at the national level until the abortion question is federalized. So the US Supreme Court is trapped between the US Constitution and a bewildering array of state laws because of Congressional reluctance to address the issue head-on.

    It is clear that sometime between conception and birth a pre-born baby merits legal protection. Even the most extreme abortion-rights proponents are repelled by late-term abortions, but fear that any compromise on their position will be a slippery slope back to the days of prohibition, resulting in criminal penalties for abortion for victims of rape, incest, or (let’s face it) failed contraception.

    A legal line separating an unprotected fetus from a constitutionally protected future citizen and potential tax-payer will eventually fall somewhere between “quickening” and “viability.”

    For most people that last sentence is a shocking idea. It involves compromise. It smacks of moral relativity. It offends the sensibility of nearly everyone with a dog in the fight and even more who do not. (Think about that for a moment. It has been my observation that the most vocal purists are those who have not faced the reality in their own lives.) A piece by Bob Woodward in 1989 said parenthetically “‘Quickening,’ a term describing fetal movement, usually occurs between the 16th and 18th weeks of pregnancy. ‘Viability,’ or ability to live outside the mother’s womb, is usually placed at between 24 and 28 weeks.”

    When FOCA comes up again in Congress it is likely that this time it will not go away. For extremists at both ends of the debate I have uncomfortable news. Two steps will likely take place:

    First, the issue must be federalized to enable Congress to enact legislation at the national level to supersede a confusing and inconsistent variety among the fifty states.

    Second, in the matter of restrictions a viability line will finally be drawn determining at what point am unborn child receives constitutional protection.

    Before my comment here the word “abortion” was used only six times in over a thousand words. I think it’s okay to stop avoiding that word. It’s time to use that word openly but respectfully, knowing that when the subject is mentioned reasonable people can “disagree without being disagreeable.”

    (Hmm… where did I pick that up? I’m really not trying to stir up conflict. This is a critical issue that must be addressed so we can move on as a society. My courage to jump into this discussion was fueled in part by an interview I heard in December with Frank Schaeffer who, together with his father Francis Schaeffer, was partly responsible for the Evangelical/Republican pro-life movement as it emerged in the mid 1970s.)

  10. Hoots,

    As always I appreciate your thoughtful comments, though we disagree on this subject substantially.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

    It would seem to me incongruent to separate the question of the humanity of the unborn from its constitutional protection. If indeed the fetus is human from conception (and I believe it it difficult to rationally conclude otherwise, the convoluted reasoning of pro-choice apologists notwithstanding — “viability” arguments being especially weak), it is by nature “man” (i.e. human), “endowed with certain inalienable rights” with include “life.” Once we have decided that some “life” is no longer under constitutional protection (which Roe v Wade did, in effect, by dodging the life issue altogether), making it instead an arbitrary choice to be redefined at will, we will have in fact negated the constitutional protection of all life, as it will no longer be an inalienable right, but an arbitrary political decision. Very dangerous precedent indeed.

    As far as FOCA is concerned, I agree that it is likely to be on the horizon again before long. It is, as originally drafted, a horrendous piece of legislation which negates the right of conscience protection of hospitals and physicians, requiring provision of abortion services by any facility receiving federal funds.

    Having said that, I do not believe we will impact or eliminate the moral horror of abortion by outlawing it; you cannot legislate morality. Legalized abortion will not go away in any foreseeable future. Nevertheless, as a Christian citizen I believe it is my moral duty to oppose unjust laws, which the legalization of killing the unborn most certainly is.

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