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. Keeping it simple. If the fetus is alive and has human DNA, it is a human being. Viability or stage of development is irrelevant.

  2. As a Christian I am in total agreement with you. But as a realist I am forced to concede that social, historical and legal principles are not on our side.

    What we call “constitutional protection” has been a very pliable concept from the start. At the time the Constitution was written slavery was still legal, which empowered slave owners to exercise the power of life and death over their property to the point of breeding other humans for profit. And speaking of constitutional protection, I just came across a very good post by Eugene Volokh looking at that very issue in another context, that of non-citizens, some of those “all men” mentioned in the preamble. If all life merits constitutional protection from conception, it follows that all humanity is included, citizens or no.

    As a Christian I have compromised my own moral absolutes (or them betrayed on my behalf as a citizen) more times than I like, from my opposition to capital punishment and torture to having my tax money used to wage preemptive war. As you said, legalized abortion will not go away in the foreseeable future, so my thinking is that a goal of federalizing the practice with a view of limiting it to the first trimester is preferable to leaving the matter up to the states. In the same way that gambling and prostitution find safe havens in jurisdictions all over the country, so too will abortion in the absence of federal restraints. Frank Schaeffer’s letter clarified the issue and comes as close to my point of view as I have found.

    In this we will have to agree to disagree and remain friends. Your site is one of the treasures of my blogroll. (And I’m waiting to see if you will jump into the health care fray. I don’t blame you if you don’t. It’s gonna be messy when we start tilting at the insurance windmills.)

  3. I believe the single most effective way to reduce the number of abortions would be to come up with better forms of contraception. By better I mean more effective, more convenient, less expensive, and more available.

    Broadly speaking, I see two sets of factors which will tend to prevent the development and deployment of these improved contraceptives.

    The first is the American legal system. Drug research is monstrously expensive, and much of that expense is directly related to managing the threat of legal liability. The hostile legal climate is a tremendous disincentive to the development of new contraceptives, or new vaccines for that matter.

    The second tendency is the reluctance of parents to provide adolescent children with access to birth control. The argument is that providing access to contraceptives is tantamount to condoning sexual activity. I have an eleven year old daughter, and the clock just keeps ticking. I do understand.

    But humans are weak. Kids will have sex. Not yours, of course; I am speaking statistically.

    Life is full of trade-offs. Does the fact that cars have seat belts mean that we condone reckless driving? Would it be so bad to put everyone on contraceptives (the safe, effective ones that don’t yet exist) from onset of puberty till they explicitly apply to be rendered fertile again? Millions of lives would be spared. How serious are we about ending the slaughter?

    It’s just a thought I wanted to bounce of the readers of this blog. I’m trying to see past the current impasse. Am I nuts?

  4. I’m a physician as well (practicing psychiatry), and just wanted to echo the sentiments you voiced in your “Redefining Humanity” post. Extremely well-articulated and moving, and I couldn’t agree more.

  5. To Dr Bob,
    Of course you can legislate morality. Show me a law that doesn’t purport to have a moral justification. It is only a question of whose morality is being enacted into law. Don’t you think Roe vs Wade legislated a moral position? How about the Darwinian policies of Adolf Hitler, including mandatory abortion, sterilization and murder of the untermenschen? For your edification read Geisler and Turek’s Legislating Morality.

  6. Faernya writes that “Only the property owner – whether that is the mother or the person who owns the home – has the right to decide whether or not an intruder is wanted or unwanted, and, by extension, what measures will be acceptable to deal with that intruder.”

    I am curious, does this right to kill trespassers extend to children post partum? If not, why not?

  7. The thought that comes to mind whenever I read claims that the abortion argument hinges on determining when a fetus is human, is that everyone arguing on this basis is completely missing the boat.

    Assuming that the fetus is a human being, as I do, does not invalidate the legitimacy of abortion. Nor does Darwinian philosophy lead to the nightmare scenarios some of the above comments have posited. In both cases, straw men have been presented, solely for the purpose of being knocked down by the presenter.

    How can I say that one can legitimately abort a fetus that one recognizes as human? Easily: for the same reason that one can legitimately shoot an adult human being that is skulking about one’s home at 3am. If an individual is trespassing – whether that individual be a catburglar or a fetus – then one has every right to remove that individual as effectively as one deems fit.

    If, on the other hand, the individual is NOT trespassing – whether that be a fetus or one’s spouse – then the question of whether to evict and/or kill them doesn’t ever occur.

    Only the property owner – whether that is the mother or the person who owns the home – has the right to decide whether or not an intruder is wanted or unwanted, and, by extension, what measures will be acceptable to deal with that intruder. Any other person, no matter who he is, who claims to have a greater right to make that decision, is merely exposing his desire to enslave that person, whether by stealing the fruits of his labor, or by stealing her control of her own body.

    To those who believe that abortion is somehow related to evolution, and that Darwin’s philosophy somehow leads inevitably to Hitler, I suggest you read this.

  8. Comparing a fetus to a trespasser or a burglar and a mother to a property-owner seems to me less than apt. Besides which, in many places one cannot lawfully kill a trespasser or a burglar.

    A fetus may or may not be a convenient passenger, but she cannot be culpable as an adult interloper is, nor is it self-evident that the interior of the womb is the mother’s property alone. That analogy only holds if one has already reached the conclusion that the mother alone has the right to “choose.”

    If it’s not enough that the church has always forbidden the practice, one need not reach a conclusion about the humanity of the embryo-fetus-baby’s humanity to oppose abortion. The “slippery slope” and “build a fence around the law” arguments are pretty strong. Unlimited abortion may cause social and cultural degeneration in ways both predictable and unforeseeable.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

  9. Grumpy Old Man writes “in many places one cannot lawfully kill a trespasser or a burglar.”

    I cannot speak to the inadequacy of the law in this case. The right to property is absolute. If the law does not recognize that right, then the law is defective. If you do not perceive that the mother’s womb is her property alone, then there is no way to discuss the issue with you.

    The rest of your arguments rely upon prior assumptions that I do not share, and thus do not recognize as valid.

  10. pwyll asks, “I am curious, does this right to kill trespassers extend to children post partum? If not, why not?”

    If those children are trespassing, then they are at the same risk an adult would be in trespassing. It is not the responsibility of the property owner to determine the age of a trespasser before taking action to protect his or her property. The only responsibility the property owner has is to ensure that a trespass has, in fact, happened, before taking those actions.

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