Sunday, December 31, 2006

The acorn and the oak tree.

First posted on Introibo ad altare Dei 6 November 2006

The Catholic Church has an official position regarding the unborn child, and it is this:

"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception..."[1]

Burt Prelutsky, writing in the online news journal WorldNetDaily, has a position on the matter and it is this:

"Those who contend that a human being exists at the very instant of conception lose me. So far as I'm concerned, that makes as much sense as suggesting that an acorn planted in the earth is the same as an oak tree. At conception, there is certainly the potential of a human being, a seedling if you like, but hardly a human being." [2]

Mr. Prelutsky's opinion, and in particular his imagery of an acorn and an oak tree, echoes that of the M.I.T. Philosophy Department professor Judith Jarvis Thompson. Dr. Thompson, writing over thirty five years ago, had this to say on the matter:

"It is concluded that the fetus is, or that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak tree, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees..."[3]

In essence, Dr. Thompson and Mr. Prelutsky base their assignment of personhood on a living, biological human being based on how closely the entity resembles us. Dr. Mary Anne Warren, Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University, has enumerated some of the criteria by which we can tell if this human creature is a person. They include consciousness, ability to reason, “self-motivated activity”, capacity to communicate, and self awareness.[4] Dr. Warren makes it quite clear that some biological human beings do not meet her moral and legal criteria for personhood. In other words,

The suggestion is simply that the moral community consist of all and only people, rather than all and only human beings.”[5]

Thus there is, for these academicians at the most prestigious of our American Universities, no intrinsic “right to life”. A creature’s personhood is based on how closely the creature resembles us. Dr. Warren feels that the average mammal, “indeed, even the average fish[6] “resembles us” more than even a fully developed fetus. In fact, the newborn infant has none of those necessary characteristics of personhood defined by Dr. Warren, and for that reason she readily acknowledges that infanticide poses no moral problems. In this she is joined by her colleagues in the academic elite, including the well known Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton’s prestigious Center for Human Values, Dr. Peter Singer.

Mr. Prelustky’s argument is the same. An acorn doesn’t resemble an oak tree, and the seedling of a human being doesn’t resemble us, and due to this lack of resemblance the human seedling has no right to protection under the law. Likewise, a newborn infant doesn’t resemble Dr. Warren’s reasoning person, and also has no legal status of personhood. Mr. Prelutsky doesn’t define what his criteria for personhood are, but Dr. Warren did. A question: I suspect that my cognitive world, the beliefs and values that guide me, are radically different from Dr. Warren’s, or Dr. Singer’s. Perhaps the interior of my mind bears no resemblance to the interiors of theirs. Is it possible that I might forfeit my personhood based on this radical dissimilarity? After all, these writers keep referring to how little an embryo, fetus, or newborn baby resembles us, but who is us? Them? My view of the world doesn’t resemble their view of the world. Everyone says our newest baby looks like me, so do I look like a fetus, or a fish, and not like us? The Jews of Europe didn’t fit the Nazis’ definition of us, and were disposed of accordingly. Why is Hitler’s definition of who is “us”, and who is not, any worse than the definitions of the writers presented here? The simple fact is, all attempts to define a person as something other than, simply, a biological human being, are destined to culminate in the murder of innocent biological human beings, because these definitions, by definition, don’t include all biological human beings. And we think we’re progressive?

The Catholic Church states that all biological human beings must be treated as persons. There are two types of beings, teaches the Church, created in the image of God: angels, and men. The other inhabitants of the universe, animals, plants, what have you, reflect God, to greater or lesser degrees, but are not in His image. What makes men, and angels, in God’s image is this: both angels and men, possess immortal, non-physical, intellectual souls, with free will. Animals do not. Angels are spiritual beings, who had a moment of creation but are immortal. Likewise the souls of men: each has been created and infused into the human form. But the soul will never die. The Church does not know at what point the new human body is infused with the newly created soul. Perhaps it is at the moment of conception, perhaps some time later. But we do know that, at the moment of conception, a living, biological human being is present. You say you don’t believe that. Fine. Theology aside, this is the only practical approach for a civilized society to take. Even if the embryo is just a seedling, it is a human seedling. It resembles us - humanity - because it is one of us. This seedling will not grow into an oak tree or a fish, it will grow into a fetus, and from there a squalling infant, and from there a fine young lady. Where is the line drawn? When is she enough like “us” to be a legal person? At birth? The academic elite have no problems with infanticide. When she begins to talk? Third grade? Only if she gets into Princeton? The only rational place for a civilized society to draw this line is conception. Any other place is arbitrary and, frankly, barbaric.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church 2nd Ed. United States Catholic Conference, Inc.-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Washington, DC. 1997. Para. #2770. My emphasis.
[2] Burt Prelutsky, "The abortion question." WorldNetDaily, Wednesday, 18 October 2006, at
[3] Judith Jarvis Thompson, “A defense of abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1971. Excerpts reprinted in Biomedical Ethics, 6th Ed. T. Mappes & D. Degrazia (Eds.) McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York, NY. 2006. See Chapter 7.
[4] Mary Anne Warren, “On the moral and legal status of abortion.” In Biomedical Ethics, ibid, Chapter 7.
[5] Ibid. Emphasis in the original.
[6] Ibid, pg. 463.

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