Gosnell and the Dilemma of Abortion


DrKermitGosnellIn Peter Kreeft’s book The Unaborted Socrates, Kreeft imagines what it would be like for Socrates to come into the modern day and speak to a defender of abortion. What questions would Socrates ask? Would he approve or disapprove of the answers given? But one exchange in there is quite potent:

Herrod: “Well, there is no way a philosopher is dangerous in our time.”

Socrates: “That is indeed a tragic commentary on your time.”

The reality is that those who discuss the big ideas and pass these ideas onto untrained and flabby young minds in college have quite an impact on this world. The Gosnell abortion case in Philadelphia is proof that what we think and say can and does have dangerous consequences.

Though the USA Today and Wall Street Journal (as well as a few other media outlets) have given limited coverage to the Gosnell case, for the most part it has been ignored. The Boston Bombing, which killed three people and injured numerous others, has received non-stop coverage as did the Dover shooting last December. Yet, here we have a man who is responsible for killing hundreds of infants as well as a few women and the media has little to nothing to say. Why is this?

Philosophical Justification

Before looking at the motives of the media in doing little to cover this horrific event, we must first recognize that Gosnell’s actions are actually consistent with most pro-choice arguments, on both the popular and academic level.

Even in 1972, the ethicist Michael Tooley argued in a peer-reviewed paper that abortion and infanticide were both justified because the human fetus or infant did not meet the conditions for a “right to life”. As recently as 2012, philosophers were publishing papers defending infanticide because infants lacked the proper qualities to claim a right to life. The most famous proponent of infanticide, Peter Singer, even acted like the 2012 article was “nothing new” and pointed out that philosophers have for a long time failed to see any moral differences between fetuses and infants.

These are not fringe academics writing for fringe journals. Rather, these are well-respected academics at well-respected institutions writing for well-respected medical and ethical journals. These aren’t the guys who sit on the outliers of the pro-choice movement, but rather are the brains behind the arguments. And they see nothing wrong with killing a newborn infant.

The argument behind such thinking is that humans, as a species, are not endowed with the right to life. Hardly anyone argues that a fetus is not human; after all, such an argument is scientifically ignorant. A fetus has a unique genetic code, not to mention that two of the same species cannot mate and produce another species. If two cats mate, they necessarily produce another cat. If two humans mate, they necessarily produce another human (if conception occurs). From the moment of conception, a fetus is a human being, just in the early stage of human biological development. The philosophical argument does not focus on the humanity of the individual, but instead on the personhood of the individual.

Thus, our rights are not located in our biology, but in our psychology. Simply being human does not grant one the right to life; one must also be a person. It is hard to argue that infants are persons; after all, the earliest infants cannot even recognize themselves in a mirror. If they cannot do what other higher primates can do, how can we justify their right to life? Many pro-life advocates attempt to argue that an infant and even a fetus are persons, just in different stages of personhood, but this seems like a difficult argument to make. After all, the opponents like Singer and others argue that personhood is something you do, not something you are, that is, being a person is not a state of being, but an act of being.

The Dilemma of Personhood

What pro-infanticide advocates run into with their line of argumentation is that they’ve created a dilemma for themselves, and either horn of the dilemma they take they end up on unstable ground. Essentially, if personhood is an act of being as opposed to a state of being, if one must obtain personhood and meet certain criteria for being a person, what non-arbitrary standard exist to determine what is and is not a person?

Singer and others typically point to self-consciousness, that when a being is self-conscious that being has a type of personhood. This also explains why Singer and others demand rights for some animals because some animals have shown signs of being self-conscious, albeit at a lower rational level than adult humans. So long as I am aware of myself, I am a person and therefore entitled to rights, highest of which is my right to life. After all, if I am aware of my existence then I conceivably have some fear about non-existence, and I have the right to avoid that fear.

The problem with this line of argumentation, however, is that it’s arbitrary. Why should it matter that I am aware of myself? Why do we place moral weight on that point, that is, what’s the justification for placing moral weight on self-awareness? For one, we’re not even sure what it is to be self-aware. This is the existential crisis of humanity; we’re not even sure what it means to be a person. Thus, the cause of our existential angst – that we exist and we are aware of this existence – is to somehow be used as a measuring stick for personhood is quite arbitrary.

But even if we grant this arbitrary standard, the problem with the line of thinking still exists; if personhood is an act of being rather than a state of being, then what if I temporarily stop acting as a person?

Let’s say that a mad philosophy takes me hostage against my will and drugs me up. This drug reduces me to an infantile state wherein I lack proper self-awareness. If I look at a mirror, I am unaware that the reflection is a reflection; I’m not sure what I see. All I know is I don’t know who I’m looking at in the mirror. I simply lack self-awareness. This mad philosopher then captures another person and tells the person that she is to take care of me until the drug wears off. As this drug is extremely potent, we know that it will take about a year for it to full exit my system.

This woman is poor and can barely afford to take care of me. She cannot just give me up as this would cause people to judge her. The question, then, is can this woman have me terminated since now I am not acting like a person? If personhood is an act of being and I am not acting like a person – I lack self-awareness – does this justify my termination?

The point of the hypothetical is to show that if personhood is an act of existence then what happens when I stop the act? What happens to someone in a coma, or someone in a very deep sleep? They are not acting as a person in that moment, so does that mean the person loses rights in that moment? If the person in a long-term coma loses rights, but not the person asleep, we must ask why duration between acts of being somehow matters. Thus, if one fails to act as a person for eight hours one still has the right to life, but if one fails to act as a person for eight months then one no longer has the right to life? If we make the argument that the person asleep and the person in a coma will/could eventually wake up and be able to act as a person, then where is the distinction between the unconscious person and the infant? The infant will eventually gain his self-awareness, just as the unconscious person will, so where is the moral bright light?

The dilemma occurs when a proponent of infanticide attempts to say that personhood is a state of being as opposed to an act of being. If personhood is a state of being then it is something we come into. Thus, at a certain age, or certain event, we simply develop personhood. Personhood, in this sense, is much like puberty. Going through puberty is simply part of the process of growing up, or being human. Some go through it earlier than others, others go through it later than some. It is, however, a state of being, something that inevitably occurs within humans.

An infanticide proponent, in my opinion, has more ground if they argue that personhood is a state of being rather than an act of being. They can go further if they argue that becoming a person is very much a part of being human and that all humans have the capacity for personhood, but that the capacity is not always actualized. After all, all humans have the capacity for sexual relations, but we do not want them to actualize this capacity until they are biologically and psychologically ready. All humans have the capacity for thinking and motor skills that would allow them to drive, but we would not let a two-year-old drive a car simply because he has the capacity to drive the car.

Likewise, an infant has the capacity for personhood, but that does not necessitate we should treat him as a human. Having the capacity for personhood and actualizing that capacity are two different things under this viewpoint. Thus, an infant will eventually have the right to life, but does not currently have the right to life and therefore it is not wrong to kill infants.

The problem with this argument is that it lacks a proper criterion for personhood. If we say that personhood is a state of being, then we must state how this state of being comes about. After all, with puberty there is a chemical change within the body that causes change. This change is irreversible. In other words, I cannot revert to the child I once was, I cannot reverse the aging process. But every external factor that shows personhood exists is also a reversible trait, most notably self-consciousness. If I’m put in a coma, or suffer a brain injury, or am merely sleeping, there is no promise that I am self-conscious. Thus, self-consciousness doesn’t work as a standard for showing that personhood has been achieved.

What, then, shall we use as a standard for personhood as a state of being? The reality is we don’t know because we don’t know what “personhood” really is. If personhood is a state of being, external of being human, then we have no way of knowing when that personhood is achieved. Continue reading

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