“On Abortion” by Robert W. Jenson

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9 Responses to “On Abortion” by Robert W. Jenson

  1. brian says:

    At risk of dulling by repetition, the entire conceptual hybris of treating human life as akin to the determination of a property ties in with the utter forgetting of “passio essendi,” the giftedness of life that is prior to any and all choice and the necessary foundation for any kind of secondary “libertarian volition.” The presumption of modernity is to embrace a nihilistic voluntarism that contextualizes choice always within the determined limits of “conatus essendi.” Abortion, however, touches upon ontological and eschatological elements of personhood that fall outside the purview of an irrational rationalism blind to inherent worth and sacred inviolabilities. I am frequently annoyed by folks who think that finding out about their DNA is going to clarify identity for them. This is an analog to those who think material and efficient causality along a horizontal plane is comprehensive for ascertaining meaning. The entire hierarchical, vertical, eternal aspect of formal causality remains opaque to such a narrow reductionism. Person always comes “from above,” even though it manifests and develops along temporal lines.

    The same diabolic wickedness that reduces the value of a person to function and purchasing power will employ a utilitarian criteria that justifies abortion and euthanasia. The sacrifice to Moloch is not only a murderous stain on our society, it is an engine that perpetuates sophistry, the abuse of language by power, the destruction of the sacral foundations that make civilization possible. Jenson’s ethical and prophetic voice is just. To reduce opposition to abortion to a kind of pious distaste for the bien pensant of educated liberals is an atrocious evasion of ecclesial and personal responsibility to witness for the Good.

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    • David S says:

      It seems to me that Jenson’s arguments simply assume that the developing foetus is properly described as ‘person’. From there he launches an effective critique of those pro-choice perspectives that argue that, despite the personhood of the foetus, some kind of utilitarian calculus or an appeal to the rights of the mother can be employed to justify the killing of the foetal person. I think these arguments succeed.

      However, I am not sure what elements of Jenson’s critique could be applied to those who simply dismiss the personhood of the foetus. Brian is critical of those who think that DNA can clarify one’s identity. I agree. But by the same token, how can we clarify the identity of the foetus as person? Mere possession of human DNA? To me this appears to be ultimately a reductionist and non-theological definition of the person – scientists say that biological life begins at conception, but why should the Christian accept this as the beginning of theological life, as the beginning of personhood? Could one not argue that that the emergence of consciousness in the foetus – the first expression of our personal subjectivity and receptivity to God – would be a less arbitrary ‘cut-off point’ for marking the beginning of personhood, rather than the quasi-mechanical ‘gametes fusing together’ definition of the biological textbooks?

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      • Thomas says:

        That logic is the sort that qualifies human beings based on their abilities. Those who are disabled would be less human in a way that affects their moral worth and our obligations to them. Not saying that is what you are saying, but that is where the logic leads.

        It’s a question of metaphysical individuation, but one that must be informed by the empirical sciences. We are animals, albeit rational ones, and it can’t be the case that a human being is present as an organism but not as a human entity.

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        • brian says:

          Robert Spaemann has written eloquently on the serious deficiencies of using consciousness as the measure for personhood in Love and the Dignity of Human Life and various other works. In Atheist Delusions, David Hart asserts that the sacred dignity of the person is an insight intimately tied to the biblical, revelatory tradition. If we are moving to a “post-Christian” secular imaginary, there is no reason to surmise that the human person will continue to be treated as a unique gift from God worthy of reverence and care. In Hart’s polemic with Feser, he further noted that natural law is not universally recognized outside of religious tradition. We may be rational animals, but the full interpretive range of rational and animal is arguably only understood within the light of revelation.

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        • David S says:

          I would dispute that this is where the logic leads. Using consciousness as a cut-off point for the definition of personhood does not imply that one becomes more or less of a person if one is conscious more frequently, or enjoys higher states of consciousness, or suffers from mental disabilities, or whatever. In the same way, the ‘cut off point’ for becoming a grandfather is the quality of having one grandchild: one does not become more of a grandfather the more grandchildren one gains.

          I’d also point out that if the beginning of consciousness cannot mark the beginning of the person, then neither can the final and irrevocable end of consciousness mark the death of the person. There is therefore no such thing as ‘brain death’. I understand that Robert Spaemann, who Brian kindly mentions below, is consistent in his thought and so takes the same view. This of course has the unfortunate consequence of rendering the vast majority of organ donation immoral and an exercise in murder.

          Still, if a dog, or a robot, could talk, love, and make genuinely autonomous moral judgements, would we really deny their personhood because they did not have the right sort of DNA, or did not emerge from the fusion of human gametes? Why then use that kind of criteria to define the beginning of the person?

          In terms of metaphysical individuation, I think the absolute unity of the person is such that it is incoherent to suppose that it can split in two (as would happen when identical twins are produced), and I therefore find it difficult to hold that such an entity is a metaphysically individuated complete person.

          None of these points show that the beginning consciousness is indeed the appropriate ‘cut-off point’ however, but I do continue to question the conflation of biological and spiritual life.

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          • Thomas says:

            A tapeworm is conscious. Consciousness doesn’t differentiate humans from other animals. Definitions (by definition) distinguish things of a kind. What human beings have that other things don’t is the ability to reason. Neither a fetus, nor a baby, nor persons suffering certain kinds of disabilities have that.

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          • David S says:

            Thomas, can a definition not include more than one defining term? I think one could hold that persons are psychosomatic unitites which are in principle capable of reason (but, as you imply, not necessarily exercising those capacities, when still a baby, those with certain disabilities, or just asleep). Before the first moment of consciousness, there is no such psychosomatic unity, but only soma, and so no person.

            I’m not saying I hold this view, but to my mind it doesn’t suffer from any more difficulties than the alternatives.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        A key sentence from Jenson’s article: “One thing is clear; and it may be the onlhy thing that is initially clear. The fetus is an entity that in the course of its history will be granted and deserve the protection the law gives persons. That noted, one more point surely becomes clear: If we are to say that at some point the fetus is not yet deserving such protection, we must be able to describe a determinable demarcation and have convincing reasons why that particular line should have life-and-death consequences.”

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  2. Jack says:

    I was actually going to ask that same question. I am glad David asked because he put it far better than I could.

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