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Abortion, Souls, and the Atheist Conundrum


In a recent post here, I asked, “Do You Need God to Know That Abortion is Wrong?” I was prompted by two things: on the one hand, a series of articles defending the idea that we can be moral without God; and on the other, articles like this one, suggesting that opposition to abortion can only be “because God.” Those two positions don't work together. As I explained in the post,

The pro-life argument is simple: (1) human beings are alive from the moment of fertilization, and (2) it is morally wrong (and ought to be illegal) to intentionally kill innocent human beings. The first point is a scientific one. The second is a moral and legal one, one that science can’t answer. You don’t find human rights under a microscope, and there’s no experiment capable of proving that murder is wrong.

Since the scientific point is clear-cut and settled (it's inescapable that unique human beings are created at the moment of fertilization), everything turns on point (2). But the intentional killing of innocent human beings is what the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe calls the “hard core” of the definition of murder. So to frame the question slightly differently, to say that abortion is okay, you have to say that (a) murder is at least sometimes okay, and that (b) abortion falls within this class of exceptions.

This has sparked a lively debate, as well as a rebuttal from Steven Dillon. I want to address the kind of arguments being raised generally first, and then look at what makes Steven's position frightening.

I. Do we need to believe in God to know that all murder is wrong?

Broadly speaking, there are four major types of responses to this question:

  1. Only Theists Can be Anti-Murder: If you argue that abortion is wrong because unborn children have souls, or if you argue that abortion is okay (at least up to a certain point) because they don't, you're making arguments that are inaccessible to atheists. In either case, you're acting as if opposition to murder can only be predicated on the presence of the human soul. If killing someone is only wrong if we're sure they have a soul, why aren't atheists pro-murder?
  2. Murder isn't Always Wrong: If you argue that abortion is okay because killing one life can sometimes save two, or because our being pro-abortion is necessary for us to justify euthanasia and organ harvesting, then we've got a slightly different issue. In these case, you don't believe that murder is always wrong. You might have personally-convincing reasons for your views, like utilitarianism or a rejection of impaired human life, but at least own your own convictions. If you don't – if you insist on paying lip service to being uniformly opposed to murder, while holding to these positions – your advocacy will necessarily be incoherent, because you're arguing for two irreconcilable positions.
  3. It's Okay to Kill Fetuses: If you argue that abortion is okay because unborn children don't meet the requirements to be protected human life, you're not showing that unborn children aren't scientifically and materially human beings. Instead, you're either saying that they're not really humans, for some immaterial and non-scientific reason (like the first group), or that they are a group of humans that it's okay to intentionally kill (like the second). Here, the clearest way forward would be for you to spell out your presumptions and beliefs: e.g., “I think that murder is only wrong when your victim can feel pain at the time of death.”
  4. Abortion is Always Wrong: this fourth group includes those, including both religious pro-lifers and nonreligious pro-lifers like Secular Alliance for Life, who treat the prohibition against murder as absolute. This opposition (most clearly in the case of secular pro-lifers) is not based upon their recognition of a human soul. If you reject the existence of the soul and reject all forms of murder, this is the only camp to which you can rationally adhere.

All of Steven's arguments seem to fall within the first category. He doesn't dispute the biological evidence. Instead, he assumes (but stops short of acknowledging) that abortion is wrong only if the fetus has a human soul. If he's right, and you don't believe that anyone has a human soul, then you've got a problem rationally holding to the prohibition against murder.

II. Do We Need Metaphysics to Settle the Abortion Debate?

In his response, Steven takes issue with my twofold formulation. Specifically, he accuses me of conflating terms, between biological humans in (1) and metaphysical humans in (2). I'm actually doing no such thing: I mean human in the same sense in both (1) and (2), and reject the whole idea of humans who are biological-but-not-metaphysical (or vice versa). It's immoral, and ought to be illegal, to murder those that we recognize, scientifically, as human beings. Furthermore, any sort of metaphysical definition of “human” that fails to capture the entire set of all humans is a bad definition.

If Steven wants to hold that you need metaphysics to know that killing innocent human beings is wrong, or if he wants to carve out an exception to the prohibition against murder for those that (according to a metaphysics of his own making) he considers biologically-but-not-metaphysically human, he's free to make those arguments. But recognize that in each of these cases, he's the one shifting the conversation into metaphysics, and the one creating two classes of human beings.

I mention all of this for a simple reason. The rest of this article will be getting into specific metaphysical questions involving the soul. It would be easy, especially for an atheist or someone who thinks that only the natural sciences produce factual knowledge, to write off this whole inquiry as bunk. I certainly understand. But if you're going to do that, recognize that what you're rejecting is not my original argument, but Steven's attempt to carve out a metaphysical exception to the prohibition against murder.

With that in mind, let's dive into the metaphysics directly.

III. Is the Fetus Metaphysically Human?

This is the meat of Steven's argument. He asks, but doesn't answer, an important question: “What gets aborted?” To the extent that he gives any sort of answer, it's by negation. He denies that the fetus is human or even an animal. Based on his trifold distinction, the answer to his questions seems to be that fetuses are now a type of plant, but (likely, for obvious reasons) he doesn't spell out this conclusion.

He is led to this conclusion by two arguments, one good and one bad. The good argument is that there is a threefold distinction between plants (which have metabolism), animals (which can sense), and humans (who can reason). The bad argument is in how he understands this distinction. When Aristotle first proposed this distinction (In Book II, Chapter III of De Anima), he was looking at types of things. That is, a plant is the type of creature that can metabolize, an animal is the type of creature that can move and sense, and humans are the type of creature that can reason. In each case, the higher creatures also have the powers of the lower ones. By this standard, you're a human even when you're not reasoning, even when you're incapable of reasoning, as long as you're the type of creature that's capable of reasoning (which, of course, you are).

When Steven applies this distinction, in contrast, he's looking at whether you can currently employ these powers. That is, an animal is only an animal if it can sense right now. By this definition, you can't let sleeping dogs lie. Having fallen asleep (temporarily losing control over their powers of sensation), they cease to be animals, and thus cease to be dogs. You, too, lose your humanity every night when you fall asleep, by this analysis. You also cease to be a human if you fall into a coma (either permanently or temporarily), enter a sensory deprivation chamber, or get so drunk that your reason is completely impaired. If you go blind or become infertile, you similarly become less human, because you're less capable of employing your sensory or reproductive powers.

It takes very little to see the problems with such a position. After all, if someone slips Rohypnol into your drink and you pass out, are you still a human being with rights that should be protected? If Steven is right that human rights turn on whether you can currently reason or sense, the answer would seem to be no.

IV. What Is the Soul?

This, I think, suffices to answer his arguments, but there's an additional point worth clearing up. We often think of the soul as a sort of “ghost in the machine,” but that's not a good understanding of the soul. The Latin term for soul is “anima,” because it's the immaterial animating principle of the body. This can be shown easily enough, quite apart from Scripture or even philosophy. Simply envision two identical twins, one of whom suddenly dies. On the level of the matter, they are still identical. The same particles are swirling around, as before, and the dead twin has the same body that existed while he was alive, moments ago.

So whatever distinguishes them, whatever separates living things from dead ones, can't be a material difference... even though we can observe its effects on a material level. This principle of animation, separating the living from the dead, is what we call the anima or the soul. It's the organizational principle of the body, the body's “form.” And this is true whether we're talking about humans, or (to use Kreeft's example) cows, or ferns.

In contrast, Steven's inquiry imagines that you can have an animated human being, growing and developing in the womb of her mother, and that at some point, a soul suddenly enters her body. Not so. If you've got a living human, you've got an ensouled human. So the whole thrust of Steven's investigation is founded upon misunderstanding the soul.

So if the question of abortion boils down to a philosophical inquiry into whether or not the fetus has a human soul, very well: he does. But this still leaves me with my original question: does the question of abortion, or murder more broadly, boil down to whether or not the victim is ensouled? If so, where does that leave atheists?
(Image credit: India Times)

Joe Heschmeyer

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Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

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