My friend Stephen Barr misunderstands me, I’m afraid. He writes, in defense of Charles Krauthammer, that

it is a truth accessible to reason unaided by divine revelation that human beings have a spiritual nature, in the sense of being rational and free and having a soul that is not reducible to matter. So that Krauthammer is precisely correct when he says that the question of whether some being is a person can be “restated in theological terms” as whether he has a spiritual soul.  The theology in question is natural theology.

There is nothing in what Steve says here with which I disagree—except the part about Krauthammer being “precisely correct.” Yes, human beings have souls. Unlike other creatures (who might be said to have souls too, albeit of a different order), we have a spiritual nature. But Krauthammer was not making the point Steve thinks he was, nor was I disputing it. Neither did I mean to sneer at the very idea of “ensoulment” as “magical,” though I am properly chastened if Steve or other readers took my meaning that way.

Krauthammer was claiming that there is a “debate,” and a “theological” one at that (and I doubt very much that he meant “natural theology,” for reasons discussed below), not about whether human beings have souls, but about when they acquire them. He claims—as he did a dozen years ago—that a disagreement about this subject, and indeed a kind of radical uncertainty about it that cannot be settled by reason (that is what he means by “theological”—the irrational), is why there is no “consensus” on whether the early-stage embryo or the pre-viable fetus in the womb deserves legal protection.

But there is, as I pointed out, no such debate. On one side of the abortion controversy, the Catholic Church—and every pro-lifer I have ever encountered, including pro-lifers with no religious faith who are capable of natural theology—believes that our “ensoulment,” or whatever is unique about our humanity and makes us bearers of the right to life, is coterminous with our coming into being. And modern science, with which Dr. Krauthammer is surely well acquainted, knows perfectly well when that happens. On the other side are people who either deny the factual dispensations of science, or want to place a “personhood” marker on some arbitrary development of the human person, before or even after birth. But they do not make arguments about “ensoulment,” indeed they avoid all talk of souls altogether.

Dr. Krauthammer, however, persists in believing there is a debate about the “when” of ensoulment. Here, from his 2002 statement in the Bioethics Council’s report on cloning, is a fuller version of the confusion he gave us in his column last week:

For some people, life begins at conception. And not just life—if life is understood to mean a biologically functioning organism, even a single cell is obviously alive—but personhood. If the first zygotic cell is owed all the legal and moral respect due a person, then there is nothing to talk about. Ensoulment starts with Day One and Cell One, and the idea of taking that cell or its successor cells apart to serve someone else’s needs is abhorrent.

This is an argument of great moral force but little intellectual interest. Not because it may not be right. But because it is unprovable. It rests on metaphysics. Either you believe it or you don’t. The discussion ends there.

I happen not to share this view. I do not believe personhood begins at conception. I do not believe a single cell has the moral or legal standing of a child. This is not to say that I do not stand in awe of the developing embryo, a creation of majestic beauty and mystery. But I stand in equal awe of the Grand Canyon, the spider’s web, and quantum mechanics. Awe commands wonder, humility, appreciation. It does not command inviolability. I am quite prepared to shatter an atom, take down a spider’s web, or dam a canyon for electricity. (Though we’d have to be very short on electricity before I’d dam the Grand.)

Like “theological,” the word “metaphysics” is an epithet in Krauthammer’s vocabulary, referring to “stuff serious people don’t seriously debate.” It’s rather like the view of natural law taken by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who referred to moral principles as every person’s “can’t helps,” as in “I can’t help thinking so and so.” For Holmes a “can’t help” just is, but it’s rationally indefensible. Charles Krauthammer’s “can’t helps” do not include an “unprovable” belief in the equal dignity of every member of the human species—not, that is, in the case of the very tiniest of us. This is why, as a member of the Bush administration’s Council on Bioethics, he said in the same statement that he could “support stem-cell research (using leftover embryos from fertility clinics),” and added that he “might support research cloning were it not” for the fact that it could lead to the commodification of the embryo—a frankly consequentialist line of reasoning that seemed to rest chiefly on a “can’t help” squeamishness about the prospect, and nothing more.

From Dr. Krauthammer’s own inability or unwillingness to think this through clearly, he concludes that for the rest of the world there is a “debate” going on about when “ensoulment” occurs. But as I said the other day, that debate is entirely interior to himself.

Articles by Matthew J. Franck

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