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There are few more gifted conservative columnists working in journalism today than Charles Krauthammer. On so many issues, from executive power to foreign policy to limited government, Krauthammer is reliable, insightful, and employs a gleefully sharp pen to eviscerate his adversaries. But every now and then he delivers himself of frustratingly ill-informed opinions, and this happens most often on the “social” issues such as the sanctity of life and the preservation of marriage.

So it was in his latest weekly column. In the midst of giving generally good advice to conservative pro-lifers about how to play to their political strength—by emphasizing the issue of late-term abortion, where a consensus of public opinion is on their side—Krauthammer offered this:

Conservatives need to accept that no such consensus exists regarding early abortions. Unlike late-term abortions, where there are clearly two human beings involved, there is no such agreement regarding, say, a six-week-old embryo.

There remains profound disagreement as to whether at this early stage the fetus has acquired personhood or, to put it more theologically, ensoulment. The disagreement is understandable given that the question is a matter of faith.

This doesn’t mean that abortion opponents should give up. But regarding early abortions, the objective should be persuasion — creating some future majority —rather than legislative coercion in the absence of a current majority. These are the constraints of a democratic system.

The trouble appears in the second paragraph just quoted. It is true that in the early stages of pregnancy, there is “profound disagreement” whether or not to protect the unborn human being in the womb. But this is certainly not because of some “theological” dispute about whether something called “ensoulment” has taken place. On the side of leaving the unborn defenseless, it is true, there are sophisticated pseudo-arguments purporting to complicate the question whether, and when, we can call these human beings “persons” with a right not to be killed by others. But there are literally no pro-lifers—and to my knowledge there have been none in the four decades since Roe v. Wade was decided—who argue that the unborn deserve protection because some magical “ensoulment” has taken place. The Catholic Church, to take one prominent institution devoted to the defense of human life from conception until natural death, makes no “theological” argument about the nature of the life in the womb. The Church relies instead entirely on the scientific fact that every unborn human being is, from the moment of its conception, a member of our species. The Church offers no doctrines about “ensoulment,” and entertains no “leap of faith”about the status of the unborn. It observes a fact—that these tiny beings are just as we once were, each and every one of us—and then draws a moral conclusion: as each of us is entitled not to be killed without justification, so is each of them. Nothing mysteriously “theological” or shrouded in “a matter of faith.”

I wonder if Dr. Krauthammer could name one prominent pro-lifer in the last four decades who speaks of a theology of “ensoulment” and engages in the debate he imagines. I am sure he can’t. No pro-lifer speaks of these things, and on the pro-abortion side, talk of “souls” is decidedly déclassé. (This is not, for example, Peter-Singer-talk.)

More than a decade ago, when Dr. Krauthammer was on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, he served alongside staunch pro-lifers such as Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, William Hurlbut, Paul McHugh, and Gilbert Meilaender. In its first report, the Council took up the issue of cloning—whether for research or for reproduction. All the members except the chairman, Leon Kass, appended personal statements to the Council’s report. Only one member had anything to say about “ensoulment.” It was Charles Krauthammer, who mentioned it twice in just the way he does in his latest column, to suggest that some active debate is going on about the subject. No one else, conservative or liberal, pro-cloning or anti-, mentioned the subject, and in fact nowhere else in the entire report did the word “soul” even appear.

The debate about “ensoulment” is entirely in the mind of Charles Krauthammer. Perhaps one day he will decide which side of his own divided soul is victorious.

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