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Recent revelations that Planned Parenthood is trafficking in human organs—obtained from unborn children killed in the organization’s abortion clinics—have prompted a righteous outrage from many commentators. Anyone with a shred of decency is appalled at the barbarity for which Planned Parenthood is responsible.

Charles Krauthammer is particularly eloquent in his latest column:

The issue is less the sale of body parts than how they are obtained. The nightmare for abortion advocates is a spreading consciousness of how exactly a healthy fetus is turned into a mass of marketable organs, how, in the words of a senior Planned Parenthood official, one might use “a less crunchy technique” — crush the head, spare the organs — “to get more whole specimens.”

Dr. Krauthammer believes, with good reason, that this news could give additional impetus to legislative efforts to prohibit late-term abortions:

The House has already passed a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks. That’s far more fruitful than trying to ban it entirely because, apart from the obvious constitutional issue, there is no national consensus about the moral status of the early embryo. There’s more agreement on the moral status of the later-term fetus. Indeed, about two-thirds of Americans would ban abortion after the first trimester.

There is more division about the first trimester because one’s views of the early embryo are largely a matter of belief, often religious belief. One’s view of the later-term fetus, however, is more a matter of what might be called sympathetic identification — seeing the image of a recognizable human infant and, now, hearing from the experts exactly what it takes to “terminate” its existence.

The role of democratic politics is to turn such moral sensibilities into law. This is a moment to press relentlessly for a national ban on late-term abortions.

About the politics of this particular moment, Krauthammer is surely right. About the comparative moral status of the “early embryo” and the “later-term fetus” he is just as confused as the many American people for whom he claims to speak.

It is true that the evidence of our senses—“seeing the image of a recognizable human infant”—evokes a kind of “sympathetic identification” with the unborn baby in the womb. But moral conclusions depend on a kind of reasoning, not merely on “sensibilities” upon which we do not reflect. So that ultrasound image reveals the presence of a human child in utero. What was it before it was visibly recognizable as a child? The answer is obvious. It was a child then too, with all the attributes of a human child appropriate to its stage of development. And before that, the same. And before that, the same . . . all the way back to the moment of conception, when it came to be what it is.

Dr. Krauthammer has stubbornly persisted in his incoherence on this subject for a long time. In 2002, when he served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, the Council released the first of several important reports, this one on human cloning. It was unable to reach a consensus on policy recommendations, unanimously supporting a ban on cloning to “produce children,” but divided on whether to ban cloning “for biomedical research” (i.e., with the understanding that cloned human beings would be destroyed while still embryos). Krauthammer, like other members of the Council, filed a “personal statement” appended to the report, in which he said he would like to see all cloning banned, but would settle for a moratorium while the country was divided on “research cloning.” There was much to commend about Krauthammer’s statement, which warned of slippery slopes, and of the development of a callous disregard for human life at all stages. But he also entered into the record this singularly muddled musing, which he had previously published at The New Republic:

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.

There is a good deal of nonsense here, from which the handwaving about “awe” can distract us. As Robert George (also then a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics) has often pointed out, no beliefs about “ensoulment,” no religious beliefs, and no “metaphysics” about ultimate questions need be invoked to come to the conclusion that the earliest embryo is one of us. (See the article here from 2008, for instance.) All one needs is the basic logic of the law of noncontradiction. What is this being, growing in the womb of a woman? It is undeniably a member of our species. Do members of our species have a right to life? If you answer yes, for any of our fellow humans at any stage of their lives, can you supply a reason why some have that right and others do not? And can you give a coherent reason why the possession of the right is time-dependent or development-dependent? I promise you cannot. And I assure you that Dr. Krauthammer has never even tried to give an answer better than “now it looks kind of like us.”

By all means let us ban as many abortions as we can, as soon as we can. The massacre of millions since 1973 has gone on long enough, and any reduction of abortion’s incidence is good news. But if Dr. Krauthammer, as a matter of brute fact, represents a public that just doesn’t want to think this through, and see that there is no moral standing the twenty-week fetus possesses that is not also possessed by the twenty-hour embryo, then we must keep inviting him and our fellow citizens to turn their “moral sensibilities” into moral reasoning. Less mere feeling, please, and a good deal more thinking.

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

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