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Look, when we think about ending an early human life, this is something that is really bad for the embryo or early fetus that dies, it’s losing out tremendously—I agree with that as I already said. And then you said that it’s one of the things that we should care about. And, um, I think that I should have said before that I think it’s really dangerous to slide from noticing that something is bad for something, to thinking that that gives us a moral reason. And just to prove that that doesn’t follow, think about plants. So lots of things are bad for trees, and plants, and flowers, and often that gives us no reasons whatsoever, certainly no moral reasons. In my view, fetuses that die before they’re ever conscious really are a lot like plants: They’re living things, but there’s nothing about them that would make us think that they count morally in the way that people do.

That came from Princeton philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman during the question-and-answer period of last week’s star-studded symposium at Princeton titled, “Is It Wrong to End Early Human Life?” The participants included Harman and her Princeton colleagues Robert George and Peter Singer, along with Don Marquis (Kansas), Patrick Lee (Franciscan), Jeff McMahan (Rutgers), and John Haldane (St. Andrews). Moderating the discussion was Harold Shapiro, Princeton’s president emeritus and the chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under President Clinton. On any measure, these are among the most prominent voices in contemporary philosophy and bioethics, and to have them together on one three-and-a-half-hour panel was an intellectual treat. (Disclosure: George, Lee, and Haldane are affiliated with the Witherspoon Institute, as am I.)

Many, no doubt, will find Harman’s comparison of human fetuses to plants—not to mention Singer’s moral defense of infanticide—deeply repugnant. I certainly do. But these are merely the conclusions of a chain of (gravely mistaken) moral reasoning, and such intellectually honest reflection is to be preferred, in fact welcomed, over the unprincipled rationalization that often takes its place. When people like Harman and Singer speak openly and follow their premises to their logical conclusions, the audience realizes what is at stake when a commitment to intrinsic human dignity and equality is rejected—and that realization is a very good thing.

Though ethical disagreement about such important matters as killing human beings, restricting women’s liberty, and forestalling scientific research often generate more heat than light, one of this panel’s many virtues was its consistent civility. The participants themselves stressed that intelligent and reflective people of goodwill can and do disagree. Eschewing ad hominem attacks, they opted to offer arguments and rebuttals, a mutual exchange whose currency is reason. This brought to mind Fr. John Courtney Murray’s famous remark that “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” So it is a credit to the panelists that the discussion was marked by a lack of confusion, albeit much disagreement.

Some would still question its worth. Toward the end of the Q&A, someone admitted to being impressed by the philosophers’ “ingenuity” but asked if it really mattered: Don’t people come to their ethical conclusions “viscerally” and then try to justify them?

I wouldn’t be so cynical. Such theorizing throughout the academy—and the Church—plays a crucial role in developing adequate responses to new ethical challenges. Objections are raised, theories are refined, misconceptions are cleared away, and arguments are developed—and truth can be discovered. It has been through exchanges such as this one, for example, that the pro-life side has refined its argument to the intellectually persuasive position that it is today. And championing this developed argument has its effects—on the young, who are consistently polled as being more pro-life than their parents’ generation, and even on older converts, like NARAL cofounder Bernard Nathanson.

So what was discussed? Patrick Lee opened the panel in good philosophical style with a thought experiment: Would it be wrong, he asked, to kill someone after a surgery that would irreversibly erase all his memories and leave him unconscious for several months? Yes it would, he argued, even though he would be in the same psychological position as a human embryo or fetus. For he would still retain, as a human being, the basic natural capacity for personal acts—even if the immediate ability to perform them would be delayed. Similarly, the human embryo or fetus has that same personal nature; she just needs time to develop herself to the point where she can exercise it. Lee summarized his argument in three simple steps: 1. We are intrinsically valuable from the moment we come to be. 2. We are essentially animal organisms of a rational sort, so that all human beings are persons. 3. Human organisms come to be at fertilization. Conclusion: Every whole human organism (meaning human beings, not human parts)—including embryos—is intrinsically valuable as a subject of rights.

Peter Singer went next. He reminded the audience that, as a utilitarian, he aims to weigh the costs and the benefits of various options to find the one promising the greatest good. On his view, there are four general reasons why it is typically wrong to kill a typical human being named Jane (all the “typicals” are required qualifiers in any utilitarian framework, for nothing is absolute): 1. Killing Jane would wrong her family and friends. 2. It would make others anxious that they could be next. 3. The world would be deprived of Jane’s inherent value (regardless of which theory we embrace to identify that value: hedonism, preference-satisfaction, rational-choice, etc.). 4. As a self-aware being, Jane has future-dependent desires that her death would thwart.

But, as Singer himself admitted, any of these reasons may be defeated or destroyed under certain conditions: “The intrinsic value of Jane’s life may be an important reason, or may not be, depending on the circumstances.” For example, Jane’s life does not produce a net increase of value in the world if “Jane’s death is a necessary condition for Helen, who will live a life of even greater value than Jane.” This could justify aborting a genetically defective child to conceive a healthy replacement (Singer’s own example)—but also justify killing some adults. The relevance of Singer’s fourth consideration also varies, since, he argues, some chimpanzees are “certainly more self-aware than some humans, and more self-aware than fetuses or, for that matter, newborn babies.”

After Singer, Don Marquis presented an argument for his well-known, moderately pro-life position (first proposed in one of the most widely anthologized articles against abortion). He rejected both utilitarianism and any straightforward sanctity-of-life view that would include anencephalic babies, Terri Schiavo, and people in irreversible comas (who, he argued, have futures of little or no value). Instead, Marquis argued, depriving someone of “a future of value” is what makes killing wrong. To kill Marquis today would be to deprive him of all the value that his future life holds. Thus, to have killed the fetus that Marquis once was would have been to deprive him of that same value, for the fetus that he was had a future larger than (and including) his current one. Marquis concluded that most killing of fetuses and newborns is wrong, but killing a human being with absolutely no potential for consciousness is not wrong, for such a being’s future has little or no value. To my mind, this view (though flawed) is probably most in accord with many people’s basic intuitions.

The final presenter was Jeff McMahan, defender of the Threshold Gradualist View, who argued that some threshold has to be crossed in human development before we exist. From there, our moral status gradually increases to that of persons as we develop self-awareness. To be clear, he doesn’t argue “that there’s a time when we exist and don’t matter.” Rather, he thinks “that there is a period in early human life when we don’t exist.” For him it is irrelevant when life begins: “The morally interesting question to ask is ‘when do we begin to exist.’” A human organism begins to exist at one point and we begin to exist at another point because, on McMahan’s view, “we are not identical with human organisms. We are not essentially or substantially human organisms.”

Why not? Among his other arguments, McMahan thinks that in diacephalic twinning—where two heads are attached to one torso—two people share one human organism, proving that people are not essentially human organisms but rather conscious subjects. In senility or dementia, he asks, “once the capacity for consciousness has disappeared, what’s left?” Not you, if you are only a mind: “Somebody’s there so long as there’s a conscious subject present in association with that organism, but there’s nothing there that’s a viable candidate to be you after the capacity for consciousness has ceased to exist.” An explicit appeal to body-self dualism—the ghost in the machine lives on. “I think that we began to exist when the developing fetal organism developed the capacity to support consciousness and mental activity. That occurs roughly between 22 and 28 weeks after fertilization. It’s at that point, I think, that there is someone there rather than just something .” As a result, “an abortion performed prior to that point doesn’t kill somebody like you or me; it simply prevents one of us from existing.” Until then, killing a human being “doesn’t matter morally,” because it’s an “unoccupied human organism—we’re not there yet.” His exclamation “I was never an embryo” drew noticeable (and decidedly skeptical) chuckles from the audience.

The other three panelists then offered brief comments. Robert George spent his turn criticizing utilitarianism for its inability to defend human rights, including an adult’s right to life, since the calculation could justify the killing of any individual for the sake of a putatively “greater good.” He also criticized McMahan’s theory by proposing that we are essentially human organisms, not mere consciousnesses “occupying” physical bodies.

John Haldane suggested that the discussion was too narrow, that we needed to step back and reconsider how to go about doing ethics in the first place and how to think about human life: “In fashioning an ethic about our relationship with one another, that is done on the basis of an understanding of what human beings are as such; the recognition that human life is something that is spread throughout its career; and that the appropriate attitudes of respect, solidarity, regard, and reverence that one adopts to human beings as such means that it isn’t optional for us to let those lapse or to see those as defeasible in particular circumstances or stages in which human beings are . . . [underdeveloped or] seriously damaged.”

Finally, Professor Harman focused her comments on Don Marquis, agreeing with him that killing deprives us of our future of value but maintaining that this only matters because we count morally but fetuses do not. “So what we have is something that is really bad for the embryo or fetus, but in my view that is morally insignificant.” To defend this argument, she proposed her Actual Future Principle. And the one-sentence definition reads: “Things have moral status throughout their existence, just in case there’s any time in their existence at which they are conscious.” The basic gist: If a fetus one day develops to maturity, then it has been valuable all along, since conception. But if we will abort the fetus, then it was never valuable. Needless to say, this view received the most head scratching from the audience and from the other panelists. Her view on whether fetuses have moral status: “Some do, some don’t, and it depends on what’s going to happen to them.” In other words, if we kill them, then they have no moral status, but if we don’t, they do. So two intrinsically identical unborn human beings could have radically different moral statuses. Like I said, lots of head scratching.

As is usually the case, the question-and-answer period was even more clarifying. Lee and George explained the importance of fertilization as the initiation of a new and distinct individual life—and even the pro-choicers on the panel were willing to concede that, as a matter of biological fact, human embryos and fetuses are human beings. Lee also clarified that the goods that I recognize as fulfilling—including life itself—are good not only for me but for anyone essentially like me, others with whom I could be in communion: rational creatures. Likewise, both Lee and Haldane stressed the importance of basic natural capacities (Lee’s phrase) or second-order capacities (Haldane’s phrase). A fetus—not to mention a newborn baby—doesn’t have the immediate capacity to think or choose or speak, but she has the basic natural or second-order capacity to develop herself to the stage at which she can and does. And, as Haldane stressed, it’s only on the basis of second-order capacities that we distinguish types of beings from each other.

Taken as a whole, the discussions revealed several salient points. It was instructive to witness the ease with which various speakers could embrace infanticide or dehumanize unborn life—recall Harman’s argument that unborn children “really are a lot like plants.” But even more instructive was how unalarmed many in the Princeton audience seemed to be by any of this. I had forgotten that, for more than a few in the academic elite, this is just par for the course.

It was gratifying to see that all of the panelists agreed that the pro-life argument did not rest on illicit theological beliefs (something the Princeton biologist Lee Silver absurdly charges), though it was frustrating to see that, while pro-choice philosophers feel they have to take the pro-life argument seriously, they frequently respond to caricatured versions of it. (At times it was clear that some members of the panel did not truly understand the pro-life argument in all its details. In fairness to Fr. Murray, then, there was some confusion.) Nonetheless, most anyone present would agree that Lee, George, Haldane, and Marquis showed that the pro-life argument was every bit as intellectually sophisticated as the pro-choice alternatives—indeed, from my perspective it is more coherent and more plausible, since it does not entail bizarre premises (“I was never an embryo”) or repulsive conclusions (such as the moral legitimacy of infanticide).

None of the panelists announced a change of heart under the pressure of criticism. Each stuck to his or her guns while probing for weaknesses in the alternative positions. Still, it must be said that the internal inconsistencies among the various pro-choice views was telling: Whereas the pro-choice panelists all agreed that there was nothing wrong with killing an unborn baby, they couldn’t agree on why. And their internal disagreements actually undermined aspects of their competing pro-choice views. Some of the pro-choicers resisted the utilitarianism of Peter Singer, some of them resisted the dualism of Jeff McMahan, all of them seemed to resist the “actual future” theory of Elizabeth Harman.

As the panel was wrapping up and I was headed to dinner with the panelists, I realized how important these types of discussions are—not only in the public arena, where we are told to use “public reason,” but also for the life of the Church. As Lee, George, and Haldane spoke, it became eminently clear that the public reasons they invoked were the real reasons behind their views. While revelation tells us that man is made “in the image and likeness of God” and therefore should be protected and not killed, the data of revelation doesn’t answer the question of what, precisely, is made in the image and likeness of God—a soul, a consciousness, an “embodied mind,” a body? Nor does it answer the question of when this entity comes into existence or when it becomes valuable—fertilization, quickening, formation of the brain, beginning of consciousness, beginning of self-consciousness? Beyond the abortion and embryo-destruction debates, many bioethical issues loom large for the Church. Besides issues of killing, the Church will need to address new biotechnologies that seek to create life and enhance life. It seems to me that the philosophical reflection on display at the killing panel will need to be applied anew.

And developing these lines of reasoning will be helpful both for the Church’s pastoral mission in guiding her members and for the Church’s contribution to public life. When it comes to bioethics, much is at stake for the foundations of our political life. At the end of the panel, one questioner expressed this well. If we redefine our founding principle so as to exclude those without consciousness or rationality from an inalienable right to life, he asked, what is to keep others from redefining it again to exclude those who aren’t morally upright (as he thought the “radical right” might do) or who aren’t religiously upright (as he thought radical Islam would dictate)? At this time in our national and world history, he wondered, shouldn’t we be uniting around the principle of the Declaration of Independence?

Peter Singer responded by pointing out that we don’t agree on who counts now, and we seem to get along just fine without agreeing on it. To unify around fair “civil procedures,” not around any particular value, is all we need to survive. Pat Lee, agreeing with the questioner, stressed the importance of the self-evident truths of the Declaration, reminding us of the role they played for Lincoln in his Gettysburg’s Address. Lee added that, while we are not equal in most respects, we do have a fundamental moral equality founded in our dignity as equally human—and we mustn’t forget this truth. Picking up this point, Robert George stressed how, in the history of the world, only America has been built on the principle of the “profound, inherent, and equal dignity of all human beings.” When you stop to think about it, he went on, “I think it’s a remarkable thing.” Given all the profound and manifest inequalities, it is remarkable that we’ve come to see this conclusion as self-evident.

George closed the panel by stressing that we must never undermine the foundational principle that grounds our refusal ever to countenance sacrificing the life of a profoundly retarded child (to harvest transplant organs) to save the life of a prime specimen of humanity like Albert Einstein or Michael Jordan: “History does show us that those whom we would exclude from the community of the commonly protected, those whom we would kill or authorize the killing of, we first dehumanize.”

Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @RyanTAnd.

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