A Notre Dame Professor Urges the Pope to Rethink Abortion: Part 2


In a recent post I discussed what I think are some of the problems with Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting’s invitation to Pope Francis to rethink the Church’s teaching on abortion.  That post got rather long, so I promised to take up the rest of the argument in a second post.  Herewith, the fulfillment of that promise.

The other problem I would point out with Professor Gutting’s argument is that it is inconsistent, and indeed dangerously inconsistent.  On the one hand, Gutting contends that reason alone can tell us that abortion is morally problematic.  On the other hand, he also contends that reason tells us that it is not as morally problematic as the Church’s absolute condemnation of it suggests.  Fetal life is worthy of some respect, but not the same respect as we would give a fully developed human being.  Why?  Because an early fetus, while “biologically human,” lacks some of the “main features” that “underlie most moral considerations”–features such as “consciousness, self-awareness, and an interest in the future.”


The inconsistency is this: Professor Gutting implies (as I am sure he sincerely believes) that infanticide, or the killing of a newborn, would be wrong; but this conviction is undercut by his tethering of respect for life to “features” that even a newborn does not have, or does not have to any significant degree in comparison with an adult–the aforementioned “consciousness, self-awareness, and an interest in the future.”  At least, if a human infant has these powers, he or she surely does not have them any more than, say, a mature dog or chimpanzee.  But most everybody thinks that you can kill a dog or a chimp for reasons that don’t even begin to approach the weightiness of the reasons you would have to give for killing a human being.  The very argument that Professor Gutting advances to undermine our absolute commitment to the life of an early fetus also undermines his own commitment to the life of the newborn human being.

And, I think the danger of this inconsistency is obvious, since it opens the door to even more violence against innocent human life than our society is currently experiencing.  This would be true at both ends of life.  Someone could allege that an aged person with advanced dementia is lacking in “consciousness, self-awareness, and an interest in the future.”  On that basis, someone could argue that it would be morally permissible to kill such a person.

I am frankly surprised that Professor Gutting would write on this issue as if he were unaware of these difficulties with the position he is trying to defend.  They seem to become clear if you pause to reflect on the argument for a few moments.  But the implications of this position in question also should be known to anyone who has followed the philosophical and ethical arguments about abortion over the last couple of decades.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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