Writing at the website of the New York Times, Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor from the University of Notre Dame, invites Pope Francis to “rethink” the Church’s position on the question of abortion. Needless to say, the rethinking is supposed to end not in a clearer and more persuasive presentation of the Church’s traditional teaching, but instead a weakening of it. I’d like to note what I think are two weaknesses in Professor Gutting’s piece.
First, there is a disappointing partisanship to it. Professor Gutting opens his argument by noting “the dogmatic intransigence that has long cast a pall over the religious life of many Roman Catholics.” This might be true, but it is at best a partial truth. One could just as easily characterize the exact same phenomenon as the “unswerving fidelity to its teaching that has long been an inspiration to many Catholics, and even a cause of admiration by certain non-Catholics.” This is to say nothing of the possibility of also acknowledging the “dogmatic intransigence” of, say, the New York Times on this very issue. The Times, after all, is not noted for its flexibility on what it thinks is a right to abortion.
You might think, and hope, that a professor at a Catholic university would start out with some predisposition in favor of the Church’s traditional teaching, especially on a matter of such great importance. In Professor Gutting’s case, however, you would be disappointed. If that expectation had to be dashed, then you might hope, as a last resort, that as a philosopher pure and simple Professor Gutting would begin with no prejudicial remarks on either side of the question. You would be wrong here, too.
Second, Professor Gutting’s argument relies on a tendentious reading of the motivations of those who accept the Church’s total condemnation of abortion. Gutting admits that abortion is morally problematic, but he wants to contend that it is not as wrong as its most famous opponents say. The life of a fetus at least amounts to a potential human life, and it is to that extent valuable. But it is not, he continues, so valuable as to sustain the absolute condemnation of abortion you get from the Catholic Church, or the commonplace (among pro-life activists) equation of its value with that of a fully developed person. The pro-life people themselves implicitly acknowledge this distinction, says Gutting, because they “do not consistently act on their belief that any embryo has full moral standing.” He continues:
As the philosopher Peter Smith has noted, they do not, for example, support major research efforts to prevent the miscarriages or spontaneous abortions (many so early that they aren’t ordinarily detected) that occur in about 30 percent of pregnancies. If 30 percent of infants died for unknown reasons, we would all see this as a medical crisis and spend billions on research to prevent these deaths. The fact that pro-life advocates do not support an all-out effort to prevent spontaneous abortions indicates that they themselves recognize a morally relevant difference between embryos and human beings with full moral standing.
The fact noted here, however, does not support the conclusion drawn: that even those who oppose abortion do not really recognize the full moral standing of the unborn. To my knowledge, nobody of consequence is proposing a research initiative of this kind. In the absence of any serious public campaign for it, pro-life people have not really had the opportunity to think through the question posed by this hypothetical. In that case, their supposed lack of support does not indicate any real lack of conviction about the moral standing of the human fetus. Or, if some of them have thought about it, they might (very understandably) have assumed that the lack of a public campaign for such research suggests that there is no realistic prospect of bringing down the number of miscarriages.
There is a deeper problem, though, with this part of the argument, one that I would like to illustrate by turning it around on Professor Gutting. Good liberal people like Professor Gutting and everyone at the New York Times say that they believe in the equal value of all human beings (well, all born human beings) irrespective of race, ethnicity, or nationality. In reality, however, they explicitly acknowledge that they really think that some races, ethnicities, and nationalities are less valuable than others. Otherwise, they would support an “all out effort” to stop all starvation and disease in developing countries. After all, if you saw rates of starvation among Americans as bad as elsewhere, there is no question that liberals would call for massive new programs to address the problem.
You can see the problem, which I have put forward here not to impeach the no doubt sincere cosmopolitan humanitarianism of Professor Gutting and the New York Times, but instead to show that the sincerity of pro-life people is no more impeachable by Professor Gutting’s (and Peter Smith’s) equally tendentious argument. That argument overlooks what is a key distinction to opponents of abortion, and to anybody who bothers to think about these questions with some rigor: the difference between actively killing an innocent human being, which is what happens in abortion, and failing to provide help to someone who might die of other causes. Opponents of abortion generally think that the former is absolutely impermissible, whether for unborn or born human beings, while the latter is not (although it is certainly a morally important matter). Moreover, this is not an arbitrary or silly distinction but one one which human beings operate all the time.
There is another problem with Professor Gutting’s argument, but seeing the great length to which this post has grown, I will save it for later.