Every 28th and 29th of December in the Western and Eastern churches respectively, the Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered. Matthew’s Gospel records Herod, having been deceived by the Magi on the location of the Christ child, ordering the massacre of every child in Bethlehem under the age of two. The commemoration reminds us that Christ was born to die a death that vanquishes death itself, and robs the graves of the lives that were lost.
I could not help but reflect on this commemoration when I came across the publication of a paper entitled, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?,” in the February 2012 edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics. As indicated by the title of the piece, the basic argument presented is that because there is no substantial difference between fetuses and newborns, after-birth abortion “should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” While there have been recent overtures to infanticide in the case of babies born with undiagnosed Down Syndrome, this article went a step further, essentially erasing the arbitrary boundary between the fetus and the newborn.
Beyond the article’s rather chilling frankness, the position outlined by these authors is but symptomatic of a far deeper civilizational shift in our conceptions of human personhood, a shift that I believe has infected the church as well. In what follows, I want to identify briefly the shoddiness of the article’s reasonings along with the impotence of the contemporary church’s response, and then conclude how we can most faithfully exemplify Christian witness in an age of after-birth abortion.
A Liberated Personhood
The article, written by Alberto Giubilini of the University of Milan and Francesca Minerva of the University of Melbourne, begins by observing that euthanasia in infants “has been proposed by philosophers for children with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to be not worth living and who are experiencing unbearable suffering.” The authors cite the Groningen Protocol used in the Netherlands which allows the termination of “infants with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering.” While recognizing that children with Down Syndrome may in fact live otherwise very happy lives, the potential burden that such children might bring to a family or society means that “when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”
The authors take a ‘person’ to mean “an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.” This is why the authors insist that the practice should be termed ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘infanticide’, that is, “to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child.” Paradoxically, the authors go on to equate ‘infant’ with ‘fetus’: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” The authors summarize their conclusions:
If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.
In response to intense criticism, the editor of JME, Julian Savulescu, defended the publication of the article:
The novel contribution of this paper is not an argument in favour of infanticide … The goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises… Of course, many people will argue that on this basis abortion should be recriminalised. Those arguments can be well made and the Journal would publish a paper that made such a case coherently … The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument.
This response is perplexing to say the least. First, the authors of the paper cite a single source, the 1985 book by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, for their assertion that there is philosophical precedent advocating euthanasia for children with severe handicaps. One is thus certainly justified in wondering just how widely accepted is this premise. Secondly, the claim that the JME supports “sound rational argument” is undermined by the fact that the article consistently equivocates between functioning as a person and being a person. This is a basic category distinction between what one does and what one is, a sign and that which is signified. As Peter Kreeft observes: “One cannot function as a person without being a person, but one can surely be a person without functioning as a person. In deep sleep, in coma, and in early infancy, nearly everyone will admit there are persons, but there are no specifically human functions such as reasoning, choice, or language.” That such a glaring fallacy can be overlooked by the Journal’s peer review suggests a significant gap between Savulescu’s rhetoric and reality.
Undisturbed by the content of the paper, Savulescu concludes his comments:
What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.
This is classic ‘doublespeak’: the incongruity between the language used and its purported meaning. After denying that the JME is interested in promoting ideologies, dogmas, or moral views, the editor reveals clearly that the journal is in fact advocating dogmatically a moral ideology, what he terms “the very values of a liberal society.”
But this begs the question: what is this dogma of a liberal society? From what has society been liberated?
The age of the liberal society is nothing less than a civilization liberated from a classical Christian social order constituted around the Trinity and Incarnation, the doctrines and sacraments that rooted and redeemed personhood in an economy of infinite love and delight. And, of course, the question then arises: to what have we been liberated?
As we see in the article, humans have been liberated into a mechanistic society where personhood is derivative of self-anointed experts, that is, ethicists and scientists whose sole aim is to control, manipulate, and engineer society after their own image. If the understanding and evaluation of humans and personhood is circumscribed exhaustively by and within nature, which is itself simply there to be studied and manipulated, then there must be an elite which arrogate themselves above nature all the while consigning the vast majority of the human population to the category of nature. Thus, as C.S. Lewis recognized, man’s conquering of nature includes man’s conquering of himself. More specifically, in a world that seeks to reconstitute reality around the self, not all selves are equal. There are inevitably what Lewis calls ‘the conditioners’ and ‘the conditioned’. Lewis himself provides the example of contraception, where those who control nature in effect control other humans. And this is precisely the driving force behind abortion.
Furthermore, what happens if or when philosophers and bioethicists decide to do away with the very concept of volition and free will, the supposed sine qua non of personhood? This is hardly theoretical or speculative. If human beings are merely constituents of purposeless processes of material and biological cause and effect, then how does something like volition transcend physical law? Take for example this quote from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA helix:
Your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their assorted molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
Within this reductionist framework, free will is, as Stephen Pinker observes, “probably located in the pre-frontal cortex, and we may even be able to narrow it down to the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex.” Personhood, as it turns out, is biological after all, devoid of any inherent meaning or purpose apart from that which a secular elite assigns it.
The Church and Post-Birth Abortion
Now, one of the ways that concerned activists have sought to combat these dehumanizing tendencies among the academic elite is through what has been called the “personhood initiative.” Ballots in several states have sought to establish the following: “The inalienable right to life possessed by every human being is present from the moment of initial formation, and all human beings shall be entitled to the equal protection of persons under the law.” The attempt here is to grant a legal status to the fetus from the moment of conception that would be protected under the 14th Amendment.
However, this very noble and well-meaning initiative is unfortunately all for naught. The initiative cedes far too much to secularism. First, personhood cannot be reduced to biology without engaging in the very biological reductionism that sanctions abortion in the first place. Secondly, human integrity is not derivative of democratic processes. By appealing to majority opinion, the initiative simply taps into the political coercion and manipulation that characterizes secular society. Thirdly, within our current social and historical context, there are various degrees of personhood. For example, there are legal distinctions between adults and children, genders, races, and, increasingly, sexual orientations, all of which have concomitantly different rights. And with the rise of identity politics, social justice efforts relativize some rights to others in efforts to rectify societal discrepancies, as in the case of affirmative action hiring practices. So even if personhood initiatives passed in all fifty states, there is no guarantee that abortions, let alone post-birth abortions, will cease or greatly diminish. In fact, as long as a scientific and ethical elites remain the dominant intellectual forces in our (largely state funded) secular universities and educational institutions, they will just redirect their arguments to accommodate and indeed obfuscate any new personhood definitions.
Neither does the argument that after-birth abortions will sway people away from the pro-choice position fare much better. This is because the church, having been pushed into the periphery of public importance, has been replaced with a new priesthood, namely, a concatenation of the scientist, ethicist, media journalist, and bureaucrat. And it is here that we can see how infanticide, the killing of newborns, can conceivably acquire the status of normalcy in our current secular social order. Because culture interprets nature, cultural has the capacity to normalize institutions, regulations, authorities, and practices that constitute society such that they are as natural as trees and streams. Thus, if culture determines the natural and normal, and if the socially determined natural and normal is engineered by a society’s elite, and if that society’s elite sanction the killing of newborns, then it is only a matter of when, not if, such a practice is embraced as natural and normal among that people group.
The only true remedy for such a fate is a collective awakening to an economy of grace, where personhood is derivative of divine love that finds no rationale within this world. For nothing else – no argument, scientific study, ballot initiative, or media presentation – can expose the modern age for the economy of manipulation and exploitation it really is. We must understand that, in an ironic twist, choice and power are seen by moderns as freedom from manipulation and exploitation. They are blind to the dehumanizing processes constitutive of the modern secular social order, and only a fundamentally different social order can hope to provide the counter-perspective that reveals these degenerating tendencies. Such an alternative social order is no farther than the words of institution: “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you.” Indeed, an economy of grace, the complete inversion of the economy of narcissism constitutive of the modern age, can be summed up in those two words: for you. Through the Lord’s Supper, love is revealed as the disposition of God embodied in Christ and therefore must be the disposition of those who are now participating in that cosmic reconciliation. Hence, Paul calls upon all Christians to follow his example of laying down personal prerogatives and rights for the sake of others, particularly the weak. It is thus in the context of divine love shared in communion that our personhood awakens into a truly human community.
Our contemporary churches must declare a resounding renunciation of modernist secular assumptions and practices, and affirm the beauty, the loveliness, of a voluntaristic Christian culture rooted in a Eucharistic economy of grace. For out of such an economy can flow a sacred social order where churches, families, Christian schools and industries mutually reinforce one another in a society founded on virtue and grace, the very order that characterized Christian societies for 1,500 years. It is only then that the secular age, of which infanticide is but a symptom, will be revealed for what it truly is: a dehumanizing, violent, and manipulative age worthy only of dissipating into the sea of infinite love.
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