Thursday, February 05, 2009

Rome Must Address New Questions Before It Can Make Its Abortion Teaching U.S. Law

Recent articles and letters in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) raised significant new questions about the Vatican's on-going efforts to enact laws that would ban all abortions in the United States.

Several challenge the official church position that conception occurs and human life begins the instant a sperm fertilizes an ovum. Another charges that the U.S. bishops departed from their own long tradition of social justice leadership by saying so often that abortion is the most serious social evil in U.S. society.

In the December 26th NCR, William B. Neaves, president and CEO of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo., asked simply, When does a person become a person?

His starting point is that Dignitas Personae, the new Vatican bioethics document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, "accords the dignity of a person to the first cell that results from fertilization of an egg by a sperm."

Against this, Neaves reminds us that:

(1) in 1974 the same CDF said that it is not within the competence of human knowledge to determine when God infuses an immortal soul into a developing person;

(2) this built on the position of St. Thomas Aquinas eight centuries ago that it was the embryo's physical development that built a suitable home for the soul; and

(3) around the same time Dante conveyed the contemporary Catholic opinion that ensoulment could not take place until the embryo developed a functioning brain.

Neaves also raises two other, more contemporary challenges to making fertilization the moment of conception or personhood.

One is that a substantial number of fertilized eggs do not become pregnancies: "in many (and probably most) instances, the single cell resulting from fertilization of an egg by a sperm perishes in the woman’s reproductive tract and never implants in the uterus. Only after implantation does a birthed baby become highly probable. Would God have ordained that most people should die in the first two weeks of existence, long before seeing the light of day?"

A second issue is that sometimes two separately conceived fraternal twins fuse in the mother's reproductive tract and merge into a single embryo that comes to term. If fertilization is the first moment of personhood, how do the two separately conceived persons become one person?

To address these problems, and to reaffirm the insights of Aquinas, Dante and the CDF in 1974, Neaves likes a better option: "An alternative point of view to the Vatican’s, embraced by many Christians, is that personhood occurs after successful implantation in the mother’s uterus, when individual ontological identity is finally established."

This would obviate several positions that Dignitas Personae is forced to take by defining the start of personhood too soon in the reproductive process: "In the alternative moral framework, taking a pill to prevent the products of fertilization from implanting in a uterus is morally acceptable. Using in vitro fertilization to complete the family circle of couples otherwise unable to have children is an unmitigated good. Encouraging infertile couples with defective gametes to adopt already-produced embryos that will otherwise be discarded is a laudable objective. And using embryonic stem cells to seek cures becomes a worthy means of fulfilling the biblical mandate to heal the sick."

Three letters to the editor in the January 23rd NCR expanded on Neaves' concerns.

Bob Fehribach noted a different quandary in the case of identical twins: "In this situation, the developing embryo splits into two identical embryos. If personhood is determined at the time of fertilization, a similar question arises of how one person becomes two people."

Br. Finbar McMullen, FSC, quoting from Bernard Lee's The Future Church of 140 B.C.E.: A Hidden Revolution, cited two more examples from church history:

“The catechism of the Council of Trent holds that through miraculous intervention the human soul was joined to the matter from the first instance in the case of Jesus. Nobody can doubt that this was something new and an admirable work of the Holy Spirit, since in the natural order nobody can be informed by a human soul except after the prescribed space of time.” The implication is that for the rest of us, "the prescribed space of time" is some time after fertilization.

“The Holy Office declared in 1713 that a fetus can be baptized ‘if there is reasonable foundation for admitting that the fetus is animated by a rational soul. If, however, there is no reasonable foundation, it may by no means be baptized.’ ” The implication is that there is some period of time when the fetus is not animated by a rational soul.

Lucille Oliver voices the most extreme departure from the Vatican position: "A woman’s fertilized egg is no more a human than a walnut tree. Both have the potential of their God-given destinies, but the tree is dependent on proper earth care and nurturing. The egg-turned-fetus will live in symbiosis with the mother for six to seven months before it is able to live, even with help, outside the mother’s womb. At that point, it is a human being, not before." While equating viability with the beginning of human life moves the event later than Aquinas and the other commentators would, there is nothing in Christian or Jewish scripture that rules out Oliver's view.

Meanwhile, a February 2nd article on the NCR website reported that at a symposium on January 29th Leslie Woodcock Tentler, a professor of American Catholic history at the Catholic University of America, said the dominant approach of the current U.S. bishops on the abortion issue was out of character with their advocacy of social justice positions in the past, including positions on sexual ethics.

As background, the article says, Tentler listed several positions of "the 1919 'Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction,' the first statement issued by the then newly formed National Catholic War Council, the original organization of what is now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops." She said the statement was in many ways a charter for what became FDR's New Deal. Of the eight provisions Tentler cited, not one mentioned the evil of abortion.

Even when the bishops did get around to a sexual ethics concern, their focus was on birth control, which some of them considered a graver sin than abortion. But given the political position of the Catholic church at the time, the bishops never took the position that the Catholic opposition to birth control should be written into U.S. law. The NCR article continued:

"'Anti-Catholicism was still a powerful emotion in American culture,' and the bishops had decided that in any battle against contraception they needed to have non-Catholic allies and needed to frame the public argument in ways that 'were not specifically religious,' she said. 'Among those nonreligious arguments was the family wage, a centerpiece of the 1919 bishops’ program. A truly just society, according to the bishops, is one that pays male workers enough to support a large family in comfort and security. An unjust society pays poverty wages, forces married women into the workforce and tells the poor to avoid having children.'

"She said the bishops eventually lost their fight against liberalized legal access to contraception, but her point was to highlight the difference between how that struggle was waged and how some bishops in recent years have been waging the fight against legalized abortion.

"'They consistently framed the debate in terms of values that nearly all Americans shared.'"

This echoes the theme of several Catholic Democrats, who argued during the last election that persuasion and cooperation with other people of good will would go much farther toward reducing the number of abortions in this country than trying to impose the official Catholic position as a matter of U.S. law.

The Vatican and the U.S. bishops have yet to address any of these questions successfully. They need to--before trying to impose Catholic abortion strictures on a society that includes believers and non-believers with multiple convictions on when life begins and when abortion should be banned.

1 comment:

Gerald T Floyd said...

National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. says in an article 2/19/09 that after a much-anticipated meeting in Rome between Pope Benedict XVI and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Vatican issued a statement that equated the beginning of human life with conception (presumably defined as the moment a sperm fertilizes an ovum).

The article is at

While the Vatican statement fails to engage any of the questions raised above about conception vs. the moment of fertilization, at least it stopped short of saying legislators must work to outlaw all abortions. Instead, it called on Catholic politicians "to work in cooperation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development."