Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun: A Response to Eduardo in 2006

Despite the fact that Eduardo continues to criticize the rhetoric, analogies, and comparisons of pro-lifers (suggesting that we really don't believe in the equal dignity and worth of every human being regardless of stage of development and capacity), he has yet to defend - so far as I can tell - the position that some human beings have less worth and dignity than others. 

In a September 29, 2006 post, Eduardo acknowledges that embryos have human status "(in some sense)" and quotes a reader saying "no amount of rhetoric can bridge the ontological chasm between the person enslaved and a fetus."  In response, Robert George invited him to clarify and defend his position nearly two and a half years ago in this post October 3, 2006 on the First Things blog:

[L]et us get to the heart of the matter in dispute. Either Eduardo Peñalver believes that human embryos are human beings or he does not.

Either he believes that every human being–irrespective of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency—possesses profound, inherent, and equal dignity or he does not.

The first question is a scientific one, and the answer to it is clear. The evidence, attested to unanimously by the major embryological texts used in contemporary anatomy and medicine, is overwhelming. From the zygote stage forward there is a complete, distinct, individual member of the species Homo sapiens who, by directing his or her own integral organic functioning, will (assuming adequate nutrition, a suitable environment, and decent health) develop himself or herself toward the more mature stages of human development.

The second question is philosophical. Do we possess dignity and a right to life by virtue of the kind of entity we are, namely, a human being—the one type of bodily creature known to us who has a rational nature? Or is dignity something we possess only by virtue of our acquisition or realization of certain qualities (immediately exercisable capacities) that human beings in certain stages and conditions possess (or exhibit) and others do not, and that some possess in greater measure than others, e.g., self-awareness, consciousness, rationality? If the latter, then not all human beings are “persons” with rights. There are certain classes of human nonpersons: pre-personal human beings (embryos, fetuses); post-personal human beings (those in minimally conscious states, those who have been afflicted by dementias); and those who (due to severe congenital retardation) are not, never were, and never will be “persons.”

The Catholic position (shared by many Protestants, Jews, people of other faiths, and people of no religious affiliation, and philosophically defensible even apart from revelation) is that every human being, irrespective of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, possesses profound, inherent, and equal dignity and a basic right to life. There are no classes of superiors and inferiors. There are no “human nonpersons.” If Professor Peñalver doesn’t believe this, then he should clearly say so. …

Peñalver seems to have been throwing us hints in his recent postings. [In his Sept. 29 MOJ post, he refers] to the status of the embryo being “human” merely “in some sense.” … In fact, we know precisely the sense in which human embryos are human: They are distinct living members of the species Homo sapiens who, unless denied or deprived of what any other human being requires, namely, adequate nutrition and an hospitable environment, develop by internal self-direction along the gapless continuum of a human life. The adult human being who is now, say, Eduardo Peñalver, is the same individual, the same human being, who earlier in his life was an adolescent, a child, an infant, a fetus, and an embryo. By directing his own integral organic functioning, Eduardo developed from the embryonic stage of his life into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and into adulthood with his distinctness, unity, determinateness, and identity intact. To have destroyed the human being who is Eduardo at any stage of his life would have been to destroy Eduardo.

But perhaps Professor Peñalver thinks that he lacked dignity and right to life in the embryonic and fetal stages of his development. Perhaps he supposes that he acquired them later. Sophisticated arguments for distinguishing putatively “pre-personal” (and “post-personal”) human beings from “persons” have been advanced by a number of people. Some of them, like Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, and Jonathan Glover, are willing to live with the logical implications of their position by endorsing the morality of infanticide. …

I invite Professor Peñalver, if he [believes that there is an ontological chasm between the person enslaved and the fetus], to give us a philosophical account of the “chasm” that allegedly exists between human beings in early developmental stages and those at later stages of maturity. Given the remarkable assertion that the alleged chasm is ontological, it would be good to know what evidence he would adduce to establish what seems on the basis of the embryological facts to be patently false, namely, that embryos differ in kind from infants, adolescents, or adult humans. If Peñalver is prepared to propose the ontological division of humanity into classes, some fully human and others merely human “in some sense,” I would be curious to see if in fashioning the argument he would do as well as the pro-slavery philosophers and theologians of the antebellum period—some of whom, as Eugene Genovese has shown, were very sophisticated indeed. There are equally sophisticated writers today—such as Singer, Tooley, and Glover—who are willing, as I mentioned, to distinguish pre- and post-personal human beings from human persons. But they do not pretend that such distinctions can be made compatible with the sanctity-of-life principles of the Catholic Church and the broader Western philosophical tradition. Indeed, they are tenacious critics of the Church’s (and tradition’s) basic stand. I do not suspect that their work will be of much use to Peñalver in defending an “ontological chasm.”

HT:  Robert George


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