Visions of Daniel
This is an edited excerpt (pp. 231-234) from Daniel's The Transcended Christian: Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-first Century (New York : Alyson Books, 2007). It exemplifies a reasoned way of approaching disputed questions.
The Triumph of the Good:
Consider another of the hottest issues of the day, abortion. What is the right or wrong of the matter? Surely, the critical consideration is the respect for human life. But the discussion is not very clear about what "human life” means. When we say, “to take a human life,” we mean to kill someone. Anti-abortion groups speak of abortion as the murder of children. But is the fetus really a human being? Is the fetus really already an infant? Is terminating a pregnancy really murdering a person?
In my mind, the prime issue is whether or not there is a human being, a person, in the womb. Now, there is no doubt that what is growing in the womb is human. If it comes to term, it will not be a cow or a horse, but a human being. What is there is human life. But is that growth already a person? Is that tissue that is developing in the womb already a human being? Or is it merely a mass of human tissue, like a gall bladder that is surgically removed or a limb that must be amputated? Or more to the point, like the afterbirth--placenta, umbilical cord, amniotic and chorionic sacks--that is discarded although it is living tissue, human living matter, derived from and containing the same DNA as the infant.
Without doubt, if the fetus is actually a human person, then abortion would be wrong. Abortion would be murder. But if the fetus is not yet a person, then, for sufficient reason, the pregnancy could be ethically terminated. In my mind, the telling question is, When does the fetus become an actual person?
To be sure, we cannot give a precise answer to this question, and this uncertainty explains much of the debate. But science can tell us a lot about fetal development, and it is possible to say when the fetus is sufficiently developed that, as best we can determine, it would be capable of real sensation, emotion, and mental processes. I would take these to be indications of an individual personal life.
Current research shows clearly that before the 20th week, at the earliest, brain development is so primitive that neural connections do not yet exist to sustain what we know as mental processes—not even sensation, let alone emotions, awareness, or thought. The movie The Silent Scream shows an 11-week-old fetus recoiling from an intruding surgical instrument. This movement is a reflex, not a response to the experience of pain. So, until about the 20th week, sufficient time for a decision to be made, there certainly is a human form developing in the womb, but it seems sheer fantasy to believe that this human form is already a human person.
Former generations were quite comfortable with this understanding. Major figures of Christian history, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, allowed that abortion was acceptable during the early weeks of pregnancy. Expressed in terms of an older theology, the notion was this: In the early weeks, the fetus is too under-developed to support the presence of a soul, so there could not yet be a human person there. In the technical terminology of the day, borrowed from Aristotle, only appropriate "matter" can take on a corresponding "form." Mud does not lend itself to being shaped into a bridge. An insufficiently developed nervous system cannot sustain a human mind or soul or spirit. Such traditional reasoning, now highly refined by developmental neurological research, is certainly a legitimate approach to the question of abortion.
Of course, terminating a pregnancy is a serious matter. Who ever said it was not? The women who agonize over their decisions certainly know the matter is serious. No one would have an abortion frivolously, without good reason. As President Clinton used to say, "Abortion should be legal, safe--and rare." But when there is good reason and when the pregnancy is in its early stages, though the thought is itself repugnant, abortion may certainly be a legitimate and morally acceptable action. Indeed, it might be the most ethical choice.
You see, we know about these things. We have information that sheds light on such questions. In contrast, religion is foolish when it simplistically appeals to God or belief without any consideration of the facts of the matter. Then religion becomes hallowed superstition. Religion's insistence, that the fertilized egg must be reverenced from the first moment of conception, is certainly valid; pregnancy is a serious matter. But religion's claim or insinuation, that there is a human person in the womb from the first moment of conception, is ludicrous.
Suppose that fertilized egg divides to become identical twins. Was that fertilized egg a human person who now magically became two people? And what about the placenta, umbilical cord, and the amniotic and chorionic sacks? These all develop from that same initial fertilized egg? Are these, then, also to be treated as human persons? And what about miscarriages? At least 20%--some say as high as two-thirds--of all conceptions are spontaneously aborted, oftentimes before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Are we to believe that God kills off a swath of the human race before they are even born? If so, I want a different God.
Compared to the biological facts of the matter, most religious opposition to abortion is at best uninformed and at worst silly. One only need learn a bit of modern medicine to realize that much of the anti-abortionists are extremists--as likewise are, I would add, those who minimize abortion as simply a routine medical procedure. Most "pro-life" crusaders appeal to religion, God, and blind faith, and they stir up emotions, but they know nothing. They make no sense biologically, philosophically, or theologically.
We cannot shut down our minds and forget our learning because religion says, “God forbids that”--especially when everything we know about the matter supports a different conclusion. In the case of abortion and so many other contemporary issues, we know too much to play the role of naïve and simple-minded believers. It is insulting and foolish--for both God and ourselves--to think that God would require us to do so. God is no megalomaniacal mother who goes around forbidding things to her children just to assert her power and to test the limits of the children's obedience. But I dare say, this is precisely the kind of God in which mand "deeply religious and God-fearing" people believe.
Could we follow such a God in good conscience? Does bearing the self-imposed burden of so ungrounded a choice make us virtuous? Is this what "taking up one's cross" means? Must we go against our own better judgment to be faithful to God? Does true religion require us to distrust our own God-given minds and hearts, even at their most honest, informed, and sincere? Surely, not.
My approach here relies on long-standing, natural-law theory--the much touted but disingenuously distorted position of the Catholic Church. I apply natural-law theory equally to all of today's difficult questions. It presumes that the very structure and functioning of creation indicates how it should be used. As we learn more about our world and its working, it is only to be expected--if we are informed and honest--that some of our ethical opinions will change. The Catholic Church, for example, needs to do more homework before it presumes to proclaim what the "nature" of things actually is. The rest of the educated world has moved beyond well-intentioned but now outdated ancient and medieval scientific opinions.
Besides, in a pluralistic world, this approach that appeals to evidence and reason seems the only realistic one. The varied opinions of different religions, cultures, and tribes can no longer uncritically serve as our guides: We all now know about them, and they all differ. These blatant diffrences discredit the claims of religion. Only appeal to relevant evidence, good-willed pursuit of understanding, and honest judgment achieved in respectful collaboration--what Bernard Lonergan calls authenticity or human genuineness--can be our moral guide. Such an approach offers the hope that we might at least get this-worldly matters right and, most important, structure a global community. Then whatever other-worldly matters there might be will graciously take care of themselves. "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God, the things that are God's."