Wesley J. Smith, author and bioethicist, wrote nearly two decades ago, “Practitioners of bioethics say who should live, and who should die.” Smith cautioned of an alarming and insidious trend within the modern bioethics’ movement known as “personhood theory.” He described how some bioethicists were asserting that what matters “morally” is not that one is “human,” but that one has a legal status as a “person.”
What makes someone a legal person with human rights worth respecting? One must possess, those bioethicists argued, mental competencies, such as “self-awareness” or having the ability to “engage in rational behavior.”
Consequently, those who did not fit this criterion would fall into the category of being defined as a human “non-person.” These “non-persons” would include embryos, the unborn child, infants (up to the first few years of life), those with Alzheimer’s disease, cognitively disabled individuals, and individuals with significant developmental disabilities. Indeed, if one fit the definition of being a human “non-person,” a philosophical determination, then bioethicists would accordingly be able to shape the social, cultural, judicial, and medical criteria for any one person enjoying basic human rights—including the right to life itself.
Peter Singer is perhaps the most infamous of this bioethical cohort. In 1998, Singer was appointed to Princeton University’s Professorship of Bioethics and has since served as a prominent advocate for personhood theory. His advocacy of the notion of human “non-persons” has been attractive to many and he enjoys a sort of celebrity status among bioethicists and ethicists generally.Today, personhood theory is part of ethics taught in countless colleges, and it’s having a significant impact on those most vulnerable to its dehumanizing logic.
It was not long ago, for instance, that to intentionally starve and dehydrate someone to death for any reason would have been thought of as barbaric and inhumane. Yet, Terri Schiavo, my sister, became just one of the more prominent of the countless victims of Peter Singer’s logic. Terri lived with a brain injury and was cognitively disabled, but her husband and, ultimately, judicial decision makers came to accept that her life lacked sufficient value to continue feeding her. Take note of this 2005 exchange between Smith and Professor Bill Allen, bioethicist at the University of Florida, debating Terri’s life:
Wesley Smith: “Bill, do you think Terri is a person?”
Bill Allen: “No, I do not. I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood.”
Fast forward to 2014: An article by The College Fix’s Mairead McArdle exposed “anecdotal evidence” that more college students support post-birth abortion, suggesting that children up to 5-years-old could be put to death because they are not sufficiently “self-aware” and thus they do not constitute “persons.”
In 2018, a video surfaced of a University of Tennessee Knoxville student who rationalized support for infanticide of two-year-olds based on the fact that the child is not sufficiently “sentient.” The student offered that “without communication, we have no way of knowing if you are sentient or not. It’s no different than this tree. It’s alive, but is it sentient? I don’t know. I cannot communicate with it.”
Can we really accept that we are, at any time, simply one accident away from being deemed by an overzealous bioethicist a “human nonperson” who unwillingly forfeits basic human rights?
A few scenes from waking through Georgetown over the past week or so. First, on a snowy Friday morning on February 1st on M Street:
Later on along O Street, heading west toward Holy Trinity on Sunday morning, February 3rd:
And lastly along Dumbarton and Wisconsin, on warmer and springlike Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, February 5th and 6th:
Little scenes from daily life.
Tone is the immediate expression of values, and the tone characteristic of abortion advocates is that of the sneer. And for a natural reason: their position is reductionist, value-denying. It intentionally minimizes the worth of the incipient human life; and let us bear in mind that for a long while it minimized the facts themselves. It is a prejudice, in the fundamental sense that it springs from the will in advance of any knowledge; it is not a conclusion from the available evidence, nor a perplexity caused by inordinate communion with complexities …
A very different tone was sounded by Newsweek in its January 11, 1982 cover story “How Life Begins.” Written by Sharon Begley, it began:
“If newborns could remember and speak, they would emerge from the womb carrying tales as wondrous as Homer’s. They would describe the fury of conception and the sinuous choreography of nerve cells, billions of them dancing pas de deux to make connections that infuse mere matter with consciousness. They would recount how the amorphous glob of an arm bud grows into the fine structure of fingers agile enough to play a polonaise. They would tell of cells swarming out of the nascent spinal cord to colonize far reaches of the embryo, helping to form face, head and glands. The explosion of such complexity and order — a heart that beats, legs that run and a brain powerful enough to contemplate its own origins –seems like a miracle. It is as if a single dab of white paint turned into the multicolored splendor of the Sistine ceiling.”
Miss Begley went on to speak of the abortion question as “scientifically unanswerable,” and yet she implicitly answered it herself, in her accents of stunned wonder. The very facts of fetal development, far from inducing value-free detachment, inspired her to remarkable eloquence.
Her whole article, though merely descriptive, was suffused with the reverence of a mind free of self-interest and absorbed by the unfolding reality before it. Reading it one felt that rare and sublime sensation of beholding, of sharing the intellect’s love of its object. “The five-week embryo, only one-third of an inch long, is a marvel of miniaturization: limb buds are sending out shoots whose dimples mark the nascent hands and feet, and the hindbrain has grown stalked eye cups.”
Stalked eye cups! This is not a “pretty” description, but an enthralled one, and it takes a certain nerve to insist, in the face of such data, that description has no bearing on prescription, or that the thing described is no more than a “blob of protoplasm.”
And we allow such things to be killed. They are destined to be men and women; they are what we once were. Is not our indifference to them, our official denial of our kinship with them, a judgment on ourselves?
As if to balance the undeniable import of Miss Begley’s article with a kind of moral disclaimer, Newsweek supplemented it with a shorter piece titled “But Is It a Person?”
“It is unquestionably alive,” wrote Jerry Adler, “a unique entity . . .” But, he continued, “The question is one for philosophers, not scientists; . . . the problem is not determining when ‘actual human life’ begins, but when the value of that life begins to outweigh other considerations, such as the health, or even the happiness, of the mother. And on that question, science is silent.”
From the heights to the depths. This was pretty near absurdity. Science, in the sense of physical analysis, is silent on every moral question, for the simple reason that science is not ethics.
We’ve got to recapture the capacity to conceive of the youngest members of the human family in the true and epic terms that Sharon Begley did in her Newsweek piece; in the sense of human beings emerging into the world, who though lacking autonomy and self sufficiency and independence for years upon years nonetheless have already are adventurers with “tales as wondrous as Homer’s.” Thinking in this way might help get the rest of us out of ourselves, and help get us thinking about more than our own ego and our own concerns and instead be content simply to be in the presence of the extraordinariness of others in the sense that C.S. Lewis invites us to think of others:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
Large, beautiful snow fell on Washington last week, and I captured a bit of that snowfall mid-afternoon and then in the evening near Court House Metro station:
Arlington is full of apparent neighborhoods, but has no clear center of gravity and no central downtown. It was once a part of the District of Columbia, and its more recent history is distinctive:
Arlington County is a jurisdiction of 25.8 square miles located across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. The County was originally part of the ten-mile square surveyed in 1791 for the Nation’s Capital. From 1801 to 1847, what are now Arlington and a portion of the City of Alexandria were known as Alexandria County, District of Columbia. In 1847, at the request of the local residents, Congress retroceded Alexandria County to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In 1870, Alexandria County and the City of Alexandria were formally separated and regular elections were held by a post-Civil War government. Subsequently, in 1920, Alexandria County was renamed Arlington County to eliminate the confusion between these two adjacent jurisdictions. The name “Arlington” was chosen because General Robert E. Lee’s home of that name is located in the County, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
By law, there are no cities or towns located within the boundaries of the County. In 1922, the Virginia Supreme Court held that Arlington is a continuous, contiguous and homogeneous entity which cannot be subdivided nor can any portion be annexed by neighboring jurisdictions.
The Arlington County government exercises both city and county functions, one of the few urban unitary forms of government in the United States. Arlington’s form of government, the County Manager plan, was implemented in 1932. Arlington was the first county in the United States to choose this form of government. Arlington had an estimated population of 211,700 as of January 1, 2012. The County is almost fully developed; there are no farms and little remaining vacant land.
The New England Patriots on Sunday night tied the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl victories by any franchise with their sixth, a 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
Tom Brady has been the quarterback for all of them, and he’s the first player with six Super Bowl rings, passing Hall of Fame defensive end Charles Haley, who has five. Brady has played in a record nine Super Bowls.
The Patriots picked up their 37th postseason win all time, breaking a tie with the Steelers for the most.
The Patriots have six Super Bowl titles in 18 seasons; the Steelers got their six titles in span of 35 seasons. …
The Patriots defeated the Rams for the second time in a Super Bowl; Brady won his first Super Bowl over the St. Louis Rams in the 2001 season. …
Brady is the oldest starting QB to win a Super Bowl (41 years, 184 days).
Belichick is the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl at 66 years, 293 days.
I’m thinking of two things. First, there was an incredible comparison shot at one point when photos of the Tom Brady of today versus the Tom Brady of his first Super Bowl in 2001. Clear difference between young and exuberant Tom Brady versus GOAT Tom Brady, but still the same Tom Brady. Then they showed photos of Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams quarterback, 2001 v. 2019. Goff was in Kindergarten.
And second, I’m thinking of Les Carpenter’s reflection on Tom Brady’s incredible success after Super Bowl 51: “It’s as if this all can go on forever.“
Ross Douthat on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent legalization of abortion up to birth and the problem Cardinal Tim Dolan faces in New York:
In the case of Dolan, Cuomo’s right to be blasé. New York State still has millions of baptized Catholics, but the faithful are divided and adrift and accustomed to tuning out messages from their bishops that don’t fit their partisan preconceptions. (This goes for messages that criticize Donald Trump as well.) Dolan has tried to answer secularization with gregarious good cheer, but a bingo-hall winsomeness would be no match for cold indifference even without the church’s scandals.
And yet it remains the case that deep inside the ransacked, decaying basilica that is American Catholicism, you can find the only vision that might transform the abortion debate, so that we don’t end up with a permanent red-blue divide, in which the Supreme Court allows conservative states to pass restrictions but liberal states are radicalized toward eugenics and infanticide. …
That vision … would put the goal of outlawing abortion at the center of a web of pro-family policies — adoption support, child allowances, wage subsidies for breadwinners. The goal would be to make the end of abortion seem less utopian by making the burdens of motherhood less daunting, and to link the pro-life cause to a larger revolt against sterility.
… the Catholic Church should act as though this vision, their vision, is more than a wouldn’t-it-be-nice synthesis in bureaucratic documents, a generic humanitarianism that informs the smorgasbord of charitable programs mentioned in annual appeals.
Suppose that tomorrow Cardinal Dolan made two conjoined announcements. First, that Andrew Cuomo is excommunicated. Second, that a specific collection would henceforth be taken up at every Catholic Mass, every day, all year, to fund an annual family allowance administered by the Sisters of Life, available to any parent in the state who asked the church for help bearing and raising their child.
I have no idea how much money this would raise, no confidence in how effective it would be. But the church needs leaders who act as though they have confidence, not only in the church’s teachings, but in its capacity to vindicate those teachings on its own, rather than through supplication to indifferent or hostile politicians.
Confidence alone cannot arrest decline.
We need in America first to create and to see what a spectrum of life-affirming choice looks like in practice in our public life, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has handed Cardinal Dolan a golden opportunity to witness to both Christ and the public good, if he’s bold enough to do it.
For a number of years now, it’s been fashionable to speak about “cultural Catholicism” as a pejorative term, meaning the cultural features of a religion without a living faith. But in fact, for a faith to be living it must be cultural, it can only thrive and spread in a culture.
We always exist in a culture, which never fails to shape and form us even as we shape and form it. An embodied belief and practice of the faith is necessarily cultural, and the creation of the cultural forms, practices, symbols of a religious culture are signs of a vital faith.
What happened, with the collapse of the Catholic Church in America (and the West), is that we gradually adopted a different culture, the forms, practices, symbols of a different religion. This religion was itself in decomposition, as Protestant culture became secular materialism.
Similarly, many of us were taught to see the transition of American Catholicism, from a “ghetto” existence and practice, to a bold mainstream one within American culture, as evidence of health and success. But I think it was the opposite, the beginning of a terminal illness.
The remedy to the collapse of Catholicism in America (and in the West) is the creation of a new culture, in which the faith can live in all its embodied and communal forms, practices, symbols, artifacts, traditions, etc. The remedy can only be maximally integral, as a culture.
This cultural matrix is a necessity, because it is necessarily the way human beings live. A faith that’s only a choice on Sundays, or in occasional voluntary moments throughout the day, is a deracinated faith, uprooted and left on the ground to die. …
Said it before, and I’ll say it again: working for the Catholic Church in America in 2019 feels something like working for Blockbuster Movies in 2005. We’re still arguing about how we should display the DVDs, and meanwhile our current model and customer base is about to collapse.
Simply put: every diocese is full of parishes that have much smaller, now mostly older, congregations, in aging buildings with less money, and in a few short years we will hit the bell curve with both people and money. And we’re barely talking about it.
Our schools are closing, and those that remain are becoming “private” schools for those who can afford them, as we struggle to understand what “Catholic Identity” means for a student body, most of whom do not attend Sunday Mass.
The average knowledge of the faith in most Catholic communities is at a low point, though it will probably get worse. Meanwhile, the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation has virtually disappeared, as have other traditions that had culturally marked Catholics in the past.
No need to expand the laundry list. And the parishes and communities that are doing well are precisely exceptions that prove the rule. The point is, rather, how are we (especially Church authorities and leaders) not talking about this, addressing it, figuring out a plan?
As bad as 2018 was for the Church, with respect to all the tragic revelations about covering up child abuse, this problem is far more serious, for it concerns the very disappearance of Catholicism as a community, or at least a massive change unlike anything in her history before.
If you believe I’m exaggerating, just ask your diocese for the data from the last 40 years on weekend head-counts, offertory, and sacramental numbers. The change will shock you. And the numbers are about to hit an even steeper curve. …
What we have here is the dying, if not decomposition already, of a large, once impressive, Catholic culture. What is needed is the birth and growth of a new Catholic culture. How the two relate I do not know, but can only guess.
Dreher underscores: “This year — 2019 — half of all Catholic priests in America will reach the minimum retirement age of 70. If you are a Catholic, and you are not preparing yourself and your family now for life in the desert, you are wasting precious time. The future of all Christians in post-Christian America is going to be more or less monastic…”
Last year I wrote about Newsweek’s 1975 cover on “Abortion and the Law,” featuring a sixteen week old child on its cover. I asked rhetorically, “Do we know less in 2018 than what Newsweek knew in 1975?” What the Newsweek cover underscores is that we have known since before Roe v. Wade that what develops in the womb is a human being; a member of the human family.
At the March for Life a few weeks ago, I saw a woman who had the Life magazine cover below blown up onto a placard. Life ran this cover story featuring a human child at 18 weeks a full decade prior to that Newsweek cover. Life showed America the human child in the womb in vivid detail some eight years prior to seven men on the U.S. Supreme Court handing down Roe and what became in practice an unlimited right to end developing human life:
In Roe, those seven Supreme Court justices describe the Texas law they’re striking:
Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.
“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.”
It’s as true today as it was when Life ran this cover story in April 1965 that what confronts us are not medical or scientific questions but are, rather, political, cultural, and social questions about whether we’re willing to support mothers facing unexpected pregnancies with life-affirming choices, and whether we are interested in protecting human life at every age and in every circumstance. If America can look at a member of the human family, as we did collectively with Life’s April 1965 cover, and later conclude Yes, abortion is an acceptable social policy and at the same time pretend that the “question of when life begins” is simply too difficult to resolve while simultaneously making it moot by introducing abortion, then we can dehumanize in a literal sense any other human individual or community—aged, disabled, psychologically unwell, whatever.
It is the corrosive and dehumanizing logic at the heart of Roe that lets someone like Gov. Andrew Cuomo celebrate the just-legalized violent ending of human life up to the very moment of birth in New York, or Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran to call for abortion even as a woman is in labor.
This is not close to the only issue that Americans should engage with, but it is absolutely a moral and political issue that requires having the courage to choose a side and state forthrightly and explicitly what you endorse.