May 1992

The Moral Question of Abor­tion.  By Stephen Schwarz. Loyola University Press. 303 pages. $15.95.

Stephen Schwarz has pro­duced a painstakingly re­searched statement of the pro­life position. It’s an essential, long-awaited primer.

He explores the core issue in the abortion controversy: When does human life begin? He distinguishes function from being and differentiates that which is merely genetically human (a sperm cell, an unfer­tilized ovum, or, for that mat­ter, a hangnail) from the newly created, biologically human zy­gote. In union, sperm and egg are each at the end of their in­dividual existence; they aren’t renewed but transformed into a single unique being. “A more radical break can hardly be imagined” than that between something at the end of its ex­istence and “another being that somehow comes from it, but is at the beginning of its exist­ence.”

Schwarz deals with every objection put forth by abortion apologists, including one un­familiar to many prolifers. Pro­-abortionists are fond of citing the molar pregnancy. All this proves, Schwarz replies “is that not all cases of biological fertilization represent the con­ception of a new person.” It does nothing to negate the reality of the vast majority that do. (Indeed, the political infea­sibility of designating personhood at implantation becomes increasingly evident in light of conflicts arising over the disposition of embryos conceived in vitro though not yet implanted. In one such case, Davis v. Dav­is, a Tennessee judge ruled that the embryos at issue are “children” meriting full protec­tion of the state.)

Schwarz’s thesis is especial­ly appropriate for those who feel there is no way to recon­cile a preborn’s right to life with the right to “privacy” of one’s unwilling mother. Schwarz goes mano a mano with Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “no duty to sustain” argument. In Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun noted that if the fetus is a legal person, the right to abortion “of course collapses.” But Thomson, while allowing that the fetus is worthy of protec­tion from assault by anyone other than one’s mother and her physician, contends that in an abortion context the moth­er’s right to “privacy” over­rides her preborn’s right to life, just as a homeowner may eject an unwanted intruder. Schwarz refutes this argument by demonstrating that abortion is not really the expulsion of a trespasser, but a violent act resulting in death. “Privacy” is not license to kill. Moreover, the common law has long re­garded the relationship between parent and child as more compelling than the par­ent’s claim to privacy. (Curi­ously, “privacy” coupled with property rights used to be routinely invoked as a barrier against compulsory desegrega­tion. See Palmer v. Thompson, where Jackson, Mississippi, sought to resist court-ordered integration by closing four public swimming pools while leasing a fifth to the “private” YMCA.)

Ironically, in dealing with rape and incest, Thomson is shown to agree with prolifers who demand “no exception”: “Surely the question whether you have a right to life…shouldn’t turn on…whether or not you are the product of a rape.”

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, there­after incorporated in the 14th, insures a valid right to privacy, defined as the “right to be secure” in one’s “person” (i.e., physical body). Unfortunately, this provision has been vitiated in support of an abortion “right.” Yet, Schwarz applies this protection to the preborn, concluding that abortion vio­lates not only the preborn child’s right to life, but his or her privacy. In balancing iden­tical claims, a court must de­termine which party is threat­ened with the greater harm. Pregnancy infringes on a woman’s privacy for nine months, while abortion is a permanent denial of her baby’s. While this reasoning may strike prolifers as uncon­ventional, the more often personhood attributes are legal­ly upheld for the preborn — e.g., when a judge orders a pregnant drug addict isolated from other inmates out of concern far the welfare of her child in utero — the greater is the precedent for the preborn’s right to life.

It’s refreshing that Schwarz endorses judicial activism in defense of the preborn. But a fetal-personhood resolution isn’t likely to emanate from the conservative Rehnquist court, which is deferential to state prerogative rather than to its duty as a civil-rights institu­tion. Justice Stevens once ob­served that if there’s a basis for advancing protections to the preborn, “the permissibility of terminating the life of the fetus could scarcely be left to the will of state legislatures.”

I strongly recommend this book. There are, however, ar­eas where I would press for sharper distinctions. Schwarz considers abortion “murder.” The correct term is homicide, for “murder” denotes malicious intent or callous disregard for life. This may be the case in certain abortions, but surely not in all. Such difficulties notwithstanding, Schwarz has written an excellent book which should be frequently re­ferred to for the wealth of re­search it contains.

- Stephen Settle

Isle of the Saints: Monastic Set­tlement and Christian Com­munity in Early Ireland.  By Lisa M. Bitel. Corneal University Press. 268 pages. $28.95.

One delight of a visit to Ireland is the chance to see monastic ruins around the countryside. On islands off the Irish coast there are tiny churches and monastic cells dating back to the Dark Ages. Built of huge stone blocks, some of the churches look strong enough to last another thousand years at least. On the mainland you can tramp around farm buildings, over stiles, and through cow pas­tures to reach sturdy medieval ruins.

Lisa Bitel’s Isle of the Saints describes how monks lived in some of the old buildings from 800 to 1200. While well-written and conveying much valuable information, her account is in­complete. It says little, for ex­ample, about monastic scholar­ship and almost nothing about the art that made the Book of Kells and other beautiful works.

Bitel, whose academic spe­cialty is medieval history, is in­terested in the sociology of monastic life: how the monks organized their communities and how they dealt with lay people and Irish kings or warlords. She places heavy stress on status, power, and methods of controlling the laity.

Her book has both the strengths and weaknesses of a historical-sociological approach. One strength is a genuine effort to be objective. Bitel says much about the down side of monastic life, but she is not one-sided. While she reports that celibacy was not universal­ly practiced and suggests that some abbots were succeeded by their sons, she does not indulge in tiresome Freudian analysis. Some monks, she notes, were warriors who at­tacked rival monasteries; yet many were peacemakers.

Bitel’s matter-of-fact report­ing may be a healthy corrective for Catholics and others who have too romantic a view of monasticism. We are, after all, speaking of human beings. Many monastic communities, starting out with strict rules and genuine poverty, grew large and prosperous. Manual labor often shifted from the monks themselves to tenant farmers, and many monks were too concerned with prop­erty expansion and fees. Ven­eration of relics too easily led to superstitions and a view of religion as magical. Many of the famous abbots, revered as Irish saints, reportedly cursed their enemies and caused them great harm.

While paying ample atten­tion to the monks’ foibles and sins, Bitel also notes their efforts to live up to high ideals. They took in handi­capped and abandoned chil­dren; they sheltered and honored lepers; and poor communities fed visitors even when the monks themselves did not have enough to eat.

A weakness of the socio­logical approach is the tenden­cy to overemphasize self-inter­est. The terms “religious elite” and “religious professionals” are used to excess, and Bitel’s discussion of monastic hospital­ity seems skewed. Did monks really host each other “pri­marily to act out and affirm their place in the hierarchy of monastic communities”? Reject­ing food may have “provided the monks with another means of identifying themselves as better than and apart from the laity,” but it is fair to ask whether that was the chief motive for fast and abstinence.

Here, as elsewhere, Bitel may suffer from an inability to view matters from the inside. In her Preface she says, “I be­gan this book with one ques­tion: Why did the Christians of early Ireland support a class of religious professionals devoted to the veneration of dead holy men and women?” The ques­tion seems slightly off-center. Certainly the monks had great reverence for their founding saints, yet men entered monas­teries primarily to worship God and find salvation and sanctifi­cation. The saints were guides and models, not ends in them­selves.

Bitel has done an enor­mous amount of research in a difficult area of scholarship. In judging motives and attitudes, however, she is less than reli­able.

- Mary Meehan

Drawing the Line: Life, Death, and Ethical Choices in an American Hospital.  By Samuel Gorovitz. Oxford University Press. 195 pages. $19.95.

Samuel Gorovitz, a phi­losopher specializing in bioeth­ical issues, spent seven weeks at Beth Israel Hospital in the Boston area, watching events unfold, and grappling with the ethical issues they posed. As Visiting Scholar in Residence — or (unofficially) “Authorized Snoop and Irritant-at-Large” — he had free rein of one of the nation’s most prestigious teach­ing hospitals in order better to ponder the ethical dilemmas of modern medicine. The issue is: What, if anything, did he learn from his experience?

Apparently he learned very little. He remarks that the federal government’s moratori­um on research involving in vitro fertilization “has been a great hindrance to medical progress,” an example of how “the heavy hand of political cowardice [can] stifle the quest for greater understanding of fundamental biological process­es.” He observes that “there is no reason to oppose fetal re­search on ethical grounds, provided it satisfies the rele­vant guidelines [content un­specified]….The question is less an ethical than a political one.” He complains that the Supreme Court’s modification of Roe v. Wade in the 1989 Web­ster case will lead to “legis­lative chaos” — i.e., to differ­ent state legislatures making different moral and prudential judgments.

Views such as these owe nothing to Gorovitz’s visit to Beth Israel. They derive in part from a utilitarian-technocratic outlook, and in part from solidarity with fellow profes­sionals against groups like the Boston Irish, of whose political power Gorovitz frequently complains. The rights and wrongs of abortion, of fetal research, and of in vitro fertili­zation (with or without accom­panying destruction of pre-em­bryonic life) need to be debat­ed, not “settled” by obiter dicta interspersed in an account of a hospital visit.

Can theory then learn nothing from practice? Are we forced into the position of the sort of Catholic moral theolo­gian who boasts of never having heard a confession? On the contrary, practice can inform theory, and can do so in at least two ways.

First, practice makes us aware of issues. If there is anyone who regards abortion as merely an unpleasant bit of elective surgery, the wrenching accounts of life and death in abortion clinics provided by women like Magda Denes and Sallie Tisdale are the next best thing to an experience I would not wish on anyone. But the issues, when, if ever, abortion is justified and what might be the appropriate scheme of legal regulation, need to be settled in the head and not in the guts.

Second, we can draw a more abstract set of lessons from the structure and texture of moral experience. Human decisions are complex and messy; moral and non-moral considerations enter into them in no particular order. Thus one should not expect clear rules covering every situation — e.g., at what point to cease the attempt to prolong a pa­tient’s life. Prudence here and everywhere is the most neces­sary of virtues.

But the complexity of mor­al choice also teaches another lesson. In view of the multi­tude of considerations that bear on a single choice, and the impossibility of finding a common measure by which their force can be assessed, “do what’s best” is seldom if ever appropriate moral advice. Firm, possibly even exceptionless, rules and principles are there­fore necessary, not as substi­tutes for prudence but as guides to it. How much struc­ture and how much leeway is required in moral reasoning is a question to which there is no general answer.

Gorovitz concludes his book by emphasizing the many elements of uncertainty in moral judgment. “It is these uncertainties that make it both necessary and so very difficult to draw the lines…in each decision about a complex and ethically challenging case.” And so, he reasons, “each of us faces the need, over and over again, to decide how far to go in dealing with various dimensions of our lives.”

But it is also necessary, on at least some occasions, to take a firm stand against evil. Otherwise, all his talk about uncertainty provides nothing but a screen of euphemisms, behind which those who are certain of their objectives, or overcome by their passions, can commit enormous wrongs.

- Philip E. Devine

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