Fictions of Life

October 1993By William E. May

William E. May is Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral The­ology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He also serves on the Holy See’s International Theo­logical Commission.

The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy.  By Harold J. Morowitz and James S. Trefil. Oxford University Press. 179 pages. $19.95.

Harold Morowitz, professor of biology at George Mason Uni­versity, and James Trefil, professor of physics at the same institution, claim that their book will give readers the most up-to-date scientific information on human development so that they may make well-grounded judg­ments about abortion.

In the first chapter the authors articulate their philosophical presuppositions. They claim that the abortion controversy has been hopelessly muddled because the wrong questions have been asked by both sides. They believe that questions concerning the beginning of life, the personhood of the unborn, and ensoulment or lack thereof are irrelevant. They are willing to admit that "a human being exists from concep­tion on," but they hold that this is irrelevant, insofar as the life of the early human being, from a biological and chemical point of view, in no way differs from the life of other living things.

They claim that the right question is, "When does the fe­tus acquire those properties that make humans uniquely different from other living things?," and they propose the phrase "the ac­quisition of humanness" to de­scribe the process "by which an individual fetus becomes a mem­ber of our species." To put the matter another way, they say that the right question is, "When does a fetus (or embryo or zygote) ac­quire humanness?"

There is, at one point in chapter one, the startling claim that "in the precise language of the biological sciences, the cor­rect way to refer to a fetus is as a developmental stage of the spe­cies Homo sapiens." This is ludi­crous. It is evident our authors think that the human fetus is not an individual member of the hu­man species but rather represents a stage in the evolution of the whole human species. This is surely an odd claim for scientists to make, reminiscent of the thor­oughly discredited view that on­togeny (the development of an individual) recapitulates phylog­eny (the development of the species). Remarkably, in chapter five, they explicitly repudiate this view. Despite their disclaimer, they nonetheless seem to em­brace a variant of this view, if not this view as such. For in that same chapter five they attribute to the human zygote the property of eukaryote-ness, common to amoebas; to the 18-day-old fetus the property of chordate-ness, common to animals with the start of a nervous system; to the four-week-old fetus the property of vertebrate-ness, common to fish and other animals higher on the evolutionary scale leading to the emergence of Homo sapiens; to the two-month-old fetus the property of mammal-ness, common to shrews and others; and so forth. Their point is that during all these developmental stages the fetus is still on its way to emerging into the species Homo sapiens. Thus, during all this period of intrauterine devel­opment, they claim that the en­tity in question lacks the requisite property of "humanness" and is hence not a member of the hu­man species.

In chapters two and three they are at pains to show that the entity living within the womb (which they are willing to call a "human being" in the sense of possessing human DNA) during the early stages of development simply cannot have this requisite property of humanness. Thus they claim that life is a con­tinuum and that from the per­spectives of biology and chemistry "human beings aren’t all that different from pumpkins or any other life forms." So what’s so special about zygotes or fe­tuses? They claim that concep­tion is not all that significant, since all it gives rise to is a zy­gote, which is only "potential life." Indeed, they contend that this "fertilized egg" is no more "potential life" than unfertilized eggs since parthenogenesis is common in other species (are they here silently acknowledging that human beings at this stage of development are indeed mem­bers of the human species despite their earlier denial?), and parthe­nogenesis in humans can surely be engineered by appropriate manipulation of DNA. Hence, they argue, if we want to give spe­cial status to zygotes or "fertilized eggs," then we ought also give special status to unfertilized eggs. But this, of course, is absurd.

In chapter four they aver that the fundamental property absolutely indispensable for hu­manness is "the acquisition of the enlarged cerebral cortex," for it is this that "sets humankind off from the rest of the living world." According to our authors, it is the possession of an enlarged cortex that accounts for the uniquely human abilities to reason, speak in propositional sentences, build cities and cultures, etc. Conse­quently, only entities possessing an enlarged cerebral cortex are truly members of the human species, beings having the requisite property of humanness.

In chapters five and six (de­voted to fetal development and the emergence of the enlarged cerebral cortex), they have no diffi­culty showing that developing human beings lack an enlarged cerebral cortex until the "period from twenty-five to thirty-two weeks" -- i.e., during the third trimester of pregnancy. I have al­ready noted that in chapter five Morowitz and Trefil claim that during prior states of fetal development the "human being" in question is in no way different and no more valuable than amoe­bas, fish, shrews, etc.

In chapter seven they make the point that it is apparently im­possible to push the survival of premature infants below 25 weeks. They then conclude that the right of the woman, who pos­sesses the all-important property of humanness because she has a developed and functioning enlarged cerebral cortex, to con­trol her body warrants abortion for any reason until the formation of the enlarged cortex during the seventh month of pregnancy. Even after that time, however, "we can’t say that humanness has been acquired, but we can’t say that it hasn’t either." We are in a "gray area."

The above account accurately sums up the work, a work filled with scientific and philosophical nonsense. I have noted some of this, but there is much more. For instance, the au­thors claim that the life of a hu­man being during the early stages of development is, biologically and chemically, the same as the life of other living things. This is nonsense. Human zygotes are recognizably human by reason of their genetic makeup. They are not "potential" human beings but rather human beings with potential. They do not, of course, have developed cerebral cortexes from the beginning of their exist­ence, but they have, within them­selves, the potential to develop their own bodily organs, includ­ing the cerebral cortex.

The authors claim that a zy­gote is "potential life," and that a "fertilized egg," like unfertilized eggs, is also merely "potential life." Again this is biological non­sense. The terminology "fertilized egg" is very misleading, for after an egg has been fertilized, it is no longer an egg (a human ovum), but a distinctly new living organ­ism, a human being with the po­tential for developing through the various stages of human life un­til death. An unfertilized egg is a somatic cell of the woman; a zy­gote is genetically and biologi­cally distinct from every cell of the woman’s body. Nor are human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses in no way biologically different from other living organisms. If they were, biologists would not be able to distinguish human beings dur­ing these stages of their develop­ment from dogs, cats, mice, apes, and other living things during these stages of their development. But of course biologists can eas­ily discriminate between human beings and other animals during these developmental stages. How, then, can our authors claim as scientific the fact that the life of human beings during these early stages is biologically the same as the life of other living things? Only because of their ludicrous philosophical presupposition that one does not become a member of the human species until an enlarged cerebral cortex is devel­oped.

The authors also assume, naïvely, that the brain, or, better, the cerebral cortex, is the same as the mind, and that the uniquely human capacities to judge the truth of propositions (such as those asserted by the authors), and to make free choices, can be explained in terms of the electrical and neu­ronal changes in the cells of the cerebral cortex. They utterly fail to distinguish between the radi­cal capacity to do something and the developed capacity to do something, and to distinguish be­tween the capacity to do some­thing and the exercise of that ca­pacity. I hold it true (and believe that it can be philosophically demonstrated) that human be­ings differ radically in kind from other kinds of animals and that all members of the human spe­cies have the radical capacity, rooted in their being the kind of beings they are, to discriminate between true and false propo­sitions and to make free choices. Thus membership in the human species is of paramount moral significance. Moreover, all living entities, identifiable as human in nature, are members of the hu­man species, and human beings during all the stages of their de­velopment are identifiable as liv­ing beings human in nature. Concepts of this kind are simply ignored by our authors and in their place is put a crude form of reductionist materialism that identifies the mind with a mate­rial organ.

It should also be noted that our authors hold that "the tak­ing of a human life without the sanction of the state is considered one of the most seri­ous of crimes. It is, in fact, called murder." From this it follows that if the state sanctions the killing, it is not murder and is morally permissible. Would the authors approve the "taking of human lives" that took place un­der the sanction of the state in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia or Hussein’s Iraq?

It is also worth noting that one of the authors, Trefil, admits in his Afterword that he can "imagine fewer human acts more deeply evil than bringing an un­wanted child into the world." We must thus do everything neces­sary to prevent this horrid evil, contraception first, followed by abortion, if contraception fails.

This book has, not surprisingly, warmed the heart of Ann Stone of Republicans for Choice, who is quoted on the jacket as saying, "The women of America owe Professors Morowitz and Trefil a debt of gratitude." To me the work sim­ply shows the intellectual bank­ruptcy of those whose slogan is that "no unwanted child ought ever to be born." This superficial banality must be challenged by the truth that no human being ought ever to be unwanted.

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