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 Sees 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 arent all that different from pumpkins or any other life forms." So whats 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 cant say that humanness has been acquired, but we cant say that it hasnt 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 womans 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 Hitlers Germany or Stalins Russia or Husseins 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.