Volume > Issue > For Catholic Dissenters, Abortion Is Like Mowing Grass

For Catholic Dissenters, Abortion Is Like Mowing Grass

A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion

By Daniel A. Dombrowski and Robert Deltete

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Pages: 158

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

At the start of A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, authors Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete present themselves as Catholics. They are both professors of philosophy at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution. Yet by the end of the book, they declare that the majority opinion written by Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade is “compatible with much of what we have argued in this book,” and they defend “late-term abortions” as morally permissible where “the health and well-being of a pregnant woman” is involved. Their defense of abortion is liberal all right, but is it Catholic?

The authors begin by raising doubts about the authenticity of the Church’s prolife position. They claim that their own pro-abortion stance “may even be more compatible with Catholic tradition than the current anti-abortion stance defended by many Catholics and by most Catholic leaders.” The Church’s teaching, they contend, rests on “a shaky foundation,” and needs to be “altered or dropped.”

The authors make a sharp distinction between the unborn child being “merely human” (i.e., having human parents and genes) and being “a human person in some morally relevant sense.” Their most striking and pervasive analogy in support of this distinction is the one between an unborn child and vegetation, as when they say, “The early fetus is obviously alive, as is grass.”

In their view, the unborn child is like vegetation until very late in the pregnancy when sentience begins, a term they define as the capacity to perceive pain. They argue that sentience arises only when the central nervous system is functioning. Oh, but what a slippery slope this is! They keep shifting the date when the unborn child attains this mysterious quality. First they say it is hard to tell if there is “a morally considerable being at twenty-four weeks of pregnancy or not until twenty-eight weeks.” As it turns out, they are unsure the unborn child has sentience until the eighth month. Even then they declare vaguely that “the fetus becomes morally considerable between twenty-four and thirty-two weeks when sentiency, and then the cerebral cortex, starts to function.” The thirty-second week verges on the ninth month!

The authors inform us that performing an abortion on a “nonsentient” child (which, as we have just seen, can be up to the eighth month) is like mowing the lawn. Here are their very words: “It is unclear to us, however, why killing a nonsentient being is rash or precipitous. We do it all the time with equanimity when we mow the grass.” Elsewhere they say that an abortion is “like pruning one’s rose bush.” These are chilling analogies. But do they actually work as analogies? No. For when one prunes a rosebush, it is to make it bloom more abundantly; when one mows the grass, it is to make it grow thicker and stronger. But when one aborts a child, does that child’s capacity to grow improve? Not a bit. Little wonder that the authors attack the prolife film The Silent Scream as being “at best, misleading, and, at worst, fraudulent.” This heart-rending film shows an unborn child in the throes of an abortion and makes it plain that there is no likeness here to grass or a rosebush. As ultrasounds reveal, a child in the womb reacts to touch after eight weeks, something that grass and a rosebush cannot do at any stage.

In this work the authors repeatedly try to reduce the prolife position to a joke: to be consistent, they say, prolifers would have to give “moral respect” to such things as “paramecia, insects, tissue excised during a medical operation, cancer cells, asparagus.” Even harvesting carrots would “constitute something of a massacre.” But the name prolife is an abbreviation for “pro-innocent human life,” and surely common sense tells us that we have duties toward an unborn child that we do not have to paramecia and vegetation.

The authors assert that once sentience begins, the “individual human fetal life” then becomes “as valuable as the life of an animal.” However, they find it “difficult” to say just when the unborn child’s life becomes “more valuable than that of a ‘mere’ animal.” Because to be more valuable, they think the unborn child would have to have its “rationality” fully “actualized.” From this they conclude that we should protect animals, since it is hard to “morally distinguish between sentient yet nonrational animals” and “sentient yet nonrational human beings.” Strange! Most Catholics find it very easy to “morally distinguish” between an animal and an unborn child.

The authors want to persuade us that they are more faithful to Catholic Tradition than is the Church. To achieve this, their strategy is to refer constantly to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as their unimpeachable authorities. They say, for instance, that “contemporary science can help us to amplify Augustine’s point to the effect that the fetus early in pregnancy has a (non-) moral status comparable to that of a plant.” Or they say that Augustine and Aquinas agree that “Before hominization the embryo is alive, but only in the way in which a plant, or, at best, an animal is alive.” Thus, they use these saints to attack the Church’s teaching on abortion, even though they know that Augustine and Aquinas regarded abortion as a grave sin.

Using sleight of hand, they take up the outdated biology of these Catholic doctors, but cast aside their ethics — thus making a very selective use of Catholic Tradition. They claim that Augustine and Aquinas showed three states of development in the unborn child — first a vegetative, then an animal, and finally a human state. Now, Augustine and Aquinas knew nothing about fertilization and genetic inheritance; they inherited their biology from antiquity. But even so — and this is the important point — these saints believed that the child in the womb was human from the start and his existence foreordained by God. There is no question of a mini-Darwinian evolution in the womb, of a vegetable coming first, then an animal, and finally a man.

This entire argument is taken from Joseph F. Donceel, S.J., who published “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization” in 1970 (Theological Studies). Donceel used the medieval biology of Aquinas to question whether the arguments Catholics were using really supported the Church’s ban on abortion. He argued that the fetus would have to make three great ontological leaps in the womb before it became human. Only when the cortex of the brain was ready would the rational soul appear. Donceel declared, “I feel certain that there is no human person until several weeks have elapsed.” Dombrowski and Deltete run with this argument and feel certain there is no human person until the eighth month.

Donceel was answered by both Germain Grisez and David Granfield. Their learned refutations work just as well against Dombrowski and Deltete. Granfield replied that, “According to Thomistic philosophy…. at the moment of fertilization…a rational soul is infused which has the powers of three (vegetative, animal, and rational). This soul constitutes the ‘vital principle’ or ‘life force’ of the fetus from the very beginning” (The Abortion Decision, 1971, see pp. 29-31).

Grisez responded thus: “St. Thomas’ biological errors invalidate his anthropological conclusions. If St. Thomas had known about the specific and individual genetic uniqueness of the zygote which makes it biologically a living organism of the human species, he would have supported immediate animation. Moreover, Donceel’s view disregards the fact that fetal development is a continuous process. Thus he does not explain why the fetus, which in his opinion cannot be a human body at the zygote stage, can be one after a few weeks” (Abortion: The Myths, the Realities and the Arguments, 1970, p. 283).

Grisez’s point is very important, because Donceel’s followers have a huge problem with this too. Dombrowski and Deltete argue that “when the issue of abortion is considered,” we should not underestimate that the past self is “another” self. To claim that one is “an identical entity through time,” they insist, is a “misleading way of describing an individual enduring through change.” They know that Catholic opponents of abortion believe the unborn child has a “strict identity,” but they themselves believe the child has a “non-strict identity.” What they mean is that a “partly new concrete reality” comes into being whenever change occurs: “Mary on Friday and Mary on Monday are somewhat different realities.” Oh really?

In one of their last chapters, “A Defensible Sexual Ethic,” the authors state that it does not matter if sexual intercourse is “premarital, marital, or homosexual,” so long as there is “mutual agapic respect.” Their adjective agapic derives from the noun agape, which stands for the early Christian feast of charity. Oddly enough, the authors yoke this ancient word with modern lust. They argue further that sex outside of marriage may even “enhance” one’s “moral” and “spiritual” life. From this chapter alone one can see why the authors defend abortion. Embracing this “sexual ethic” leads them to endorse abortion for utilitarian reasons, as a backup for contraceptive failure.

And so, the word Catholic in the title of this book is very misleading. The authors exult at the end as if they had proven that there is no case to be made against abortion “on Catholic grounds.” They have the effrontery to say that Catholics must henceforth be “more circumspect in imposing their view on a diverse, polyglot, and pluralistic population.” The phrase imposing their view hints that, on this life-and-death issue, 50 million American Catholics should be even less audible in the public square than they already are. The phrase also implies that Catholics are still using only religious arguments against abortion, when in fact our arguments have long been derived from biology, ethics, philosophy, law and other secular disciplines. Surely we have an equal right to stand with others in the public square and try to persuade our countrymen on such grounds.

In Ephesians 5:11-13, St. Paul urges Christians to “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” He tells us to expose those murky works “by the light” and make them “visible” for what they really are. This book only adds to the murk.

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