Volume > Issue > Parental Love vs. Loveless “Rights”

Parental Love vs. Loveless “Rights”

Abortion Rights: For and Against

By Kate Greasley and Christopher Kaczor

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 266

Price: $29.99

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Abortion Rights: For and Against presents a debate in essay form between Kate Greasley, a pro-abortion lecturer in law at University College, London, and Christopher Kaczor, a pro-life professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in California. The book features lengthy essays by both Greasley and Kaczor, followed by two sets of replies by each author. Throughout the book there is no trace of love in Greasley’s arguments, while parental love is Kaczor’s constant theme.

In her opening essay, “In Defense of Abortion Rights,” Greasley declares that she wants Christians to think “clearly” about abortion, and she attempts to debunk some biblical passages that she says cause Christians to believe they must be pro-life. She writes, for example, that being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27) refers only to “developed humans,” not to inconsiderable fetuses, and that being “knit” by God in a “mother’s womb” (Ps. 139) refers only to the “biological entity,” not to a “person,” who is invested at birth with “strong moral rights.”

Kaczor responds to this salvo by saying that the “religious (or at least Christian) opposition to abortion” is grounded not in a few passages from Scripture but in the message of the entire Bible, which is that “God loves all human beings, and we are called to love all human beings.”

Greasley agrees that fetuses are human beings and that abortion involves their “deliberate killing,” but she insists that only a “person” has a right to life — a right she calls “almost inviolable.” She repeats several times that if fetuses were really persons, then abortion would be “almost always morally wrong and legal abortion permissions almost entirely unjustified.” Killing fetuses would then be “homicide, tantamount to the killing of a human child.” Fetuses, however, are only members of the human species, nothing more, she says. An extraterrestrial that could “reason, learn, [and] communicate” would be a person with a right to life, Greasley argues, and so would a cat injected with a magic serum that turns it into a talking super-cat, as well as a chimp enhanced with human DNA that shows cognitive capacities. A human fetus, however, has “no greater moral status” than a “lower mammal,” so to deny the right to abort them would be a great injustice to women “as a class.” Without these rights, Greasley says, women cannot “engage in sexual intercourse on the same terms as men” or have “lucrative jobs and important social positions.” These are the loveless triumphs that are made possible by the deliberate killing of human beings in the womb.

Greasley explains that “consciousness, reasoning ability, independent agency, and the ability to form conscious desires” are the sorts of properties persons possess but fetuses lack. In addition, she says the Embryo Rescue Case demolishes the pro-life view of “personhood-from-conception.” The Embryo Rescue Case is an imaginary scenario in which you have the choice to save either several frozen embryos or a single child from a burning hospital. Since people usually choose to save the child, Greasley claims that this demonstrates our “strongly rooted belief in the lesser moral status of human embryos.” But how strongly rooted can this belief be, since frozen embryos are a recent phenomenon? In his reply, Kaczor points out that the right to life is different from the right to be rescued, and that most frozen embryos are “doomed to death” anyway.

Infants are similar to fetuses in that they lack self-awareness and cognitive capacities, yet we do not approve of killing them so that women can have well-paying jobs or social status. Greasley calls this “the infanticide problem.” But there are, she says, “good moral and pragmatic reasons” to award newborns a right to life “at a fairly early stage,” one of which is that a “core intuition” makes infanticide unacceptable to many. Ah, but what if it should become acceptable?

Greasley rejects bioethicist Patrick Lee’s argument that fetuses and newborns both possess “the radical capacity for personhood” common to all who have “human genetic coding.” She faults it on the ground that Lee uses a “species membership criterion” for personhood. What trumps Lee’s argument is civil law, Greasley says, which stipulates birth to be the “absolute threshold for personhood status.” While late-term fetuses “closely resemble babies,” and birth does not mean that the “moral status” of the newborn has been “radically altered,” the threshold of birth has a “practical workability,” she claims. In it we see “the legal virtues of clarity, predictability, and transparency.” In sum, Greasley’s idea of personhood is not grounded in unchanging moral principle but in changeable human law.

In his essay “Abortion as Human Rights Violation,” Kaczor contends that all human beings have the same fundamental dignity, from which arise basic equal rights. To be a person, Kaczor says, is to be “worthy of love, not mere use.” It means to be an “ultimate reason for action,” not a means to an end. He explains that our right to life begins when we start to exist, and that organic living things, no matter how small, “have self-directed internal activities” and an “adaptive self-organization.” The earliest cells of an embryo “exhibit a unified trajectory toward human maturity.”

Kaczor reminds readers that in the past, when we have divided humanity into two camps — those like us and the rest — we ended up denying equal personhood, for example, to Native Americans and blacks. This pattern of exclusion is being repeated today with regard to the preborn, who are “not like us, not powerful, unable to protect themselves, and as vulnerable as a human can be.”

Kaczor explains that the “endowment account” of personhood, as opposed to the functional account, “secures our value over the course of our lives.” In this case, it is the kind of creature we are, our very nature, not self-awareness or rational activity, that endows us with value. What counts is to be “the kind of being that matters, the kind of being endowed with inalienable rights, the kind of being with rational nature.” This is the basis of equality and what gives us “grounds for condemning sexism and racism.”

Kaczor also argues against several wrongheaded accounts of what constitutes a person who has the right to life. In the “conscious desires account,” personhood is denied to fetuses because they have no conscious desires and no wishes for the future fulfillment of those desires. This account, he says, would also deny the right to life to Buddhist masters in the state of nirvana, who are said to be beyond all desires. Regarding cognitive activity as the hallmark of personhood, Kaczor contends that we are not “embodied minds” and that rational functioning is achieved only at the age of reason, usually at seven years old. Human appearance is another unreasonable requirement, since some people are disfigured by fire, explosions, or injuries in war. Finally, premature births challenge the view that the “moral worth of the fetus grows over time,” since a baby born prematurely at 23 weeks has the legal right to life, though he is less developed than an in utero fetus of 36 weeks.

Kaczor ends his essay with the beautiful story of his wife Jennifer’s unplanned pregnancy when Kaczor was a university student. He recounts how he was initially reluctant to become a father, but how much love and joy entered his life with his daughter’s birth and how it has transformed him.

In her reply, Greasley rejects the notion that denying equal moral standing to fetuses is just like denying it to human beings of a different race, religion, age, or disability. She argues that “nondiscrimination” is not the “defining feature” of the pro-life view. She compares the preborn child to a caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, saying that human beings “go through a fundamental change in nature as and when they become persons, while remaining the same numerical identity.” She seems to have a completely different definition of the word nature than Kaczor.

Incredibly, in response to Kaczor’s story about how his daughter’s birth transformed him, bringing much love and joy into his life, Greasley cites philosopher Laurie Paul’s dilemma about loveless vampires: Imagine you are trying to decide whether to become a vampire, and those you know who have done it are satisfied with their transformation and enjoy their nocturnal existence. The question is, will joining them in the vampiric state “make you better off according to the preferences you have now”? Greasley says that parenthood can bring about a “similar transformation.” You see, for Kate Greasley, parenthood is not about opening yourself to love but about being better off! Love is not part of the equation.

In his reply, Kaczor speaks of aspiring to love as did Mother Teresa, who saw Jesus in each of the needy and vulnerable people she served. He says the pro-life view, which some atheists also defend, rests on the scientific and ethical premise that all human beings, whether privileged or unwanted, should be welcomed and protected by law. Science tells us that when a new, genetically distinct human being comes into existence at conception, this is the starting point of a life story. The woman and the man have already become mother and father. The only way for them to stop being parents is to kill their offspring, the vulnerable human being they procreated.

In her final reply, Greasley says that Kaczor has substantiated her worries that “the Christian faith does in fact dictate an answer on abortion.” He did this when he wrote that “it is the Christian value of loving all human beings that explains why abortion is immoral according to that faith.” She responds to this call to love by saying that Christ’s commandment to “love thy neighbor” does not refer to the human being in the womb. “I am quite sure,” Greasley writes, “that the Bible does not specifically refer to the to-be-loved group as human beings ‘defined as any living human organism from conception.’”

In his final reply, Kaczor recounts another moving story about love and parenthood from his own life. He tells of “a red-headed Irish-American” student, his biological mother, who met an African immigrant who got her pregnant. Fortunately, she had been taught that abortion is wrong and procuring one “would make her like a vampire.” But she wanted to finish her education, so she made “the most gut-wrenching choice of her life”: She gave birth and put her baby up for adoption. Kaczor recounts how he met her in Seattle, 27 years after her decision, and “got to thank this woman, my birth mother, for her heroic sacrifice. We embraced in tears of joy and gratitude.”

I have not covered all the arguments on abortion in this book, only the salient ones. Overall, the book is exceptional in showing with startling clarity how the fight over abortion is really a battle between love and lovelessness.

 

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