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Peter Steinfels responds to George McKenna

Over at Human Life Review, Peter Steinfels has a response to George McKenna's critique of Peter's June 2013 Commonweal article "Beyond the Stalemate." (You'll remember that in October, Commonweal editor Paul Baumann weighed in on McKenna's piece on our blog.) Here is an excerpt from Peter's response: 

It does not matter that McKenna’s critique contains a number of nasty barbs aimed at me and my religious views. What matters is that, while I strongly doubt that Human Life Review readers (or for that matter Commonweal readers) would completely agree with “Beyond the Stalemate” in undistorted form, an open-minded and accurate reading might at least provoke constructive thought. But that would require a return to the central concerns and argument of my article rather than what “successive readings” convinced McKenna I was really up to.

And what was that? My “underlying point,” he claimed, is to propose a “grand bargain” between the species of liberal Catholics he labels Commonweal Catholics and their “pro-choice brethren on the left.” And what were the terms of this “grand bargain,” in McKenna’s view? “We will eschew any more public rhetoric about a ‘moment of conception’—if you will just agree with us that at some point in the pregnancy the occupant of the womb can be called human and thus entitled to the same legal protections we give to the already-born.”

All very interesting. And completely false.

You can read Peter's response in its entirety here.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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And yet, there are some reasons to question the presence of a human person at the moment of conception. The first would be the sheer number of spontaneous miscarriages immediately after conception, some huge proportion, if not the majority. The second would be the phenomenon of the identical twin. A fertilized egg implants, then splits, producing identical twins. One person suddenly becomes two? Or, an egg that has split suddenly comes together again. Two persons suddenly become one? And then there is the fact that, up until a certain point days after conception, the growing zygote is genetically one with its parents. Only after a certain point whose name I cannot remember, does the zygote achieve a biological uniqueness of its own.



If the Roman Catholic bishops were to stop saying that distinctively human life begins at the moment of conception, then they would also have to stop opposing artificial contraception on the grounds that it prevents the natural course of conception.

Conversely, if the Roman Catholic bishops were to stop opposing artificial contraception on the grounds that it prevents the natural course of conception, then they would also have to stop saying that distinctively human life begins at the moment of conception.

But surveys show that many married Roman Catholic women use artificial contraception for the purposes of family planning -- which is contrary to what the Roman Catholic bishops teach about the use of artificial contraception.

Now, it would seem to follow that those married Roman Catholic women, and perhaps their spouses as well, might also want to disagree with what the Roman Catholic bishops teach about distinctively human life supposedly beginning at the moment of conception.

A couple of thoughts:  Is saying that "A human person begins at the moment of conception" the same as saying that we can't prove that it doesn't? I don't know that it makes a great deal of difference morally that a percentage of embryos fail to implant or die in the very early stages. One doesn't have any control over that; it is totally in the hands of God or nature. The fact that a certain amount of mortality occurs in the natural way of things isn't a good argument for the morality of human beings causing this mortality.

Re: Thomas Farrell's comment; "...if the Roman Catholic bishops were to stop opposing artificial contraception on the grounds that it prevents the natural course of conception, then they would also have to stop saying that distinctively human life begins a the moment of conception." This conflates abortion and contraception. My understanding is that they oppose contraception because it goes against one of the ends of marriage, that each and every sexual act is supposed to be "open to life". Most contraceptive methods (including NFP)  function by preventing the sperm and the egg from ever getting together in the first place.  So a married couple who practices contraception would not necessarily be in disagreement with the Church about when life begins.


Prof. Farrell, You wrote:

"If the Roman Catholic bishops were to stop saying that distinctively human life begins at the moment of conception, then they would also have to stop opposing artificial contraception on the grounds that it prevents the natural course of conception."

I don't understand your argument here.  Couldn't they argue that a qualitative step has been taken with conception--a new human life has been initiated--, which is not true of ovum or sperm?  And I believe that there are many people who are not opposed to even artificial contraception but are quite opposed to abortion, and don't sense any contradiction in holding both positions. 

Could you spell out your logic a bit?

What I find hypocritical or at least biased about many pro choice left activists who are Catholic is that many of them BELIEVE explicitly in "up ending one's life"  for the sake ofhe Gospel; meaning  justice and the well being of all people-especially the marginalized, yet when it comes to abortion they invoke the "up ending of a woman's  life" if she is denied abortion as something to avoid; a bad thing.Pope Francis  has  stressed that being christian calls us out of complacency.Unwanted pregnancy should for a christian be regarded on par with other "upending" of our comfortable norms .But I do agree that practically ,now that abortion has been legalzed for so long and people have been indoctrinated to see abortion as a good valid option for women, there is no going back to ever having, in a secular US, laws passed  the that would grant right to life at the moment of conception.It just will not happen.Still I think that believing Christians should not split hairs on the matter. Though we get drowned out by the culture-we have to speak our truth-that life begins at conception and therefore killing it is wrong.And it   also true that killing an apparent clump of cells is "better" then killng a sentient fetus capable of suffeing.We hve to ackwedge that fact AND we have to stick to our faith position that we'r created by God at the moment of  conception.To do otherwise would be  to  succumb or at least to be playing footsie   with a  materialist view of  the world and of human beings.The heart of our faith is the opposite.

Don't want to answer for Prof. Farrell, Fr. Joe, but would venture to say:

- birth control (if you use Rev. Ford's and Grisez arguments defending HV, it is more than just the ends of marriage - loving support and open to children.  Ford, especially, argued against any type of *artificial* means to interfere (even tho we use *artificial means every day in millions of cases to sustain and save life) and his reliance upon an *outdated* natural law concept.  Wouldn't most experts today state that Paul VI was swayed and approved the very minority approach primarily because of papal fear; setting a precedent; weakening papal authority; upending an earlier papal (some say infallible) pronouncement; and ignoring both medical/genetic sciences and a development in the understanding of what the ends of marriage are?

- thus, if bishops modified their approach on *conception* they would be using recourse to new medical/genetic advances and potentially allowing for *artificial* means to be used - thus, impacting both bc and abortion.

Some recently published articles including this summary from Grixez:

Key passage (IMO) -

"In the end, the majority of commission members actually lost interest in attempting to argue that contraceptive pills could be squared with “Casti Connubii.” Instead, they simply advocated the acceptance of contraception, without attempting to reconcile this prospect with the previous teaching of the Church."  ( again, reveals a windown into thinking that Casti Connubii had to be upheld rather than resolving the issue upon its own merits)

Here is an excellent summary of the bc issue:

Key passage (IMO) -

"Hayes ends his article with two conclusions around which Pope Francis could resolve the birth control controversy.

1. "The church has already approved the use of the rhythm method. If this approval has relied upon biological naturalness to distinguish rhythm from other contraceptive methods, it would now seem possible for the church to extend its approval to all contraceptive methods of birth control (provided, of course, husband and wife have serious reasons for limiting births in their family)."

2. ''The possibility of acceptance by the church of all contraceptive methods of birth control (provided that none of the latest methods prove to be abortifacient) has come about not by any change in moral principles but by the application of a more accurate picture of human reproduction as reported by current biological concepts."

C. Curran argues the same course of action in terms of *conception* - as P. Steinfels alludes to in his analysis, medical science/genetics currently shed light on the process (it is not one single moment in time); this same medical knowledge corrects a simplistic use of *natural law* in this issue; and indicates a way to understand that conception is a process that results in what we (the church) would declare a human being....but, during this process, we have components of life but not a human being and that using science, etc. one could reach a position that this process might allow for different human actions for significant and serious reasons.  (rather than an absolute, black and white answer; total certitude - when, in fact, we do not have certitude.)



Fr. Komonchak is right. The church's argument against abortion is logically independent of its argument against artificial contraception. One can accept the former without accepting the latter. Professor Farrell's claim is a non-sequitur. Bill deHass's follow-up comment is a non-response.

William Taylor mentions "the sheer number of spontaneous miscarriages immediately after conception, some huge proportion, if not the majority." He thinks this may indicate that human life does not begin at conception. I'm not sure why. Nature is cruel. Whole societies have been wiped out because of the arrival of a microorganism. A sea floor shifts and hundreds of thousands of people drown or are crushed to death. Does this indicate they were less valuable than we thought, or that we ought to rewrite our laws to reflect the fact that, as far as the ocean and the microorganism are concerned, human life is cheap? If a meteor wiped out a whole city tomorrow, should other cities reconsider all laws intended to protect human life, or punish those who break such laws less severely? For most of human history, "some huge proportion" of children did not reach adulthood. For as long as that was the case (and it still is in some places), were children less human or less valuable or less worthy of the law's protection than adults?

But it is the church irself that has conflated contraception with abortion ...

" hormonal methods such as the Pill may work in several ways. They can suppress ovulation or alter cervical mucus to prevent fertilization, and thus act contraceptively. But they may at times have other effects, such as changes to the lining of the uterus. If the contraceptive action fails and fertilization takes place, these hormonal methods may make it impossible for a newly conceived life to implant and survive. That would be a very early abortion. Medical opinions differ on whether or how often this may occur. Currently there is no way to know precisely how these drugs work at any given time in an individual woman.

Concern about the risk of causing an early abortion is stronger in the case of pills taken after intercourse to prevent pregnancy (“emergency contraception” or “morning-after pills”). In some cases these pills are taken when sperm and egg have already joined to create a new life, in which case the drug could not have any effect except to cause an early abortion."


Crystal --

The morning after pill is a distinct ethical problem.  The basic question is: is it an abortifacient (does it kill a person) or simply a contraceptive (does it prevent a person)? 

The answer to those questions is dependent on the answer to:  at what point is the organism a person?  If the conception process is not complete for 6-7 days, then it is only a contraceptive (because all it does it preclude conception).  If the conception process *were* complete within a day then it would actually be an abortifacient (it would kill an actual person).  But since the conception process is complete after 6-7 days, the morning after pill (which works within a couple of days) can't possible be an abortifacient.

The medievals, including Augusting, Anselm and Aquinas, were against abortion even though they thought that the conception process wasn't complete for weeks.  However, they thought that the organism prior to ensoulment had the right-to-life of a person.  This is still the official teaching of the official Church.

I cannot see how a non-person -- the not-yet a person zygote or whatever you call it --  can have a person's right-to-life, but, surprisingly, that particular point has not been given much, if any, attention by contemporary Catholic moralists.  But it seems to me that the question is a crucial one.


 the [conception] process (it is not one single moment in time).

I like that.

Mr. Boodway (sp) - actually, you miss the point of Prof. Farrell and my point in your haste to make your point.

Agree - one can separate the two but then you restate the *tired* natural law defense in your last paragraph.

Yes, nature can be cruel and nature (mankind) has developed over milleniums to live with nature utilizing human reason, invention, etc.  The means/tools of bc are neutral - how, why, when humans use it gives meaning,value, virtue.

You dismiss the argumets linked to - why?  Doesn't fit your preconceived opinion?

From what I have read, cloning human beings is a real possibiity at some time in the future (at least from the technical feasibiity standpoint - laws and ethics are another issue) since other mammals have been cloned. Cloning does not require sperm.  How will the "moment of conception" be defined in cloning? Would a cloned human being be a "real" person?  At what point in its development?  

As I recall, Curran argued that it isn't until after implantation (from 5 - 7 days after fertilization) that  one can speculate that human life begins. The fertilized ovum may or may not become two persons (or more) - that process also does not occur until after implantation. Ann, O, from what I remember of Augustine and Aquinas, they did not deem abortion to be "mortally" sinful until around 40-50 days after conception and they did tie this into "ensoulment'.  However, I have not studied this extensively and may be wrong.  

Human life and human persons are not the same thing either. Many do not consider the embryo or even the fetus to be a human being but a potential human beings, at least before viability outside the womb is possible (at around 24 weeks).

Scientists estimate that between 50-75% of fertilized eggs fail to implant successfully.   It is a zygote at this stage and is invisible to the eye.  After implantation, there is an additional loss of at least 10-20% of known pregnancies during the first 8-12 weeks of pregnancy (actually, more are lost after implantation but too early for a confirmation of a pregnancy to be known).  The church does not offer any kind of religious service for fetuses that are spontanteously aborted during the first and second trimester. I have heard that sometimes a prayer service, but not a funeral, might be provided for a third trimester loss.  So, does the church REALLY think that the embryo and fetus are full human beings before birth - equally human as those who are born alive?  If so, why does it not offer a sacramental funeral mass for all spontanteously aborted fetuses?

Mr. de Haas:   I do not understand your reply to my post.  Of course, human reproduction is a process; who could deny it?  My point is that a critical moment is reached when an ovum is fertilized--something new has begun to be, different in genetic constitution from both sperm and ovum, and this new living human reality is able, if nothing interferes, to develop into a mature human being.  To destroy this new human thing, it seems to me, is a different moral action from one that prevents such a new thing from beginning to live in the first place. That is why people may, quite consistently, be opposed to abortion and not be opposed to contraception. I believe that the Church's penitential practice has always respected this difference between the two actions. Contraception has not been considered as serious a sin as abortion.

That some contraceptive practices may be abortifacient does not affect the validity of such distinctions and does not represent a conflation of the two practices.

The conception process IS one moment in time; the moment the genetic material unite to becme one cell. That it is not a person but a cell is irrelevant theologically. So too the fact tha it has not yet implanted in the womb[location]. It is still an alive uniquely complete human as one cell.[even a twin is uniquly itself as a physical entity].I feel like we're  counting the angels on the had of a pin here but a human starts blologically at conceeption.That is sufficient for us christians to oppose its destruction since we believe God created us  in his image and God is good.So too human life.If God creates us out of love and we're called  to follow Jesus then what place could killing a life because it is perceived as a burden, have for a professed christian?Get real here,about your faith.

Mr. de Haas (apologies for misspelling your name in my earlier comment),

You seem to have missed the point of my second paragraph, which was not about methods for dealing with nature's cruelties, but about what, if anything, those cruelties tell us about how much we should value human life. Of course, "cruelties" is not quite right. Nature is not so much cruel as indifferent, but its indifference does not license ours or in any way discredit human effforts to protect human life. Your argument about the moral irrelevance of Humanae vitae's distinction between the natural and the artificial has no bearing on the question of when a human life begins or how we ought to treat a human life at its earliest stages of development.

rose-ellen --

You have a lot to learn about what the official Church has taught about when a human life starts in the womb.  Here are two articles by world-class scholars on the subject, one a Franciscan, one a Jesuit.  Historically there has been dispute about just when the ensoulment takes place.  (Unfortunately, the last two popes didn't have much respect for the medieval thinkers and did not give them much attention.)

 William Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, ofm “The Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo” in Theological Studies, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 603-626.

Joseph F. Donceel, SJ, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization”, Theol. Studies, March, 1970, pp. 75-105.

Both of those articles are in the respected Catholic journal, Theological Studies.

The biology of today is, of course, vastly superior to that of the medieval era.  But the metaphysical principles of Aquinas et al are still quite relevant.  Do learn more about them.  

Fr. Joe and Mr. Boudway - Anne Chapman elucidates one component of what I poorly tried to articulate and her summary of Curran's explanation catches the *process*.

Thus, genetics and biology does indicate that it is implantation at the earliest and it may be later - thus, my attempt to connect the two in one way. (my reference is that anti-abortionists conflate and so any interference is seen as abortion- version of slippery slope fallacy).

Yes, also suggest a connection - HV was not decided on its merits;  Prof. Farrell suggested that abortion, at times,is also argued, not from the merits but to protect episcopal authority (IMO) - nothing more.

Mr. Boudway - IMO, I do think human behavior changes our discussion about conception and birth control.

If Mr. Steinfels, 150 years ago, had taken the same position on slavery as he now advocates on abortion, one wonders if he could be distinguished from a middle of the road Confederate.

My point has not at all been about when human personhood begins, but about the fact that there is a qualitative difference between spermata and ovum, on the one hand, and a fertilized ovum on the other, a difference significant enough to mean that arguments about ending nascent human life--Can we all stipulate that the fertilized ovum is human?--must differ from arguments about contraception. I wrote only because I could not follow the argument of Professor Farrell who seemed to imply that one could not logically oppose abortion and allow contraception.

We don't know when ensoulment takes place. There are opinions.Yes our kowledge of biology today is not as it was in the middle ages. However because we don't know when ensoulment takes place but we do know that once a sperm and egg combine the complete genetic code is present in that one  [blastocyte] then zygote, THAT means that no new physical events will be added to that cell. it will divide according to the now  programmed genetic code and morph into an embryo, fetus,  infant ...into adult, all  on a continuum once the egg and sperm combine. Though abnormalites may develop leading to death  at any point in time ,the initial stage  of a humans existence has begun with the newly combined and alive genetic combination.. If it divides to form multiples we still don't know when ensoulment takes place.So we go by what we  do  know;that a complete gentically new [different from the mothers egg cell] exists  and it's alive and growing.I'll go read the recomended  scholarly articles now.[My key board is not keying right. Sorry about that. Letters are skipping].

"-Can we all stipulate that the fertilized ovum is human?"

JAK ==

If by "human" you mean "rational animal", then, no, in the light of contemporary biology we should not say that the fertilized ovum is a rational animal -- not yet.

But if by "human" you mean "possessing at least one human characteristic", then, yes, the fertilized ovum is "human" because it has an ability to grow (which is one characteristic of a human person).

A fertilized human egg also has the DNA of a human person, which also justifies in calling it "human", but that *alone* does not specify the fertilized ovum as a person.  More development is required.  If containing the joined DNA of both parents is sufficient to define something as a human person, then every cell in a person's body must also be a human person, a position that no one accepts as true.

Part of this problem is semantic.  "Human" can be used adjectivally (used to signify a *partial* likeness) or it can be used in a substantive sense (used to signify something of the same basic kind).

Complexity, complexity, and becoming more complex by the day as the biologists learn more and more about the process.

Bill deHaas,

How exactly do "genetics and biology" indicate that a human life begins no earlier than implantation—if that is in fact what you are claiming? It may make sense to say that a pregnancy doesn't begin until implantation, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a human life does not begin earlier. Perhaps you could offer some biological arguments against the claim that a human life begins at fertilization.

But you also leave open the possibility that human life may begin later than implantation. How much later? Twinning occurs within two weeks of fertilization. So is it your view that a human life begins at two weeks and that abortion is wrong after that? I hope it doesn't alarm you, but I suspect many prochoicers would consider that to be effectively a prolife position. 

Anne Chapman mentions viability in connection to the question of when a human life begins. I think this is a nonstarter. Viability may be relevant to the question of when the law ought to proscribe abortion, but surely it can't have much to do with the question of when the fetus becomes a human being. Why would we make degree of dependency our criterion for who (or what) is or isn't a human being, especially since viability depends on all kinds of contingencies that have nothing to do with fetal development? (Do we say a fetus born at twenty-three weeks is a human being if the fetus is lucky enough to be born in a place where doctors can keep him or her alive, but not otherwise?)

Anne also draws a distinction between human beings and "potential human beings." The truth is that, from conception to full maturity, all human beings exist along a continuum of potentiality. Much of what a person will become is still only "potential" when he or she if five years old. Five-year-olds cannot do trigonometry, or reproduce, or support themselves. They, too, are dependent on fully developed human beings. Does this mean they aren't really human, or that we should treat them as less human than adults?

Finally, if a zygote that can still become two embryos is not yet a human being, would none of us be human beings once human cloning got underway, all of us being potentially clonable? The basic equation would be the same: from one genetic code, two organisms. 


"We don't know when ensoulment takes place. "

rose-ellen --

True, we don't know the exact time that ensoulment takes place.  But we CAN tell that at the very beginning that it HAS NOT taken place -- not yet. One reason we know it is the fact of twinning.  Another reason is the fact that sometimes those twinned cells *reunite"!!  Unless you have some reason to think that one person can become two people or that two people can turn into one person (for which of course there is no support from either Scripture, Tradition, or eons of human history), you have no reason to hold that the joinging of sperm and egg immediately causes a person to become real.

Though we don't know just when the organism becomes a person, we DO have excellent reason to think that at least towards the end of gestation the organism is a person, and so to kill such an organism is to kill a person.  There is a lot of biological evidence that the specifically rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), is in operation at least by the middle and later gestational periods.  In other words, by that time the fetus is acting in a specifically human way, and that indicates that it is indeed a rational animal.  

The metaphysical justification for that last sentence  is:  we know what a thing is by what it does.   (Just looking at something won't tell you what it is.)  What it does reveals its properties, and in the case of man, that means its rationality.   Read the Sullivan-Wolter article for more on that point. 

Mr. Boudway - in agreement with the distinctions and questions you raise - it is a complex issue and we probably agree more than disagree.

If I may, my original comment was to suggest one way of reading Prof. Farrell's comment in terms of what we often hear from the episcopal ranks.  That is the context of my opinions only.

Within that context, I am also referencing Peter Steinfel's analysis and recommendations and would again state that many bishops would reject the approach that Mr. Steinfel's is outlining here.  And that his approach is connected to the same approach by our cultural warrior bishops on birth control.  Thus, it seemed to me that Prof. Farrell was suggesting that some bishops (many) would have a difficult time disconnecting their abortion stance with their birth control stance - it becomes inseparable via their comments; what they label; the language they choose to use; their black and white approach to a complex issue.  It is this simplistic meme (that as Prof. Kaveny suggested in an earlier Commonweal post can run the risk of sounding like a catholic cult).  That was the nub of my point and comment which (IMO) you did not choose to repond.

Allow me to add to P. Steinfel's article with an example - the Dallas diocesan catholic paper (rag) was delivered today - starting the 3rd week of Advent and the paper's almost complete focus is on *pro-life* as interpreted and marketed in the paper this way - three pages on the upcoming Roe v Wade anniversary; talks and mass and dinner downtown;  another article and ads about Rachel's Vineyard; articles about other diocesan pro-life events around Roe v Wade anniversary.  There is no attempt to show or broaden (following Cdl Bernardin's seamless garment approach) the pro-life consideration (it is completely and totally focused on abortion).  Thus, it is more anti-abortion than pro-life.  OTOH, the feature article is about a local immigrant who is now a lawyer and defending immigrants in the Dallas area who are taken advantage of by employers.  Although this article and one other (Catholic Foundation awards) does highlight lay activities in terms of outreach to the disadvantaged, nowhere does the institutional church connect pro-life and these other very pressing issues in north Texas (ACA - e.g. state of Texas failing to expand Medicaid, state all but using requirements such that there are no navigators; state of Texas implementing restrictive abortion and voting laws, state of Texas expanding gun ownership; educational programs being cut; a Dallas initiative against spousal violence, etc.) The only conclusion a new reader or young reader can reach is that pro-life is anti-abortion.....nothing else.


Did the Christian theologians of the mid eval times make a distinction between implantation and in the womb? Did they even know of the passage of a fertilzied egg from the fallopian tubes  to the womb? Are pro choice christians merely using  the sicentfic   ignorance of that time to now make a distinction between unbon life in the womb and unborn life prior to its implantation in the womb as a loop  hole   to appear  to  not be going against church dogma and it's historic   opposition  to abortion?Or am I off base with that?Historically  we use the phrase in the womb as synonmous with the unborn life. Why should our knolwledge of  implantatation change the churchs' oppostion to killing the unborn?


I agree thatI to most people (including me), the relevant question for abortion is not exactly when conception takes place or when you can call the zygote or fetus a "human life" .... the impoertant question is  about when when the fetus becomes a "person", not a "human".

The bishops' ability to convince people that conception takes place when sperm meets egg is moot in a practical sense.  The fact that an early fetus  can't think or feel or have a self-concept or interact with others, probably carries more weight for the question of abortion than the fact that it would eventually grow up to be a human being.


God can do anything. if jesus can be present in the eucharist anywhere and everywhere, then a fertiized egg ,can be whatever God deems it to be.That's God's business, not ours . Ours is to know  that a uniquie living genetically separate from the mothers egg exists at ferltlizaion  and that is the initial way humans appear.Wer'e not human because of what we do;our pre frontal cortex and ability to reason is not what make us human.Being the genetic offspring of humans make us human.We can defective in various ways including cognitve  ability.

 I'd say the difference in personhood  between a zygote and someone in a persistent vegetative state or cognitively deficient is huge.  Someone in a vegetative state is a person who is impaired.  The reason zygotes cannot think or feel or have self-consciousness is not because they're impaired but because that is the natural state of zygotes.

But the isue of whether a zygote is  human has to be that it is as it is genetically separate from the moher .it is not a hair cell, skin cell etc.then what is it? it's a human[cell].if it twins then logically god  couid  ensoul  the twin at the moment of the zygotes separation into another.At the cloning moment god could ensoul that program ,or not if it is to  get re-ab sorbed by the  initial zygote.A zygote is not a person but personhood is a construct.Our concern go beyond this constrict as  human life is a gft from god and human life starts with the dividng genetically newly combined fertilzed egg.

The notion that an early fetus can not feel is unscientific. If it has nerve cells connected to its brain ,it can feel. Of course it can feel. It has consciousness too-at some level .

We are so much more than what exists right after an egg has been fertilized. Equating a person with DNA seems quite reductive.

"God can do anything. if jesus can be present in the eucharist anywhere and everywhere, then a fertilized egg ,can be whatever God deems it to be." - Now this sounds like a matter of faith rather than of nature. If it's a matter of faith, then one cannot claim that all should readily agree to it because of the biological facts. 


But we are precisely in the impasse that Peter Steinfels is describing. His response is so measured and  makes so much sense that it's hard to not want to go where he is leading.

What I find myself wondering about is if a single cell human zygote has such great value- and I think it does- it seems like we should think all life- not just human, but  the life of plants and animals, all living things, are  also of  great value and we shouldn't destroy any of it.

Ann Olivier:   I deliberately did not use the word "person" in any of my posts on this thread.  I simply wish to affirm that something distinct has begun with the fertilized ovum.  It is human in that it is genetically, biologically, distinct from other species of animal life; it is distinct in that its DNA is distinct from that of either mother or father. Moral judgments about how this new human reality is to be treated differ in kind, I believe, from judgments about the morality of contraception.


Ann Chapman hits the nail on the head: " If so, why does it not offer a sacramental funeral mass for all spontanteously aborted fetuses?" This is the hypocrisy. What do church officials tell you to do with the fetus miscariaged? "Throw it down the toilet.? This is the great hypocrisy.

No question human life should be treasured and sacred. Reverence should be given for the gift of God. But there is zero proof that the fetus is a person endowed with a soul etc.

Abortion is not our greatest problem. The fact that Catholics are more concerned about their own welfare than their neighbors and Matthew 25 is ignored is a huge problem. 

There's a world of difference between abortion and contraception.

Abortion is generally something to be regretted - a bad choice that might still sometimes be the best of all available, all bad choices - sometimes there are no good options. Abortion will be, at best, a regrettable necessity. I don't know anyone who would approve of abortion in the absolute (as in, say: "Let me try to get pregnant so that I can have an abortion!"). The only arguments I hear take the context into account and try to show that, gicen the context, the absence of abortion would be even worse than an abortion. I don't understand how one can claim that getting rid of even an early embryo is not a weighty decision.

On the other hand, contraception is usually something good, precisely because it can help prevent situations leading to abortions. I am an advocate of contraception for students. Contraception is helpful and desirable, and the only potential problems with it are some medical issues for some people. Most people I know use it responsibly for much of the fertile period of their life. It seems to be morally neutral or good.


Ann Chapman and Bill Mazella both both mention the fact that the Church doesn't have a funeral rite for a miscarried baby.  I would suggest that this represents a failure in empathy for the parents who are hurting and experiencing a loss, rather than a proof of hypocrisy. Churches and society in general do a bad job of offering comfort to people who have experienced this kind of a loss; probably because it seems invisible to all but the family.  I have actually never known of a priest to suggest flushing the remains down the toilet.  I have heard of priests suggesting that the parents quietly bury the remains at the foot of a grandparent's grave. I should note that I live in a rural area, and what passes under the radar in a country cemetery may not be allowed in a more urban setting.  I have however  heard that parents can ask for cremation for the remains of a miscarried fetus after the pathological examination has been carried out. This would be better than just treating it as medical waste.

It is true that we can't prove that a fetus is possessed of a soul.  It is also true that we can't prove that we ourselves have one, because it is a metaphysical concept not subject to any methods of scientific proof.

We can't prove it but it is great political football. Expecially when people obsess over it. How nice.  To cause all kinds of conflict for something we have no investment in. It is a feebie. Except for those involved. 


JAK --

I agree that the contraception and abortion issues pose separate moral issues, though they are sometimes related.  For instance, in the question of just what the morning after pill does, the question can be specified as:  is it abortion or is it  contraception?

The semantic problems in the discussions of abortion are humongous, involving both ordinary meanings of "human", "person", "soul" and "substance".  These terms have not only ordinary meanings but also legal, philosophical and theological ones.  Further, within philosophy alone "person" can mean different things.  Trying to match them with uses of "blastocyte", "zygote", and "embryo" gets to be practically impossible unless one stipulates the meanings one chooses to assign to the words.  Without defining one's own uses discussion becomes impossible.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is yet any term at all for what many of us see as a pre-person, i.e., the little creature which is the result of union of sperm and egg but which has not yet been "ensouled".  (Enter the semantic problem of  "soul".).  I've been calling the little creature a "pre-person".  (I might also make the technical observation here that the term "THE little creature"  poses a basic problem of referents -- is there one substance/referenet involved in the process or more than one?  This to me is the most basic issue of all.)

Yes, the creature you discuss obviously is distinct from its mother -- it can be generated in a Petri dish and  survive and develop there there for a while.  So it is obviously some sort of human substance (using "human" in an adjectival sense of  "at least partly like a human substance").  But to use the term "substance" meaningfully in an ordinary discussion with people who don't know its classic definition is very often misleading.

"Pre-embryo", which is used by Wolter and Donceel, might be a useful term to use for what I've called a "pre-person".  But that would possibly get us into some problems of strictly biological semantics.

Do you have any suggestions for a term meaning what I've called the "pre-embryo"? I see that you have not committed yourself to any metaphysical position concerning what I call the pre-person/ pre-embryo. 

Sigh.  (Whatever that means.) 


Ann:   We've been through this more than once before.  I incline to the view that if Aquinas had been familiar with today's biology, he wouldn't have spoken of those three stages of fetal life, and that, given his view that there is a single substantial form of the human body, he would have taken the self-unfolding capacities of the embryo as evidence of a human soul.  

I think that once there has begun to live and to unfold a genetically distinct reality, it should be given the value and protection accorded a human person.

I think that once there has begun to live and to unfold a genetically distinct reality, it should be given the value and protection accorded a human person.

Why? Why take such a simplistic binary approach and not, for example, a gradually increased protection as it develops ? I do not want to equate protecting the fertilized egg from the woman taking the morning-after pill and protecting the newborn baby killed by his or her disturbed mother. Consider a fertile woman who, for 10 years, wears an old-fashioned IUD that prevents pregnancy by preventing implantation: I do not want to equate her cold-blooded elimination of 120 fertilized eggs (most of which would not have existed in the first place if she hadn't eliminated the previous month's egg) with the cold-blooded mass-murdering nurse in a nursing home who chooses to kill 120 patients. 

Claire --

The moral question:  is abortion the killing on innocent person?  is not the same question as:  is abortion the murder of an innocent person?  The second question is as much about a possible killer as the killed.  The first question is only about the killed.  In our effort to understand what drives a mother to abortion we mustn't overlook the right to life of the child (who is possible a girl!).  We must minimize neither the right o the child nor the rights of the mother.

Ann -- sure. What I claim is that the 120 eggs hypothetically eliminated by the woman carrying an IUD for 10 years are not 120 persons, and that they should not be given the same rights and protection as 120 persons.

Also, I don't understand side-stepping the question of whether an early embryo or even an egg is a person. Why should it "be given the value and protection accorded to a human person", if it is not a person? What's the difference in practice between that and saying that it is a person? 

"a simplistic binary approach";  Wow, quite a phrase there!  Since I think it was directed at my last post, may I ask what it means?

binary: either or. Either not human at all, or "given the value and protection awarded to a human person". As though there was nothing in between.

"I think that once there has begun to live and to unfold a genetically distinct reality, it should be given the value and protection accorded a human person."


IMHO that's one of the most succinct and profound statements about human life I've encountered. The imagery of "unfold[ing]" is exactly what is taking place in the fertilized egg, as its encoded genetic blueprint is unfolded, and the biochemical factory that manufactures the stuff of life--proteins, carbohydrates, lipids--goes on a 24/7 production schedule to meet the blueprint milestones for the unique human being under construction.  

 "Some proponents of a change in teaching believed that Pope Pius XI's encyclical “Casti Connubii,” which condemned artificial birth control in 1930, had not conclusively settled the kinds of questions raised by new methods of hormonal contraception."

Casti Connubii condemned any form of pregnancy prevention, including "rhythm" or NFP.  A fact that Grisez conveniently overlooks.  Grisez is a hack that deserves to be ignored.

There is no basis for HV's norms prohibiting artificial pregnancy prevention in Scripture, revelation or natural law.  The idea that the Church's teachng on pregnancy prevention has been constant collapses on the fact that Casti Connubii condemned any form of pregnancy prevention, not just artificial pregnancy prevention.

" If the Roman Catholic bishops were to stop saying that distinctively human life begins at the moment of conception.."

The organism that begins at conseption is alive - it is a life - and it is distinctly human.  It is a dsitinctly human life.  At what point it becomes a human person may be a different question.

"Also, I don't understand side-stepping the question of whether an early embryo or even an egg is a person. Why should it "be given the value and protection accorded to a human person", if it is not a person? What's the difference in practice between that and saying that it is a person?"

Claire --

I agree.  I've been saying for years that it makes no sense to assign a person's right-to-life to something that is less than a person.  

As in so many discussions, there are people who are willing to think that a thing can both be and not be what it is at any given moment.  This violates the principle of non-contradiction ("A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same respect), and this is an abandonment of rationality.  The ironic thing i that those folks who accept contradictions as both true will appeal to the principle of non-contradiction when it suits their biases.  But abandonning rationality is an immoral act because it can lead to accepting *anything* as true.  Sure, there are theological and philosophical and scientific contradictions and even some mathematical ones if truth be told, and we have to admit that the problems are there.  But we don't have to pretend that they don't matter..  Some of the contradictions are about extremely important matters, and we need to at least try to find out where the truth lies. 

Ann, you know, it's a raw topic for anyone who used the day-after pill; who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant and had an abortion; who tried in vain to get pregnant and had miscarriages;  or whose spouse or daughter (or someone else very close to them) was in that situation. Such scenarios cover a whole lot of people who cannot discuss this topic freely.

Maybe that's a way in which sin traps people. Normally we hear about sin entrapping people because of their habits (such as drinking), but there is also that phenomenon: they cannot change their mind without rejecting their (or their spouse's, or their daughter's) old choices (in which they may have played a role as well). Their past prevents them from thinking things through  rationally. They could be right, they could be wrong, but either way, they're stuck in their way of thinking as long as they are unwilling to take the risk of having to cast aside their old self. So, in that sense it's not open for discussion.


Claire --

Yes, I don't doubt what you say, but I think that the official Church has done a dreadful job with sexual ethics, so the laity often doesn't get the help it needs in making decisions.    So I have a lot of sympathy for them.  Notice -- I'm an old single woman, so I really don't have a personal ax to grind in the matter of abortion.  

My big problem is with the professional ethicists who have a responsiblility to be as objective as possible about these issues, and that includes the moral theologians, especially the ones in the Vatican's CDF.  Their influence is so tremendous because so many people all over the world accept what the CDF says uncritically.

What scandalizes me is that the Vatican is not sufficiently critical of its own thinking, and sometimes it blatantly rejects the rational by saying things like "The magisterium does not change" when the facts *show* so patently that the magisterium *does* changes at times.  This is a GROSS contradiction that scandalizes us, especially the young who have half a brain.  I'm sure I irritate some here by harping on the virtues of the medievals, but by damn, the medievals were rational if nothing else.  They were self-critical.  As a matter of principle they systematically considered all sides osf important questions explicitly.  Not so in the Vatican today.  (Rant for the day.)

Ann -- You say that the medievals were better thinkers. Why do you think that would be? Isn't it just that the ones whose thinking has survived the centuries are the great ones, and the others have long been forgotten? Won't the same happen to our contemporary thinkers?

Claire --

I'm afraid I didnt' make myself clear.  When I referred to "the professional ethicists" whom I criticize I was thinking only of those in the Vatican.  I didn't mean to criticize all modern and contemporary ethicists.  

But I do think that while there were some great medieval ethicists, the current official ethicists of the Church (the ones who put out all those papers from the Vatican on morality and the ones who teach in and influence the seminaries) just aren't a match for the medievals.  

I especially have in mind JP II and Ratzinger.  JP II was a philosophy teacher by trade, but his ethics of the body just isn't much.  Even within the Church it isn't having much influence, and outside the Church no professional philosophers seem to pay it any mind at all.  Ratziner, for all his ability, has positivly turned his back on the medievals but hasn't supplied anything better.  John Finnis and Germain Grisez are well-respected natural law ethicists, even by people outside the Catholic tradition.  But I don't see them as any great shakes, though in philosophy of law (which I see as a sub-part of ethics) Finnis does seem to be highly respected.  Maybe he is great in that area.  I'm no judge.  Alasdair MacIntyre removed a great deal of the prejudice against natural law ethics, but I see him more as an extraordinary teacher, not as a great innovator.  He seems to have pretty much ignored the great issue of the day, abortion, though I don't know what he's written lately.  

All in all, the Church hasn't done too well in ethics in the last several hundred years.  It certainly isn't meeting the needs of its newly educated laity which requires persuasion, not high school lectures.  

Ann, were the "great medieval ethicists" you are thinking about working in the Vatican? Were they popes?

Maybe, then as now, it could not be that  free thinkers arrive in a position of temporal power, because, to be chosen as temporal leader, one needs to partly conform to the times and submit to current errors. They cannot stray far from the ideas that currently prevail, or else people will not listen to them. Theologians' priority is to look for the truth, but bishops and popes' priority is to say things that people are open to hearing, so they are conformists.


Claire --

Theologians in the Middle Ages had to be licensed to teach by the Church.  That meant getting a license from a university.  Theologians, as now, were used as periti at councils.  In fact, Aquinas died on his way to the Council of Lyon.  He had been asked to participate.  I can't think of a medieval pope who was a great theologian. 

YOu seem to be concerned about theologians being both free--thinking and holding temporal power.  But in the middle ages the greatest theologians, at any rate, didn't seem to be interested in temporal power.  For instance, Aquinas' family expected him to become a Benedictine and ultimately the prior of the great and very rich abbey of Monte Cassino.  He decided otherwise -- he joined the sort of hippie, itinerant Order of Preachers who were truly poor.  William of Ockham, ofm, was so attached to the stringent poverty of St. Francis that he criticized the pope for his luxury and for weakening St. Francis' teaching about povery.  The pope excommunicated William on a charge of holding heretical views about poverty! (The excommunication was rescinded after Ockham's death.)

True, in the Middle Ages you couldn't hold just anything and retain a license to preach, e.g., you couldn't out and out contracdict one of the Creeds, but you could challenge interpretations of Scripture and Creeds, and all theologians were expected to consider all sides of a controversy and answer opposing positions in detail and in public.  Also, when accused of heresy a theologian had the right to appeal directly to the pope himself.  Not today.

Aquinas was also accused of heresy, but after speaking with the Bishop of Paris, convinced the bishop that his position was orthodox.  However, after Aquinas died a number of his positions were officially condemned as heretical, but soon that pronouncement was lifted.  In other words, controversy was generally allowed, even encouraged at least until a matter was considered settled by a pope or council.  You didn't find condemnations by a CDF that sometims didn't even tell a theologian why he was being condemned.

Also, it seems to me that people, i.e., the laity, are quite willing to agree with dissenting theologians when the theologians (unlike theiri bishops) have listened to the laity about the laity's experience. 

As I see it the Church is much worse off today because of the current system of squelching dissent.  I pray that Pope Francis will be different, but the history of the Church in the last 500 years (except for VII) doesn't make me optimistic.  Francis, quite prudently, I think, is going slowly with his reforms, but he might not live long enough to change the culture of the official Church to allow for controversy and dissent.


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