LET US FIRST SET FORTH THE PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST MURDER from the Catholic standpoint and then apply them to the case of the unborn.
1. It is Wrong to Kill an Innocent Person
Murder, by which we understand the killing of an innocent person, may be shown to be wrong in regard to human life, in regard to the subject of human life, in regard to the community of which the subject of human life is a member, and in regard to the Master of human life, Who is God.
The first argument against murder may be expressed in terms such as that human life is a good, that human nature is a good, in terms such as human dignity and the dignity of the person. These terms are simply various different expressions of the excellence of the person which has been defined in chapter two in terms of the dignities of the person: particularly his natural and his supernatural dignity.
The other three arguments may be found in the Summa II.II.64.5 in St. Thomas’ discussion of suicide. The first of these three arguments is as follows: everything naturally loves itself and hence naturally keeps itself in being. Suicide is contrary to this inclination of nature, which is a natural law, and therefore is wrong. (It is also wrong because it is contrary to Charity whereby everyone should love himself.) We may add here that this natural law entails a duty to preserve one’s life and that this duty entails a right to life.
The next argument is that each man is part of the community and hence belongs to the community. Therefore by killing himself he injures the community. We may remark that the community may be understood in a narrow sense as the family and in a broad sense as the state.
The last argument is that: ‘life is God’s gift to man and is subject to His power, Who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God.’
Let us note that the first argument pertains to the virtue of Charity, for, as St. Thomas remarks at II.II.64.6: ‘in every man, though he be sinful, we ought to love the nature which God has made.’ The second argument pertains to the virtue of Charity as well, and the third and the fourth argument pertain to the virtue of justice.
Now the four arguments above mutatis mutandis apply equally to the killing of another, but with two exceptions, that of legitimate self-defence and that of legitimate capital punishment. In such circumstances a person’s right to life is limited by other natural rights: an unjust aggressor forfeits his right to life in face of the right to self-defence of his victim, when the killing of the aggressor is justifiable in the interests of legitimate defence; similarly a criminal forfeits his right to life in face of the right of the legitimate authority to inflict the death penalty when it is necessary to do so in order to preserve public order. But surely to kill an evildoer is to act contrary to his dignity, is to injure the community, is to usurp God’s right over life and death? This is not so, for as St. Thomas says at II.II.64.3 (quoted in chapter two), the evildoer loses his dignity (simpliciter), and should be killed for the welfare of the community; and the legitimate authority does not usurp God’s right over life and death but rather legitimately exercises it (a similar remark may be made in respect of the unjust aggressor).
We conclude that murder is wrong for the four reasons stated above and, after consideration of the two exceptions, we define murder as the direct and deliberate killing of an innocent person.
To determine whether abortion is wrong, we must now ask whether the unborn is an innocent person. Clearly he is innocent, as is eloquently declared by the Holy Father John Paul II as quoted in chapter twelve, but is he a person? Let us consider the personhood of the unborn first from the theological, then from the philosophical perspective.
2. The Unborn is an Innocent Person
i) From the Theological Perspective
From the theological perspective, three grounds may be given for holding that the unborn is a person from conception: the analogy with the Incarnation, the analogy with the Immaculate Conception, and the law on baptism. Let us consider each in turn.
a) The Analogy with the Incarnation
The analogy with the Incarnation is not an analogy between the beginning of human personhood and the beginning of the personhood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, because His personhood is not a human personhood but a Divine personhood and therefore exists outside time. Rather it is an analogy between the beginning of human personhood and the time of the assumption of human nature by the Word of God. The Church teaches that the Incarnation took place at the moment of conception: at this moment His body and soul came into existence; at this moment His body and soul, His human nature, were assumed by the Word of God, were hypostatically united to the Word of God. The Apostles’ Creed confesses: Filium eius unicum Dominum nostrum, qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto (His only Son, Our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit). St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches (Ep.30) ‘The God- Logos from the moment of conception united with Himself the temple assumed of the Holy Virgin (the human nature).’
b) The analogy with the Immaculate Conception
The Analogy with the Immaculate Conception is of course an analogy between the beginning of human personhood in general and the beginning of the personhood of the Blessed Virgin in particular. The definition of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary promulgated by Bl. Pius IX in the bull Ineffabilis Deus of December 8th 1854 declares that ‘The most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first moment of her conception was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin.’ Now since freedom from original sin can only meaningfully be ascribed to a person, it may be concluded that the personhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary exists from conception.
c) Canon Law
Canon 871 of the Canon Law states that ‘if aborted foetuses are alive, they are to be baptized if this is possible.’
The term ‘foetus’ is here used not in its technical sense to signify the unborn human being in the period between the beginning of the eighth week from conception until birth – as opposed to the unborn human being in the period between conception and the beginning of the eighth week from conception (the ‘embryo’) – but in a generic sense to signify the unborn human being simpliciter. Now since the only subject of baptism is the person, it may be concluded that the person exists from conception.
ii) From the Philosophical Perspective
Let us now consider the personhood of the unborn from the philosophical perspective. A brief section on this issue in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (s.60) provides the basis for several arguments that abortion is wrong. Let us quote the section in full:
‘Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, ‘from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time – a rather lengthy time – to find its place and to be in a position to act’. Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide ‘a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?’ (Donum Vitae)
Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: ‘The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life’.’ (Donum Vitae)
Before presenting the various arguments in turn, let us consider a point implicit in this passage, that the person is the conjunction of the spiritual soul and the body – the ensouled body or the embodied soul. The term ‘person’ understood in this sense is synonymous with the terms ‘human being’ and ‘man’. More technically, in the Catholic philosophical tradition, the person is defined as the individual substance of rational nature, or, more briefly, as a rational individual. It is of the person understood in this more technical sense that one says for example, as in chapter two, that the notion of person entails the notion of the dignity of the person.
Let us now proceed to consider the philosophical arguments that abortion is wrong from the personhood of the unborn. The section quoted yields three such arguments.
The first argument is that the unborn is a person from conception. This argument is based on scientific grounds and may be called the scientific argument. The second argument is that the unborn will be a person. This argument may be called the teleological argument. The third argument is that there is a possibility that the unborn is a person from conception. This argument may be called the argument from possibility.
a) The Scientific Argument
The scientific argument may be summarized as follows: science demonstrates that the characteristic aspects of the person are already well determined at conception; it indicates clearly that there is a personal presence at conception.
b) The Teleological Argument
The teleological argument derives from the words that ‘modern genetic science… has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person… Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time – a rather lengthy time – to find its place and be in a position to act.’ The argument may be expressed as follows: since the unborn human being at conception will be (or is destined to be) a person, he should be treated with the appropriate respect and not destroyed. Alternatively, since the section leaves open the possibility as to whether or not the unborn human being at conception is already a person, the argument may be expressed more fully as follows: the unborn human being at conception either is a person or is destined to be a person; in either case he should be treated with the respect due to a person and not destroyed.
In expressing the possibility that the unborn is not yet a person but only destined to become a person, the teleological argument allows for the possibility that the unborn is initially animated by a vegetative or animal soul (although this is implausible – see below). It regards the status of such a being as not merely the status of a plant or an animal, for in its orientation to receive a spiritual soul it would possess the dignity of vocation to union with God (admittedly in a remote degree) that has been described in chapter two, and on that basis alone its destruction would be wrong. In addition it would of course possess the dignity of vocation to personhood, or in other words in its natural course of development determined by the natural law and hence also the will of God, it would receive a spiritual soul and thereby become a person with all the privileges that personhood entails. Yet it is clearly wrong to break the natural law and to kill a being which God wills to receive a soul and thereby become a person and the subject of the right to life.
c) The Argument from Possibility
The argument from possibility is that ‘what is at stake is so important’ that the possibility that the unborn is a person from conception entails that he is to be respected and treated as a person and hence not destroyed. The argument may be expressed as follows: to destroy the unborn at any time after conception is to risk killing a person and therefore wrong. This argument may be illustrated as follows: a foreman responsible for demolishing a house is uncertain whether there is a person in the house, but demolishes it notwithstanding. We would consider this action wrong and the reason would be that to perform such an action would be to risk killing a person.
iii) Possible Objections
Let us now consider certain objections that may be made to such philosophical arguments for the personhood of the unborn.
a) There is no Proof for the Existence of the Immortal Soul
A first objection may be that the existence of a spiritual soul, which in Catholic teaching is necessary for the existence of the person, cannot in fact be proved. In reply, there are proofs for the existence of the spiritual soul in the Catholic tradition, such as the following: the ability of the mind to form abstract concepts and judgments and to be conscious of itself cannot derive from matter; it must therefore derive from an immaterial principle, namely the spiritual soul.
There are in addition certain other considerations
which argue to the existence of the spiritual soul, such as the conception of the Final End of man discussed above. For since the Final End of man is attained in the afterlife, then there must exist an entity proper to personhood which survives death, namely a spiritual entity, a spiritual soul.
b) The Theory of the Subsequent Infusion of the Spiritual Soul
A second objection may be made, namely to the scientific argument, that the spiritual soul comes into existence some time subsequent to conception. More fully, on the basis that life begins at conception and that the soul is the principle of life, it is objected that the life that comes into existence at conception is the life not of a spiritual soul but of a non-spiritual soul. The contention is made from the Aristotelian-scholastic viewpoint as described in ‘The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma’ by Fr. Ludwig Ott, in the following words: ‘in the human embryo three different forms of life follow one another in point of time, in such a manner that the following form at any time takes over the functions of the preceding, namely, the vegetative, the sensitive, and finally (after 40, or mutatis mutandis, 80 days) the spiritual.’ This is the theory which St. Thomas Aquinas holds: ‘the soul is in the embryo; the vegetative soul from the beginning, then the sensitive, lastly the intellectual soul’ (Summa I q.118 a.2).
Two main considerations may be offered in support of this contention:
1) The lack of complexity and development of the embryo. This consideration was influential particularly for the Aristotelian-scholastics, and indeed played a role in their doubting the authenticity of the Immaculate Conception (although of course before its dogmatization).
2) The phenomenon of identical twins. This consideration is influential for certain contemporary thinkers.
Now the belief in the lack of complexity of the embryo has been shown to be mistaken by modern science, for the unborn at conception has ‘his characteristic aspects already well determined’(as mentioned above), he has ‘the complex genetic blueprint for every detail of human development’(chapter seven). The lack of development of the embryo does not in itself argue the absence of the spiritual soul, for, as explained below under the examination of weak humanism, the change in appearance and powers of the unborn in the course of his development and the actualization of characteristics which were previously only potential do not argue a substantial change in him.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.