[Essay] The Conflict between Human Dignity and Abortion – Part II


Francisco E. Plaza, PhD Candidate
University of St. Thomas, Houston TX
Editor, Reality

The following is part II of II.  See Part I here.

In the encyclical Evangelium vitae, Pope Saint John Paul II listed several crimes against human dignity, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide, all of which are “opposed to life itself.”[1] Apart from harming the victims themselves, these are also understood to do violence against society at large.[2] What makes this particularly egregious in the case of abortion, however, is that the act targets the most weak, defenseless, and innocent of human beings.[3] If we resort to a language of “rights,” we may say that the fundamental “right to life” is being violated for these unborn children, understanding of course that such a right is founded upon the inviolable dignity of each person, which itself is based on the nature of human personhood itself.[4] Paradoxically, however, it is in the name of “rights” (with respect to individual freedom) that abortion is also justified within the public sphere.[5] Yet, these “rights” are merely nominal. Once human rights are taken apart from human nature, dignity, and the moral good, they become purely arbitrary, and within a democratic context, subject only to the whims of the majority. This political change has flowed directly from a cultural shift on the matter. Ultimately, St. John Paul II warned that this acceptance of abortion in our culture points to a serious crisis of our times, as many find themselves utterly incapable of distinguishing between good and evil.[6] If this trend prevails within a democratic society, the notion of human rights itself becomes trivialized, which weakens the very foundation of modern democracy itself which relies on the concept of inalienable human rights for its justification. As St. John Paul II explained, the “democratic ideal” can only exist with an acknowledgement and protection of human dignity in every person.[7]

With regards to the conscious shift toward accepting abortion, St. John Paul II noted that this has only been accomplished by masking its truth, disguising its reality through various medical euphemisms.[8] The blunt reality is that abortion simply entails the murder of the unborn, but the term “abortion” itself obfuscates this, just as with other similar terminology like “terminating a pregnancy” which suggests a mere change of direction as though one were simply stopping an action on their part. Another common term is to define the pro-abortion movement as “pro-choice.” These terms place the focus solely upon the mother as the actor without any reference to the child involved, and in the case of “pro-choice” the term suggests nothing whatsoever except a vague illusion to some kind of freedom. The latest term used by abortion advocates is “reproductive justice,” a term so utterly Orwellian wherein it suggests the exact opposite of its reality. By using this kind of terminology, one may avoid the matter of human dignity with the unborn altogether by merely ignoring it. Still, there are other ways to attack the truth in this regard; while some choose to ignore it, others will attack it directly. An outright denial of human dignity is one such way to do so, which we have discussed at length elsewhere.[9] From a cultural standpoint, this is a fringe approach, and so it is more commonly found today among academics. The typical approach here is to affirm a “quality of life” ethic in the place of human dignity, which St. John Paul II traced back to modernity’s “practical materialism,” itself rooted in the movement away from God.[10] St. John Paul II explained the consequences of this very clearly:

In the materialistic perspective described so far, interpersonal relations are seriously impoverished. The first to be harmed are women, children, the sick or suffering, and the elderly. The criterion of personal dignity – which demands respect, generosity and service – is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they “are”, but for what they “have, do and produce”. This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak.[11]

Clearly, as the unborn cannot survive through this “criterion of efficiency,” the allowance for abortion follows suit.

While those who deny human dignity argue that it is purely theoretical, the “quality of life” metric is no less conceptual upon further examination. This measure is based upon perceived levels of pleasure and pain, wherein a life that is deemed to be “worth living” is one in which the level of constant pain does not exceed a baseline of pleasure. But where is this line placed? It does not seem possible to place one that would be the same for all human beings. Moreover, surely there are difficult moments in life in which the evil we suffer seems to overshadow the good we enjoy; does this thereby render our life worthless in those moments? If this is the case, it would seem that our life may be worthy at one point, but not necessarily at another. Furthermore, in the case of aborted children, we can at the very least say that even on this “quality of life” metric, many of these lives lost are potentially worthy. If it remains possible, however, that a life may become worthy in a brief span of time, then would that not outweigh the current “worthlessness”? There does not appear to be a clear answer to these matters from the proponents of this view.

Another way to argue for abortion while side-stepping the issue of human dignity is the denial of personhood, or even humanity, for the unborn at a particular stage of development. If we could say that the unborn child is not a “child,” either because it is not human (e.g. it is said to be a “clump of meaningless cells”) or not a person (e.g. like a human organ), then one could still affirm human dignity to some extent while simply placing the unborn child outside of the category altogether. If human life truly begins at conception, however, the former fall apart rather quickly.

Even Peter Singer acknowledged that from a biological standpoint, it would be absurd to suggest that the unborn child is not “human.”[12] This answer would only lead to more difficult questions, namely, if the unborn child is not “human,” what is it? How exactly is “humanhood” attained? At which point does this occur? What causes this change to occur? These questions have yet to be seriously addressed. Further, even if it is granted that the embryo becomes human at a certain point, if this point is not clearly defined, then conception is, at the very, least the safest bet from a biological standpoint. It is at this point that the DNA of the embryo is clearly distinct from either parent, and it is from that point onward in which the embryo naturally develops. These developments also arise from an internal principle within the embryo itself, in other words, so long as the embryo is alive, it will continue to develop as ordered by its nature. If the embryo were not alive, a miscarriage would soon follow. However, since the embryo is alive, and since its nature is precisely human, it will develop itself as a human. Again, even on the view that the embryo somehow “becomes” human at a certain point, the basic fact is that the embryo only “becomes” human, and not anything else. With all that being said, if dignity is upheld, there is no clear reason why this would not extend to such “potential” humans given that unlike the individual sperm or egg, the embryo has its own principle of motion, its own unique genetic characteristics, and its own life span that is not clearly distinct from the post-partum child.

The other argument (i.e., that the unborn child is a “non-person human”) is trickier because it relies on abstractions beyond the purely material reality. Now, traditionally, the human being has been understood to simply be a person by nature, as the Boethian definition of personhood is “an individual substance of a rational nature.”[13] What proponents of this argument will suggest instead is the idea that babies are not yet fully rational, and that once they gain their full cognitive abilities, they become a person with rights. They shift their criterion to what they call a “quality of life” metric. Peter Singer famously moved in this direction.[14] This argument, however, extends beyond just the unborn child to include even the infant. In other words, this same argument can be employed to justify infanticide (a consequence which Singer embraces).[15] Of course, this view presupposes a denial of human dignity to begin with, at least as it is understood traditionally, treating it instead as something to be gained and lost depending on circumstance. Thankfully, there are few who would go this route, as even the vast majority of abortion advocates at least recognize the worth of the child once it has been born.

All of these aforementioned complications make the matter of abortion appear more baroque than it is in reality. Notice that in every case, the simple answer is avoided in favor of tangential abstractions which betray any sense of what is given prima facie. Even if these confusions are granted, in every case what we are left with is that the unborn child will in time (whether it be a few weeks or a few months) attain full humanity or personhood. But if this is truly the case, abortion still fails to make sense from a moral standpoint if we truly value the human person, as St. John Paul II explained: “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.”[16]

While it is true that the modern idea of human dignity arose from a Christian culture and tradition, this is not exclusively a religious concern: “The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone.”[17] Many advocates of abortion argue that those who oppose them are doing so for religious reasons, or that the premises of the “pro-life” arguments against abortion are religiously based. The truth is that while there are indeed religious reasons to oppose abortion, the arguments against it are not limited to the theological. Moreover, human dignity itself, while understood more fully within its religious context, can nonetheless be known to us connaturally at the least even without the complete religious explanation. Lastly, abortion advocates will argue that this is a matter of privacy, and that the only ones who should have any say in the issue are the women involved in the choice. If, however, the act itself is understood to be the killing of an innocent child, then obviously this cannot be the case. Beyond just affecting the family involved, it affects the society at large, as St. John Paul II concluded:

The Gospel of life is for the whole of human society. To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good. … A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. … There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights.[18]

When properly understood, then, abortion becomes a question of the common good as it constitutes a clear violation of human dignity, which remains to be acknowledged by most in Western societies even as Western culture has strayed in many ways beyond its Christian roots.

[Part I]

References Historically Layered

MACKLIN, Ruth (1938—).

2003.  “Dignity is a Useless Concept”, British Medical Journal 327: 1419-1420.

PINKER, Steven (18 September 1954—).

2008.  “The Stupidity of Dignity”, The New Republic. Last modified 28 May 2008. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/the-stupidity-dignity.

SINGER, Peter (6 July 1946—).

1994.  Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics, (New York: St. Martins Press, 1994).

WOJTYLA, Karol (18 May 1920—2005 April 2).

1961.  “Personalizm tomistyczny“, Znak 13: 664-75 in the English translation by Theresa Sandok, “Thomistic Personalism” in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 165-75.

1995.  Evangelium Vitae: encyclical letter on the value and inviolability of human life (as Pope John Paul II). 25 March 1995. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html.

[1] Wojtyla 1995: Evangelium vitae, §3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 4.

[6] Ibid, 58.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] See “The Roots of Human Dignity and its Modern Dissolution.” Here, we responded to the secular position in bioethics that the concept of “dignity” needs to be done away with given its religious connotations. See, for example: Macklin 2003: “Dignity is a useless concept,” British Medical Journal 327. Also: Pinkers 2008: “The Stupidity of Dignity,” The New Republic.

[10] Wojtyla 1995: Evangelium vitae, §23.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “But can anyone really deny that the fetus, just before birth, is a living human being? It is certainly alive—doctors can tell when a fetus has died in the womb. And what else could it be but human?” Singer 1994: Rethinking Life and Death, 101.

[13] Wojtyla 1961: “Thomistic Personalism,” 167.

[14] “On the question of when a human life begins, Norman Ford may well have got it right. Certainly around fourteen days after conception, once the possibility of the embryo dividing into twins is passed, there exists an individual being who is alive and human. But while Ford may be right about this, that tells us nothing about the ethical significance of the existence of an individual human being, nor about the justifiability of abortion after that time. To unlock the abortion deadlock, we have to turn our attention to the first premise of the argument against abortion, and ask: why is it wrong to take human life? The key to a resolution of the whole abortion debate is the recognition that it is both possible and necessary to question this first premise. What, in the end, is so special about the fact that a life is human?” Singer 1994: Rethinking Life and Death, 105.

[15] “In the modern era of liberal abortion laws, most of those not opposed to abortion have drawn a sharp line at birth. If, as I have argued, that line does not mark a sudden change in the status of the fetus, then there appear to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion, or allow infanticide. I have already given reasons why the fetus is not the kind of being whose life must be protected in the way that the life of a person should be. Although the fetus may, after a certain point, be capable of feeling pain, there is no basis for thinking it rational or self-aware, let alone capable of seeing itself as existing in different times and places. But the same can be slid of the newborn infant. Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives could seem to be no more worthy of protection than the life of a fetus.” Ibid, 210.

[16] Wojtyla 1995: Evangelium vitae, §60.

[17] Ibid, 101.

[18] Ibid.