Friday, May 20, 2011

The Logic of Personhood

Saturday is my Dad's birthday. He'll be 51 years old and he has demanded cherry pie at every meal because it is both his birthday AND the Rapture (supposedly, although Catholics don't believe in that). Cherry pie, the Robison family ambrosia, is divine. Since my cherry pie conversion during childhood, I am wholly convinced pie is the best way to eat fruit.

Dad, about 18 years ago, and one of my younger brothers
My Dad was born 3 months early in 1960, which apparently was not the time to be a preemie. They didn't know if he would live past infancy, but I suppose I just blew the punch line. Dad is still around, and for that, all who know him have richer lives.

But what if they had let him die, because he came too early? What if my grandmother hadn't wanted him? What if Dad had grown up to be a horrible person? What if I despised my father? Could I wish he had never been born, and thus render my own life non-existent? What if my father was a vegetable right now, or had to be changed like a baby every day? He might be that way one day. Would that render him any less of a person? Would he be a lebensunwerten Lebens - a life unworthy of life?

I read a book review this morning by Shelia Liaugminas (from the wonderful MercatorNet) of The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God by Michael Pakaluk. The title of the review is "Pro-choice atheist to pro-life activist" and has been endorsed by both Michael Novak and Peter Kreeft, who knew the couple personally. Besides the gorgeous use of Graham Greene in the title of the book, I was immediately sucked into the "clarity of logic and reason, and the beauty of truth" of Ruth Pakaluk's story, the now deceased wife of Michael. He wrote,
The core of Ruth’s argument about abortion and human rights may be summarized in this way: Human rights are rights that pertain to us simply in virtue of the fact that we are human, not for any reason above and beyond that; the fundamental human right is the right to life, and so, if that right is denied, then all human rights are in effect denied; the thing growing in the mother’s womb is surely alive (otherwise it would not need to be killed by an abortion), and it is human; thus, to deny that the thing growing in the mother’s womb has the right to life is to deny that anyone has any human rights whatsoever. 
Once, an interviewer of a student newspaper at a university where she was debating asked her, “So, it’s not a legal argument you are making but a humanistic argument?” Ruth replied, “It comes from this idea: either you think all human beings are equal, and you don’t kill each other, or you don’t. I have always seen abortion as an issue where you should not need to believe in God in order to be against it. If anyone wants to say human rights exist or that all human beings are equal, those statements are tautologous with ‘Abortion is wrong.’”
The book has been compared to both C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed and Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy, and I am beyond interested in reading this book. (For those who remember my New Years' Resolution of purchasing no more than THREE [sob] books a month, I've already decided to buy Christopher Dawson's the Formation and Division of Christendom books, and will add this incredible looking read alongside the pair!)

Earlier this week, I was struck by a comment left on Stacy Trasancos (of Accepting Abundance)'s blog. Stacy holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry and is a convert to Catholicism. I enjoy her blog immensely because of how much she continues to engage science, theology, logic and reason. She has a series called "Defending Personhood." Her latest one is titled "Defending Personhood: The Dangerous Womb."

One of her commenters wrote, "Now, you know that I struggle a bit with whether or not the embryo is a person. I will say that it is a human being, but I am still not entirely sure that it is in fact a person. However, the pro-choice viewpoint seems to be: don't question whether or not it is a person--if you don't want it, make sure you kill it before it definitely is. And that is a viewpoint that I have a really hard time with."

Fabulous sign in Ireland (the Motherland)
I had a hard time with this thought process. What is the difference between an embryo [an unborn human baby, specifically in its first 8 weeks] being human being and a person? Are they not the same thing? And why would that difference matter enough to distinguish?

I'm continually baffled at people's refusal to recognize the sacredness of every life and/ or not take medical facts at face value-- except, of course, with the idea that something could be gained by not admitting personhood. Considering how many babies are miscarried, for example, it seems a miracle in itself that fetuses reach full development and life outside the womb.

I was recently introduced to one of my new favorite pro-life defenses. "The Abortion Debate: A Reasonable, Scientific Pro-Life Argument" by blogger The Humble Libertarian, who states the obvious: nothing is created at birth. He writes,
Thus, it is an error to claim, "It's not a human, it's a fetus." That would be like saying, "It's not a human, it's an infant," or, "It's not a human, it's an adolescent." These are category fallacies. The proper answer to these assertions would be, "Sure it's a fetus, sure it's an infant, and sure it's an adolescent. It's a human fetus, a human infant, and a human adolescent." These are simply stages of development in the human life cycle. 
A human starts as an embryo, becomes a fetus, is born an infant, develops into a child, grows into an adolescent, matures into adulthood, and eventually dies. Scientifically and philosophically, there is no good reason to believe a human being is created at birth, because nothing is created at birth. At birth, a fetus simply changes location and changes its mode of acquiring food and dispensing waste, but at no point does it become something entirely new or different. Life begins at conception and proceeds through its stages until death. From the moment of conception, the unborn are human beings.
When President Obama says defining a person is above his pay grade or shows his support of abortion as a valid option, or when people demand better healthcare, but squirm under the pressure of saying who is a human person worthy of life and then attach a price tag to the care of the young, the sick and the elderly like cattle at the market, I am reminded of the opening of Wendell Berry's essay "Life Is a Miracle," in which he says,
It is clearly bad for the sciences and the arts to divided into "two cultures..." It is bad for both of these cultures to be operating strictly according to "professional standards," without local affection or community responsibility, much less any vision of an eternal order to which we all are subordinate and under obligation. It is even worse that we are actually confronting, not just "two cultures," but a whole ragbag of disciplines and professions, each with its own jargon more or less unintelligible to the others, and all saying of the rest of the world, "That is not my field."
Do we the people no longer have the credentials of existing? Can we no longer claim the higher grounds of humanity? Are we not all encapsulated by the Emily Dickinson poem "I dwell in possibility"? When did we relinquish our dignity as human beings and persons, and what are we left with? How can we want for a better world, or fight for any kind of rights, if humans are disposable goods, with some worth nurturing, some worth not... No! We were made by a merciful and generous God who created us out of Love and for love, who said, "It is necessary that you exist." To say otherwise is hateful, and we humans are better than hate, because we are capable of true love and we have the intellect to not only recognize another's inherent dignity and worth, but respond and appreciate such a gift that is life.

In book XXII of Homer's The Odyssey, it says, ‎"Rejoice in your heart...No cries of triumph now./ It's unholy to glory over the bodies of the dead./ These men the doom of the gods has brought low,/ and their own indecent acts."

I was reminded of this bit when I wrote my TIC piece on 'Of Gods and Men' and Osama bin Laden's death: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

Here is the trailer for 'Of Gods and Men' -- I know it's had limited showings here in the States, but if you have the chance to see it, do:

Have a blessed weekend! I'm glad y'all exist.


  1. Fantastic post, Julie! Beautifully written and oh, so true.

  2. I had a conversation with educator this week. She was a practicing Catholic, however was lukewarm on the pro-life issue. I told her I am profoundly pro-life, I owe that to my children. She said being a teacher,she has seen situations where it would have been better if the child was never born, and I said what about hope? Plus, it is not our job to decide who lives and dies, it is God's job.

  3. Beautiful Julie. I love the way you richly come at the issue from several different perspectives. That's touching about your father. Three months! Scary.

  4. One more thing...I've met Michael Pakaluk and his family two years ago. He started a shelter named Visitation House, his wife's dying wish, for pregnant women to stay. It's entirely privately funded by our diocese and his fundraising efforts. It's a beautiful place.

  5. Y'know, every time I stop by here, you're adding to my Amazon wish list of books to get! :^)=) A nice multi-faceted approach to the issue, Julie.

    "I had a hard time with this thought process. What is the difference between an embryo [an unborn human baby, specifically in its first 8 weeks] being human being and a person? Are they not the same thing? And why would that difference matter enough to distinguish?" Pro-choicers must believe in a "personhood fairy", who flits around dispensing personhood arbitrarily, because there's nothing scientific about the distinction, no real line in the sand being crossed.

  6. I get a guilty pleasure out of shooting down the claim that a baby isn't "viable" or an embryo can't survive without the mother. Most would point to things like your father where who can survive continues to change. I have been teaching mostly high school seniors for a long time, so I ususally respond with: "Why not make abortion retroactive then? Most of the seniors I teach wouldn't last a week without their mothers". I know I am a smart-alec but the reasoning of the pro-death folks is so wildly illogical I can't help it.

    Pray for me. I need it a lot.

  7. "I'm continually baffled at people's refusal to recognize the sacredness of every life and/ or not take medical facts at face value-- except, of course, with the idea that something could be gained by not admitting personhood."

    This one baffles me as well. I can't fathom how Pres. Obama can say that if medical science tells them an embryo is a person, then they'll believe abortion is murder. That just doesn't make sense. You can say that the whole of the decision is based on that? Hello, isn't it obvious? Obviously not.

    Love that billboard by the way. ;-)

  8. What a wonderful post, Julie! Very well-rounded and clearly stated. I'll have to add that book to my list!...:)