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The Different Meanings of Human Acts In the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death - Part 1

by Dr. William E. May

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  • Description:
    In this article Dr. May presents and criticizes the consequentialist understanding of human acts operative in the culture of death.
  • Publisher & Date:
    Culture of Life Foundation, January 29, 2009

A major and most important difference between the culture of life and the culture of death is the different ways in which they understand the meaning of human acts. The culture of death understands human acts primarily in terms of what our acts get done in the external world, i.e., it assesses and evaluates human acts in terms of their consequences or states of affairs that they bring about, whereas the culture of life, while recognizing that human acts get things done in the external world, assesses and evaluates them primarily in terms of what they have to say about ourselves, about what they do to us as persons who make ourselves to be the kind of persons we are in and through the acts we freely choose to do every day of our lives.

In this article I will present and criticize the consequentialist understanding of human acts operative in the culture of death. In a subsequent article I will present the understanding of human acts as self-determining and constitutive of personal moral identity operative in the culture of life.

The new President of the United States, Barack Obama, unfortunately has the same consequentialist understanding of human acts. This is illustrated by his ardent championship of abortion and his campaign pledge to do whatever he can to end any of the restrictions on abortion that have been won through democratic processes and Supreme Court decisions after Roe v. Wade.

The Consequentialist Meaning of Human Acts in the Culture of Death

As noted, the culture of death assesses and evaluates human acts primarily in terms of what those acts get done in the external world, i.e., in terms of their consequences or the states of affairs their agents intend to bring about. Consequentialists think that the morally right action is the one that promises to bring about the greater good or lesser evil for those concerned and that the way to cope with difficult situations is to choose the alternative whose consequences will result in the greater good or lesser evil. They think that this is more or less self evident, for it would be foolish to choose the lesser good or greater evil.

Some examples illustrate this way of evaluating human acts. I will use two, abortion and using new artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs) to “have a child of one’s own.

First, consider a woman who becomes pregnant despite her precaution in making use of contraceptives to prevent this from occurring. The pregnancy could cause very serious problems: she might have to drop out of school or interrupt a richly rewarding career, there is the possibility that the “product” of conception may suffer from an inherited genetic defect; the pregnancy might endanger her health, psychological as well as biological; if married, the pregnancy could seriously affect the family’s income, style of life, relations with children already born, etc. A consequentialist assessment of the possible outcomes would conclude that having an abortion is the alternative that promises greater good and lesser evil than continuing the pregnancy. An abortion would allow the woman, whether married or single, to avoid the various harms likely to take place should she continue the pregnancy. This is surely the case if we think, as consequentialists do, that not all members of the human species are persons; some are merely biologically alive, but because they lack exercisable cognitive abilities that are characteristic of persons, they cannot be regarded as persons. After all, the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade refused to recognize the unborn as persons.

Second, consider a couple who cannot generate a child through normal marital intercourse because the wife’s fallopian tubes are blocked. On a consequentialist assessment of human acts, it seems that the best alternative is to help them realize their legitimate desire for a child of their own by means of homologous in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer or some other artificial reproductive technology (ART) such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection. How could this possibly be wrong?

Critique of Consequentialist Meaning of Human Acts

The major problem with this way of understanding human acts is that the results the agents intend (the “greater good” or “lesser evil” promised by the acts in question) are not the immediate or “proximate” results or consequences of the acts in question; they are rather the “hoped-for” results or consequences whose realization depends on further human acts and, at times, unforeseen contingencies.

Take the abortion example. The immediate or “proximate” result of abortion is the death of a human being (=human person) during the embryonic or fetal stage of its development caused by its intentional killing. The “hoped-for benefits” will come about if and only if the woman continues her education or career, and she may not if she has an accident and is seriously injured or if an aggressive co-worker is given the advancement for which she is working, or if and only if the married woman’s husband does not divorce her or she him or if and only if their children, perhaps their only child, does not die in an accident or of a disease. One might object that such contingencies and subsequent human acts (a co-worker getting the advancement for which she is working) are hypothetical and not realistic, but the fact remains that the promised “benefits” of the abortion will occur, not as the direct and immediate result of the act of abortion but only if other human acts and unforeseen events do not occur.

And what of the couple advised to generate life in the laboratory through various artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs) because they can not generate life by engaging in marital intercourse on account of the wife’s blocked fallopian tubes? Here the “hoped-for” benefit that employing these technologies promises may well not be attained and, if attained, only at a terrible cost. The immediate consequence of resorting to ARTs is not the “hoped for” baby in the arms of its mother and father. It is rather a human being at the earliest stage of its development, i.e., as a zygote; it remains in the laboratory until several days have passed and it is at the blastocyst stage of development before it is implanted in a woman’s womb. The “success rates” of ARTs are not very high; they are highest for women under 35 (including “surrogate women” in whom embryos are implanted in addition to the wives whose fallopian tubes are blocked), around 30 percent, and are far less in women 38 to 40 plus years old, around 6 to 20 percent (for this see http://www.americanpregnancy.org/infertility/ivf.html , a website touting the virtews of ART). More conservative and realistic estimates are that only 25 percent of children conceived in vitro or through intracytoplasmic sperm injection survive until birth (on this see http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/patrickcarrr.htm ).

Moreover, there is growing evidence that the lives and health of children conceived through ARTs are disproportionately at risk for serious harms. One study found that infants conceived with artificial reproductive technology were more likely to be delivered by Caesarean section, to have a low birth weight and to be born before term. When multiple births were excluded this increased likelihood was of a significant order. Of the infants conceived by intracytoplasmic sperm injection, 8.6% had a major birth defect diagnosed in their first year. Of those conceived by in vitro fertilization the percentage was similar (9%). Of those who were conceived naturally the incidence of major birth defects diagnosed in the first year was only 4.2%. Overall, the study showed that infants conceived as a result of ARTs were more than twice as likely to have a major birth defect than naturally conceived infants (see Laura Schieve, Susan Meikle, Cynthia Ferre, et al., “Low and Very Low Birth Weight in Infants Conceived with the use of Assisted Reproductive Technology,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 2002 Vol. 346, 731-737). Other studies provide further evidence.

In addition, in order to increase the likelihood that an embryo produced in the laboratory will implant in the mother’s womb (either that of a wife or a surrogate) the woman from whom an oocyte is retrieved is given fertility drugs so that several oocytes can be retrieved, then fertilized in the laboratory, with 3 or more embryos implanted and others cryopreserved for future use either for research or implantation or then destroyed. If more than one embryo implants, to reduce risk of low birth rate because of multiple pregnancies, excess embryos are aborted under a procedure euphemistically called ”pregnancy reduction.”

Conclusion
The consequentialist methodology operative in the culture of death is utterly flawed because the alleged “greater good” or “lesser evil” promised by choosing to do specific kinds of deeds (e.g., abortion, engendering a child in the laboratory, embryonic stem cell research, etc.) are in no way guaranteed by the act chosen but are rather projected “hoped for” benefits. This method actually conceals from view or ignores totally the human act chosen and done here and now (e.g., the intentional killing of a human person at the embryonic stage of its development, the “production” of a child in the laboratory, etc.).

See: The Different Meanings of Human Acts In the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death - Part 2

(c) 2009 Culture of Life Foundation. Reproduction granted with attribution required.

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