Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Are Babies Not Persons? Seeing Patterns

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 05, 2012

A recent article in The Journal of Medical Ethics argued that infanticide is morally equivalent to abortion, and therefore perfectly justifiable. This might have been surprising, except that a month earlier the same journal had published an article arguing that it is morally permissible for doctors to kill patients if their organs might be used for effective transplants in others. So let us recognize the pattern and realize that The Journal of Medical Ethics has an agenda.

There are, of course, other patterns that we should recognize here. The first pattern would be that ethics is meaningless unless rooted in something that transcends the ethicist. The fact that anyone who argues for any moral position can claim to be an “ethicist” lowers the bar to the point of non-existence. It makes no sense even to reason about morality if we do not believe that nature has a moral order which the human person is capable of discerning. And of course, to recognize a moral order in nature is to recognize the necessity for a lawgiver and a judge, that is God. There is a pattern there.

Another case of patterns helps us to recognize how it is we know things. As I have argued elsewhere (most recently in Proving God), the human person has an innate ability to grasp the natures of the things he observes, and to discern their purposes and ends. Indeed, this capacity is absolutely essential for moral thought, which cannot with any intelligibility be based on either opinion (the domain, apparently, of what we might call the new ethics) or empiricism (which is the form of inquiry used in modern science and limited to physical measurement).

We must first acknowledge the human capacity to discern the nature of things before we can see the folly of the opinion of these authors in The Journal of Medical Ethics. They claim that, while a human being is present from the moment of conception until natural death, only a person has a right to life, and a person cannot be said to exist until a human being develops to the point of reflecting on the worth of his own life. Only then does it become an injury to have life taken away.

But this line of thought ignores how we actually discern the reality of what it means to be human. Rather, we know both within ourselves and from countless examples outside of ourselves that human beings have a fundamentally different nature from other bodily creatures. If we were to sum up this difference in a single word, we would say that unlike all other bodily beings, humans are fundamentally moral beings. As I have already hinted, this simply means that, because they possess intellect, human beings can discern the natures of things, their purposes and ends, and so discern what is right and wrong; and, because they possess will, they are capable of choosing in light of this knowledge to do either good or evil. These characteristics also mean, by the way, that human beings possess some sort of spiritual core which other bodily creatures lack. Moreover, the individual beings who by nature possess this consciousness of reality, including this profound moral awareness and the capacity to interact with reality in a moral way, are called persons.

But this fundamental grasp of what it means to be human is not the only human pattern we recognize. We also discern that human beings are physically different from every other creature, and we learn to recognize easily which embodied beings are human beings and which are not, without the slightest need for a “personhood” quiz. Again, patterns. I know you are a human being with a human nature the moment I see you, and you know the same of me. We just do. And we do not need to demonstrate our competence to each other for this recognition to obtain. We instantly recognize each other as persons.

Now it may be that this or that human being fails to develop in the normal way physically or intellectually, or that through disease or accident he may lose one or more of his physical and mental abilities. For many reasons, including developmental reasons, he or she may be unable to express the full potential of his nature at any given time. He cannot do so, for example, before he has learned—as bodily beings must learn—to express it, nor can he do so while sleeping, or in a coma, or with a broken leg, or with an injured brain. Nor does each person rise to the same level of expressiveness. When this expressiveness is limited through illness or injury, we rightly regard it as unfortunate, but we still understand that the fundamental characteristics of human nature are present, including that spiritual core and moral trajectory which makes this person unlike any non-human bodily being, that is, unlike anything that is not a person.

Again, we are designed to see real things whole, neither bound by the limitations of empirical measurement nor divorced from reality by ungrounded fancy.  Thus do we understand natures and purposes and ends. Though our understanding is neither infallible nor complete, and though it is generally strengthened by discounting peculiar individual observations in favor of more universal experiences, in a fundamental way we humans simply gaze out at the world—or inward to ourselves—and in so doing we perceive and we know. In fact, we must deliberately train ourselves—that is, deliberately confuse ourselves, generally under the influence of some inordinate desire—to ignore what we cannot not know.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that the authors of the infanticide article did get something right. They were right to point out that there is no moral difference between infanticide and abortion. Moreover, had they done so, the authors of the organ transplant article would have been right to point out that there was no moral difference between killing patients for their organs and infanticide or abortion. All three actions take the innocent life of a human person; all three are murder. This, of course, is the slippery slope which all those who have opposed abortion from the first warned we could not escape slithering down. There is a pattern here, too, and a very consistent one.

One part of this last pattern is convenience—the convenience of those with power taking precedence over the convenience of those without it. Even language follows power, as it is a great convenience to dignify such arguments from convenience with the name of ethics. But the editor of The Journal of Medical Ethics has extended this ethic of convenience still further by the words he used to defend his authors and condemn their critics (see the London Telegraph, Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say). Noting that the authors of the infanticide article had received death threats, editor Julian Savulescu responded thus:

This…has been an example of “witch ethics”—a group of people know who the witch is and seek to burn her. It is one of the most dangerous human tendencies we have. It leads to lynching and genocide. Rather than argue and engage, there is a drive to silence and, in the extreme, kill, based on their own moral certainty. That is not the sort of society we should live in.

But how convenient these words are! How convenient to advocate the killing of whole classes of human persons in the name of what Savulescu elsewhere termed “well-reasoned argument based on widely-accepted premises” while accusing those who wish to kill only two specific persons for crimes against humanity of being on a witch hunt! We have seen this self-serving pattern again and again: No matter what our betters may do or say, it is always their detractors who are at fault. Indeed, in the universe of convenience, form always trumps substance.

But once again, and fortunately, we human beings can discern the nature and meaning of the patterns of life. This is, among other things, how we recognize the difference between the innocent physical danger of a train hurtling down a track and that other kind of danger—that far more clever and very human danger. I mean moral danger, the danger that kills not only the body but the spirit, the kind of danger posed by The Journal of Medical Ethics.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: demark8616 - Mar. 07, 2012 1:24 AM ET USA

    I would like to thank you on behalf of all 'persons' like myself, for this very informative article and for defending our Faith and the dignity due to human life. We need 'persons' like yourself out there, up front, leading this war by words and action. In the meantime, will do what I can down here on the ground and keep you and suffering mankind in my prayers.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Mar. 06, 2012 10:48 PM ET USA

    The arguments of the two ethicists is in line with the philosophy that is becoming increasingly pervasive in modern life and which is dominating the secular world. Since Professor Dawkins and those of similar mind have militantly launched atheism as a philosophy to determine all aspects of human life, it is inevitable that society will suffer the consequences, even if the consequences not intended by those same learned people. The atheistic materialistic philosophy developed by Marx and Engels in the 19th century wrought untold human misery in the 20th through rise of Communism. The 19th century materialistic philosophical works of Nietzsche undoubtedly influenced the rise of Nazism, again producing untold human misery in the 20th. I am sure that those thinkers who were influenced by the social disorder and ferment of societies during their time would have not fully comprehended the dire consequences for humanity of the influence of their works, even Marx.

  • Posted by: dt.dean9713 - Mar. 06, 2012 5:17 PM ET USA

    Obviously these men are crackpots and will not have much influence in public policy anywhere in the world, and as there have been crackpots throughout human history, there will forever be crackpots saying such foolishness till the end of the world. However one would not want to see such foolihsness as this article's point bandied about as if made as a serious agrument. This journal may have an agenda, but it is far from the normal and norms of society and does not have a chance of becoming law.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Mar. 06, 2012 11:55 AM ET USA

    Why do these people hate babies?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 05, 2012 10:08 PM ET USA

    "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof." Lucifer was a genius. 20th century geniuses killed millions. It's when leaders "ignore what we cannot not know" that we experience genocide. In 1900, we hailed our unlimited potential. In 2012, we pray that we never see it again.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Mar. 05, 2012 8:53 PM ET USA

    Good job Dr. Mirus. Much better than I did. :) Still, what bothers me is that people, and rightfully so, came unglued about this. It is shocking, disgusting, appalling, et cetera. But society accepts abortion. Forgive the shocking nature of what I will say, but these people who are so outraged yet support abortion need to seriously ponder why the baby passing through a vagina changes anything at all. Because the authors got one thing right, killing a newborn and abortion ARE morally equivalent.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 05, 2012 8:26 PM ET USA

    I suspect none of the ethicists has held a newborn grandchild yet--as I did last week. I dare them to do so and write such nonsense again.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Mar. 05, 2012 7:26 PM ET USA

    "a person cannot be said to exist until a human being develops to the point of reflecting on the worth of his own life." But who sets the criteria of reflection and the standard of worth? Ethicist says he does I say I do who wins? That leaves 6B - 2 people left to add their views. Is there no common moral nature we share? Yes - observed in the tide of human discernment Ethicist is swimming against + the grace of revelation that illuminates it. (Or I could just say, didn't we defeat the Nazis?)