Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Don’t Kill Those Who Can Feel Pain

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 11, 2011

I couldn’t help but notice last Wednesday that Oklahoma has followed Nebraska and Kansas in attempting to pass a law which protects unborn children capable of feeling pain. In Nebraska, this has become law, but in Kansas and Oklahoma it has thus far gotten through only one of the two legislative bodies. This is another example of the peculiar stratagems pro-lifers must employ to protect the unborn, in this case babies 20 weeks or older. They have been proven to be able to feel pain.

It is what I was talking about in late February (see Virginia’s Attempt to Close Abortion Clinics). In politics, we must try all sorts of techniques to gain objectives which, otherwise, might be out of reach. On the whole, since we live in a very imperfect world,I would have to be in favor of this law were it to come up in Virginia. But it carries an interesting danger.

Have you ever heard of animal rights? I have gotten some heartfelt messages from those who believe it is morally wrong to do anything to an animal which causes it to feel pain. The ability to feel pain is also seen as a differentiator for some animal rights activists (and others, who simply love mammals) between those animals we ought to take special care of, and those we don’t need to worry so much about. Certain aspects of this position are seriously wrong.

The presence of pain cannot serve as a moral determinant of an action. Not only is pain morally neutral (it is not always even a natural evil, since it is a protection mechanism for those creatures which can feel pain), but it can also be perfectly moral—even morally required—to inflict pain for appropriate reasons, such as when we perform an operation to save someone’s life. So the presence of pain only draws attention to the need to have a rationale for determining when we may properly inflict it, and when we may not, and on whom.

Now the desire to inflict pain, or avoid inflicting it, has its own moral trajectory, either good or evil, based on what it says about the moral character of the person who entertains such a desire. The little boy who tortures cats tells us far more about himself than he does about cats, and he even offends against his own humanity more than he does against the being of the cat, since (though it is an argument for another day) the boy is a person and the cat is not. Cats are ultimately disposable (hold your emails) in ways that human persons are not.

But can we honestly expect twenty-first century Western men and women to sort all this out, when they are so culturally closed to the transcendent dimensions of personhood which all other embodied creatures lack? I think not. And I would hate for an argument to be developed that suggests it is perfectly all right to kill someone if only we will take the trouble to anesthetize him first. And, of course, we know (or at least we think we know) that there are many ways to kill without inflicting pain at all.

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: grateful1 - Jul. 08, 2017 9:22 PM ET USA

    Point taken for the most part (and appreciated in full), but I share another poster's confusion about your reference to Wordsworth. Are you expressing resignation that all might already be lost?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 07, 2017 5:12 PM ET USA

    bill.mueiko5646 and marksauser4128: Spot on! The Magisterium appears to be a thin thread, but it is indestructibly strong. It would make a huge difference to all faithful Catholics if the Magisterium were not guaranteed, a difference that others simply cannot fathom. It would, in fact, be a deal-breaker. But as it is guaranteed, despite constant suffering, we have what we need, and will not experience what Wordsworth did.

  • Posted by: bill.mureiko5646 - Jul. 07, 2017 3:46 PM ET USA

    For those of us who came to the Church in large part because of her Magisterium, this is a topic of vital importance. I get Wordsworth, and I think I get your use of his lines in this context, but I would like to hear more about your thinking. One could read your last paragraph to say something like, "well it was good while it lasted, and it made a difference in my life. Too bad it won't be there for my kids." Pretty sure that's not what you mean, but could you elaborate a bit?

  • Posted by: marksauser4128 - Jul. 07, 2017 3:24 PM ET USA

    Maybe I am missing the point, but it seems the thinnest of threads holds the Church from falling into the abyss, but it is a thread which will not break and will hold firm. I think about the Arian heresy and how close the Church came to losing its way, but it did not then. Neither will it now regardless the pastoral changes, including the use of birth control, being suggested by some of our Church leaders. Faithful Catholics know the truth.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Mar. 13, 2011 10:35 PM ET USA

    To add to the mayhem that the pro-abort argument causes, consider that when you only cite science as an authority on when a life actually begins, the moment a fertilized egg begins reproduction it becomes its own life form. To continue your analogy about animal rights activists, consider the fact that it is a crime to destroy, say condor eggs. They are not hatched yet, so it is analogous to an abortion, yet the two are afforded totally different treatments in the legal system. But why?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 13, 2011 7:59 AM ET USA

    Re the comment as to the Tower of Babel, I was wondering the same thing about the catastrophes in Japan. That's a heck of a whack, and I can't help but wonder when America will get hers!

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 12, 2011 11:54 AM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, Thanks very much! I can't help wondering about the Tower of Babel. We tried to build a tower to be like God and, He clobbered us - inflicted pain to wake us up. Sometimes, I wonder if we just keep trying to build the tower over and over again. He does desire Mercy but I guess the only way to get through sometimes is a good whack; I prefer to leave that to Him and try to do my part as his follower. Please keep up the good work.