According to Pope John Paul II, “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.”i Although this concept appears to be self-evident in that it supported by conscience and a constant a testimony of Western Society, rooted in the biblical prohibition on murder, modern advanced societies tend not to place such an absolute value on the sacredness and dignity of the human person. John Paul states,
“A new cultural climate is taking hold which gives crimes against life a new-and if possible-even more sinister character, giving rise to further grave concern: broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim no only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the state, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems.”ii
This radicalization of the absolutely autonomy of the human person to do what he or she wants, without consequences, so much so that the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable are put at risk, is the motivating factor for the creation of this pro-life blog. Because many claim that the universal right to life of the human person is not founded in reason, but is a matter of subjective opinion, I recognized a need to articulate the fact that the right to life of the unborn can be demonstrated rationally, and that the dictates of reason absolutely defend this right. What is more, a sound Natural Law philosophy provides the most profound way of defending the weak, and the innocent.
The process of creating this blog, and systematically thinking through the philosophy of Natural Law and its pro-life consequences has taught me several important things. First, I learned a great deal about Natural Law in all of its details. Without this project, it might have been easy to go on in my studies with a more limited grasp of the Natural Law. However, now I have understanding of how Natural Law is derived all the way back to the first principles of reason and metaphysics. Second, I have a greater understanding of the metaphysics of Aquinas, particularly the concepts of essence, form, nature, and final causality. By reading through Aquinas’ On Being and Essence, I learned that not only is “nature” a synonym for essence and form, but it’s synonym that has a specific connotation. It is the essence in so far as an essence is directed to the proper acts and ends of a being. As for final causality, I a have deeper understanding of what it means, and how it can be defended from skeptics. In the Summa theologiae, Aquinas argues that things necessarily act for an end, or else one thing would not follow from the actions of an agent, more than another. For example, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms always combine to form water, and never anything else. This is simply a realistic view of the world. Third, I learned that while Aquinas did not specifically speak of “natural rights” his philosophy is a solid foundation for these rights, through the recognition of the dignity of the human person, established in his supernatural purpose. Finally, while I always had an understanding that immorality of abortion and the killing of a fetus is established in reason, through this project this conviction has been strengthened and confirmed by thinking through these things more thoroughly.
Through the study of Natural Life and pro-life issues, I was struck by John Paul II’s consistent appeal to the fact that the Natural Moral Law is knowable by reason. For example, he states,
“Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness, can by the light of reason and the hidden actions of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.”iii
This unequivocal affirmation is repeated else where in his encyclical letter Evangelium vitae. For example he states, “I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon the unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his heart.”iv The same view is reflected throughout his other works such as Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio. This is applicable for me in two ways. First, because I am a co-host on a radio talk show here in Albuquerque, NM. When discussing moral issues, I can appeal to the Natural Law, through rational analysis to demonstrate moral and immoral nature of some acts that are relevant to current news stories. Second, and perhaps more import, if I decided to explore the possibility of writing a thesis, I might want to address John Paul II’s view that the Natural Moral Law is accessible by reason. There is certainly a great deal of material to support this. What is more, Blessed John Paul II’s view on this matter is of particular value because of the banishment of ethics to the realm of the relative and the subjective on the part of modern philosophy and jurisprudence. In all, this project has provided a great deal of thought for future work in my degree program, and in my professional endeavors.
Becaue this blog posts the first posts last, and the last posts first, I suggest reading from the bottom of the page and working your way up. If you read the blog in this manner, the articles will make more sence becasue they build on one another.
On a final note, because the most fundamental foundation of the Natural Law is the existence of a good and perfect God who rules the universe, it is necessary to address the issue of a revealed Divine Law, or religion, and its relationship to the Natural Law, Human Law, and life issues. In order to do so, this article will briefly discuss the reasons to believe that there is a Divine Law, revealed to man, and proclaimed by the Catholic Church. Further, this article will discuss why the Divine Law revealed to man is necessary, and finally, it will address the issue of whether or not the Natural Law and life issues are religious issues, or secular ones.
Although time and space do not permit a detailed proof for the reality of the Christian faith, the reader may want to read Peter Kreeft’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics. In lieu of a more rigorous defense, this discussion will focus on C.S. Lewis classic “Trilema”, in which a person presented with the claims of Christ must decide whether or not he believes that Jesus is “Lord, liar, or lunatic.” The following passage from Lewis’ Mere Christianity, provides the foundation for this discussion.
“Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claimed to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among the Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the the Being outside the world, who made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.”i
In this passage, Lewis provides examples of Christ’s claim to divinity. He claims to forgive sins, that he always existed, and that he would judge everyone at the end of time. What is more, he goes so far as to claim to be one with God the Father. Each of things are divine prerogatives that do not make sense in Jewish culture, unless of course, Christ does in fact claim to be God.
Lewis goes on to point out that what is most striking about Christ’s claims about himself is “the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic.”ii It is ridiculous because a man against whom a sin is committed can forgive the offender, but there is no reason in the world to assumed that a man can forgive an offense in which he is not the victim. It seems so ridiculous that Lewis calls it “Asinine fatuity”iii. However, this is in fact what Jesus did. He, “unhesitatingly behaved as if he was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses”iv. This makes sense only if Jesus believed himself to be the God whom every sin offends.
Now, the fact that Jesus believed himself to be God, has a profound consequence. It “prevent[s] anyone saying the really foolish thing… about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ This is the one thing we must not say.”v As Lewis goes on to point out, if Jesus claims to be God and is not, then he is not a good man or a great moral teacher. He is either a liar because he knows he is not, or he is crazy because he believes himself to be something he is not. As Lewis states,
“He would either be a lunatic-on level with the man who believes himself to be a poached egg-or else the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice, Either this man was and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come to him with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”vi
Thus, the only three options left open to the honesty inquirer are that Jesus is either Lord, liar, or lunatic.
It seems unlikely that Christ is crazy or a lunatic. In spite of the fact that he makes these profound claims about himself, when “Christ says that he is ‘humble and meek’,” people believe him. Hundreds and thousands of Jews found this convincing. What is more, his Apostles, his closest confidants were convinced of his Lordship, so much so that they converted people from all over the known world. His person and teachings so deeply affected the Apostles they there were even willing to suffer terrible deaths for this belief. A crazy person or lunatic does not inspire this kind of passion. Rather, when some one is crazy, he only makes those around him uncomfortable, and they seek to distance themselves, and perhaps forget about the encounter with the lunatic quickly as possible. Thus, it seems most unreasonable to accept that Christ was crazy.
What is more, it is unreasonable to assume that Christ is a liar, for two reasons. First, if he was nothing more than a liar, he would not have been able to keep up his charade indefinitely, because the Apostles knew him so intimately. His deception would not have been the foundation of their moral conviction and courage. If anything, once he was discovered as a liar, this fact would have more than likely turned them into cynics and skeptics, not the men who converted the known world. Second, if Christ is a liar it would be highly unlikely that he would be willing to go to his death for his claim. However, he certainly did go to his death over his claim. He was questioned over and over about whether he was the Christ, the Son of God. In order to escape a most torturous death, all he needed to do was to deny that he was in fact Divine. However, he never did this, and instead, he proceeded to accept his fate, a Roman crucifixion. These are the marks of a man who was telling the truth about who he was.
Thus, the only reasonable option left open to the honest inquirer is that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of the living God.” This may be jarring, and it may even be difficult to accept, but there is nothing unreasonable about it in a universe that is created and ruled over by a perfect God. There is nothing to stop this God from assuming a human nature and living among men. It seems reasonable that a God who is perfect in love would do that very thing. What is more, this is further confirmed by the fact that the Apostles were willing to convert the world and suffer death as a result of their belief that they had seen and spoken with Christ risen from the dead. The “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” “Tri-lema” can be applied to the Apostles’ claim of Christ’s resurrection as well, and it yields the same results. They died for this claim, because they knew it to be true.
The teachings of the Son of God were made manifest in the Church, which the Nicene creed refers to as “One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”. Because it goes beyond the scope of this blog to demonstrate that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Jesus Christ, I suggest reading the writing of the early Christians, as well as exploring the Catholic Answers website. There, the reader will find ample evidence to demonstrate the the Catholic Church is the Church established by Jesus Christ. Further, reading books like Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home will provided even more information on this topic.
However, from the words of Christ himself, it can be made clear that the Church was established to pass on his Divine teachings with certainty. The early Christians record Jesus as saying, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”vii The promise of Divine protection in the realm of truth is further confirmed in Christ’s promise to the Apostles, the first leaders of the Church, when he states, “He who hears you hears me.”viii Thus, he makes the leaders of the Church his own voice, protected from error by the teaching of the Holy Spirit. This is so profoundly established that Jesus even goes so far as to declare unto the Apostles, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”ix Thus, not only are the Apostles given the power and protection to teach the truth without error, they are given the authority to do so. For this reason, the early Christians was so confident in the truth of the teachings of the Church that come from Christ without error, that they refer to the Church as the “the pillar and bulwark of truth.”x From all of the above points, it is clear that the Catholic Church, established by Jesus Christ, teaches the truth of God’s word, without error, through the protection of Divine assistance.
From this point it is necessary to proceed to discuss Aquinas view of the connection between the Divine Law, revealed by God to the Jewish People and through Christ to his Church. He gives four reasons why such a Divine revelation is necessary. First, he states, “because it is by law that man is directed to perform his proper acts in view of his last end,”xi but, as was previously demonstrated, man’s last end is God himself. Yet, God is beyond all of man’s powers, thus, in order to achieve this last end, God had to provide the supernatural means to do so through revelation. Second, he argues that Divine Law is given as a result of “the uncertainty of human judgment, especially on contingent and particular matters, different people form different judgments on human acts”xii. This can be seen clearly in regard to life matters. It is clear that the Natural Law can be known by reason, and that by reason one can deduce that the killing of an unborn human being is a grave evil. However, one can observe that many error in their judgment and do not believe that it is immoral to do so, and thus, abortion, abortive contraceptives, and fetal stem cell research are all legal in most developed nations. Hence, revelation or Divine Law is necessary to correct these errors in judgment. Third, Aquinas argues that “man can make laws in those matters of which he is competent to judge. But man is not competent to judge of interior movements.”xiii The interior actions and desires of another person’s heart are beyond the scope of any man’s knowledge. Thus, man cannot rule or measure those actions; which means he cannot legislate in those matters. Yet, a reading of the Gospels will demonstrate that God places great value on the state of the heart. Thus, in order to rule and direct the interior state of man to his proper end, God established a Divinely revealed law. Fourth, Aquinas argues that “human law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds: since while aiming at or doing away with all evils, it would do away with man good thing, and would hinder the advance of the common good”xiv This is common sense, in that it is clear that human laws cannot deal with vices such as lying, cursing, etc., without running the risk of becoming tyrannical. However, justice demands that these vices and sins be dealt with, and the Divine Law is the appropriate way to do so.
There are several important points that are necessary to take from Aquinas’ understanding of Natural Law, Human Law, and Divine Law. First, Divine Law does not replace Natural Law. It is a help and aid. It is there because man needs more than Natural Law to achieve his final end, God. Without this, man’s purpose would be frustrated. Second, Divine Law aides Natural Law, in that people are prone to error in ethical matters. Divine Law provides immediate and certain rules to live by without the chance of error, because the Divine Law is the inerrant word of God. Third, it is clear from the discussion above, that Aquinas does not intend for Human Law to rule every aspect of human life, in order to achieve the good of the Natural Law. Such a Human Law would be overly invasive and contrary to the common good. This should be enough to answer those who suggest that because Aquinas’ directing of law to the good, he demands some sort of theocracy, in which one religion is established by the state, and all human acts are ruled by the government. Finally, ultimately, human law cannot deal with what man is internally. It may help in habituating man to the Good, but true conversion and interior conviction come from God and not the Law.
This discussion also brings up the question of unjust laws. For Aquinas, it is true that man is bound to obey that Human Law that rules his life, because the establishment of political societies is one of man’ natural ends or purposes, and laws are necessary for such. However, there are laws that do no really possess the force of law. These he describes as unjust laws, and they are unjust in one of two ways. The first way is “in respect to the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conductive not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity and vainglory.”xv These laws are not laws because a law is an “ordinance of reason.” Reason is directed to the good, and in the case of the community, the common good. Yet, the law of a tyrant does not take into account the good of his people. The second way that a law is unjust is “in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law beyond the power committed to him.”xvi As was demonstrated previously, a law must be established by the person who has authority to legislate in such matters. Thus, if he who makes a law oversteps his bounds, such is not a law at all. An example of this is when the United States Supreme Court established a law that grants women “the right” to an abortion. The judges most certainly overstepped their bounds because they had no authority to created a right not found in the United States Constitution, and what is more, they had no right to transgress the Natural Moral Law. Thus, this is not a law at all, but Aquinas would say, such laws are “acts of violence, rather than laws.”xvii
This is important in the discussion concerning Divine Law, because there are two kinds of unjust laws. As Aquinas states, there unjust laws that like the one’s contrary to man’s natural good, as described above, and there are laws that “may be unjust through opposing the Divine good.”xviii Neither kind of law can “bind in conscience,”xix because, by failing to conform to the nature of laws, they are not laws at all. However, Aquinas argues that it is necessary to submit to laws contrary to the natural good, when it is necessary to avoid scandal, and to avoid anarchy that comes from picking and choosing laws. Thus, for example, while the United States tax code may be considered unjust due to many parts that wrongly favor certain people over others, it is still necessary to pay taxes in order to maintain the good of the society.
With regard to those laws opposed to man’s Divine good, however, such laws must never be followed. An example that Aquinas provides is a law that commands idolatry. Man must not submit to these laws, because reason demands that on submit to the higher authority, God, before the lower one, man. A modern example of such a law might be one which requires doctors and nurses to perform evil acts such as abortion, or ordinances that require Catholic organizations to pay for insurance for its employees that covers things such as contraception and abortion. By positively requiring Catholics to participate in intrinsic evils, these laws oppose man’s Divine good. What is more, any law that would prohibit a man from doing what is required by his religion, like attending mass, or prohibit him from doing what the Natural Law absolutely demands, such as providing for and protecting his family, would be contrary to the Divine good of man, in his responsibilities before God.
All of this discussion brings about the question as to whether or not the issue of protecting the life of a human fetus is religious one or a secular one. In the case of ethics, John Paul II states that, “To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God.”xx This has been clearly demonstrated throughout this blog. The only reasonable foundation of a Natural Law is God who is a law giver. However it has also been shown that this matter is accessible by reason. It is through reason itself that Aquinas demonstrates the existence of God, and through reason that he also derives the Natural Law and its principles. Thus, in the case of abortion, abortive contraception, and fetal stem cell research, one can know with certainty that they are intrinsic evils that should be prohibited by law. Even if one does not recognize the existence of God, one can still recognize the proper acts and ends of human nature, founded in the potencies and powers of its form. From this, the universal right to life can be derived, even without supernatural revelation.
However, as was shown above, God has revealed himself in Christ Jesus, and thus, any question about the good is a question about the God of revelation. For this reason, John Paul does affirm that this “is really a religious question, and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself.”xxi Before the revelation of God, it was a question of reason alone. However, once God made himself manifest, then any question relating to God is a question about his revelation to man, because this revelation cannot be separated from him. In fact, the Gospel of John goes so far as to call Jesus Christ, “the word”xxii of God. Thus, man in his ethical pursuits, is bound and obliged to seek the good of God’s revelation, because only this revelation can bring the inner transformation of new birth,xxiii, necessary to achieve man’s true end, God himself. Thus, man must be transformed so that the “Gospel of Life” takes root in him and he knows the incomparable value of every human person, created in “image and likeness” of Godxxiv. And, thus, man can know, for certain the revelation provided by God’s Church, concerning the unborn:
“Therefore,with the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors… [I] declare that direct abortion, willed as and end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”xxv
While some will admit that the killing of a human zygote, fetus, or embryo is in itself distasteful, or perhaps even immoral, they will still argue that such killing through abortion, fetal stem cell research, or abortive contraceptives should not be made illegal. They appeal to the privacy rights of the woman over her body, or the good that can be achieved by curing diseases through stem cell research, or to a principle that one cannot legislate morality. On the other side of this debate, are those who stand with thinkers like John Paul II, who believe that, “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person or one suffering form an incurable disease, or a person who is dying.”i From this position, one must conclude that abortion must be illegal in a just state, because, “No circumstances, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”ii The philosophy of Aquinas demonstrates that those who agree with the position of Blessed John Paul II are correct.
In order to demonstrate this, one must first establish the relationship between the Natural Law, which prohibits the killing of the unborn, and human law in general. As was previously stated, a law must be an “ordinance of reason”iii. In order be to in accord with reason, such an ordinance must be directed to man’s good or end, which is derived from his nature which is oriented to that end (see the article above on the first principle of natural law). This direction of man to his end, through his will and reason is the Natural Lawiv, and thus, if a law is to be a law it must be in accord with the Natural Law. As Aquinas states, “Every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the natural law.”v
Although this reasoning is solid, some will immediately object that it is unreasonable because “you can’t legislate morality”. However, this objections is simply fallacious for two reasons. First, there is no law that can be identified that is not established for a moral reason, for some perceived good. Speed limits exist to provide safety, and safety is sought because it is good to be safe. Taxes are imposed for the general welfare and security of a community because safety and security are good. The United States has a Bill of Rights established to protect the liberties and freedoms of the population, because liberty and freedom are good. Even those who support legalized abortion and abortive contraception do so because they perceive a woman’s right to choose in these matters as good. Those who support fetal stem cell research do so because they believe that the benefit of curing diseases is good. Thus, every law is a sort of “legislating morality”; there cannot be any other kind of law.
The second reason why this argument is fallacious, was discussed above in the article on law. In short, every law, that is truly a law, is an ordinance of reason. This is true because law is a “rule and measure of human acts” and the principle of human acts is reason. Reason is directed towards man’s good, because man is “rational animal” and those acts which are his proper acts and ends are those in accord with the rational nature. Thus, his end is rational action. Because the end is same thing as a the good, reason is directed to the good. Consequently, every law, because it must be rational and directed to making men good.
Of course, there are limits to this but laws should be framed in such a way that they prohibit “the more grievous vices from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without which the prohibitions of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.”vi Keeping in mind that to live in society is one of the objective needs of the human person, then those crimes which violate the integrity of the relationships absolutely necessary to do so should be outlawed. Otherwise, this objective end would be violated. Murder is a most grievous violation of this relationship, in that it violates the most fundamental right of the human person, on which all other rights are established, the right to life. Because abortion, abortive contraception, and fetal stem cell research violate this right by killing the human person in its most vulnerable state, it must be “recogniz[ed] that we are dealing murder”vii Hence, it is necessary to conclude that abortion should be illegal. In fact, if abortion should not be illegal, it is difficult to see what should.
Even in light of these demonstrations, some will still argue that in spite of the fact that the abortion is murder, it would violate the right of the woman to have privacy and control over her own body, if abortion or abortive contraception were prohibited by law. However, this argument misses three very important points. First, no human being has the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s bodies. For example, most civilized societies still outlaw suicide. Second, those who make this argument fail to recognize a hierarchy of goods. It is nearly self evident that the right to life is more fundamental than the right to privacy. This can be demonstrated in that all other rights depend on the right to life because no right can be exercised unless one is alive. What is more, it is clear that the principle of the unqualified value of life, over and above qualified goods such as privacy is recognized universally in just societies, in that innocent life cannot be legitimately destroyed, but every law in society, to some degree limits a person’s access to privacy. Third, the responsibility to care for and carry a child is not imposed from the outside by the government but, first and foremost it comes from human nature itself, which has procreation and the nurturing of a family as one its objective ends. Thus, when a law prohibits abortion, it is not violating a woman’s privacy, but upholding the principles of justice.
When it comes to fetal stem cell research, the argument is a bit different. Proponents of this procedure can argue that while it is wrong in and of itself to kill unborn human beings, the good that results in the curing of a myriad of diseases justifies this act. However, this argument is defective as well. As was discussed previously, the first principle of the Natural Law is to “do good and avoid evil”. Man’s end is his good, and his nature is directed to this purpose. This principle is not do good, or evil, as long as good results. It is simply to do “good”. Since it is not in accord with man’s nature to do evil, he must never do it. An approach in which the ends justifies the means can be used to justify any crime from speeding to genocide, and thus, as theory of ethics it is simply defective. The best approach is the theory of ethics and law that is in accord with reason, Natural Law.
In short, the best approach to life ethics is one in which the killing of the human person in its zygote, embryonic, or fetal stages, is made illegal by the laws of the community. In many cases this theory may not be popular, because of the ruling “culture of death”; however, the rational principles of ethics demand the protection of human life. If the killing of the weakest and most innocent is legitimized by a society in anyway, it is difficult to see why that society can still be called a society.
In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II quotes the Declaration on Euthenasia from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which states, “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult…”i The thinking is founded on the concept that both a human embryo and a fetus (and by extension a zygote) are human beings with the same nature, end, and rights as any other human being, including a fully developed adult. In this vein, John Paul states, “As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others.”ii
Of course this position is not necessarily popular and is often disputed, so much so that in the United states the fetus is not recognized as a human person with rights. For example, an amendment to the Mississippi State Constitution that would grant legal recognition to the humanity of a fetus was rejected by more than fifty-five percent of Mississippi voters. Those who deny that a fetus, or a zygote for that matter, is a human being can do so on several grounds. First, they can object that since man is a “rational animal” with an intellect and will, and these powers are not actualized in the human fetus, then it is not truly a human person. Next, such persons might also object that the fetus is absolutely dependent on the mother, and hence, does not have the independence necessary to distinguish it as a distinct substance. What is more, one can even cite Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s own philosophy, that ensoulment, or the reception of the rational soul does not even happen until the body it substantially unifies is proximately organized for it,”iii which would seem to exclude the early stages of pregnancy. Finally, even if one were to accept that concept that the fetus is a human being, some will make the distinction that it is not a human person with rights, but only a potential person. While each of these arguments seem to carry some weight, they can each be refuted.
The fact that the embryo or fetus cannot at any moment that it is in the embryonic or fetal stage, reason, is not grounds to argue that it does not possess a human nature. Aquinas defines “nature” as “the essence of a thing insofar as it is ordered to athing’s proper activity.”iv Thus, essence, which is “rational animal” is a nature in so far as it is ordered to the proper end of rational action. However, it is not necessary that man’s act of reasoning is actualized at any given time in order for man to be man. When a human being is a small child, its ability to reason has not yet fully developed, and thus not actualized. People who are sleeping,or in a comma, or have had a traumatic brain injury do not or cannot actualize their ability to reason at that moment. Yet they are still recognized as human. Finally, an elderly person with dementia, who once could reason, but now cannot, is not seen as having gone from being human to not being human. The reason for this is that all of these people still have the potency or potential for reason. It is simply not able to be actualized, whether it is due to the fact of the an undeveloped brain, natural need for sleep, or defect from an injury or old age. These people are are still “rational animals” but there ability to reason exists in potentiality. From this, it can be deduced that a human is a human being, not insofar as it can reason, but in that it has the potential to reason or is ordered toward reason. Thus, because the fetus most certainly has the potential to reason, it is simply not yet fully developed, one cannot deny the fetus’ or embryos’ essential humanity.
The argument from the dependence of the fetus on the mother also fails to refute the fact that the embryo/fetus is human. It is absolutely true the fetus is radically dependent on its mother for growth and development. However, this does not mean that the fetus is not an independent human being. First, if the concept of independence determined a being’s humanity, then an infant, toddler, young child, would all be excluded from the population of humanity. Each of these is so radically dependent on its parents that it could not survive on its own. If one argues that this dependence is different because the child is not in his mother’s body, then one is guilty of the fallacy of confusing the essential with the accidental. There is no essential difference between the fetus in the womb, and the infant that has passed through the birth canal five minutes later. What is more, as was demonstrated above, because the humanity of a being is determined by its potential for reason, and not its actualization of reason, then the fetus or embryo is already distinguished as a human being by possessing this potency, through its own form, and genetic code both ultimately directed toward reason. In any case, this argument against the humanity of a fetus turns out to be a rather weak one.
While it is true that Aquinas and Aristotle believe that a fetus does not immediately receive a rational soul at the moment of conception, this does not justify the idea that idea that the embryo is not a human person. Quite frankly, Aquinas and Aristotle are wrong on this point. However, this is understandable given their primitive understanding of the biology of prenatal development. As Fr. Robert Spitzer discusses in his Ten Universal Principles, the well known Dr. Jerome Lejeune, demonstrated, via scientific means, that the human zygote, from the time of conception, has its own distinct human genomev. This mean that it has all of the potentiality directed toward the development of rational action already present in it from the time of conception. As was shown above, a being is human insofar as it has a potential for the end and purpose of human nature. Thus, it must have its form, which in the case of man is the soul, from the very beginning. It might be objected that a skin cell or an heart cell have this same genetic code; however, stem cells and heart cells do not develop into mature human persons, and thus, do not possess the same potentiality as does a zygote. Even if a skin cell is forced to become a zygote by artificial means, it must be changed from one thing to another to do so. It must go from being a heart cell or skin cell to a zygote, and once it achieves this new nature or form, then it can develop into an adult. This a clear indication that a zygote is essentially different from every other cell. As a consequence, even a zygote is a human being.
As was discussed in the introduction of this blog, the philosopher Peter Singer refers to a person as a “rational and self-conscious being”. This definition excludes embryos, zygotes, fetuses, small child, and some mentally defective human beings. In distinguishing human person from human beings, Singer opens the door for the legitimate killing of such human beings. But what he misses is that the this definition cannot work because it excludes sleeping persons from the definition of “person” which is a contradiction. Rather, he should argue that a person is a being that has the potential to reason, as this would include sleeping persons. However, this definition would be distasteful for him because it would demonstrate the immorality of killing those in early stages of development. Nevertheless, viewing a being with the potential for reason is supported by the reasoning in the paragraphs above.
In short, there is no reason to deny the person hood of the zygote, embryo, or fetus, and every rational reason to affirm it. What is more, because the there is no essential difference between the zygote and the mature adult, and the rights and ends of a substance flow from its essence or nature, there should be no essential difference between their natural human rights and protections. This is why John Paul II declares that “As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others.”vi As a consequence, abortion, fetal stem cell research, and abortive contraceptives are intrinsic evils.
Just as Pope Benedict XVI, as reported by Rome Reports in the video above, expresses the truth that reason can know and understand the dignity of the human person, in his encyclical, Evangelium vitae, Blessed Pope John Paul II explains that “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the ‘creative action of God,’ and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator who is its sole end.”i As was discussed in the introduction, the sacred value of human life has been a foundational principle of all ethical thinking for thousands of years. If any progress is to be made in the movement towards fighting against the things that rob the weakest in society of their right to life, there must be a return to sound thinking that emphasizes the sacredness of human life.
In order to do so, it is necessary to understand that the codes of the Natural Law, regarding the immorality of the violation of the sanctity of a human being’s life, is founded on natural reason alone. As John Paul II states, “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine is bases upon the unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart.”ii Thus, by the light of natural reason, a person can see that it is a violation of the end and purpose of man to kill another.
This can be argued in two ways. The first way is on Thomistic grounds, beginning with the principle that one of man’s natural inclinations is that he seeks “the preservation of his own being,” and thus “what is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law.”iii In other words, man’s nature is directed towards preserving itself, and man is called to take whatever morally valid actions necessary to preserve his life. Another natural inclination of man that is important to this conversation is man’s need to “live in society.”iv Because man needs society to reach his natural ends, he must avoid doing the things that frustrate that end. If one acts to deprive another of the end to which that person’s nature is oriented, then one violates the relationship necessary to live in society. In the case of murder, one deprives another of the most fundamental need of man, upon which the achievement of all of his other ends depend, namely the need to live. Thus, murder “contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity” and is “a grave act of disobedience to the moral law.”v
This argument is based on the external responsibility not to kill. But beyond this, the Natural Law demonstrates that man has a fundamental right to life established in his very nature, by reason of the dignity of the human person. As stated above, John Paul II argues, “Human life is sacred because from the beginning it involves the ‘creative action of God’ and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator who is its sole end.” Thus, this the dignity of the human person is established in that, as a rational creature, man is directed to God, in a manner different from all of creation. Because God is the final end of man, as was argued above, he belongs especially to God and is exalted above all material creation. This destiny for God, so to speak, is not an external subjective property, but an intrinsic reality, in that man’s form or nature itself is oriented toward man. Thus, murder is gravely wrong, because it deprives a being directed to God of one of its intended purposes. It is an irrational act in that it dares to violate the inherent dignity of that which belongs to God himself, and thus is evil or contrary to virtue. Hence, from within man, based on his nature, there is an inherent right to life based on his dignity as a person whose very purpose is God himself.
In which every way one argues, via personal responsibility not to kill an innocent human being, or through the natural right to life of the human person grounded in his intrinsic dignity, it is clear that to kill a human being is to violate the Natural Law.
Following upon the first principle of Natural Law, that good is to be done and evil to be avoided, the good being rational action or virtue, Aquinas derives five further principles of the Natural Law. Rice summarizes these as follows:
“1. To seek the good, including the highest good, which is eternal happiness with God.
2. To preserve himself in existence.
3. To preserve the species-that is to unite sexually.
4. To live in community with other men.
Each of these principles is justified by rational evaluation of the powers of man. Man acts for an end because he is rational. If there were not some final end, then each of his rational actions would be justified by another end, and then another again. But, if this goes on indefinitely, none of his rational actions would be ultimately justified, and thus, they would not be rational. Thus, it is necessary to conclude that man acts for an end. This end cannot be anything else but happiness, because only happiness is pursued for its own sake and not for the sake of another. However, happiness cannot be any of the limited, contingent things of creation because they are all means to ends, or, because of their limited nature, they leave something to be desired, and yet happiness has the nature of an end without anything left to be desired. Hence, only God can be the final end of man.
The second principle, that man is inclined to preserve himself in existence is found in his nature as an existing substances. No substance exists for the sake of ceasing to exist. It is the nature of every substance to to exist. What is more, animals have a particularly strong inclination to preserve their existence by the drive to survive. Since man has both of these aspects contained with in his nature, it is a natural end for man to act to survive.
The third end of man is clear from the nature of his animal/material body which possess the power of sexuality. His functions are clearly directed towards procreation. Thus, their natural end is to reproduce the species and help to preserve that overall species. Thus, reproduction, along with the nurturing of offspring in a family is one of the ends or goods built into human nature.
The fourth principle, that man is directed towards living in community can be seen through observation. Man is first born into the society of family, which helps to fulfill the end of procreation and the preservation of the species. Further, many of man’s ends cannot be achieved apart from his relationship to others. Education, food, safety, etc, all depend on man’s ability to live in society with others. Thus, to live in society is one of the principles of the Natural Law.
The fifth principle, that man is called to use his intellect and will, and to shun ignorance, is deducible from the fact that man is a “rational animal”. Because the specific difference that distinguishes man from other animals is “rational”, then activity that is most proper to man is rational activity. Thus, man must, if he is to achieve his end, exercise his intellect and will to avoid ignorance and to do good.
From these principles, all other ethical norms are derived, in so far as acts that frustrate the proper use of the powers of man that are directed towards these ends, would be contrary to man’s good, and thus, evil. Furthermore, positive acts, such as properly providing for ones family, are prescribed by the natural law, in that such acts are necessary for the fulfillment of the puproses of man, and thus absolute and necessary goods.