In his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, President Obama suggested that he valued debate about the issue of abortion. He congratulated Notre Dame’s president, Father Jenkins, for his “courageous commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue,” and spoke approvingly of “citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy” engaging in “vigorous debate.”
Yet, last month Obama gave all the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics their walking papers. He might re-constitute the Council, but no one expects that he will—as President Bush actually did—attempt to ensure that different sides on the fundamental and controversial bioethical issues are fairly represented.
What happened to encouraging vigorous debate? Has Obama done anything to indicate that he has real interest in actually debating the issue of the inherent value of human life? He spoke glowingly of “honest, thoughtful dialogue,” but his actions on this issue reflect sheer power politics.
Obama has chosen to fund abortion overseas, clearly favors funding abortions here, and has reversed the limitations on funding of embryo-destructive stem cell research Given these facts, it is fair to ask: what is his position on the beginning of human life and when human life has or acquires inherent dignity? What position on the beginning of human life could he possibly hold?
I can think of only six possibilities. Were he open about his position, he would have to say one of the following.
1. “I don’t care when life begins; I do not care at all about individuals that can’t be (directly) seen, that are too small, or look very different from us.”
I think this is probably his real position (as evidenced by his dismissing the question about the beginning of human life by saying that it was “above his pay grade”). But this is a mere emotional reaction and is not morally or legally sound. Just as the inherent value of a human being cannot depend on his or her race or sex, so it cannot depend on his or her size or degree of development. You and I have changed dramatically in size and appearance since we were infants. But what makes us valuable as subjects of rights has continued, and so it cannot depend on our size or degree of development.
2. “The entities killed in abortion and embryo-destructive research aren’t really human beings.”
But this answer flies in the face of science—the science of embryology. Embryology shows us that when the sperm joins with the egg, the sperm and the egg cease to be, and an entirely new and distinct organism is generated, originally the one-celled zygote. This new organism is distinct from any part of the mother or father since it actively grows in its own direction toward its own maturity. It is a whole human organism—not an isolated tissue or group of cells. It is actually already a he or a she, since sex is determined from the very beginning. It has all of the internal resources (in his or her genetic and epigenetic composition) and an active disposition, to actively develop himself or herself to the mature stage of a human organism, needing only a suitable environment and nutrition. These points show that what is generated at fertilization is a distinct, whole human organism, only at an immature stage of development.
3. “Human embryos and fetuses are human organisms, but they are not persons, that is, they do not have inherent value as subjects of rights.”
Usually the idea behind this position is that an entity must have self-consciousness or self-conscious desires in order to be a person (or an entity that has basic rights), and that unborn human beings lack self-awareness. But one problem with this is that infants also lack such self-awareness, and so this argument would justify infanticide as well as abortion. It proves too much, as most people readily see that infanticide is indeed morally wrong. Another problem is that comatose human beings do not have the immediately exercisable capacity (a capacity that can be actualized in a short time) for self-awareness either, but they are clearly subjects of rights. This fact suggests that what makes one valuable as a subject of rights is not what one can do right now, but the fundamental kind of being one is. But human embryos and fetuses are the same kind of being as you and I, only at an earlier stage of development. Like comatose human beings, they possess the basic natural capacity to shape their own lives by reason and free choice, but it will be an extended time before they exercise that natural capacity (with much external assistance in the comatose, and by natural internally directed development in the unborn). Thus, human embryos and human fetuses are subjects of rights. Each of us once was an embryo and then a fetus (and then an infant, an adolescent, and so on). And just as it would be wrong to kill you or me now, so it would have been wrong to kill us when we were infants, but also when we were fetuses or embryos.
4. “Human embryos and fetuses are human persons, but sometimes it is morally okay (and should be legally endorsed and even promoted) to do evil in order to extricate oneself from terrible burdens.”
This is the position that the end justifies means, and that a political society need not protect its weaker members against its stronger ones. But the end does not justify the means, as Obama has rightly asserted in the context of the torture issue. It would be morally wrong, for example, to kidnap a homeless person who is without family or friends and dismember him in order to use his body parts for others—using his kidneys, liver, lungs, and heart to save many others. And yet if the ends did justify the means, this choice would be perfectly acceptable. (Please note that this is basically the kind of choice—with respect to embryonic human beings—that Obama has ensured our tax dollars will now encourage.) But if the ends do not justify the means and if it is a foundational duty of the political community to protect the weak and vulnerable against the stronger, then clearly this position on unborn human life is gravely flawed.
5. “In abortion and embryo-destructive research the death of the human being is only a side effect—abortion, for example, is the removal of the unborn human being and his or her death is an unfortunate side effect.”
The problem with this position is that in most cases of abortion and in all cases of embryo-destructive research this is obviously false: the death of the unborn human being, not just his or her removal from the womb—in the vast majority of such cases—is the means chosen to obtain the ends desired in abortion or embryo-destructive research. The absence of responsibility for a child (the end intended in most abortions) is not attained if a live baby is produced. And one cannot obtain the embryo’s cells that can be cultured into embryonic stem cells (the end intended in embryo-destructive stem cell research) unless one destroys the embryonic human being. Moreover, in the few cases of abortion where the death of the unborn human being might be a side effect (say, where only avoiding the condition of pregnancy is intended), the killing is clearly unjust. The injustice is heightened since it is done by parents: both mother and father have a special responsibility to their children. (If the mother’s life is in imminent danger, then it is not the termination of the pregnancy or the baby’s death that saves her but a correction of a pathology. And so, as is generally recognized by pro-life ethicists, in these cases the abortion is a side effect of what is directly done—such as the removal of a cancerous or toxic uterus. Such acts need not be morally wrong, and do not fall under the definition of abortion where abortion is (or was or will be) illegal.)
6. “I am personally opposed to abortion and embryo-destructive research but I do not think the government should criminalize these practices.”
This position is logically, ethically, and legally bankrupt. The only basis for being “personally” opposed to abortion and embryo-destructive research would be that one recognizes that killing innocent human beings is wrong, and that abortion and embryo-destructive research are instances of such killing. But it is a basic ethical and political truth, and it is basic to our constitution, that a just political society must provide equal protection of the law to all human persons.
So, which is it? Does Obama just not care whether what is killed in abortion and embryo-destructive research is a human person or not? If he does care, what does he think occurs in abortion or embryo-destructive research? Each of the positions that might justify his actions has insuperable logical and/or philosophical difficulties. It is time to have some of that vigorous debate Obama claims to favor.
Patrick Lee is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Chair in Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity. He is the author, with Robert P. George, of Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics and is a contributor to Public Discourse.