Having spent innumerable weeks in an online bioethics course wrangling with the ethics of abortion, contraception, ensoulment, and the definition of personhood, I can say without fear of contradiction that the discussion is pretty much a fine mess. Witness the following from Prof. Gary Gutting, who holds an endowed chair of philosophy at Notre Dame University:
"for most pregnancies abortion would be morally wrong... a woman’s right to control her reproductive life can, as in the case of rape, offset even a person’s right to life; and at least at the earlier stages of pregnancy, the embryo has only the moral standing of potential, not actual, human life, which may be overridden by harm to humans with full moral standing."
Person, potential person, person with potential, life form with a radical capacity for thought…we’ve allowed the discussion about these things to be shaped in too great a measure by the material, the concrete and the secular—and by our own view of ourselves and what makes us us. The discussion has become too much about line drawing which then engenders problems in how the lines apply in hard cases, the firmest positions usually being held by those farthest away from the situation at hand. Any master of rhetoric will tell you—control the definition of terms, control the argument. It’s time we returned the terms to something simple and sensible. Something we Christians all sense in the deepest part of ourselves if we let the arguments die down.
I think we’ve missed something important, something we need to teach without apology to the world at large for it desperately need to hear it: The Catholic view of life is grounded not in biology or in the material world and what it understands. Our understanding of life is grounded in the mystery of the life of the Holy Trinity. At the risk of committing the arrogant error of the novice, I think we’re complicating things too much and letting the opponents control the field.
These arcane discussions almost invariably end up emphasizing too much what a person (potential person, person with potential) does and not who he is. Rather like the folks who refuse to refer to God as Father Son and Holy Spirit, choosing instead Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. The Catholic Church refuses this nomenclature, for it divides God according to His actions, not His Personhood. The Persons of God exist not because of what they do but because they are in relationship to each other.
So it is with us. If we truly believe that married love is meant to be an icon of the inner life of the Trinity, then perhaps there’s a simpler, clearer, more faithful way to view and explain life. When the self-donation of man and woman results in “something” demonstrably different from themselves (which, biologically speaking and without contradiction, occurs when the sperm hits the egg), then that is, by its relation to the man and the woman, another person. From that instant, period. All else is embroidery.
One of the great strengths of the Christian faith has been to reshape how people think about each other, in relation to each other. That slave you bought and sold? Christian, you must treat him as a beloved brother. That foreigner in your gates? You must treat him as a member of the family. That woman society tells you, man, is your possession? You must treat her as your very self, willing to die for her good.
That single fertilized egg inside a woman that is neither her own self nor her husband. It too, is a person, not by virtue of what it can do, now or potentially, but because of the relationship of one person to another that gave rise to it (yes, even if it happened in a test tube). To put it bluntly, what results from human sex is always and ever a person, even if it never comes to the merciful blessing of birth by the providence of God or the hand of man. How hard is that?
What we do next in relation to that person who is utterly and ever in relation to us depends on how much we—as persons immediately involved and as a community beyond—are willing to risk of ourselves in love.
As for Gutting, let the discussion proceed in terms of the relative rights of persons with respect to each other—but make no mistake. There are only persons. Not potential persons. And all persons have life, now and ever—such is the radical teaching of the Christian faith. It only remains to be seen how our relationship is governed by the law of love.