A couple of days ago, I pointed out that, by making abortion a matter of religious faith, Senator Joseph Biden empowered those who would outlaw the practice. Now Cardinal Justin F. Rigali and Bishop William Lori have issued a statement "correcting" Biden on the issue. (I learned of this from the AP.)
Let's start at the beginning. Here's what Biden said on "Meet the Press" on September 7:
[When does life begin?] I'd say, "Look, I know when it begins for me." It's a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths -- Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others -- who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They're intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life -- I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, "Well, what about fascism?" Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism's all right? Fascism isn't a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea. ...So basically Biden's argument is that, while the issue properly is a matter of religious faith, people disagree about religious matters, so abortion ought not be outlawed. In other words, subjectivism trumps faith. Biden has no principles.
[W]hat [I] voted against curtailing the right, criminalizing abortion. I voted against telling everyone else in the country that they have to accept my religiously based view that it's a moment of conception. There is a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that's existed. Back in "Summa Theologia," when Thomas Aquinas wrote "Summa Theologia," he said there was no -- it didn't occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith? And that's the reason I haven't. But then again, I also don't support a lot of other things. I don't support public, public funding. I don't, because that flips the burden. That's then telling me I have to accept a different view. This is a matter between a person's God, however they believe in God, their doctor and themselves in what is always a --and what we're going to be spending our time doing is making sure that we reduce considerably the amount of abortions that take place by providing the care, the assistance and the encouragement for people to be able to carry to term and to raise their children.
Following is most of the reply by Rigali and Lori (emphasis omitted):
[T]he Senator's claim that the beginning of human life is a "personal and private" matter of religious faith, one which cannot be "imposed" on others, does not reflect the truth of the matter. The Church recognizes that the obligation to protect unborn human life rests on the answer to two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious.Given Biden's concession that Catholic teaching defines the issue, he's powerless to answer this "correction."
The first is a biological question: When does a new human life begin? When is there a new living organism of the human species, distinct from mother and father and ready to develop and mature if given a nurturing environment? While ancient thinkers had little verifiable knowledge to help them answer this question, today embryology textbooks confirm that a new human life begins at conception... The Catholic Church does not teach this as a matter of faith; it acknowledges it as a matter of objective fact.
The second is a moral question, with legal and political consequences: Which living members of the human species should be seen as having fundamental human rights, such as a right not to be killed?
The Catholic Church's answer is: Everybody. No human being should be treated as lacking human rights, and we have no business dividing humanity into those who are valuable enough to warrant protection and those who are not. This is not solely a Catholic teaching, but a principle of natural law accessible to all people of good will.
The framers of the Declaration of Independence pointed to the same basic truth by speaking of inalienable rights, bestowed on all members of the human race not by any human power, but by their Creator. Those who hold a narrower and more exclusionary view have the burden of explaining why we should divide humanity into those who have moral values and those who do not and why their particular choice of where to draw that line can be sustained in a pluralistic society.
Such views pose a serious threat to the dignity and rights of other poor and vulnerable members of the human family who need and deserve our respect and protection.
While in past centuries biological knowledge was often inaccurate, modern science leaves no excuse for anyone to deny the humanity of the unborn child. Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice.
But notice the weakness of Rigali and Lori's argument. They claim quite correctly that it is "objective fact" that a fertilized egg is "a new living organism of the human species, distinct from mother and father and ready to develop and mature if given a nurturing environment." (A fertilized egg is not "distinct" from the mother in that it exists wholly inside of her and lives from her nutrients.) But then they make the faith-based jump in claiming that a fertilized egg is a "human being" in the sense of personhood. What is their reason for this jump? It is the "Catholic Church's answer." That's it. There's no factual basis for the claim, no chain of reasoning. Only an appeal to authority. Thus, the pair's claim that their position is not "specifically religious" is patently false. Without religious faith in the "Catholic Church's answer," their case completely falls apart.
As Diana Hsieh and I argue in "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life:"
No one doubts that a fertilized egg is alive, that it contains human DNA, or that it has the potential to develop into a born person (assuming it implants and develops properly in a woman's uterus). The fundamental question is whether these facts are sufficient to establish a fertilized egg as the moral equivalent of an infant, worthy of full legal protections. ...Read the rest of the case in the paper.
In fact, the advocates of Amendment 48 depend on an equivocation on "human being" to make their case. A fertilized egg is human, in the sense that it contains human DNA. It is also a "being," in the sense that it is an entity. That's also true of a gallbladder: it is human and it is an entity. Yet that doesn’t make your gallbladder a human person with the right to life. Similarly, the fact that an embryo is biologically a human entity is not grounds for claiming that it's a human person with a right to life. Calling a fertilized egg a "human being" is word-play intended to obscure the vast biological differences between a fertilized egg traveling down a woman's fallopian tube and a born infant sleeping in a crib. It is intended to obscure the fact that anti-abortion crusaders base their views on scripture and authority, not science.
So is a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus a person with a right to life, like an infant? No. ... From the moment of fertilization to its implantation in the womb a few days later, the embryo consists of a few largely undifferentiated cells. It is invisible to the naked eye. It has no human organs, and no human form. It has no brain, and so no capacity for awareness or feelings. It is far more similar to a few skin cells than an infant. Moreover, it cannot develop into a baby on its own: its survival beyond a few days requires successful implantation in the lining of the woman's uterus. If it fails to do that, it will be flushed from her body without anyone ever knowing of its existence.
Both Obama and Biden couch the issue in terms of moral subjectivism. Their religious critics reply with appeals to faith and religious authority. But neither subjectivism nor religious faith can provide an objective basis for moral decisions. The fact that Biden is wrong does not make Rigali and Lori right, or vice versa. Both sides must be rejected in favor of an objective morality rooted in the facts of human life.