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Posted on May 31, 2014 at 9:00 AM

While Steve Phillips and I have been giving this issue a lot of recent “air time,” I want to continue the discussion from my last post of an article in Obstetrics and Gynecology entitled “The Fetus, The ‘Potential Child,’ and the Ethical Obligations of Obstetricians,” examining some of the ethical assumptions contained therein.

The underlying presupposition of the authors is rational (and radical!) reductivism: the fetus is merely what we can see with our eyes and measure with our scientific tools. Curiously, they mention the “dual status” of the fetus, but quickly redefine that duality, not as consisting of both body and soul, but as consisting of both an objective and subjective nature: objectively it is (nothing more than) a “non-viable mammal in a uterus;” subjectively, it is “the spark of a future son or daughter” to its parents. In other words, the distinguishing feature and value is not something inherent in the fetus but ascribed to it by a third party, in this case, the parents.

Sadly, we have learned to see with our enlightened, scientific eyes, eyes that are blind to the meaning and significance of what is seen; for our scientific eyes have lost the ability to behold. Parenthetically, the word “behold” is a fascinating one: it occurs over 1200 times throughout Scripture, but is often perceived to be an idiosyncratic expression that is hastily retranslated. Given the importance of “sight” in Scripture, however, the term often has far deeper significance. And what is it that we have lost the ability to behold? We have lost the ability to behold the moral beauty of nascent human life—that created beauty mentioned by Steve Phillips.

There is a repugnantly selfish and utilitarian calculus embedded in such thinking, one that is contra-Kantian as well: this being is only of significance if it somehow beneficial or useful to us.

This entire issue is grounded in a misappropriation of autonomy—the autonomy of the mother. Parenthetically, again, one should note that this is a term that is never used in these discussions–the disaffected term “woman” is used instead–for “mother” implies relationship, and it is that very relationship that is being denied and rejected. But autonomy, in the original Kantian sense, involved conducting oneself in the light of truth and acting as a responsible member of a moral community. To our diminishment we have rejected that understanding of autonomy in favor of the Humean version: autonomy as the capacity to act on selfish needs, wants, and wishes informed by instrumental reasoning.

Perhaps that is the only way that those who wish to preserve a “right” to abortion can morally justify their position: by denigrating the moral and material status of the fetus.

It is true that our personhood is contingent and relational; it is derived from our relationship to our Creator whose care and concern extends particularly to the weak and vulnerable. As humans we are beings-in-relation, and that primary relationship is with our faithful God in whom we “live and move and have our being.” It is a relationship that precedes any other and exists whether any other human acknowledges it or not. Hence our personhood and moral status is contingent not upon the fickleness of other humans but on the faithfulness of our loving Creator God.

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