John Di Camillo
The abortion debate has become mired in confusion over the interpretation of science. Abortion advocates have generated much of this confusion in two ways: first, they assert that science is on their side through their reduction of an unborn child in early developmental stages to “a few cells” or simply “fetal tissue” that is not yet a human being; second, they deny the validity of a religiously inspired stance as anti-science and based on unprovable, dogmatic metaphysics.
The proposition that science supports abortion is inherently flawed because science in and of itself is incapable of making moral judgments. It is objective, empirical, and non-partisan. Experimentation and scientific results present us with fact, not ethical analysis. Science forms the raw material upon which decisions of acceptability must be made: the fact that a biological human being during its developmental process consists of only a bundle of cells—only a single cell at its beginning point!—does not tell us whether we can justifiably destroy him or her during that phase. This requires ontology: a metaphysical analysis of the nature of a human being and what constitutes life.
Systematically discounting religiously-based beliefs as worthless dogmas that oppose science is the second impediment to rational abortion debate. It stems from the erroneous assumption that metaphysical reasoning is arbitrary; but, if we dogmatically reject theologies as irrational and unsupported impositions of belief, then we must also reject other metaphysical means of arguing, no matter which side of the debate those arguments support. On the other hand, if we keep the richness of metaphysics alive, we must acknowledge and give equal intellectual weight to theological arguments.
Arthur Caplan, a renowned bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrates the necessity of metaphysics very clearly with his argument that “life begins at conception, but not every conception begins a life.” If we restrict ourselves to the scientific realm, we must refute the second clause of that statement. Biology tells us that a human conception begins a human life, and simple intuition suggests that human dignity—the intangible value of a person—inheres in all human life. This natural intuition provides the basis for legal policies of non-discrimination—whether by age, gender, race, or other criteria. Without an inhering dignity, an intrinsic source of value and respect, we are free to discriminate—and thereby oppress—as human will and power see fit. Using nature’s starting point as dignity’s starting point is logical, and reduces the danger of exaggerated subjectivism in light of great uncertainty and divergence of belief—where the result of a mistake is the killing of countless innocent, unprotected human lives. Caplan’s argument and other attempts to apply an extra-biological “personhood” elsewhere in the human organism’s life cycle incur a heavy burden of proof that can only be metaphysical. Thus, religion is certainly not alone in invoking the non-material plane of being.
Thus, we have two options for determining the starting point of human life. In the first case, the hyper-empirical, scientific abortion of all metaphysics leaves only one possible starting point of human life: conception. No questions. No doubts. This is the clearest default point for the basis of abortion legislation, because it provides the most limpid insight into the starting point of natural human dignity: the initiation of natural human life. In this scenario, therefore, abortion is killing. The second case denies the rational intuition of case one and suggests that an arbitrary point of “personhood,” (i.e. dignity endowment) can be determined. Such reasoning requires strong non-scientific, metaphysical arguments, which, if acknowledged, equally validate the metaphysics of theology. Thus, the debate must shift from the realm of science and rational intuition into the realm of philosophy. And at that point, instead of berating its opponents by demonizing communion of belief, abortion advocates will need to confront them in the intellectual arena.