In more backward and superstitious times, there was a great deal of debate about the question of “ensoulment,” the moment in time at which the soul takes up residence in the body of the unborn or newborn child. This was of some concern for philosophical and theological reasons, as well as in the practical matter of trying to advise people who had only the most primitive level of knowledge how to think about things like miscarriage or the use of abortifacients, such as they were in the ancient world. Like many ancient superstitions, the belief in an approximate day of ensoulment (40 days for boys, 90 days for girls) was transmitted to Christian Europe through Aristotle.
We moderns, of course, have science, and so we have set aside the question of “ensoulment” for the question of “personhood,” which is . . . basically the same concept, if you think about it for ten minutes, albeit shorn of divine investment and reshaped in light of the new god of the times, the state. “Personhood,” despite the progressive rhetoric surrounding the abortion question, is not rooted in science at all but is in fact a retreat into metaphysics away from science.
One doesn’t expect Senator Marco Rubio, a pro-life Republican running for president, to explain that to Chris Cuomo, the second-most-useless man in journalism (Martin Crutsinger’s claim to that title is indisputable), for approximately the same reason that one doesn’t try to explain quantum mechanics to a Mr. Potatohead doll, though the charismatic young senator acquitted himself quite well. Cuomo, taking a cue from the Fox News debate panel, attempted to catch Rubio in an inconsistency: If you oppose abortion because every life is sacred, then how can you advocate exceptions for such admittedly horrific situations as those of women who become pregnant through rape or incest? Rubio explained that he’ll support any bill that meaningfully restricts the abortion license, that his support for, e.g., a 20-week abortion ban does not mean that he doesn’t want to eliminate abortions at 19 weeks, too, if and when political conditions permit. It is the sort of obvious thing that one really shouldn’t have to explain to anybody with the critical thinking skills of a fifth-grader or better; it is one of the great mysteries of politics that people of substance consent to interviews with the likes of Chris Cuomo.
Cuomo then attempted to reverse course, employing a familiar stratagem: If you aren’t morally inconsistent, you’re extreme! Having scoffed at Rubio for allegedly advocating those exceptions, he scoffed at Rubio for failing to advocate them: “Opinions of women are not in step with what you’re saying.”
About that: One of the great successes of the abortion-rights movement is that it has convinced the world that support for abortion is a “women’s issue,” intentionally obscuring the fact that abortion views have not been strongly correlated with sex. In the 2004 Gallup survey, the male-female split among those identifying as “pro-choice” was 42–56. In the next poll, it was 49–47 — more men identified as “pro-choice.” In 2009, it was 39–44, and the year after it was 47–42. By way of comparison, party affiliation is a much stronger indicator than sex, with Democrats choosing the pro-choice label between two and three times more often than Republicans. The data suggest that identifying as pro-choice isn’t a women’s issue but a Democrats’ issue. Again, don’t expect Chris Cuomo to understand this.
(Note: Historically, 5 or 10 percent of Gallup respondents answer “don’t know” or “mixed.” And other polls suggest that attitudes about concrete abortion policies vary significantly across those embracing both the pro-life and pro-choice labels.)
Strong majorities object to late-term abortions, just as strong majorities favor exceptions in cases of rape and incest, which is to say that most of the electorate, despite landing on the right side of the issue much of the time, remains in thrall to a primitive, backward, relativistic view of the value of human life — one that is not shared by Marco Rubio. That is to the senator’s credit, even if it is an electoral liability.
Cuomo later wrote: “My view is that we don’t have a scientific consensus on when the unborn should be considered a person. Why can’t we convene experts to see where they are on this question? Doesn’t it matter enough?”
Science can answer a great many questions, but the verb in scientific questions is “is,” not “should.” “Should” is the property of ethics.
And we are right back to Aristotle and ensoulment. Science can answer a great many questions, but the verb in scientific questions is “is,” not “should.” “Should” is the property of ethics. Science has very good answers as to what is in the womb at conception. The cells in question are living cells, not dead ones. They are human cells, not rutabaga cells or bullfrog cells or Lactobacillus bulgaricus cells. They are genetically distinct from the cells of the mother’s body, as the DNA will confirm. They form an organism of the species Homo sapiens, not a tumor, an organ, an amputated limb, or a fingernail clipping. Science is reasonably clear about what this is: a genetically distinct living human organism at his or her earliest stage of development.
What we should do about that is not a scientific question. It is an ethical question or a moral question. There are many ways to answer that question. Some people will turn to Scripture, though, in general, the history of “because God says so, as I have irrefutably decocted from this 2,000-year-old text that I picked up yesterday” as a political principle is not a very impressive one. Count me among those who are skeptical about the value of these lines of argument, too; the principal Actor in the Bible has a sense of moral proportionality that is somewhat different from my own, smiting the firstborn of Egypt in the cribs and all that. We don’t consult Him too extensively on the tax code, for that matter, which is a pity, since He only asked for 10 percent.
#related#It isn’t that I am not interested in the Divine opinion on the question of abortion, it’s just that I do not think that it is needed for the political question. My own view is that we must not do violence against a human being – a living individual human organism –without a really good reason, and sexual convenience doesn’t make the cut. Neither is a desire to fit into your prom dress or to live your life in an infantile state of insulation from the natural consequences of your actions. And, as Senator Rubio argued persuasively, the proper response to a horrifying crime such as rape or incest is not the commission of another horrifying crime, a conclusion that we must receive with the appropriate sobriety and sensitivity, and humane care for the victims of those crimes. Other people see the question differently: Camille Paglia forthrightly concedes the nature of what happens in an abortion — “ the extermination of the powerless by the powerful” — but argues that women ought to be allowed to put their unborn children to death anyway, because “it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature’s fascism.” I am a great admirer of Professor Paglia’s, but that is literary posturing floating atop a shallow puddle of piffle.
Still, it’s better than what most of her fellow feminists have ever managed to offer up. The feminists have been reduced to positional magic (it’s a meaningless blob of cells over here, but if it’s a foot away it’s a premature baby), foot-stamping (Hello, Mrs. Clinton), landlordism (a very young fetus cannot survive without maternal sponsorship; true, and also true of newborns, and toddlers), nihilism, and naked authoritarianism — “Because I said so!” which is, ironically enough, the classic maternal justification.
Chris Cuomo attempted to add cleverness to that unimpressive battery, but he lacks the resources. Senator Rubio has the better end of the argument, even if it is not always the more popular one.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.