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The Questionable Ethical Teachings of the Catholic Bishops Regarding Abortion in the First Trimester Should Be Debated

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) January 1, 2011: The NEW YORK TIMES' editorial "A Matter of Life or Death" (Dec. 23, 2010) argues that Bishop Thomas Olmsted's actions in Phoenix can have a chilling effect on Catholic hospitals in the United States providing emergency abortions.

Even though patient records are confidential, Bishop Olmsted somehow learned that an emergency abortion had been performed in the Catholic hospital in Phoenix, his Catholic diocese. It was an emergency situation; it would not have been possible to transfer the patient to another hospital, so that the abortion would have been performed there. According to published news stories, he excommunicated the Catholics in the Catholic hospital who had been involved in the emergency abortion to save the mother's life. More recently, he told the hospital that it could no longer advertise itself as a Catholic hospital.

As the TIMES' editorial points out, "No one has suggested that Catholic hospitals should be required to perform nonemergency abortions." Thus the main argument of the editorial is that Bishop Olmsted's actions can have a chilling effect on other Catholic hospitals in the United States regarding emergency abortions. As the editorial points out, "Catholic hospital account for about 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds and are the only hospital facilities in many communities."

As Bishop Olmsted's chilling example shows, the questionable ethical teachings advanced by the Catholic bishops regarding abortion should be debated by the NEW YORK TIMES and other civic-minded Americans. Why hasn't the NEW YORK TIMES published editorials debating the questionable ethical teachings advanced by the Catholic bishops regarding abortion?

As you may remember, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama was asked a question regarding abortion: "When does life begin?" He said, "That's above my pay grade." In short, he ducked the question, just as the editorial writers for the NEW YORK TIMES have ducked the question by not debating the questionable ethical teachings advanced by the Catholic bishops regarding abortion.

Obama is now president of the United States, but he still has not figured out an intelligent way to debate the questionable ethical teachings advanced by the Catholic bishops regarding abortion, just as the editorial writers for the NEW YORK TIMES have not.

Granted, we Americans have an excellent tradition known as the doctrine of the separation of church and state. As I've noted, the TIMES' editorial explicitly bows down before this doctrine when it points out that "[n]o one has suggested that Catholic hospitals should be required to perform nonemergency abortions."

But where exactly does the chilling effect of Bishop Olmsted's actions come from? The chilling effect comes from the questionable ethical teachings advanced by the Catholic bishops regarding abortion. Therefore, those of us who are concerned about the chilling effect of his example should debate the questionable ethical teachings advanced by the Catholic bishops regarding abortion.

Let's start with the slogan, "Life begins at the moment of conception." The claim made in this slogan should be debated. Granted, it can be debated in more than one way. But it has not been debated in any meaningful way in editorials in the NEW YORK TIMES, as it should be.

Let me explain how I think this claim should and should not be debated.

One way to debate the claim would be to negate it by adding the word "not" in the sentence: No, life does not begin at the moment of conception. However, I would not recommend this way of debating the claim, because a certain kind of life-form is indeed truly formed at the moment of conception. But this life-form is an infra-human life-form, not yet a fully human and distinctively human life-form.

Using his own terminology, Peter Singer of Princeton University has made these two points. However, he does not work with the idea of ensoulment that has been used in the Catholic tradition of thought, as I will momentarily. (Disclosure: I am not a practicing Catholic, but I grew up as a Catholic, was educated in Catholic institutions of education, and studied Catholic moral theology at the University of Toronto when I was a Jesuit seminarian.)

From the moment of conception onward, we have a certain kind of infra-human life-form developing. However, in the natural course of events, not all of the developing infra-human life-forms survive. In the course of natural events (i.e., no deliberate intervention through human agency), many of the emerging life-forms do not survive. But a certain number of the infra-human life-forms do survive and eventually develop into fetuses in the mothers' wombs.

Next, we need to discuss when the developing fetus should be considered to be a full-fledged, distinctively human being, as distinct from being an infra-human life-form. I will use the traditional Catholic term "ensoulment" to refer to when the infra-human life-form emerges and becomes a full-fledged, distinctively human being.

Up until the moment of ensoulment, the developing fetus is not a full-fledged human being. As a result, the destruction of the developing fetus through deliberate human agency before ensoulment should not be referred to as murder. By definition, murder involves the deliberate taking of innocent human life through deliberate human agency. But distinctively human life begins only at the moment of ensoulment. Therefore, the destruction of the infra-human life-form through deliberate human agency before ensoulment should not be referred to as murder.

For the sake of discussion, let us say that some Catholic bishops would argue that ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception. According to the Catholic tradition of thought, each egg fertilized by sperm would represent an immortal soul and would experience bodily resurrection at the resurrection. But many eggs fertilized by sperm are destroyed in the natural course of events. They do not survive and develop into fetuses. And not all fetuses emerge in live births. Consequently, if the Catholic bishops hold that the moment of conception is indeed the moment of ensoulment, then at the resurrection there will be more resurrected human bodies than there ever were live human being in the history of the world. This possibility will produce a lot of theological problems.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 
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During the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Oba... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Jan 3, 2011 at 5:08:46 AM
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