Saturday, February 1, 2014

Notre Dame professor's flawed argument for abortion

Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci of child in the womb, ca 1510-1512 (acquired from Wikimedia Commons)

This past January 23, 2014, the New York Times ran an opinion from Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting. Claiming to base his argument on Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Gutting cites "reason" and argues that the Pope should announce a "revision of the absolute ban on abortion."

The opening sentence of Gutting's opinion reveals an inaccurate understanding of what the Church means by moral dogma. Gutting writes:
Pope Francis has raised expectations of a turn away from the dogmatic intransigence that has long cast a pall over the religious life of many Roman Catholics. 
A "dogma," is the Church's term for the highest degree of certitude of a revealed "truth" in the order of faith or morals. Dr. Ludwig Ott describes dogma in his classic Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (which is used in seminaries, as I understand):
By dogma in the strict sense is understood a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such. (Ott, p. 4)
A dogma is a divinely revealed "truth." Compare this to Gutting's opening line which speaks of the supposed "pall" cast by a Church with "dogmatic intransigence." To put this in context of what a dogma is, Gutting expresses displeasure that the Church refuses to budge on truth.

To put this in another perspective, imagine a college professor criticizing someone else for refusing to budge on the number 4 as the answer to 2+2. It is nonsensical. Neither Pope Francis nor the Church can change truth. Truth can't change.

Whether or not someone wants to recognize the Church's capacity to have passed on a revealed truth is not the point here. The Church believes it. It is thus silly for Gutting to ask the Church to declare what she believes to be an immutable truth untrue.

In founding his argument, Gutting quotes the bold portions of the below excerpt from Pope Francis:
Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”. ...  Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 213-214)
Even though Pope Francis said "the Church cannot be expected to change her position," Gutting proceeds to say:
I want to explore the possibility, however, that the pope might be open to significant revision of the absolute ban on abortion  by asking what happens if we take seriously his claim that “reason alone is sufficient” to adjudicate this issue. 
He proceeds to offer what he claims is an argument for abortion based on "reason." But as we will see, his assertions are not reasonable.

After assuring his readers he is opposed to late-term abortions, Gutting then states, "an embryo or fetus is at least potentially human..." He also says killing someone includes taking away a human future and that the "same is true when you kill a potential human being." The problem with his argument from the onset is that there is no such thing as a "potential human being." This is Dr. Gutting's "dogma" and his reason for making the claim is irrational.

This is the logical fallacy of "confirming the consequent," the idea of running ahead with a claim when it's basis is flawed or absent. We'll see Gutting later posit arbitrary and unfounded criteria that supposedly demarcates the threshold between "potential" and "actual" human.

He commits the same fallacy of "confirming the consequent" again a few sentences later: "[T]he 'inviolable value of each human life' does not imply that no abortion can be moral." Actually, it does. If every human life is inviolable, then to deliberately kill any human life is a violation, i.e. immoral. To deny this is to deny some part of the premise that "every" life is inviolably "valuable."

So how does Gutting justify this claim that abortion could still sometimes be moral? He says:
It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception
There are at least a couple fallacies of argument at work in this sentence. One is the appeal to emotion. Since a rape victim is truly a victim who deserves love, whose situation abrades any sensible person's heart, we are led to believe that termination of her baby is made moral by her situation. Yet, this ignores the premise he granted, that "every human life is inviolable." He actually ignores that premise even though he granted it a moment earlier. The Church's reason for teaching the immorality of abortion is that it kills an innocent human being. Gutting could have made the same appeal to emotion to the innocent baby who neither is responsible for the rape, but he simply choses to forgo such thought in this essay.

The second fallacy of argument in his appeal to the situation of rape is something similar to the "fallacy of equivocation." In this fallacy, two different concepts are confused for one another. The emwombed person is a person regardless of the mode of conception, regardless if love or a cruel act of injustice were involved. The intrinsic value of a human being is not dependent on how he or she came into being. Following Gutting's logic, the equation goes as follows: Conception good = valuable person (with caveats described herein); Conception bad = valueless person. What is especially vexing here is that Gutting proceeds to say that a raped woman who gives birth still exhibits "heroic generosity." Why? If the emwombed entity is valueless enough to make abortion "moral" in this situation, as Gutting argues, what would be heroic about bringing forth something valueless? He can only make the statement if there is value in the enwombed person, otherwise bringing the child forth wouldn't be "generous."

Once again commmitting the fallacy of "confirming the consequent," Gutting writes:
Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future — that underlie most moral considerations. An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense. ... there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans.
This paragraph is especially vexing. He is willing to admit that a biological analysis will demonstrate that a human life is present in the womb. I won't delve too long into the irony that the Church, which is often misconstrued as an enemy of science, is validated on this issue by science. A human being is in constant development from conception to death. To cite a point in the timeline as a change in "humanity" is to fail to recognize the fluid continuity of development from the nascent stage to the end. It's not just a toe growing and then suddenly the ingredients for the rest are added at some point. Humanity is inscribed from start to finish, as even science will show by genetic analysis. Throughout the decades, the effort among abortion supporters to identify a threshold of when true life begins has only proven to be a carousel of inconsistency from person to person, from state to state, and includes thresholds from the first trimester, up to, and including, post-birth. I don't want to say their incoherence is the deciding factor in the error, but is evidence of unreasoned subjectivity at work. And certainly none admit to the continuity of valued humanity, developing from conception.

But let's look at what Dr. Gutting has offered as criteria of human value.

Gutting says, "consciousness, self-awareness, [and] an interest in the future" are the factors in determining whether or not it's "moral" to abort that which is in the mother's womb. According to whom are these the benchmark factors of being a "fully moral human" (since he would concede that "biological" humanity is present)? He shows no cause for so-called "actual" humanity to be contingent on these attributes. Regardless, if we were to go forth with this reasoning, it would be okay to kill anyone unconscious. This is also a call to justify the murder of anyone with severe mental handicap. This logic actually undermines his entire claim to be against "late-term" abortion because such an infant might not have "an interest in the future."

If we were to go forth with his above concluding statement, more problems arise. He argues in favor of terminating so-called "potential humans" (a concept he fails to demonstrate even exists) on the grounds that another person will be spared "suffering." Imagine if terminating another person would be "moral" if you could be spared suffering. You can kill someone who calls you bad names. You could justify killing someone ahead of you in line for a promotion. You could kill someone who snores a lot. Etc... etc... After all, if one person's suffering trumps another person's right to life, an argument might be plausibly made to morally kill anyone.

A final argument Gutting advances goes as follows:
[N]ot even pro-life advocates consistently act on their belief that any embryo has full moral standing. As the philosopher Peter Smith has noted, they do not, for example, support major research efforts to prevent the miscarriages or spontaneous abortions (many so early that they aren’t ordinarily detected) that occur in about 30 percent of pregnancies. If 30 percent of infants died for unknown reasons, we would all see this as a medical crisis and spend billions on research to prevent these deaths. The fact that pro-life advocates do not support an all-out effort to prevent spontaneous abortions indicates that they themselves recognize a morally relevant difference between embryos and human beings with full moral standing.
There are at least three problems with this line of thinking in order to justify abortion, which is Gutting's intent in this essay. First, the conclusion of this paragraph is nonsensical. No one is committing an act of murder when a miscarriage occurs. In the eyes of Catholic pro-lifers, the stakes of sin, heaven, and hell trump temporal difficulties. In Church theology, having a miscarriage isn't potentially going to be the reason someone goes to hell, whereas the sinful taking of another human life certainly could be. Christ died for sin because this world does not ultimately have the final word. So it would not be hypocritical for someone to focus on something that was fatal and sinful versus something fatal.

But second, many pro-lifers are advocates of all kinds of health and medical issues, organizers of women's health research, fundraisers, Catholic hospitals, and a plethora of similar causes and efforts. What standard or evidence is Gutting using to deny that there is not "major research effort" spent on such research? He offers none here.

And third, let's assume––hypothecially now––that Gutting were correct and pro-lifers were hypocrites. All that would prove is that pro-lifers were hypocrites. Whether or not there are hypocrite pro-lifers has no bearing whatsoever on whether fertilized eggs are human lives nor whether 2+2 is still 4. If his goal is to get to the truth of whether an enwombed entity is a human being, the hypocritical behavior of this or that person is completely immaterial.

As if on cue, delegates from Notre Dame visited Pope Francis on January 30, just one week after Gutting's opinion published. Addressing them, Pope Francis stated:
This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. (Pope Francis, Address to Notre Dame delegation, January 30, 2014)
Dr. Gutting will not receive a papal declaration that abortion is "moral." Because it isn't, and the Church is powerless to change truth. And Gutting did not, as he claims in his opinion, use "reason" to demonstrate otherwise.

Gutting did ask for prayers at the end of his essay, and I encourage anyone to oblige that request with sincerity.

¹No doubt, the situation of pregnancy and rape is difficult, as even Pope Francis articulated later in paragraph 214 of his exhortation. The Church would agree that such a woman is heroic largely for the very reason that she dignifies the intrinsic value and life of her child. Testimonials of women surviving rape with regard to life and abortions, as well as testimonials of those children born of this violation can be read at Silent No More, Live Action News, and other places. See those sites also for victim resources. Guttng also appeals later in this paragraph briefly to a 1971 philosophical argument attempting to analogize a woman impregnated by rape to kidnapping someone and attaching their kidneys to a dependent innocent. A review of the flaws in that analogy can be seen in a variety of places including at Human Life Review or Madison Catholic Herald.


  1. Why isn't ND as an institution responding to Francis' call to orthodoxy?

    “Essential in this regard,” he continued, “is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.” Pope Francis said, “It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”

  2. Hi, Miserissima - I don't know if I know the specific the answer to that, but it is good to hear the Pope exhort them to uphold the teaching of the Church.

  3. Sam,

    Well done. Thanks for tackling Gutting's piece.



  4. Thanks, Joe. And thanks for all your great work too.