Friday, December 9, 2016

"The Unaborted Socrates"


“What do you want?”

“Only some conversation.”

This is an apt way to begin a discussion of Peter Kreeft's book The Unaborted Socrates which is, ultimately, a conversation. The premise is simple enough, if a little unconventional--what would happen if the ancient Greek philosopher and paragon of rational dialog just happen to reappear in modern day Athens, in an abortion clinic, and become involved in the ethical debate surrounding abortion? The book is constructed in the form of a dialog--to be exact, in three dialogs which pit the eponymous Socrates in turn against a doctor, a philosopher, and a psychiatrist, in all of which Socrates uses a cold sense of reason and a dry sense of humor to investigate the question of abortion. Though occasionally the book strays into the technical language of philosophy or science, for the most part it is very conversational and easily accessible to anyone.

However, it is not my intention here to construct a formal book review. As I said, the book is built around three dialogs. The second two are substandard for Kreeft's works and seem almost pointless (especially the third). It is within the first dialog that the essential matter is discussed. The whole question of abortion comes down to this--is a fetus a human person with the rights of such or not? If it is, then abortion is wrong and all other conversation on the point is essentially irrelevant. If it is not, than abortion is clearly right and should be treated as an indifferent matter or a positive good. This question--what is the fetus--is topic of Socrates' first dialog, a conversation Dr. Rex Herrod, an abortion doctor. My intention in this article is to summarize the argument presented in this conversation.

The central question is this: is abortion murder? Kreeft defines murder as “killing an innocent human being.” (17) In abortion, the fetus is killed and it cannot (by any stretch of the imagination) be termed guilty of anything, and therefore “if the fetus is a human being, abortion will have to be called murder.” (19) And this question is not affected by our personal opinion or view since the nature of a thing is not determined by our ignorance or knowledge of its nature. “Even though some think a fetus human and some do not, yet if it is human, one who kills it is a murderer.” (26)

The argument then turns to the question of what it means to be a human being. The one thing that differentiates humans from all other creatures is the desire for wisdom and knowledge. “Man is a rational animal, one who wills to know.” (36) However, while this is an essential part of humanity, humanity cannot be entirely defined as such since infants and unconscious people are still human being even if there are not functioning in the distinctive role of a human. (37) Therefore the fact that a fetus does not function as a human being does not prevent it from being human. (And the same argument would apply to any other attempt to define a fetus as inhuman based on functionality.)

Since the question of what the fetus is cannot be answered based on functionality, the argument then turns to science. Socrates points out that each person has a unique genetic code present in every cell in their body, a genetic code which determines everything about a person (physically speaking.) This code is not fully present in the spermatozoa or the ovum, but from it is present from the moment of conception. In an adult human, we would say that the genetic code is the genetic code of a human being. But it is the same code in the adult that it was when they were a fetus. In one case, the code is that of a human being; then why is it not the same in the case of the fetus since the code itself does not change?

The question is never answered and instead the argument takes another turn, with the objection being raised that the fetus is simply part of the mother. (An objection, by-the-by, which seems answered in the fact that it has a separate and unique genetic code.) That brings up the subject of the Transitive Relation--“that if A is part of B and B part of C, then A must be part of C.” (46-47) A brick is part of a wall and a wall is part of a building and therefore a brick is part of the building. But by this logic, since a normally developed fetus has two feet, if it is part of its mother, then the mother must have four feet. The absurd conclusion forces us to reject the idea that the fetus is part of mother.

The argument then visits a few brief red herrings, such as the fact that we date our life from birth not from conception--which proves only how we date things not the reality of what things are.

The next argument revolves around qualitative and quantitative difference. The differences between an infant and adult can be roughly grouped into four categories (size, development, dependence, and mobility). However, none of these differences change the essential nature of a thing and therefore do not affect the morality of killing it. “Can we say that it is murder to kill a large person but not a small person? Or is it worse to kill a larger person?” (57) Obviously not. And these four categories are also the things that make the difference between a newly conceived zygote and a newly born infant. Therefore, they do not affect the question of whether killing it is or is not murder.

The argument then turns to the attempt to define a human being on the bases of viability. A young fetus cannot survive outside the womb and therefore it is not human. However, this leads to an absurd conclusion--who and what is a human being differs from place to place and from time to time. Some infants can survive outside the womb only because special scientific equipment which is not available at all times and places. (And, for that matter, some adults can only continue to live on the same principle.) If viability defines humanity, then it is a varying, inconsistent standard and someone who is a human person at one time and place wouldn't be at some other time and place.

The argument finally returns to the genetic question. At the point of conception, a new genetic code comes into existence which is not the code of the mother nor of the father. “Whose, then, if not the new individual of the species homo sapiens?” (66) Conception--the moment at which this new genetic code comes into existence--is “a radical break, a single moment of change at which we can reasonably draw a line and say something new has come into being.” (67)

The argument ends with one final objection. Since the question of whether a fetus is or is not human is a very controversial one, would it not be best to leave it unanswered, to leave it with an attitude of open-minded agnosticism? The problem with this objection is the act of abortion itself. Certainly, it is permissible to leave a philosophical question unanswered. But to continue killing something which may possibly be human without determining whether it is or is not is “the height of folly.” (72)

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