March of the Idiots (II)


And…IdiotsUpdateThe long-running Vaudeville act known as the Anglican Communion continues on its merry way, providing an inexhaustible supply of material for its detractors. The latest jaw-dopping exhibition was produced, directed and performed by Alison Taylor, the newly-appointed bishop of Melbourne, writing a defense of a gradualist position on abortion in response to the rubes who would dare challenge her intellectual superiority.

While the sheer height of absurdity contained therein might appear to insulate the argument from mockery, the fisking cannons are nevertheless locked and loaded.

It is inevitable that any public discussion of abortion law and practice will attract controversy. Abortion impinges upon the most deeply held beliefs, feelings and life experiences of us all, whether or not we have ever had or considered an abortion ourselves. It is truly observed that ‘regarding abortion, everyone has baggage of some sort’.

The goal being, presumably, to unload that baggage. The analogy is actually quite germane, for in some sense this really is about baggage; unfortunately, the distinction to be made is between those who get rid of their baggage and those who are the baggage to be rid of.

Heavy snark aside, this sort of sanctimonious pandering is really beside the point, for the baseline proposition of the traditional Christian worldview is that um, yeah, we all have baggage, and not just about abortion. Our entire moral perspective is clouded by sin which leads us into more sin.

However, readers of TMA and all Anglicans need to be aware that the ‘gradualist’ position on abortion, put forward in the Submission to the VLRC but criticised in this month’s letter, is a position very widely held in the Christian Church, and of ancient origin, dating from the fourth century at the latest and having among its proponents St Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.

It is unlikely that most readers of this piece have any clue as to what St. Augustine’s and St. Aquinas’ position on abortion is, and are probably even less likely to check. Nor is the sheer difficulty of transposing an argument made within a distinct context to another hinted at. Notwithstanding that, Taylor proceeds along the course of a logical fallacy which eventually looks like this:

A. Sts. A and A do not articulate their approach to the morality of abortion as do the inflexible modern opponents of abortion since they thought ensoulment followed conception by some time

B. Modern and enlightened Anglicans know that the concept of personhood is fuzzy, certainly not fully occurring until sometime long after birth; this is the gradualist position

Ergo, Sts. A and A held a gradualist position

More on this later.

But first, as a side note- when someone makes vague references to ‘positions widely held in the Christian Church’ and ‘of ancient origin’ without substantiating that such is the case, the reason is generally because it is not. That a position is at least as old as the fourth century is really immaterial since most of the more fractious heresies had their halcyon years in the fourth century. The notion that Jesus didn’t have a human body is even older.

Wide swaths of tradition indeed!

The ‘gradualist’ approach is grounded in the three cornerstones of our faith as Anglicans: Scripture, tradition and reason.

These three ‘cornerstones’ should be kept in mind throughout the rest of the piece.

The Bible speaks of a world which God has created and which he loves beyond measure, in which all life is to be embraced as a gift from Him. However, it is a world which is fallen, and which longs for the full redemption in Jesus Christ which is to come. Sin and suffering abound in a human condition of great complexity, and at times immensely difficult decisions need to be made.

There is a certain line of fallacious thinking which is being hinted at here which will be more fully expounded; namely, the notion that the difficulty of a decision thereby renders certain decisions justified. Given the baggage that we all carry around and the fallen-ness that Taylor admits constitutes our experience as human beings, what moral decision would not be difficult or complex? The entire point of this war within ourselves brought about by sin is that the right choices are by definition going to be difficult, especially as they have wider ranging effects.

There is a line from A Man for All Seasons in which St. Thomas More is nearing his execution, but could get out of it by taking the Oath of Supremacy, something that would violate his most deeply held convictions. His daughter tries to convince him to just say the words, but not mean them in his heart. She also appeals to the brokenness of the world, arguing that if the State were half good he would be elevated to a high position and honored for his virtue. His reply:

If we lived in a state
where virtue was profitable…
…common sense would make us saintly.

What the Bible does not teach, and which has never been a part of Christian doctrine – contrary to the assertion in this month’s TMA letter – is that ‘all human life has absolute moral value’. The latter view is unbiblical because it would be untenable for Christians in situations where complex moral choices must be made, in diverse circumstances ranging from military defence and self-defence to the sometimes conflicting rights of mother and unborn child.

Taylor once again argues fallaciously, since her reasoning goes like this:

A. Complex moral decisions must be made about human life

B. The sheer fact of complexity of a decision entails no absolute value

C. Therefore, all human life does not have absolute moral value

The trouble with this syllogism is that in two of her examples (national defense and self-defense), their legitimacy is predicated on the implicit understanding that one’s life does have absolute moral worth; otherwise, there would be no justifiable reason to defend oneself, one’s nation or one’s family. Conversely, if this moral worth were not absolute there would be no reasonable way to condemn the taking of innocent life (by whatever means) as immoral.

In cases of true self-defense, the point is that the one defending himself is not intentionally trying to harm the aggressor, although that may occur as the result. Complex moral questions are not just about a group of particles colliding with another (which her equivocation seems to to imply) but also consider the intention behind the act. This seems absolutely (apologies) lost on Taylor, which provides the way to conflate self-defense with abortion. How the rights of a mother and her unborn child are somehow ‘conflicting’ is not really specified, for in doing so one would have to impose some sort of intentionality upon that conflict, an intentionality which, since Taylor does not consider the foetus to be a person, could only be applied to the mother. In such a case the analogy of self-defense is shown to be a complete non sequitur.

Given the fallacious nature of this reasoning, it is of little surprise that the UMC Social Principles takes a similar tack. Something about geese and ganders, I suspect.

Nowhere in the Bible is a foetus accorded the full moral status of a human person. On the contrary, in the sole biblical text on induced abortion, Exodus 21.22-23, an abortion caused by injury to a pregnant woman is regarded seriously but considerably less than murder.

It’s a fairly big presumption that the Exodus text is actually describing an induced abortion. The NRSV translates the relevant term as miscarriage, whereas other translations render it as giving birth prematurely. Under modern definitions a miscarriage is when the pregnancy is ended before the fetus can survive outside of the womb, but that is not necessarily what the text implies. Taylor assumes that the injury is being applied to the pregnant woman, but it could also refer to the child who is born prematurely (since the Hebrew text is ambiguous on this point). If this is the case, the notion of the text (which is reflected in some translations) is that this giving birth prematurely is not necessarily a miscarriage but is a premature birth that is nevertheless a birth of a living baby. Thus, if the baby ends up dying as a result of this premature birth, the various stated penalties are in place.

The issue is more complex than that, however, since the Septuagint rendered the passage with an Aristotelian distinction between formed and unformed. It was thought that there was a specific moment (40 days for males, 90 for females) at which the fetus was vivified or formed; that is, going from something more seed-like to being formed as a human. Given the limitations of biological understanding they then possessed, this is somewhat understandable, even though certain modern commentators make the same error in spite of their supposed sophistication.

A larger point should be noted, namely that the text in Exodus is not primarily driving at metaphysical distinctions but is enjoining legal exactions on certain actions. (And depending on how it should be rendered, the moral seriousness may even be present.) Only a verse earlier a master is allowed to beat a slave to the point of death without penalty as long as the slave does not die within a couple days; such a legality is not necessarily a statement on the metaphysical status of the slave as a person and whether persons should be beaten to within death or not.

Oddly enough, the sheer complexity of this verse and the myriad renderings and interpretations of it (which create more complexity) are left out of Taylor’s discussion. Evidently complex decisions are easily distilled into simplistic rationales…

Other than what might be inferred from this text, the Bible is silent on the issue of the moral status to be accorded to foetal death, as it is on the question of when an embryo might be said to have a soul that survives death.

Again, the supposed ‘silence’ is dependent (in this limited look at the Exodus passage) upon whether one is following the Septuagint rendering, the interpretation one gives to the Hebrew, and a host of other things. If the child which came forth was ‘formed’ (what was considered vivified), then the punishment in the Septuagint text is capital, which, if the legal ramifications are meant to provide a metaphysical analysis (as Taylor has already assumed), would indicate that after vivification the moral status afforded the embryo is the same as an adult.

On the other hand, that the Bible does not specifically state the moral or metaphysical status of any particular being at a particular point in time is surely question-begging, especially in light of Taylor’s previous assertion that these sorts of questions are resolved through the Bible, tradition and reason. One is tempted to revise the familiar bible-citation quote:

The Bible doesn’t say it
I believe it
That settles it!

These two issues, which preoccupy the abortion debate today, could probably not even have been conceptualised by writers living in the Biblical era.

Ah, chronological snobbery at its finest. Fortunately we today are far too sophisticated to think such nonsense- you know, things like ’embryos are really seeds.’ How could people have been so stupid!

But the question raised is a fair one, for the cultural and technological divide is immense. Could people writing in the biblical era even have the ability to parse these types of moral dilemmas?

Perhaps a giant wave of stupid hit the near eastern world (conveniently) during the specific times when the scriptural texts were composed, but elsewhere non-biblical writers seemed to have had the idea that intentionally expelling a fetus might be a moral no-no. The vivification distinction posed by Aristotle is unfortunate biology, but the metaphysical implications are clear- if the fetus is formed; that is, has a human form, then the formed fetus would be (metaphysically) a human being.

Other pagan writers recognized (at least rhetorically) that abortion was directed against humankind. Thus Ovid:

She who first plucked forth the tender life deserved to die in the warfare she began. Can it be that, to spare your bosom the reproach of lines, you would scatter the tragic sands of deadly combat?[1. Ovid, De Nuce]

Thus Juvenal:

So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist, paid to murder mankind within the womb.[2. Juvenal, Satire 6]

Even though the Romans were notorious for exposing their young, there were nevertheless laws against abortion and exposure, the penalty (of course) being death.

The Jewish historian Josephus (who would have been familiar with the Septuagint rendering of the Exodus passage) says this:

The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing human kind; if any one, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.[3. Josephus, Contra Apion, Book 2]

Josephus seems to understand that such an act is a ‘diminishing of humankind’ and causes one to be a murderer, murder being a crime applicable only to rational beings. Unless you write for the New Yorker in which you think that beans turn into babies and eventually into scared teenagers.

Thus, while the ancients may not have had as fully developed concept of personhood or absolute moral status as developed later in the Christian era, neither were they completely oblivious to the issues or incapable of realizing the implications of things despite lacking a more fully developed metaphysics.

The Bible was written millennia before an adequate understanding of human reproduction was possible, let alone the possibilities of IVF, embryonic stem cell research or prenatal foetal tests, and the difficult moral dilemmas involved in each of them. In summary, an absolutist anti- abortion stance simply cannot lay claim to Biblical warrant.

One of the best ways to engage in chronological snobbery is to assume that one’s own age possesses an adequate understanding of something, completely ignoring the ever advancing nature of knowledge which renders previous generation’s attempts to understand the world laughable. Humans used to think embryos were like seeds.

They still do.

Another way to simply make a breath-takingly stupid argument is to complain about the lack of moral declarations about a specific being in a specific situation and then in the next breath speak as if moral status is dependent upon the limited (and incomplete) evidence afforded by the biological sciences. The ancients, after all, were not the only ones confused about human reproduction, and even contemporary writers engage in absurdity by analogy.

That does not even get into the dilemma posed by stating that the existence of these technological advancements involves a difficult moral dilemma, the dilemma of course being that we are not really told what the moral dilemma is, why it might be a dilemma or why it is insoluble by the actual traditional Christian approach to morality in this regard.

But if you say dilemma enough times you can possibly create one.

What is more in accord with the Bible is that God values all human life but that full human personhood takes time to be created. A foetus is part of the totality of all that is created by God, but it develops as a person only in stages.

These types of statements would be helpfully enhanced by

1. evidence that such a view is actually in accordance with what the Bible states
2. a definition as to what constitutes ‘full human personhood’
3. what period of time that creation requires
4. what delineates one stage from another.

Let’s go to the text.


As far as personhood goes, since this essay began with an appeal to the ancient Christian tradition, it might be helpful to look at what the concept of person entailed. Boethius’ definition became the standard for Western philosophy in that a person was ‘an individual substance of a rational nature.’ Within Boethius’ conception, being was structured in a hierarchy, with each level roughly containing what appeared in the plane below it. Thus:

But of substances, some are corporeal and others incorporeal. And of corporeals, some are living and others the reverse; of living substances, some are sensitive and others insensitive; of sensitive substances, some are rational and others irrational.

As such, if you were a corporeal person, you had a living, sensible, rational substance. This ‘personhood,‘ as he says earlier,

cannot exist apart from a nature and since natures are either substances or accidents and we see that a person cannot come into being among accidents, it therefore remains that Person is properly applied to substances.

In essence, if you have the human substance (that is, what-it-is-to-be-human) then you are by definition a person. There is no stage of development in this personhood since any of those stages would be accidental to the underlying substance of what it is to be a human being.

But even prior to Boethius the understanding of person was more fully formed in the Christological debates since at stake was whether Jesus was fully human and fully divine, whether he was one person or two. The Chalcedonian definition that Jesus was one person with two natures implied that from the moment of Jesus’ conception the human was fully united to the divine, and thus Jesus would have been a person from the beginning. Personhood did not gradually arise from the substance of his humanity but rather possessed his humanity, and the implication of this would lead into the fuller understandings of what it really is to be a person (including to be in relation, which is one of the more current emphases).

Decisions with regard to the morality of a specific abortion should to be made accordingly.

To be made according to vague and undefined criteria? If we state that pershonhood takes time to be created but we don’t know how much time, and if we state that persons develop in stages but cannot delineate those stages, do we not run the risk of unintentionally killing persons because of our ignorance?

He [Baron Habgood of Caverton] wrote in his highly influential book, Being a Person, 1998, p. 250- 251, that ‘the idea of a complete spiritual entity being created by God for each individual in a moment in time makes no more sense than the idea of a sudden transition from pre-humans to humans in the emergence of the human race. Things happen gradually, and time is a dimension of our very being… the lack of personal attributes does not imply that such an embryo is of no significance. It is significant to its parents and to God, but not so significant that its potential to become a person should override all other considerations’.

The good Baron (a title I hope to hold someday…) makes the classic error of equivocating on potential. As noted in another post, there are different kinds of potentialities; a bear can potentially be a rug, but such a potential is not inherent to being a bear. This potentiality is only conferred on the bear (how’s that for a euphemism!) by an act which originates outside of the bear’s nature. (In other words, bears don’t become rugs by themselves.)

Even if it is conceded that an embryo is a potential person, that potentiality is not like the potentiality of the bear to become a rug but is rather inherent to the very nature of being a human being and possessing a human nature. It is natural to humans to be (or become, if you must) persons, and they only do not become persons if some outside act prevents them from doing so.

In this sense, an embryo is a potential person in the exact opposite way as a bear is a potential rug. Since this potential is ‘significant’, any other consideration is thus to be found outside of the nature of the embryo/fetus/whatever stage of life under consideration. To prevent that potential from being utilized (which is the concept of personhood being considered here) by means of abortion is in actuality no different than preventing the utilization of that potential in someone who is asleep (since while asleep they do not exhibit or utilize the ‘personal attributes’ that supposedly undergird this understanding of being a person).

But at least God still values sleeping persons, I guess.

Yet lest anyone doubt the creeping creepiness of this relativization of personhood, we get this nugget:

Following the firmly established tradition of Church teaching in this matter, the Diocesan Submission to the VLRC wrote that, ‘while we believe that the destruction of an early embryo is of moral significance, we believe the moral significance increases gradually over time, in parallel with its physical development.

The most glaring question is this: why should this principle not be applied over the full course of physical development?

Embryos physically develop into babies who- should they survive the moral dilemmas that flew over the heads of the ancients who often simply left them by the river to die– develop into toddlers who develop into teenagers who develop into adults. In each of these stages there is a physical development and, following the logic presented here, a development in moral significance. But one could also argue that there is physical de-development, since our physical bodies age, get feeble, slow down, etc. Does this portend a parallel decrease in moral significance?

On the other hand, physical development as we categorize it is really only an arbitrary taxonomy by which we try to categorize portions of whole so as to better understand them in isolation. We have already been informed that we are beings who have time as a constituent aspect of our experience, and taxonomies reflect this since we cannot contain the whole of anything in our mind at any one time. Genetically, we know that from the moment of a fertilization a human being has all the genetic information that it will ever have- the physical development proceeds not by by attaching anything from outside of its nature but rather by flowing from the information contained within. Since physical development is really a system of taxonomy to describe the totality of the being under consideration, by this very argument personhood should follow accordingly, thus undercutting the premises.

Now one might argue that the arguments presented here surely only apply to the cases of unborn fetuses. No one would ever extend the logic presented here to infants who have exited the birth canal.


As a pregnancy advances, more powerful moral reasons are required to allow the destruction of the embryo/foetus. It is more serious to consider destroying a foetus at 28 weeks than at 10 weeks. We would want to see this distinction noted in any legislative provisions.’

What, exactly, constitutes a more powerful moral reason? Is inconvenience a sufficient moral reason at 10 weeks but financial hardship a more powerful one at 28 weeks?

This is far from advocating abortion on demand, or saying it is simply a matter of a woman’s right to choose, nor does it affirm an absolutist anti-abortion stance. The cases of serious threat to maternal health, profound foetal abnormality, and pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, made that stance impossible for us in conscience.

Given even the above concession for the sake of argument that a foetus is a potential person, this potentiality which stems from nature is inherent to its nature as a human being rather than accidental to it as a result of passing some developmental threshold. Thus, neither of these reasons is morally powerful enough to justify depriving a human being of his or (more often) her life. It is thus unclear how they constitute a moral dilemma, unless one is merely using that term loosely for emotional effect.

The Inquiry of the VLRC is the prelude to the introduction of new abortion legislation into the State Parliament in 2008. There can be no expectation that the new legislation will attempt to reduce the access of women to early term abortions, which was first enabled in this State by the Supreme Court Menhennitt ruling of 1969.

What!?!?! After conceding that in some circumstances abortion can be justified by serious moral reasons the legislation enshrining that concession has no expectation of being limited in scope in the future? I’m shocked!

As Anglicans wishing to reduce the number of abortions in Victoria, we must find means other than legislative prohibition, and the Diocesan Submission lists some of these: improved education on contraception; practical support for young, pregnant women on their own; financial support for families; counselling about the alternatives to abortion.

Yes, because nothing characterizes the modern West more than ignorance about (or lack of access to) contraception!

The real question for Melbourne Anglicans is whether they see a moral difference between an early term abortion and one performed at 28 weeks’ gestation (with its concomitant requirement of removing the life of an otherwise viable foetus). If they do see a difference, they are taking the ‘gradualist’ position, and they should support the Diocesan position that all late term abortions need to continue to be subject to the most stringent regulation.

I seem to remember from the opening of this missive that St. Augustine and St. Aquinas were apparently gradualists, but we haven’t heard much from them yet. Actually, nothing.

Curious. Maybe that’s coming up next?


Perhaps it is worth considering whether the good doctors were in fact ‘gradualists.’ It should be remembered that both had extremely limited access to information about the biology of human reproduction, as we have been helpfully reminded. (If only the Anglicans had been around, they could have launched a commission to strategize about improved education on contraception!)

For both Augustine and Aquinas the Aristotelian conception of human reproduction and fetal development was essentially taken for granted. The ancients obviously knew that the sexual act brought about conception and had enough of a statistical sample to know that the signs of being pregnant (and of the fetus being alive) first show up unmistakably after about 40 days. This life was understood to be the result of the enlivening power of the soul, which did not simply mean the spiritual aspect of a human but was more broadly understood as the life-principle for any living being. (The Latin for soul is animus, from which we get animated) Since it was widely believed that the conception of human was somewhat akin to a seed being planted in the ground, the unknown in the period before animation was often considered to be a dormant portion of matter somewhat like a seed being planted, later to be animated at a certain point.

On this question St. Augustine says:

And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man’s power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb: whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being.[4. St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 23]

Despite his admittance that he does not know when life begins in the womb, elsewhere he states that it is nevertheless wrong to kill someone before they are born:

Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born.[5. St. Augustine, De Nube et Concupiscentia]

St. Aquinas’ understanding of embryonic development gets developed far more than Augustine’s and falls into many of the same pitfalls that characterized the Aristotelian conception. For Aquinas, the male was the originating principle of a new life, the semen having a ‘spirit’ of sorts that was the active power of formation- the virtus formativa. Following Aristotelian conventions he understood that the woman contained the matter of the fetus, with the semen taking this raw material and organizing and forming it eventually into a new life. This process of organization passed from lower to higher, initially forming vegetative life, progressing to sensitive life and finally forming animal life of the same kind as its parents. At this point (the 40/90 days of Aristotle) the body was sufficiently formed to receive a rational soul directly from God, which was created and infused simultaneously. Additionally, the formative principle of the semen ceased its operation:

And after the sensitive soul, by the power of the active principle in the semen, has been produced in one of the principal parts of the thing generated, the sensitive soul of the offspring begins to work towards the perfection of its own body, by nourishment and growth. The active power which was in the semen ceases to exist when the semen is dissolved and its spirit vanishes.[6. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 118, a. 1, ad 4]

In Aquinas’ thought the rational soul requires the components (what we might call organs) which have the capacity to possess a rational soul to be extant for the soul to be infused:

For, since the soul is united to the body as its form, it is united to the body as its proper act.  Now the soul ‘is the act of an organic body’ (Aristotle, II De Anima, 412b, 5-6)  Therefore, the soul does not exist in the semen in act [as opposed to in potency or virtually] before the organization of the body.[7. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II, ch. 89.]

As such, since he conceived of the generative operation of the fetus as coming from outside of itself until it was infused with a rational soul, he posited a distinction between the vivified fetus and and pre-vivified fetus. Since the fetus did not possess the capacity for a rational soul during the presence and generative process of the semen, its life was understood to lie outside of itself, so to speak.

However, it is clear why such a conception does not necessarily coincide with a gradualist position. Given the advancement in our understanding of human reproduction, it is now known that from the time the fetus is a new human life its ‘active principle’ is not the semen organizing the menstrual blood but in actuality is itself, since the embryo contains the genetic information which forms and organizes it in its development. In some respects this is like (but also unlike) the active principle of the semen that Aquinas imagined, but since it is intrinsic to the embryo it therefore makes the capacity for a rational soul intrinsic from fertilization as well.

Thus, there seems little about Sts. A and A’s metaphysical assumptions that place them in the camp of the modern gradualist, as their understanding of delayed ensoulment was predicated upon a faulty biology, something that will no doubt be predicated of 21st century writers a few centuries from now.

What rubes!

On the other hand, it’s much easier to vaguely reference ancient authors without understanding what they thought, why they thought it or what moral implications they derived from what they thought.

But then again, there’s nothing quite like complaining that the bible writers were too stupid to appreciate the complexities of human reproduction and then appealing to statements couched in Aristotelian embryology to sell your argument!

I hear phrenology is making a comeback too.


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