Abortion, Darwin, and Grace
In a recent online paper in the Journal for Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva advocated a practice they call “after birth abortion,” that is, killing a newborn baby. The abstract introducing the article reads as follows, in its entirety:
“Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant, and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”1
While this article does not focus directly on the abortion debate, items 1 and 2 in the abstract are crucial to their argument. On the one hand, these authors still cling to a form of the moral value that declares the sanctity of the life of a human person. This is a major concession favoring the Judeo-Christian human dignity doctrine. Hence, in order to advocate destroying the fetus or newborn, they must argue that both the fetus and newborn are non-persons to remove that sanctity of life.
The non-personhood of the fetus and newborn is further implied by using the language of “potential persons.” If one is a potential person, he or she must be something other than a person with the potential of becoming a person. Hence, the question becomes, for Giubilini and Minerva, what defines one as a person?
Giubilini and Minerva offer two related criteria for personhood. “We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”2 In addition, a person should be capable of having an “aim” for his or her life. Thus the authors base both personhood and its associated rights on the individual’s abilities and functions. Since the fetus and newborn are asserted to lack these abilities and functions, they are not yet persons—instead being human non-persons—and thus deprived of the protections demanded by the sanctity-of-human-life doctrine.
Additionally, this implies that a more mature human person could lose functions defining personhood by aging, accident, or disease, and thus lose personhood, with its associated rights, while remaining alive. Thus, the authors conclude, “merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” Hence, species membership—being a human—without functional personhood becomes morally meaningless. By proposing a basis of personhood in certain defined personal functions, these authors ground both personhood and the right to life in personal merit, earned through the individual’s active abilities and functions.
These ideas are the natural result of the current dominance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. James Rachels, a philosophical biologist, laid out his view of moral implications of evolution, coming to a very similar value-basis for human life as Giubilini and Minerva.3
For Rachels, evolution means that humans are not different from animals in quality, as we evolved from them. We merely have a higher quantity of certain functions such as reason, but there is no uniquely qualitative difference between human and animal. Thus, species membership has no moral significance, meaning that being human grants you nothing.
Instead, rights are merited through certain individual functions and abilities. Specifically, his criteria for being in the circle of protection is being the “subject of a life.” For Rachels, being the subject-of-a-life is almost identical to Giubilini’s and Minerva’s definition of personhood as valuing their own personal existence noted above. Who qualifies to be considered a subject-of-a-life? In simple terms, the higher vertebrates and humankind. Thus, for Rachels, all subjects-of-a-life should be given equal consideration for moral protection, with rights merited or denied for “good reasons,” based on each individual’s functional abilities and pertinent facts relative to the situation being evaluated. Hence, evolution may well provide the basis for eroding the rights of an individual based on the idea that such rights are merited. What does this mean to us as Christians?
In the Bible, rights are not conferred by human beings, nor are they merited by the individual. The Ten Commandments reveal that rights are granted, graciously, by the Creator. God grants those rights based on His goodness, not in our deservedness. The commandments do not permit me to conclude that my neighbor no longer merits a right to his or her property, thus allowing me to make a raid and steal things. The neighbor’s right to property ownership is a sovereign bequest of God independent of my opinion. Since rights are a gracious, granted gift of God, we need to follow His example of grace, respecting God-granted rights whether or not we see the bearer of those rights as meriting their possession.
By contrast, evolution is fundamentally graceless and legalistic. The weak and infirm get no mercy, instead falling to predators and the forces of nature. They do not merit survival. Meriting rights is, therefore, the moral equivalent to the spiritual concept of meriting salvation through our performance. The moral reasoning of Giubilini and Minerva is thus contrary to the principles of grace found in Scripture, contradicting the very nature of what it means to be a Christian.
The example of Christ should make us think more carefully about the meaning of grace. Christ, knowing humankind would sin, did not perform a cosmic abortion to prevent pain and suffering or to bring greater convenience to Himself. Rather, He graciously granted life, knowing many would misuse that endowment and be lost.
Likewise, Christ emptied Himself of self-interest, came and died for active enemies who are entirely undeserving of any favor. He did this graciously to grant them a chance at life—eternal life.
Both the cosmic view and the incarnation show that God treats us based on who He is, not on who we are. Should we not treat others on the basis of who He is and who we are in Him, instead of on the grounds of our perceptions as to whether they merit our good favor? Grace is a way of life, not an abstract theological term. The Christian way of grace differs sharply from the merit-based approach exemplified by Giubilini and Minerva. As Christians, we need to live under the principles of biblical grace instead of the legalistic principles of Darwin’s evolution.
1. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, “After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”: http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full. Accessed March 26, 2012.
3. James Rachels, Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1990), chap. 3-5.