A Catholic Case for Personhood
Personhood and Politics: From the Trinity to the Courtroom
Deal W. Hudson
American Life League Conference
January 21, 2010
It was the summer of 1993, the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and I was at the Aspen Institute in Colorado teaching a seminar with Mortimer Adler. Adler, famous for his Great Books approach to philosophy, was in his late 80s then and had asked for my help in getting through his intense 3-hour seminars.
On the day I arrived he invited me to a cocktail reception at his home. Excited to be there, I arrived early and found myself alone in the living room with Adler and Justice Harry Blackmun. What I didn’t know was that I was to be a guest of honor at Blackmun’s lecture later that evening on the occasion of Roe’s anniversary.
When Adler introduced me as a Catholic philosopher who taught St. Thomas, Blackmun smiled awkwardly, and before he could say anything, I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Yes, I am one of those guys who disagree with your decision on Roe.” We all chuckled as polite people do over cocktails when they disagree and moved on to other subjects.
When I took my seat on the front row of the lecture hall at the Aspen Institute for Blackmun’s lecture, I looked around. It was clear this was going to be a love-fest for the author of Roe. Women filled the hall and stood in the aisles. They roared when Blackmun was introduced and interrupted every few sentences with loud applause.
After several of these ovations, Blackmun looked down at me in the front row — I was not clapping — and held up his hand for quiet, saying to the crowd, You need to remember that not everyone here agrees with my decision.
The crowd began to boo; there were a few shouts, and I slunk down in my chair, feeling I would be torn apart if my dissent were recognized. Yes, I felt a moment of fear — the response from the crowd was that visceral.
Everyone who has served in the pro-life cause has stories like this. You may not have ever looked in the face of Justice Blackmun, but you have looked in the faces of those who justify the murder of children in the name of freedom, of choice, of the right to control their bodies, or to control the environment and so-called global warming; and the list goes on.
But as I look back, the fear I felt that evening did not compare to the fright I have experienced on other occasions in the presence of apologists for abortion. One of the first philosophy classes I taught w . as an ethics class at Mercer University in Atlanta, a Southern Baptist College. Abortion was on my syllabus, and when that day came, a female student in her mid-30s with two small children gave a presentation. I can remember what she said almost verbatim. She ended her report, a defense of abortion, with these words, “Before I had my two children, I aborted two others, because my husband and I didn’t want them. I did it because I loved them, and they wouldn’t be happy.”
The fright I felt then was a deeper fright than that evening in Aspen. Anger can always be turned against those who support abortion — it weakens their argument and suggests a lack of certainty. But love? And happiness? How many people, I asked myself then, have been convinced that abortion is good by an appeal to love and happiness? It’s a lie, of course, but the bigger the lie, as Goebbels once said, the easier it is for people to believe.
At that moment, as a freshman philosophy professor, I knew the great ideas had been taken away from us, had been torn from their roots. Ideas like love and happiness were being turned inside out to justify the worst of human crimes, the murder of innocent life. (Over a decade later, I published a book on happiness, attempting to trace the evolution of this philosophical mistake.)
Everyone in the pro-life movement has felt the chill of these moments: When you are put in the position of making an argument against a position so perverse it leaves you speechless. How do you respond to a mother who murders her unborn in the name of love? Do you remind her that this is quite the opposite of what lovers do? Do you ask her to recall what Romeo overheard Juliet say that night from her balcony in Verona?
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
“Take all myself.” That is what lovers do that gift of self that unites husband and wife, and that creates the child the mother bears. Nothing is more perverse in the order of nature than for a mother to turn on that child in the name of the love that created him.
How many times have you wanted to underscore the perversity of abortion by reminding its supporters, Most of the animals in creation instinctively protect their young? As an argument against abortion, however, it leads us to a different direction, to a more fundamental level, because there are animals that devour their babies “ wolves, polar bears, hyenas, the hippopotami.
Why don’t we morally condemn these animals? The answer is simple: They are not persons. To call someone a person is to point out their kinship with God and the angels only the Triune God, the choirs of angels, and us (in the image of God he created them, male and female . . . .) possess personhood, what St. Thomas Aquinas calls that which is noblest in the whole of nature.”
For those of you who are not familiar with the Catholic teaching on person and personhood, it’s not so difficult to understand. Especially those who are dedicated to the effort of protecting the not-yet-born know all of this in your bones, even if you are not able to articulate it in neatly sculpted sentences with tidy references to Scripture, the Catechism, and papal encyclicals.
The Catholic Church teaches that because children are persons from the moment of conception, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being (#2274). It’s because children are persons that they possess rights that flow from [their] dignity as a creature, rights [that] are prior to society and must be recognized by it. (#1930).
Even further, the Catholic Church teaches that any society refusing to recognize the rights of the unborn undermines its own moral legitimacy, and, It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims. (#1930).
Let me repeat that quote from the Catechism: It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims. (#1930). Is that not exactly what the Personhood Initiative is seeking to do?
When I first heard about the Personhood Initiative in 2008, I immediately thought, “What a great idea!” Why not go state-by-state making explicit in their constitutions the reason why abortion should be illegal the personhood of the pre-born child. It wasn’t long, however, before I started getting calls from Evangelical friends in Georgia and Colorado asking me why the Catholic bishops were withholding their support for these efforts.
The Catholic bishops in Colorado and Georgia did not explain their positions at any great length, although they did support the goal of the initiative “ eliminating abortion “ but did not have confidence in the strategy. Whether this view emanated from National Right to Life’s rejection of the personhood effort, I don’t know. But it was clear the pro-life movement was becoming deeply split over this effort, and that Catholics, in particular, were becoming discouraged and confused by the lack of support from their bishops.
Let me add, at this point, that among these bishops objecting to the personhood strategy are some of the most outspoken defenders of life in the Church. I am thinking not only of Archbishop Chaput of Denver, but of his auxiliary Bishop Conley, and Bishop Sheridan of Colorado Springs.
Some Catholics, because of their deep respect for these bishops, seemed not to realize that individual Catholics were free to work for the personhood initiative in spite of the bishops’ misgivings about it.
This confusion highlights an often-overlooked fact about Catholic political participation in this country it has yet to come of age, as it has among our Evangelical brethren. As someone who has attempted to involve Catholics in political action, I can testify to the various instinctual and ideological disconnects that occur when Catholics enter the public square as Catholics.
First, Catholics often fail to distinguish between those things taught by their bishop that obliges them and those that do not. Catholics are obliged to oppose abortion, but they are not obliged to leave the personhood initiative because their individual bishop doesn’t approve of it. One teaching is authoritative and requires religious submission of intellect and will; the other is a matter of prudential judgment, requiring respectful consideration by Catholics.
Second, this mistake gets multiplied dozens of times over when it comes to the USCCB, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. There is no more misunderstood aspect of the Catholic Church in America than the role of the USCCB in public policy and politics.
There is only one instance when a document, or pronouncement, of the USCCB can carry the full force of Church authority, when it is agreed to by all the bishops and taught by the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. (# 2034) Otherwise, USCCB documents, unless they are repeating established doctrine of the Church, do not oblige Catholics to act in accordance with their prudential directives, such as some of the prudential approaches in the area of immigration reform currently being offered by the USCCB. The USCCB is not an intervening authority between the bishops and the pope, nor are the cardinals.
If you consult the book written by then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, called the Ratzinger Report, you will find he says that national conferences, such as the USCCB, lack the moral authority to issue a statement for any individual bishop or diocese.
This is why bishops sometimes are forced to say, “The USCCB does not speak for me,” as Bishop Martino of Scranton famously exclaimed during the 2008 presidential campaign. Many Catholics, and especially the media, do not understand a bishop is the authority in matters of faith and morals over his own diocese. What an national conference says adds nothing to the authority of a bishop, but the perception remains that it does. Recall the example of Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, stood alone against more powerful bishops of his time who supported the Arian heresy!¨
Conferences, as one bishop has said, end up with statements reflecting the least common denominator and can stymie the prophetic bishop — the conference can rarely be prophetic by its very make-up.
One bishop not afraid of speaking out prophetically is Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Oregon. He has spoken publicly in favor of the efforts to legalize the personhood of the pre-born. In a column for the diocesan newspaper, Bishop Vasa wrote that Georgia’s Sanctity of Human Life Act, Does not seek to introduce some inane legal fiction, but rather seeks to overturn a faulty legal fiction. The fiction, in which we are presently living, inanely pretends that human beings are not really human beings unless the Supreme Court passes judgment on them and declares them to be so. African slaves were always human beings and the Supreme Court decisions said or did nothing to change that. It simply recognized the truth. The Sanctity of Human Life Act seeks legal recognition of the same truth.”
Bishop Vasa is less concerned with the likely outcomes of a legal challenge in court than he is with getting the truth about human beings inscribed into law. Is Bishop Vasa not recommending precisely what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states? It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims (#1930).
There are a number of objections cited to the personhood initiative. Chief among them is the one cited by the Colorado bishops who expressed the concern that if the amendment were overturned in federal court the ruling could actively reaffirm the mistaken jurisprudence of Roe.
When you have one Supreme Court nominee after another, including Roberts and Alito, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Roe v. Wade being settled law, it’s a bit difficult to imagine why a few lost court cases would settle Roe anymore than it is already settled.
This argument was already in the air at the time, having been articulated by National Right to Life’s legal counsel, Jim Bopp, Jr. So-called incremental pro-life efforts, it was argued, were more likely to bear fruit and avoid the problem of the Supreme Court switching to a more absolutist equal protection rationale for the abortion right” which “would have a devastating effect on current protections for the unborn.” More recently pro-life attorneys Clarke Forsyth and Jon Linton have joined Bopp in speaking against the personhood effort.
In the face of these critics, it must be asked how likely is it that court cases involving the incremental means, like fetal homicide statutes, parental notification, partial birth abortion, infanticide, will get at the heart of Roe? After all, 47 states have established laws against fetal homicide based upon the humanity of the fetus, but those laws are not able to stand side-by-side with the “settled” law of Roe. Are fetal homicide laws rocking Roe’s boat? I don’t think so.
As everyone here knows, Justice Blackmun himself pointed the vulnerability of Roe to an effort to legalize the personhood of the pre-born. As Blackmun wrote, (If the) suggestion of personhood [of the preborn] is established, the [abortion rights] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”
Bopp, Forsythe, and Linton, like some of the Catholic bishops, prefer an approach that protects the abortion restrictions that already exist, and continuing to create additional limits and boundaries. As far as I am concerned, God bless their efforts, and I hope they meet with some success. But I, in turn, hope they will ask God’s blessing on those who support the Personhood Initiative. No one is the traffic cop of the pro-life movement, or the final arbiter of how pro-lifers should spend their time, talent, and money. (The pro-life movement is, actually, a collection of many smaller initiatives, each of which have their leadership, their support base, and their rationales.)
In fact, when I look at the arguments used on behalf of incremental measures, some of them support the personhood effort. Bopp once wrote the following about the wisdom of the effort to outlaw partial-birth abortion, “To change the hearts and minds of the public on abortion, it is necessary for pro-lifers to frame the debate to their advantage . . . . The debate over partial-birth abortion has furthered this strategy because it has forced the pro-abortion camp to publicly defend a particularly visible and gruesome practice.”
By far and away the most visible pro-life message of the past few years has been the personhood of the unborn. The activists in this room are responsible for this message being heard throughout the nation, from the grassroots up, through their signature drives and public advocacy of these amendments. It’s one thing to force people to reject a palpably gruesome practice, as Bopp puts it and quite another to put a name on the reason why they find it abhorrent. People need to consciously admit, especially those who call themselves pro-choice, why they draw a line at partial-birth abortion and infanticide.
The word “person” provides this explanation. Personhood, in fact, teases out the deeper dimension of what it means to be a human being. The standard definition of human being is zoological — it begins with the fact that we are animals endowed with a unique form of reasoning called rationality. But rationality is only the beginning of the story of what it means to be a person our rationality is housed in an immaterial intellect such that it is capable of indefinite expansion, even to beholding the vision of God, our Creator. This rational difference, as it is called, is the seat of our freedom, our will, our desire for eternal happiness, our ability to know the truth, and our love. It is the means by which we, unlike any other animal, make choices that affect our happiness.
The Personhood Initiative is putting forward the richest possible truth about human life and challenging voters and legislators to make a decision about a first principle. Just who are these beings who have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
As Judie Brown has written, there was a time when legislators knew the answer to this question; even those who framed the 14th amendment to the Constitution knew it. “The personhood effort seeks to bring sanity back to the public understanding of why this Amendment applies to every human being, including those not yet born,” and she adds very rightly, in my opinion, “If our goal is to ultimately achieve equal rights for all human persons, then human personhood is the only road to travel.”
Part IV — Conclusion
That summer in Aspen, the summer of 1993, I talked to Blackmun again. I also talked at length to Mortimer Adler who, in spite of his conversion to Christianity, and his advocacy of Catholic philosophy, supported Roe. Every time I pressed them for deep intellectual convictions about the basis of Roe the conversation went nowhere. Adler and I would sit in his backyard, smoking cigars on a beautiful summer afternoon. I would start the discussion with the Catholic metaphysics of being, act, and potency he himself had been espousing for over 60 years, only to watch him throw up his hands saying, Let’s not talk about this anymore; I just can’t go there, and he would mutter something about upsetting his wife and friends.
With both Blackmun and Adler, I came to the conclusion that their support for abortion wasn’t really principled at all. Rather, Roe was an intellectually flimsy accommodation to the passions of the old feminist movement, passions they did not want to oppose. For Adler, in particular, the contradiction he found himself in was painful he knew that neither good moral choice nor sound laws were based upon mere personal preference or a supposed privacy right.
Perhaps this fear of challenging the influence of some feminists explains why contradictory laws presently exist in regard to the legal protection of the preborn. Only the intent of a mother to abort is deemed licit. All other forms of violent assaults on the pre-born have been placed outside the domain of acceptable behavior.
With the passing years, the Roe rationale appears more and more like the product of a vast sociological experiment, a moment in history when women, aided by compliant men, declared themselves free of creation’s order. Seen in this light, the personhood initiative is nothing less than an invitation to recognize the more than obvious failure of this experiment. Given the millions of dollars spent to opposing it, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU no doubt recognize the threat of naming the child in the womb.
To Planned Parenthood, it’s not really an issue of the government potentially investigating miscarriages, as it claims; it’s the fear of having the emptiness and incoherence of their worldview exposed. Personhood, after all, is not a strategy, it’s the core of a new, kerygmatic form of politics, one that measures its message by the truth of things, nothing else.