Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Life Week: Abortion and Human Nature

Today's article features guest writer Matthew Maule. Matthew is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, where he studied political theory, specifically focusing on the natural law tradition, and served as the editor for the school's The George Wythe Review. He is a member of the Anglican Church and is currently a fellow at the John Jay institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In this article, he presents a historical Christian approach to the question of abortion, which is commonly referred to as the natural law argument against abortion. Instead of addressing the question of personhood, the natural law argument critiques what it believes to be a misunderstanding of the nature of human sexuality, a misunderstanding which, if set right, precludes abortion by default. 

This article does contain a tactful discussion of the nature of sex, so our younger readers may wish to have a parent read it with them.

Matthew Maule
The question of abortion is a question regarding personhood. It extends far beyond the initial question of “is the unborn 'child' human?” Those who oppose abortion often then turn to science to attempt to prove that the unborn child is alive. This approach ultimately fails, however, because the question of life is not a scientific question, it is a question for theology and philosophy. This essential philosophical question is not whether the unborn child is alive, in the scientific sense, but “what is human life?” in the philosophical sense. Until our society achieves some level of consensus regarding that latter question, the former is unanswerable.

Scientifically speaking, human life does not seem all that different from other animal life. We are born, we require food and water, we live, reproduce, grow sick, and die. Also observable, and quite different from other animal life, is man's inclination to introspection, thought belief, doubt, joy, grief, wonder, and worship. This observation of human life is merely the tip of the iceberg – the majority of the truth about human life is not able to be seen scientifically. Man's introspection sheds light on this non-scientific truth, and his understanding can be illuminated by the truth of God's Word.

It is through such introspective thought that man comes to realize that he is not the measure of all things. Reason demonstrates that there must be a God – St Thomas Aquinas' “Five Ways” argument proves this. After realizing that there is a God, man begins to consider his purpose, or telos, in relation to God and in relation to others.  Both the Church and the best of pagan philosophers teach that man's telos is to achieve happiness; they also agree that man does so by living virtuously.

Living virtuously can be looked at in the “big picture” - loving God and loving neighbor - but it can also be examined with great detail. The Ten Commandments offer one such examination of virtue; Christ's exposition of them provides another. This is how man begins to answer the question, “what is human life?” Humans, as rational animals, have the ability to examine their activities to see if they are virtuous – that is, do they comport with man's telos?

One can examine an activity, say eating, and its vice – gluttony.  One can then look at the telos of eating and see a sort of dual purpose – nutrition and pleasure. Further examination shows that these purposes are not equal, but that a hierarchy emerges – nutrition being the chief purpose of eating and pleasure being secondary – given that it does not seem to be sinful to eat distasteful food (Brussels sprouts) while it does seem sinful to overindulge.   With this understanding, man can assess the virtuousness of his eating habits. Does he eat merely for pleasure when the chief end of eating – nutrition – has already been satisfied? If so, he has strayed into eating's vice, gluttony.

A similar examination applies to all man's activities, sex included. The separation of mankind by gender has implications on the telos, and thus the morality, of sexual activity. The connection of gender to sexuality demonstrates that the biological, procreative purpose of sexual activity is its chief telos with the purposes of building the love of husband and wife and pleasure being close but not equal in importance. If pleasure or love, rather than reproduction, is the chief end of sexual activity, then the distinctions of gender – with their inherent biological functions – are meaningless, as pleasure and love can, seemingly, be found with members of the same gender. If they are meaningless, then there remains no moral obstacle to homosexuality or any other form of sexual deviance. Like with eating, the pleasure of sex can only be properly found in the carrying out of its chief purpose.

This understanding of the purpose of sexual activity does more than preserve the heterosexual nature of sex and marriage. It provides reasoning for the restriction of sexual activity to married partners, as it is within such an environment that the telos of sex – children – can best be reared. This understanding also sheds light on the morality of sexual activity within marriage, and is indispensable to the argument against abortion. Contraceptives, even those which are non-abortifacient, seek to deny the chief purpose of sex. As such they are, like gluttony, inherently immoral. This being understood, abortion becomes inherently immoral even if the unborn 'child' is not yet considered human, because it seeks to subvert the natural end of human sexuality.

But this understanding of telos teaches us more than mere morality; it teaches man about the human nature around which morality is framed. Understanding that man has both a nature and a purpose, we are able to transcend scientific questioning to examine man's reality in its fullness. Looking at an unborn child, we are able to see that given time, his nature will enable him to fulfill the human telos. This potentiality, existing from conception which is the creating of a distinct person, is the answer to the question “what is human life?” This is the source of human dignity, the image of God in man.

Written by Matthew Maule

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