At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

John T. Noonan, a Catholic jurist whose work on abortion regularly features in ethics textbooks, contends that the traditional definition of a human being remains rationally superior to its competitors. A human being, Noonan insists, is anyone who has been conceived by human parents.

The most common rival to conception is that of viability: the fetus becomes a human being once it is viable, i.e. capable of surviving outside of the mother’s womb.

Noonan notes what he takes to be three key problems with this humanity-defining criterion.

First, the notion of viability is the hard and fast standard that it is thought to be. It possesses “considerable elasticity.”

Second, this last point is proven by the fact that, given the enormous advances in technology, the fetus, courtesy of artificial incubation, could be “viable” at almost any time.

Third, viability, in the sense of self-sufficiency, occurs neither with birth nor even well after birth. Infants, toddlers, and small children remain utterly dependent upon the care of others.

That Noonan is correct about the inadequacy of viability as a criterion for humanity is true enough. But it should be noted that his last objection against the viability thesis commits the fallacy of equivocation: When proponents of so-called “abortion rights” appeal to the viability of the fetus, Noonan must know, they allude to the self-evident fact that until such time, the fetus is uniquely dependent upon its mother. Thus, they reason, it is up to the mother to determine whether she will continue to care for the fetus until such time that others could assume responsibility. Yet once others can assume responsibility, then the fetus is no longer uniquely dependent upon its mother.

Of course, none of this should be interpreted as a defense of the claim that the unique dependence of a fetus upon its mother endows the latter with a “right” to abort. But there can be no progress on this issue if clarity is lost to us.

Noonan also considers the standard of experience: “A being who has had experience, has lived and suffered, who possesses memories, is more human than one who has not.”

The problem with this account is twofold.

First, from the earliest stages of pregnancy, the pre-natal entity—first the zygote, then the embryo—is experiencing its surroundings. So, by the gauge of “experience,” the zygote is a human being.

Second, if what is meant is that the more experience a being has, the more human it is, than what this implies is that whole classes of beings otherwise considered human—children, the young, etc.—are either not human or minimally human.  Noonan also cites the admittedly rare case when aphasia has deleted its victim’s memories.  If experience is the test of humanity, then must we conclude that along with a person’s memories, aphasia also eliminates his or her humanity?

Here, it would be helpful to know how those who appeal to experience in determining humanity employ this concept. “Experience” is a concept that admits of a multitude of conceptions, to borrow Ronald Dworkin’s terminology. It is an empty concept until it is given content.

Typically, “experience” is invoked when it is meant to refer to sentience, the capacity for pleasure and, more importantly, pain. The zygote, it is obvious, is not sentient.  Neither, for that matter, is the fetus prior to a certain juncture.  Still, it is anything but a foregone conclusion that sentience bestows humanity—animals of various sorts are sentient too—and it certainly isn’t axiomatic that sentience gives rise to rights.

Noonan also deems as wanting the sentiments of adults and the sensations of parents as criteria for humanity.  They share the same fundamental problem: both imply that the humanity of a being—in this case, the fetus—is a dispensation bestowed by others. Noonan, however, expects for us to recognize that this just can’t be correct. Here he appeals to the historical record while reminding us that these are precisely the criteria relied upon by those  members of religious, racial, and other groups who, because of their inability to empathize with the members of other such groups, have dehumanized  the latter.

Finally, Noonan contends that social recognition is equally insufficient to establish humanity—and for basically the same reason that these last two criteria fail.  If “society”—meaning the majority—constitutes the ultimate arbiter of who is human, then those of its members who at any given moment are unpopular or held to be undesirable could find themselves divested of their humanity.  Again, he revisits history to remind us of the great evils to which this position has lead.

In the last analysis, Noonan concludes, there is only one non-arbitrary line by which to demarcate the human from the non-human.  And this line is conception.

It is at conception that a self-evolving entity with a unique genetic code—a human genetic code—comes into being.  It is at this moment that a human being emerges.

Abortion, then, is nothing more or less than the killing of a human being. As such, it is almost always wrong.

Noonan, I believe, has indeed succeeded in laying waste to the five humanity-defining criteria on which he sets his sights. That being said, his argument is vulnerable to two criticisms.

The first is that in exposing weaknesses in each of the criteria, Noonan does not necessarily reveal their arbitrariness: the criteria can be inadequate without being arbitrary.  Just because there is some measure of imprecision in a standard does not mean that the standard is without its effectiveness in doing the work assigned to it.

To assume otherwise, it seems, is to presuppose that, at least when it comes to the question of defining a human being, any list of criteria that isn’t exhaustive is capricious and, thus, worthless. But perhaps a search for something like necessary and sufficient conditions with respect to this issue is an exercise in futility.  

The second fault to be found in Noonan’s reasoning is that he uses the same idiom as his opponents: Abortion, in these terms, pertains to the relationship between one human being—“the fetus”—and another—a pregnant woman. He further ensconces this scheme when he expressly says of abortion that it violates the Christian injunction to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

The problem, however, is that the unborn is not just another neighbor of its mother. The relationship between a woman and her child, especially when that child is in her womb, utterly dependent upon its mother and her alone for its sustenance and protection, is radically unlike any other.

Any discussion of abortion that fails to take this fact into account falls short.



Judith Jarvis Thomson is a veteran philosopher who, several decades ago, penned a thought-provoking essay that features in virtually all of the contemporary texts used in college-level ethics courses. Her objective is to show that what she takes to be the standard argument against abortion fails to preclude allowances for abortion in cases of rape, the endangerment of the mother’s life, and even those instances when a pregnancy is unplanned.

According to Thomson, the conventional argument against abortion goes something like this: (1) All human beings or persons have a right to life; (2) The fetus is “a human being, a person, from the moment of conception;” (3) Therefore, the fetus has a right to life; (4) Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Now, as a matter of fact, Thomson rejects the second premise: she does not believe that “the fetus” is “a human being, a person,” from “the moment of conception.” However, she notes, even if we assume that it is true, not nearly as much follows from it as the opponents of abortion suppose.

By way of a particularly clever thought experiment, Thomson first tries to establish that even if a fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion in the case of rape is no injustice—i.e. it is not a violation of this right.

Imagine, she says, that one morning you awake to find yourself attached to a world famous violinist that happens to be suffering from a fatal kidney disease. While you slept, “the Society of Music Lovers” abducted you, for upon canvassing the world high and low for a suitable blood match for the violinist, it discovered that you and you alone are the only eligible candidate.  You and you alone can save his life.  The problem, though, is that you will now have to remain hooked up to the violinist for the next, say, nine months.  If you unplug yourself from him, he will surely die.

In this hypothetical scenario, because you have been forced against your will into “carrying” this violinist, you are like the woman who has conceived as a consequence of rape. The violinist, then, is an analog to the fetus.  Even though both the violinist and the fetus are innocent persons with a “right to life,” Thomson thinks that it’s obvious that in neither instance does this “right” generate for the coerced person a duty to shoulder the burden of remaining attached to someone for whom responsibility was never volunteered.

“If anything in the world is true,” Thomson declares, “it is that you do not commit murder, you do not do what is impermissible, if you reach around to your back and unplug yourself from that violinist to save your life.”

Similarly, by (what Thomson takes to be) parity of reasoning, “if anything in the world is true,” it is that the rape victim acts permissibly in aborting the fetus within her.

But is this all that obvious?

For starters, it should be observed that Thomson implies that an agent’s obligations must be grounded in his consent: unless a person agrees to this to that set of arrangements, he has no duties with respect to them.  This line of thought, however, is deeply problematic, for as ethicists from at least the time of Aristotle have known, it is precisely in just those associations that are not the products of choice—our families, local communities, and the governments under which we are born and live—that the stuff of the moral life is to be found.

It is not that choice or consent is morally irrelevant; sometimes—often in fact—it makes all of the difference. But to impute to consent the character of dogma, to make it the be all and end all, is to turn it into a fetish while reducing the richness of moral life to a one-dimensional caricature.

And to make consent the defining feature of the relationship between, not a woman and “the fetus” inhabiting her “body,” but a mother and her child, is to do this most intimate and unique of human relationships a grave disservice. To this last point, we will return.

Secondly, it is worth noting that the act of detaching oneself from a dying person is an arguably very different sort of act from that of aborting—i.e. killing—a fetus.  In the first instance, the intention is not to end life; it is nature or the illness from which the violinist suffers that is the cause of death.  In the second event, the fetus’s demise is the result of the abortionist’s intent to kill it.

Thomson, to be fair, anticipates this objection. Rather, though, than meet it head on, she substitutes for the violinist analogy one featuring a woman stuck in a tiny house with a rapidly growing child who threatens to crush her to death unless she kills him first.  Though the child is innocent in the sense that he means no harm, the woman would still be justified in killing him if this is the only way that she could save herself.

Similarly, a woman whose life is threatened by her pregnancy would be acting permissibly if she pursued an abortion.

On its face, this argument seems plausible as far as it goes. But does it go that far?  In fact, is this even an argument?

While Thomson may be correct in claiming that a woman does not act wrongly in pursuing an abortion when the pregnancy threatens her life, she hasn’t actually argued for this conclusion.  Or, if you will, what argument can be found is fallacious, question-begging.  No one, least of all a believer in rights, thinks it is permissible to defend one’s life—or the lives of others—at all costs. Whether abortion is a morally acceptable course of action to take in this situation is exactly what is in question.  Thomson needs to supply an argument to prove that it is.

At any rate, we can surely envision circumstances in which killing an innocent person in order to save one’s own life or the lives of others—even the lives of those, like our children, who are nearest and dearest to us—would be unconscionable.  For instance, suppose your child has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers inform you that unless you kill, say, the child of a king, his heir apparent, they will kill your child.   Few people, particularly those, like Thomson, who argue from the standpoint of a rights-based ethics, would even think to look upon such an act as anything other than murder.

There is one final consideration that must be borne in mind: When discussing the relationship between a mother and her child, the language of “rights” is woefully inadequate. And when it is the relationship of a mother to her unborn child, it is even that much more improper, for such a relationship is unique in that it is uniquely intimate.

That is, the relationship in which the issue of abortion centers is not an adversarial one between two rights-bearing individuals but, rather, an intrinsically loving relationship between a woman and her offspring, a rapidly growing human being that is utterly dependent upon her and her alone.

In evaluating the moral standing of abortion, it is this relationship that must be our focal point.  


Recently, I cautioned my fellow Americans against falling for the notion that the so-called “Islamic State” is among the gravest threats, or any threat, that the United States had ever encountered.

I noted that if the hyperbolic cries of politicians and their media propagandists in both parties so much as remotely resembled reality, then we’d have long ago witnessed at least two phenomena that, as of the present moment, remain conspicuously, indeed, painfully, absent from the current discourse.

First, at long last, we would have jettisoned the Politically Correct labels—“Islamo-Fascism,” “Islamo-Nazism,” “Islamism,” “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” etc.—that we invariably assign to Islamic terrorists in favor of a signifier that does not imply that Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the like are deviations from true Islam.  I suggested that we resurrect the term, “Mohammedanism,” that was once used by Westerners as a matter of course as a designator for Muslims.  Muhammad, after all, established the precedent for Islamic violence generally, and beheadings specifically, when he delivered Islam its first victory over his opponents by decapitating, en masse, 700 of them.

Secondly, if the professional chatterers on talk radio and elsewhere really believed that ISIS is “coming for us,” then you would think that they would spare not a single occasion to demand an indefinite halt to all immigration, both legal and illegal.  This should strike all people with an IQ above four as a no-brainer: If you are concerned about rapists and murderers entering your home, then wouldn’t it dawn upon you that the most rudimentary step that you should take first is to make sure that your doors and windows are locked?  You certainly wouldn’t allow strangers to sneak into your home on the assumption that it isn’t likely that they are all murderers and rapists.

But not only do these same people refuse to call for a moratorium on all immigration; they have regularly called for “comprehensive immigration reform”—what the intellectually honest call “amnesty,” as sure fire a way to guarantee an increase in illegal immigration.

In both of these instances, it is clear that for all of their squawking over the “imminent” threat posed to us by (first Saddam Hussein, then Al Qaeda, and now) ISIS, the Chicken Littles are more fearful of violating the protocols of Political Correctness than they are fearful of Islamic terrorists. The fear of being branded as “racist” toward people of color, whether the latter are Middle Eastern Muslims or Hispanics, is greater than their fear of being killed by Mohammedans.

And they are at least as fearful of being charged with harboring “racism” against American blacks.

As I write this, it has been 24 hours or so since word broke that a Muslim man beheaded a woman in Oklahoma. Had this occurred thousands of miles away in another region of the world, neoconservative commentators would be citing it endlessly as further proof that we are at “war” with Islamic terrorists who we must destroy at once.  The President would be delivering but another speech to the nation on how he plans on bringing the perpetrators to “justice.”

But it happens right here on American soil, and suddenly it isn’t nearly as big of deal.  There is no talk of “war,” no nationally televised speeches, no talk of “destroying” anyone. However, there is a reason for this double-standard:

Alton Nolten, the murderer who beheaded a woman, stabbed another, and shot a third person before being shot and subdued by his boss, was black.

And he was a black American, at that.

Yet, to my knowledge, no one in the media or in Washington who has covered this event has spoken to its racial component.

This omission, though, is glaring, especially considering that, in America, the overwhelming majority of American born Muslims are black. Moreover, for decades, black American Islamic organizations—the Nation of Islam is a prime example here—have been known for their propensity for violence, even murderous violence (Malcolm X is the most famous victim in this regard). As any law enforcement agent, and certainly any corrections officer, can attest, this reputation is richly deserved, for it is not by accident that the most feared group in the American prison system today is not any of America’s most notorious street gangs or organized criminal networks, but the Black Muslims.

If Islamic terrorists are the face of “evil in our time,” the gravest threat of our lifetime, as we are being lead to believe, then shouldn’t we be at least talking about the phenomena of black Muslims?  That black converts are sold on (the American brand of) Islam in no small measure because of its anti-white, anti-Jewish, and anti-American rhetoric supplies that much more reason to at least explore what connection, if any, there is between the violence of black Muslims here and the violence of Muslims overseas.

And now that a black American Muslim has actually beheaded another American—during a time when ISIS is beheading Westerners abroad—in a world in which it is sincerely held that Islamic terrorists pose the greatest danger, one would think that an inquiry into the possible intersection of these species of religious and racial violence would be launched.

That it has not, and most likely will not, is further proof that the hype over a “war” on ISIS is just that.

The fear of Political Correctness is apparently greater than the fear of “Islamism.”



There is much talk about “the Islamic State,” or “ISIS,” or “ISIL,” or whatever we are calling it. To listen to the talking heads, both Democrats and Republicans, one could be forgiven for thinking that these 15,000 or so Muslim butchers are the biggest threat that the Western world has ever faced.

Of course, as is almost always the case, there is all of the difference in the world between the conventional wisdom and reality.

By now, no one who’s been alive for more than a few years, and certainly no one who has acquired affection for liberty, needs to be told that the government and its apologists in the media are not infrequently less than fully honest. So, when a bipartisan consensus emerges over any issue of the day, those of us who have long ago tired of cheerleading for one team or the other shouldn’t respond with anything other than skepticism.

And when politicians and polemicists of both national parties would have us believe that this issue is greater than any other, those who have been deceived one too many times can’t but meet such assurances with anything less than incredulity.

This lover of liberty is saying it: The notion that ISIS is an imminent danger that America must either face or be destroyed is a lie of epic proportions. It is also the offspring of the union of the same two factors—political opportunism and alarmism—that beget every national “crisis.”

There are two decisive considerations that bear this out.

First, if we are really all that interested in protecting ourselves against threats to our national security, and if we really believe that Islamic terrorists constitute the gravest danger, then one of the most rudimentary things that we need to do is to identify the enemy for what it is.  It’s a cliché, but it’s true, that the first step toward defeating a problem is to acknowledge that there is one.  This, in turn, requires that the problem be properly diagnosed.

However, this is something that Democrats and Republicans resolutely refuse to do.

Democrats can scarcely, if ever, bring themselves to even utter the word “Islamic” in connection with terrorism, and President Obama, even while addressing the nation with respect to ISIS, goes so far as to insist that this is not an Islamic organization!

Republicans, though, are hardly any better. While they (rightly) criticized Obama for making such a wildly preposterous statement, Republicans regularly imply that “World War IV,” as neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz characterizes “the War on Terror,” has nothing to do with Muslims or Islam.

Rather, the fight to which Republicans want for Americans to commit their collective heart and soul is a fight against “radical Islam,” “Islamism,” “Islamofascism,” “Islamo-nazism,” “Islamic extremism,” and whatever other names they can invent to conceal the nature and identity of the enemy.

Since they are so fond of drawing parallels between the so-called “War on Terror”—notice, even here they can’t bring themselves to say Islamic terror—and World War II, we can ask Republicans: What would have happened if the Allied forces during WWII distinguished between “radical Nazis” and “moderate Nazis,” or “fascist extremists” and “moderate fascists?”

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, set the precedent for violence generally, and beheadings specifically, when, upon conquering his enemies, he decapitated, en masse, 700 of them. Those against whom we are now being urged to fight aren’t “radicals” or “extremists,” and they certainly aren’t “Islamists.”

They are Mohammedans.

But Republicans exhibit as much illiteracy—or dishonesty—when it comes to talk of Islam and Islamic terror as do the Democrats.

Secondly, anyone who carries on ad infinitum over the threat of ISIS while doing anything less than demanding an immediate moratorium on all immigration—both illegal and legal—to the United States is either a fool, a liar, or both.

As Brietbart reported last week, in just 2014 alone, a little under 500 illegal immigrants from terrorist-sponsoring countries have been apprehended sneaking across our southern border.  To put this number in perspective, it should be remembered that it took only 19 terrorists to bring about the fateful events of September 11, 2001.

And, lest it bears saying, it takes only one terrorist to detonate a bomb and slaughter thousands.

Yet not only hasn’t a single one of the politicians or media sensationalists who are now breaking out into cold sweats over ISIS come even close to calling for an abrupt halt on all immigration; they aren’t even calling to take the most rudimentary of steps in sealing our infamously porous borders.

Recall as well that many of these same people have advocated on behalf of amnesty (“comprehensive immigration reform”).

If Islamic terrorists compose the single most terrible danger with which Western civilization has to reckon, then those who believe this should invest a fraction of the energy they spend fretting over the borders of Middle Eastern countries into displaying some concern for our own borders.

Unless and until this happens—and I’m not holding my breath—no one with a modicum of intelligence should fail to recognize the buzz over ISIS for the hyperbole that it is.