University of Illinois Press$19.95, pp. 158Reviewed Philosophers Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete think they have come upwith a "gotcha" argument that finally will create a national consensusfavoring abortion.Though few opponents or proponents of abortion will wade through theirexegesis, however brief, of Augustine of Hippo (fifth century), ThomasAquinas (thirteenth century) and assorted philosophers, theologians, andscientists, the authors attend to an important philosophical problem in theCatholic opposition to abortion. That is the claim that the human life,present from the moment when sperm and egg join, has moral standing suchthat abortion should be prohibited. The authors argue the contrary: Sincethe fetus becomes a human person only as it develops, abortion should bepermissible until human personhood is achieved. They believe that point liessomewhere between week twenty-five and thirty-two weeks of pregnancy whenbrain and spinal cord are fused. Until it possesses the distinctive humanability to reason, signaled by the development of the cerebral cortex, thefetus cannot be said to have a human soul or the moral status of a humanperson, hence it cannot be said to have a right to life.

Their gotcha Catholic argument is this: Augustine and Thomas, dominantfigures in the development of Catholic theology, held that humanization didnot occur until after conception. Dombrowski and Deltete think this notionof delayed humanization should be determinative for Catholic teaching, eventhough Augustine and Thomas did not conclude, as the authors do, thatdelayed humanization makes abortion permissible. The authors believe thatthe Catholic Church's teaching rests mistakenly on a sixteenth centuryscientific notion that the sperm contained a fully formed human being (ahomunculus). This perfectly formed miniature body contained a soul; hence ahuman person was present. The authors argue that the authority of Thomas andAugustine on delayed humanization ought to trump bad science. Were that allthere was to the argument, they might have a point.

But that is not all. Catholics do not consider that a human person ispresent from the moment of conception. Even so, the human life that ispresent has moral standing such that it should not be aborted. Though theauthors want to devise a "liberal" Catholic argument, they deplore the factthat even the most liberal Catholic philosophers and theologians (RichardMcCormick, Thomas Shannon, and Lisa Sowle Cahill) are unwilling to press thechurch's prohibition beyond implantation in the uterus at about one week. Atthat time, the chance of twinning has ended, and an individual human life ispresent, one that has moral standing deserving of respect and protection.That is about as far as many liberal Catholics will go. But it is far shortof the line that Dombrowski and Deltete draw.

As a liberal Catholic myself, I find the two singularly unpersuasive on anumber of points. Let me mention two.One hallmark of liberal Catholicism is to hold that church teaching mustacknowledge the "development of doctrine." They never mention the idea orits criteria. Is that because the outcome in this case is likely to departfrom theirs? Thus while they appropriate the views on fetal development ofThomas and Augustine, who knew virtually nothing about reproductive biology,they reject their views on abortion. Development of doctrine depends notonly on new (and forgotten) theological and philosophical insights, but alsoon new scientific information. Today's genetics show that a new human lifeis actually created at conception. Does this count for nothing? Not for theauthors who insist that full moral standing comes only with a fullydeveloped cerebral cortex. Where does that leave humans with defective (theretarded), diminished (the elderly), or damaged (accident victims) cerebralcortexes. Do they lose moral standing as human persons? I doubt thesephilosophers would want to draw that conclusion.

They might argue, however, that the fetus is different, that the significantearly wastage of fertilized eggs shows that God (or nature) does not holdfetal life to be morally significant. But I ask: Once implantation takesplace, shouldn't a developing human life be treated as if it were likely tobecome a human person? (In fact, given the wastage rate, perhaps we shouldbe even more careful of those fetuses that survive this early winnowingprocess.) The authors might counter-argue by asking: Should this human life,which is only potentially a human, trump a woman's right to an abortion? Themoral intuition of many Americans, reflected in opinion polls, is: thatdepends--on when and why. Abortion early in a pregnancy--say the first twomonths--is less morally problematic than one later; that grave reasons (tosave a mother's life) may justify a later abortion, but that justificationsfor social, economic, or convenience reasons do not.Given that Dombrowski and Deltete would seem to sanction abortions well intothe third trimester, aren't the moral intuitions of most Americans closerto the views of the Catholic Church than to theirs? If so, the consensus theauthors spend a chapter promoting would seem to be a consensus that bothCatholics and others would reject.