Sunday, 14 April 2013

What does it mean to be human?

Warning - This post contains content many people will find upsetting

This week one of the biggest news items in Catholic circles was what was not making the news. Dr Kermit Gosnell is standing trial in a Philadelphia Courtroom charged with seven counts of first-degree murder yet his victims could number in their hundreds. In any other circumstances, a mass murderer would get national and possibly international coverage which would no doubt contain every lurid detail which could be garnered by the press and squeezed out of the case. What makes Dr Gosnell's case different however is that he was performing late term abortions - it is a case "about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women... he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy - and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors". Dr Gosnell is also accused of overdosing his patients with dangerous drugs, spreading venereal disease with infected instruments, perforating wombs and bowels - and, on at least two occasions, causing their deaths." [1]

More details on the case can be found in an article which contains some graphic images by Conor Friedersdorf at A summary by Kirsten Powers without graphic images can be viewed at in which she states "You don't have to oppose abortion rights to find late-term abortion abhorrent or to find the Gosnell trial eminently newsworthy. This is not about being "pro-choice" or "pro-life." It's about basic human rights."

The reasons for the failure of major news networks to report the trial which Conor Friedersdorf acknowledges to have numerous elements any one of which would normally make it a major story, clearly lies in the subject matter and what I regard as the "inconvenient truth" of abortion, namely that it places an arbitrary and subjective chronology on what it means to be human. Whether or not a baby can be legally killed could in theory be a matter of days or hours. Looking at it in another way, it could even be the thickness of a womb as babies delivered through failed abortions cannot be legally killed. The application of terms such as foetus or baby can therefore vary in application by time, space and maternal desire. Is there truly a difference between a baby delivered prematurely at 22 weeks which doctors will do everything in their power to save and a foetus removed from the womb at the same date via an abortive "procedure"?

Many of those involved in the Pro-Life cause were outraged by the media blackout on the case and sought to counteract the paucity of coverage by taking to Twitter and other forms of social media to highlight both the case itself and what they regard as a clear case of media bias. I believe that the case is in the public interest, particularly in America where it is taking place and I would hope that it's publication might gradually convince some people that abortion is not a viable solution to unwanted pregnancy and that despite the immense sacrifices and courage required, there is a better way. To this end, I dispatched a few Tweets:

This #Gosnell abortion case really sounds quite horrific :(

The #Gosnell abortion case is quite horrific - the media are afraid to report it for fear of offending liberal sensibilities

The later Tweet produced a response from a friend who thought I was implying that liberals might approve of illegal abortions and gross misconduct which I explained was not my intent. As he suggested, I don't think anyone sane could condone any of Dr Gosnell's actions. 

After we had resolved some misunderstandings, we went on to have an interesting discussion on what it meant to be human and more specifically how we define it. For him, as a Pro-Choice advocate, the issue of legality is important and he used an interesting analogy to describe his position. Law can be used to determine personhood in the same way it does when determining the alcohol limit for driving. Driving above the alcohol limit is drink-driving, while driving if you're slightly below it is not. Where a line must be drawn the law does so but morally, we can recognise a grey area between. To take this analogy further, it affords for scenarios where one individual might be over the limit and another might not having consumed the same amount of alcohol due to differences in physiology or environmental factors.

I rejected this analogy, highlighting that throughout history law has been used to denigrate & extinguish the humanity of many on the whims of a particular interest group and suggested that human life should not be a subjective concept. On this basis, I suggested that conception to death is only definition which made sense. After a brief exchange over why conception was so important and why my definition wasn't extended to eggs    we came to the heart of the debate - what makes us distinctly human?

I began by highlighted that a fertilised egg contained a unique set of human DNA and (without going into the complexity of twins etc) suggested that this had to be our starting point for the definition of human life. Every living person can trace their uniqueness back to this point. He went on to ask  that if DNA was a major part of the definition of what it was to be human, what was my opinion on chimps which share 95% of our DNA, the last common ancestor of chimps and humans, or Neanderthals? I thought this was an interesting point as he was trying to demonstrate that "being human" isn't as rigidly definable as I thought. Could a Neanderthal baby be aborted?

I have to admit that I have never really considered the topic in these terms and am not familiar with the various anthropological and socio-evolutionary factors which might be brought to bear on the debate. I have always considered a DNA analysis of human cells to be concrete but can see how other factors such as intelligence, culture, capability could be more subjective. Ultimately, I suggested these arguments did not have any baring on the abortion debate because they dealt with differences between species. Abortion deals with differentiating within our own species, largely on terms of convenience. How we would deal with "nearly human" species is a very interesting concept, but I argued that nearly human is not human. How we treat other species is nevertheless a mark of our humanity.

This exchange led to a further consequence of attempting to define what is was to be human namely that the first human would be born to technically non human parents. Despite being almost exactly the same as its parents, would that child have all the rights of a human that its parents lacked? Again, though a fascinating concept full of philosophical, theological and anthropological implications, I didn't think this directly impinged on the abortion argument as we can categorically say that any child conceived of human parents was human itself. 

So, the very heart of the argument which can explain our differences was on our choice of definition of what it is to be human. His admitted to the fuzziness at the edges, and mine did not. I was glad to have engaged in this conversation because it was amicable and informative. It has given me further angles to consider and avenues to explore. 

The astute observer will notice that at no point during the conversation did I mention that my position on abortion is underpinned by Christian Faith. I didn't think it was necessary in this instance as I believe the case against abortion can be made by purely rational argument in accordance with natural law. With that said however, I believe that the most fundamental definition of what is to be human is that we are made in the "image and likeness" of God [3]. As children of God, we share in a unique dignity and equality which surpasses all of His other creations. God says to each and every one of us "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart". [4] I believe that this point is further evidenced in the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ and shared in our human life, from conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary and [5] that even in the womb, His presence was felt by others [6]. 

The last thing I wish to point out on the Gosnell case is that in trying to publicise the story, Pro-life advocates should be careful not to try and use it to their advantage in the same crass manner than some Pro-Choice advocates attempted to profit from the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. It was widely reported that Mrs Halappanavar died because she was refused an abortion at a Catholic hospital before all the facts of the case became known when in fact she died due to sepsis which went untreated for too long because of a catalogue of errors by staff at the hospital.



[3] Gen 1:26

[4] Jer 1:5

[5] Luke 1:26-38

[6] Luke 1: 44


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