The Value We Ascribe to Human Beings

There is just nothing like jumping back into blogging after a few days off with a controversial topic like abortion. In May Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix declared that a nun had excommunicated herself by advising that a seriously ill woman could have an abortion - I have been thinking about that for a bit and wondering why a bishop would publicly criticize a nun that way.

Abortion is such a dicey subject.. thinking about it reminds me of this comment that I clipped a few months ago.. don't remember where I got it but I have also been pondering it a bit:
If it still hasn't got a functioning brain, it's not really a human life. It's life (but then again, a sperm is made of live cells too, and no one considers it a person), it may even be human life (your hair is too, and cutting it is not considered murder), but it's not A human life. It's not a person.
I think that many hold similar views. To balance things out a bit, here is an excerpt from an old National Review article titled When Life Begins:
Your life began, as did the life of every other human being, when the fusion of egg and sperm produced a new, complete, living organism — an embryonic human being. You were never an ovum or a sperm cell, those were both functionally and genetically parts of other human beings — your parents. But you were once an embryo, just as you were once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. By an internally directed process, you developed from the embryonic stage into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of development and ultimately into adulthood with your determinateness, unity, and identity fully intact. You are the same being — the same human being — who once was an embryo.

It is true that each of us, in the embryonic and fetal stages of development, were dependent on our mothers, but we were not maternal body parts. Though dependent, we were distinct individual human beings. That is why physicians who treat pregnant women know that they are caring not for one patient, but for two.
The article goes on to speak to the real issues around when life begins.. I think that this goes to the heart of the abortion issue:
Why, then, do we seem so far from a consensus on questions of abortion and embryo-destructive research?

Perhaps because the debate over when human life begins has never been about the biological facts. It has been about the value we ascribe to human beings at the dawn of their lives. When we debate questions of abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, we are not really disagreeing about whether human embryos are human beings. The scientific evidence is simply too overwhelming for there to be any real debate on this point. What is at issue in these debates is the question of whether we ought to respect and defend human beings in the earliest stages of their lives.
Abortion is a very complex issue - my views on it have changed slightly over time.. but that phrase, "the value we ascribe to human beings", is a haunting one. Going back to the nun in Arizona - I do not know her but I imagine that she has a very high regard and value for human life.. and perhaps she made a prayerful decision to value the life of the mother over that of her baby?

In either case I think that abortion is probably always a decision to value one human being over another. So the question might be one that involves the criteria by which we evaluate the value we ascribe to each human being - in each case we are definitely placing a higher value on either the life of the little human being or that of the bigger human being. And sadly I think that many times that little human being is devalued because the larger human being does not want to be inconvenienced.


  1. Well said Bob. I find the quotes compelling and I think the crux of the whole matter is your final sentence.
    I'm glad I never had to be caught in that controversy.

  2. Thank you Bob. I firmly believe there is a right and a wrong and that it is not up to each individual to decide what truth really means.

    Yet when I encounter conversations on this topic, I find myself drawn not to preaching about what is right or just, but rather finding ways to introduce people to God's love, to help them learn how to love God more, how to draw closer to Him. The closer one is to God, the closer they will be to seeing the truth all by themselves. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

  3. The bishop wasn't "criticizing" the sister; he was educating his flock about the scandal that lady created by her evil deed.

    He has the moral duty to make sure his people, by extension all Christians, do not come to the conclusion that "well, because that sister consented to it, it must have been okay to do."

    His statement was well-constructed and very educational about what it means to break communion with the Body of Christ through grave, deliberate sin.

    (And, by the way, a nun, like a monk, is a consecrated person who lives in a cloister, living "out of the world," supporting themselves humbly and praying for the world. What a powerhouse of prayer they are! A sister or brother is a consecrated person who lives "in the world" with an active ministry: teaching, medicine, helping the poor, whatever.)

  4. Thanks for the feedback from a Roman Catholic perspective Therese. This article" gives further explanation and says:

    "According to a May 10 letter from the hospital's parent company, Catholic Healthcare West, McBride justified the procedure because the direct intent was to save the mother's life, not to end the pregnancy which, under Catholic teaching, is known as the principle of double effect. Under "double effect," the death of a fetus is allowable as a secondary effect of required surgery."

    This situation seems a difficult one.. I am glad that a woman of faith like Sister Margaret McBride was involved in the situation and in the decision.


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