Notre Dame professor: Hey, maybe the Pope should rethink abortion

I missed this until late yesterday, but the New York Times offered space on Thursday to Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting on the topic of abortion. Gutting, who also edits the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews for the Catholic university in Indiana, argued that Pope Francis really should get with modern times and show love to women by allowing for abortion. According to Professor Gutting, the lack of “an all-out effort to prevent spontaneous abortions” and the “purely biological” humanity of the fetus means that the Catholic Church shouldn’t really care whether babies get aborted or not.


Small wonder the Times made space for this:

At the same time, the “inviolable value of each human life” does not imply that no abortion can be moral. Here the case of rape is especially relevant. It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception. We might admire someone who has the heroic generosity to do this, but talk of murder is out of place. As the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has noted, if someone kidnapped you and connected your kidneys to those of someone who would die unless the connection were maintained for the next nine months, you would hardly be obliged to go along with this. How can we require a woman pregnant by a rapist to do essentially the same thing?

Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future — that underlie most moral considerations. An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense. As we saw, Marquis’s argument shows that killing a potential human is in itself bad, but there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans.

Another point, seldom discussed, is that not even pro-life advocates consistently act on their belief that any embryo has full moral standing. As the philosopher Peter Smith has noted, they do not, for example, support major research efforts to prevent the miscarriages or spontaneous abortions (many so early that they aren’t ordinarily detected) that occur in about 30 percent of pregnancies. If 30 percent of infants died for unknown reasons, we would all see this as a medical crisis and spend billions on research to prevent these deaths. The fact that pro-life advocates do not support an all-out effort to prevent spontaneous abortions indicates that they themselves recognize a morally relevant difference between embryos and human beings with full moral standing.

There is, then, a strong case for thinking that abortions always bring about some bad results — at a minimum the loss of potential human life — and that for most pregnancies abortion would be morally wrong. But this conclusion is limited in two ways: A woman’s right to control her reproductive life can, as in the case of rape, offset even a person’s right to life; and at least at the earlier stages of pregnancy, the embryo has only the moral standing of potential, not actual, human life, which may be overridden by harm to humans with full moral standing.


If this is the catechesis offered at Notre Dame, well … I’ll get back to that in a moment. You know what the Times didn’t make space to cover in its Thursday edition? Public Editor Margaret Sullivan criticized her paper over its complete lack of coverage of the March for Life:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of New Yorkers – many of them Catholics – piled onto buses in the freezing cold and headed down to Washington this week for the 41st annual March for Life, the world’s largest anti-abortion gathering.

Was this local participation, or the event itself, worthy of a news story in the paper of record? Apparently not.

The Times, in print, published only a stand-alone photograph of the event on Page A17 with a two-line caption on Thursday. …

The lack of staff coverage unfortunately gives fuel to those who accuse The Times of being anti-Catholic, and to those who charge that the paper’s news coverage continually reflects a liberal bias. But more important, the event had significant news value. In Thursday’s paper, it deserved more than a photograph.

And, of course, Professor Gutting’s musings on qualitative humanity and miscarriages. Let’s return to his arguments, with the weakest first. Who says there is not an “all-out effort” to end spontaneous miscarriages? As any parent who has experienced one or more, those usually mean emergency medical intervention, long hours praying for the safety of both mother and child, and a long life of grieving the life that was lost. This happens a lot less often in developed countries precisely because we have spent enormous resources in improving gestational care. The fact that children die does not make them less human at any point from conception to adulthood; in fact, death (as anyone who takes a moment to think about it knows) is part of the universal human experience. For Christians, it’s the event that Jesus defeated with His Resurrection, something one would assume a philosopher at a Catholic-run university would have learned by now.


The rest of his argument, including the part about rape, is based on his assumption that conception only confers biological humanity, not moral (or in Christian terms sacred) humanity, but merely potential moral/sacred humanity. Frankly, that’s a bizarre non-sequitur. Gutting concedes that science identifies human life as starting at the point of conception, and then argues that we are to take a relativistic and qualitative view as to when and how to treat it as sacred. But when does that potential come into play? At birth? Not as Gutting describes it. Does an infant have “self-awareness”? Does a toddler have “an interest in the future”? Is it permissible to commit infanticide until the age of three if a child turns into a hardship?

Gutting references Evangelii Gaudium, but it appears he didn’t read it very thoroughly. Francis warned specifically about this kind of moral relativism and utilitarian thinking about human life in paragraph 64:

The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change. As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom”.


Pope Francis will pay a visit to the US in September 2015, coming to the Philadelphia area. Perhaps he needs to head out to Indiana and provide Notre Dame faculty with a little more intense catechesis.

By the way, it’s not just the Catholic Church and other Christian communities that reject relativism and utilitarianism in relation to abortion. BuzzFeed has a great pictorial of secularists at the March for Life who protested Roe v Wade and called for universal recognition of human life as starting at conception. Be sure to read it.

Update: I’ll continue this with a few points about Scripture, on which Catholic education is supposed to be based. In the Ignatius (Jesuit) Bible, at least two verses specifically mention “conception” as the basis of life as a gift from God. The first is Ruth 4:13, which reads: “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.” The Lord didn’t give her a toddler, or a third-trimester fetus, in other words. In Hosea 9:11, we hear what the Lord’s punishment for idolatry to Ba’al will bring: “E’phraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird—      no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!”

On top of this, there are dozens of references to the womb as the place of sacred human formation, the most well-known of which is Jeremiah 1:4-5, which speaks directly to the moral/sacred point: “Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,  and before you were born I consecrated you;  I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” The Lord apparently believes that children in the womb are morally as well as biologically human. I wonder why a professor at Notre Dame does not.


Gutting is free to disagree with Scripture, but Notre Dame is an odd place to work with that point of view, and it’s a very bad basis on which to instruct a Pope on the sacred nature of human life.

Update: NDU is a Holy Cross order university, not Jesuit. My apologies for the error (had it confused with Georgetown). The Ignatius Bible is a Jesuit version.

Update: I received this thoughtful response by e-mail:

I enjoy HotAir because it tries to be balanced in its presentation.  What I am concerned about with this article is the emphasis that this philosophy professor is from Notre Dame giving the impression that there are are no voices at Notre Dame worth mentioning who have been outspoken regarding the horrors of abortion.  I suggest that you become acquainted with another professor of philosophy at Notre Dame called John P. O’Callaghan, Phd.  He is also head of the Jaques Maritain center at Notre Dame. …

If you do a search on John O’Callaghan, philosophy, abortion, you will find some of his writings regarding abortion.  Unfortunately, they do not get the attention that Times article did and are probably only seen by those in academia.

I understand why you wrote this article however you might want to consider including that there are voices out in the wilderness who get ignored because of the media’s hypocrisy regarding those who hold opposing views.  Headlines are meant to grab attention however a line in the article that this is not a view held by everyone in the philosophy department at Notre Dame would have been nice.

Fair point, and I do hope that Gutting represents a minority point of view. For an example of O’Callaghan’s arguments on this point, start here. It’s well worth your time.


Update, 3:30 pm: Minor edits for clarity.

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