by Marcus Otte
The unique horrors of abortion are primarily its volume (recently estimated at 3,000 per day in the US), the complete innocence of its victims, and its sundering of the maternal relation. Even so, euthanasia has an even greater power to disfigure consciences and to destroy our understanding of the significance of life. In these respects, it is perhaps the most dire threat to human dignity today.
Standardly, rationales for abortion-rights posit that the fetus is not alive, or not human, or not a person. The first two of these claims are quite incredible− they can only be sustained through thoughtlessness, or by twisting oneself into a verbal pretzel. The fetus undergoes metabolic processes, so it is clearly alive. And “fetus” names a life stage, not a difference of species. The fetus with human parents is a homo sapien, even if it is in the fetal stage of life.
More sophisticated defenses of abortion concede the fetus is alive and human, but claim it is not a person. “Person” is a moral and metaphysical term, as well as a legal term. Persons are bearers of rights, and (on old-fashioned views of morality) innocent persons should be regarded as having an inviolable right to life: they can never be directly killed, regardless of circumstances or one’s motive for doing so.
Most arguments for abortion preserve this rule that innocent life is inviolable, but they do so in an upside-down, perverse manner, by denying the personhood of the victim. The fetus only has rights if it is a person. But—the argument goes—the fetus is not a person, so it does not have rights. Of course, in the case of euthanasia, this kind of rationale has not gained much traction. A terminal patient, for example, is a living human being, and nearly everyone would concede they are a person too, even if they are deprived of consciousness. So, the arguments for euthanasia are very different, and almost contradict those for abortion. A case for euthanasia needs to justify the direct killing of a human person. It must rest on the claim that the lives of innocent persons are not inviolable, and can be the deliberate object of justified violence
In my next column, I will argue as to what is so wrong− and so dreadfully perilous− in this outlook. For now, I will only note this. Those who advocate that we heal suffering by destroying the sufferer often compare human beings to non-human animals, and point out that we euthanize the latter out of compassion. So, they ask, why not destroy the sufferer even if it is a human being. It is nearly always under-appreciated how radical this question is. The humane kind of individualism on which the very notion of natural rights has been based is rooted in premises that distinguish human from non-human animals: for example, Aristotle’s definition of man as “rational animal,” or the Bible’s assertion that man is made in the divine image. Granted, it took centuries for rights-talk to emerge from the classical and Biblical traditions. But no one who is familiar with the genesis of such talk can deny that it was substantially rooted in these sources. If we erode the distinction between humans and non-humans, we inevitably contradict the very premises on which human liberty and equality have been painstakingly built over time. We will find ourselves in a building without foundation− that is, in a society shaped by unwarranted ethical beliefs held without reason. The arguments in support of euthanasia strike at the very core of human rights, even if they do not mean to. In next month’s feature, I will elaborate more clearly just how this is the case.