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Americans are confused about life

By Bishop Robert Vasa
Bishop of Baker, Oregon

Published in the Catholic Sentinel, Diocese of Baker, OR

August 6, 2009

BEND — I had the good fortune while listening to a Christian television station to hear a congressman from Georgia who was talking about the Sanctity of Human Life Act. This is a bill introduced in November, 2007, that defines human life as beginning at fertilization and would protect all human life even that life created by human cloning or in-vitro fertilization. This is not at all new news, but hearing the congressman speak gave me a renewed sense of just how complacent and confused we are in the United States about the worth and dignity of human life.

The language of the bill is both instructive and challenging: “The right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being, and is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person. No one in these United States could take exception to this. The congressman talked about the relativistic and rather arbitrary method of determining just who is that person worthy of the protections guaranteed by the Constitution. Certainly that “person” is every human being whose birth process has been completed. There is nothing, however, in the birth process that changes anything of the nature of the one who is brought to birth. Thus the person who is fully delivered is the same “person” he or she was three or five minutes earlier. That which is essential to personhood, having the nature of a human being, is not changed by birth. What changes is what philosophers identify as the “accidents.” For instance, a doll possesses the “nature” of a doll. A doll is, for the sake of this discussion, a miniature human creation resembling a human being. You may put that doll in a box where no one sees it and it is still, by its own nature, a doll. That doll may be loved or completely neglected and it is still a doll. You may dress it in red, yellow, orange or blue and it is still a doll. You may even paint it a variety of colors and even disfigure it but it still remains a doll unless it is nearly destroyed. If you do not believe this try to take a beloved “doll,” which has long since lost its clear appearance as a doll, from its child owner. The doll’s location, relationship with persons, dress color or type, skin color, size and even general physical condition are all accidents, not essentials. None of these things change the “nature” of the doll. We know this now, though it was not always known or believed, in relation to the color of a person’s skin. That color or the national origin of a human being does not alter that which is essential to being a human being.

Unfortunately, by a kind of legal sleight of hand the Supreme Court has managed to overlook what is essential about a human being, his or her human nature, and make a distinction of personhood based on accidents of location, relationship, size, appearance, and degree of dependence. None of these things changes the nature of a human being and so none of these things should be used as ploys to grant or deny basic human rights. Yet, this is precisely what the Supreme Court has done.

The congressman’s bill seeks to correct this erroneous distinction by focusing precisely on that one thing which is essential. The only pertinent question should be: Is this a metabolizing biological entity of human origin with the genetic makeup of a human being? The bill incorporates this essential definition into law: “The life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent . . . at which time every human being shall have the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”

In making his case to his fellow congressmen, the bill’s author said: “We have a moral and constitutional obligation to protect and defend every precious soul that comes into existence.” The use of the word “soul” in this context refers more to human being than a specific spiritual reality we in the Catholic Church would identify as one’s “immortal soul.” It would not be proper to try to put into civil law this spiritual understanding of the nature of man. Identifying the nature of a human being, however, is not an attempt to impose anyone’s religious belief on someone else. It is rather the acceptance of a biological and scientific fact. That which is essential to the definition of a human being is already present from the moment the human ovum is fertilized by human sperm. Everything else is accident.

In keeping with this proper understanding of that which is essential to the human being, the Sanctity of Human Life Act declares that: “the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being, and is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person; and the life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.” This is not a statement of religious belief but rather the logically consistent application of sound philosophical and biological reasoning.

Some new human entity is created when the human sperm and human ovum unite. That new entity begins a whole new form of living from the moment of fertilization. That new entity does not evolve into something else over the period he or she develops. He or she does not evolve from plant matter to animal matter or to a human being after passing through the birth canal. He or she undergoes no essential changes from what he or she possesses at the beginning. That which is granted to the baby who has been fully born is based legally on a number of accidents when it ought to be based on that which is essential.

The Sanctity of Human Life Act does not seek to introduce some inane legal fiction, but rather seeks to overturn a faulty legal fiction. The fiction, in which we are presently living, inanely pretends that human beings are not really human beings unless the Supreme Court passes judgment on them and declares them to be so. African slaves were always human beings and the Supreme Court decisions said or did nothing to change that. It simply recognized the truth. The Sanctity of Human Life Act seeks legal recognition of the same truth.


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