The Magazine

The Human Factor

Understanding man's place in the ethical universe.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By DAWN EDEN
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For example, in his only direct mention of abortion, he states that

even bracketing entirely more general arguments about abortion[,] the ready acceptance of abortion of "defective" fetuses .  .  . violates the human dignity we share. It sets aside the fundamental bond of parents and children, inserting choice in the place of love and acceptance, and teaching us thereby that we must justify our continued existence, especially when we constitute a burden to others.

All true, and certainly miles away from any kind of philosophizing we may expect from a White House bioethicist between now and 2013. But the point Meilaender is making--that abortion creates a culture of wantedness, where children's lives are valuable not intrinsically but only relatively, according to whether their parents want them--is universally valid. It need not be qualified by the implication that it applies more so to eugenic abortions. Every abortion "sets aside the fundamental bond of parents and children, inserting choice in the place of love and acceptance." Every abortion teaches us "that we must justify our continued existence, especially when we constitute a burden to others." For what is an "unwanted" child but a human life considered to be "a burden to others"?

I don't know why Meilaender fails to make this logical leap. Perhaps, sensitive to accusations that pro-lifers wish to impose upon others their religiously based belief in fetal personhood, he wishes to isolate his criticism of abortion in an area where there may be common ground. But if that is the case, such timidity is unwarranted, for the core of his argument is not that abortion violates the human dignity of the unborn. It is that abortion violates the human dignity of born children, by denying or relativizing their intrinsic value. This is a point that can be argued effectively purely through reason, and it is essential if we, as a society, are to accomplish what Meilaender rightly deems "our moral task .  .  . to seek to recognize the person who is there."

Abortion is not the only pressing human-dignity issue given relatively short shrift in this book that has human dignity as its subject; the death penalty likewise merits little more than a passing mention. Having covered both topics at length in other writings, Meilaender here opts to avoid black-and-white issues in favor of ones that enable him to distinguish between shades of gray. He casts an especially critical eye upon efforts to make man "more or less than human"--whether by creating perfect "designer babies," medicating away children's natural restlessness, or extending the maximum lifespan. Each of these modern obsessions reflects a need for us to "kindle or rekindle in ourselves a sense of wonder at our humanity, situated so precariously at the juncture of nature and spirit, body and soul."

We ought not lose the capacity for gratitude. It is good that there should be creatures such as we are. Unless and until we can say that, we are condemned to an endless attempt to be something else--whether that something else seems to be "less" or "more."

Here, he has hit upon something vital, something that provides an answer to his wistful recognition that rational argument alone is insufficient to persuade others of the dignity of every human being. Arguments based upon natural phenomena can never capture the essence of a human being whose origin and fulfillment is supernatural. Meilaender knows this; indeed, he writes, "what an analysis of organic life taken alone does not enable us to see or say, a faith that seeks understanding may affirm." But he stops just short of the next step for the believer: The limits of rational argument are cause not for frustration but for the very gratitude Meilaender upholds. They force us into recognition of the needy aspect of our "needy freedom," without which we would never find our ultimate fulfillment.

In one sense, George and Rawls are not so far off: Those upholding Judeo-Christian values in a democratic society will always be required to explain God's reasons in light of man's reasons. But man's reasons are subject to alteration, just as his spirit is subject to conversion. In the age of Obama, more than ever, the power of the human-dignity advocate to change laws depends upon the efforts of the religious believer to change hearts.

Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.