Dec 2, 2004

historical views of personhood

Joe Carter loathes Peter Singer's ethics; this is not news to anyone who visits his blog. But what is surprising is that Carter's moral position contra Singer, that personhood begins at conception, is relatively recent as an article of Christian dogma. N. F. Gier explains:
Many people have the impression that the Judeo-Christian position on abortion has always been as conservative as the current prolife movement. In his book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Francis Schaeffer implies that abortion was an unthinkable practice in Christian countries before the 20th Century. The facts, however, are quite otherwise. In Christian England before the Norman conquest, the legal powers of a father followed the Roman tradition. A father could sell his own children as slaves if they were under seven years of age and he could lawfully kill any of his children "who had not yet tasted food."(1) Infanticide was widely practiced in all Christian countries until the 19th Century. The historian Lloyd de Mause quotes a priest in 1527 who said that "the latrines resound with the cries of children who have been plunged into them." (2) Criminal law of 17th Century France listed conditions under which a father had the right to kill his own children; and English midwives of the same period had to take an oath "not to destroy the child born of any woman."(3)

Historian Joseph Kett sums up this premodern view of the child: "Parents left their infants alone for long periods, seem to have been indifferent to their welfare, could not remember their names, refused to attend funerals of children under five, routinely farmed infants out for wet nursing, and argued in divorce proceedings, not over which parent should have the infant, but over which could send it packing." (4) We should remind ourselves that Kett is not talking about pagans here but church-going Christians.

We shall see that for Catholics the killing of an "unformed" fetus was not murder until a papal decree of 1869. Canon law on this point was not changed until 1917. But today leading Catholic philosophers and theologians disagree with this change. In Protestant countries the "forming" of the fetus was called "quickening," and abortions were permissible until that time. Even when stricter abortion laws went into effect in the 19th Century, very few cases of abortion of formed fetuses were ever prosecuted. Indeed, infanticide continued to be widely practiced, especially in the late 18th Century with the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
I am not yet ready to say that I find Gier's thesis fully convincing, but he certainly creates room to doubt that fetal personhood is an inherent part of the Christian faith.

Furthermore, as Blackmun points out in his decision in Roe v. Wade,
It perhaps is not generally appreciated that the restrictive criminal abortion laws in effect in a majority of States today are of relatively recent vintage. Those laws, generally proscribing abortion or its attempt at any time during pregnancy except when necessary to preserve the pregnant woman's life, are not of ancient or even of common-law origin. Instead, they derive from statutory changes effected, for the most part, in the latter half of the 19th century.

[*130] 1. Ancient attitudes. These are not capable of precise determination. We are told that at the time of the Persian Empire abortifacients were known and that criminal abortions were severely punished. n8 We are also told, however, that abortion was practiced in Greek times as well as in the Roman Era, n9 and that "it was resorted to without scruple." n10 The Ephesian, Soranos, often described as the greatest of the ancient gynecologists, appears to have been generally opposed to Rome's prevailing free-abortion practices. He found it necessary to think first of the life of the mother, and he resorted to abortion when, upon this standard, he felt the procedure advisable. n11 Greek and Roman law afforded little protection to the unborn. If abortion was prosecuted in some places, it seems to have been based on a concept of a violation of the father's right to his offspring. Ancient religion did not bar abortion. n12
Blackmun further explains:
3. The common law. It is undisputed that at common law, abortion performed before "quickening" -- the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, appearing usually from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy n20 -- was not an indictable offense. n21 The absence [*133] of a [**717] common-law crime for pre-quickening abortion appears to have developed from a confluence of earlier philosophical, theological, and civil and canon law concepts of when life begins. These disciplines variously approached the question in terms of the point at which the embryo or fetus became "formed" or recognizably human, or in terms of when a "person" came into being, that is, infused with a "soul" or "animated." A loose consensus evolved in early English law that these events occurred at some point between conception and live birth. n22 This was "mediate animation." Although [*134] Christian theology and the canon law came to fix the point of animation at 40 days for a male and 80 days for a female, a view that persisted until the 19th century, there was otherwise little agreement about the precise time of formation or animation. There was agreement, however, that prior to this point the fetus was to be regarded as part of the mother, and its destruction, therefore, was not homicide. Due to continued uncertainty about the precise time when animation occurred, to the lack of any empirical basis for the 40-80-day view, and perhaps to Aquinas' definition of movement as one of the two first principles of life, Bracton focused upon quickening as the critical point. The significance of quickening was echoed by later common-law scholars and found its way into the received common law in this country.


Evangelicals like Carter mean well. They have to recognize, though, that respected thinkers within the Christian tradition, as well as long-standing common law, provide support for the position that legal personhood does not begin at conception--so, even if fundamentally misguided, it's not an "extremist" view. Oversimplifying the issue benefits no one.

8 comments:

Andrew Bailey said...

I wrote a paper on this once--before my iBook died.

Both Augustine and Aquinas' writings suggest that abortion is widely permissible. Aquinas addresses the issue (lost the cite), and notes that the only thing barring (what we would call) a first or second trimester abortion is the motive. Should the abortion be carried out to cover up fornication or adultery, it is, of course, impermissible. Fetus' animating souls are merely vegetative or sensitive, but not rational until late in the pregnancy--hence they are not human and the duties owed to them are relatively weak.

Deut. 5 is another interesting point for the Christian to consider when thinking about abortion--most scholars I've read agree that the conditions it describes are near-east euphemisms for induced miscarriage. This miscarriage is brought about by a "bitter water" prescribed for adulterous women. If the interpretation above is right, God *commanded* certain people to perform chemical abortions.

Jim said...

Wraithius,

Interesting points--further details which my (limited, because of the trimester's end) research hasn't yet uncovered.

(I think you meant "Numbers 5")

7 If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away, [6] and she will become accursed among her people.And I think you're right--it certainly sounds like an induced miscarriage. I had never really studied that passage--it's one that gets skipped over in Sunday services.

Jim said...

(I should also learn to spell "Wrathius" right.)

Andrew Bailey said...

Numbers, yes, that's the one.

Joe Carter said...

Joe Carter loathes Peter Singer's ethics;Yes, that's a polite way to put it. ; )

They have to recognize, though, that respected thinkers within the Christian tradition, as well as long-standing common law, provide support for the position that legal personhood does not begin at conception--so, even if fundamentally misguided, it's not an "extremist" view. Oversimplifying the issue benefits no one.While I certainly give the “respected thinkers within the Christian tradition” due credit, their pronouncements are not infallible. I’m sure there were also many genuine, intelligent Christian thinkers who believed that black people did not have “souls.” Those people were wrong. And while I don’t hold their ignorance against them, I certainly do not follow their line of reasoning.

The same holds true for the idea that personhood begins at conception. Christians have generally recognized that “personhood” begins when “life” does. So when we discovered that human life began prior to the “quickening” in the womb, we had to change our ideas to conform to reality. Ignoring the scientific data simply to continue a justify a morally questionable practice is, in my opinion, as much of an “extremist view” as believing that black Americans are without souls.

Jim said...

"The same holds true for the idea that personhood begins at conception. Christians have generally recognized that “personhood” begins when “life” does. So when we discovered that human life began prior to the “quickening” in the womb, we had to change our ideas to conform to reality."

First, I want to recognize you, Mr. Carter, for maintaining civility even when your readers so quickly descend into name-calling and caterwauling.

Second, I'd like to see the "Christians have generally recognized..." claim warranted. I have shown several historical examples that counter that claim, and haven't seen them refuted. Certainly, modern Christians hold to that position, but whether it has always been extant in Christianity is debatable.

Third, the statement hinges on a (begged) question of what "life" means; as my (Christian) biology professor taught, sperm are very much "alive," and yet no one mourns their loss--and no one mourns (never mind knows?) when a zygote fails to implant. Has a person been lost at that point? I would argue no--implantation seems like a better bright line, if any, than conception.

I'm not here to defend abortion; I hope that is clear. I would merely like to see your evidence that conception = personhood is inherent in either Old Testament or later Christian thought.

(I would also argue that progress in Christian morality beyond slavery--which is justified in the Old Testament and not roundly condemned in the New Testament--is more explicable as an outgrowth of theories of individual rights that are add-ons to Christian dogma, but that's another debate.)

Joe Carter said...

First, I want to recognize you, Mr. Carter, for maintaining civility even when your readers so quickly descend into name-calling and caterwauling.Thank you. I try to do what any good Christian would do – cuss them under my breath instead of saying it aloud. ; )

Second, I'd like to see the "Christians have generally recognized..." claim warranted. I have shown several historical examples that counter that claim, and haven't seen them refuted. Certainly, modern Christians hold to that position, but whether it has always been extant in Christianity is debatable.Let me give it a shot:

In Christian England before the Norman conquest, the legal powers of a father followed the Roman tradition. -- note that the legal precedent followed the Romans and not Christian teachings.

Infanticide was widely practiced in all Christian countries until the 19th Century. -- I’m sure the same could be said about rape and murder as well. Being a saint does not make one a Saint. But just because it was practiced does not mean it was endorsed by the religion itself.

We shall see that for Catholics the killing of an "unformed" fetus was not murder until a papal decree of 1869. -- I’m not sure that many Christians would not consider all forms of fetuscide to be “murder.”

In Protestant countries the "forming" of the fetus was called "quickening," and abortions were permissible until that time. -- This one is an example of what I was referring to. Pre-modern Christians believed that the baby “came to life” – and hence, became a person – at this stage of development.

Third, the statement hinges on a (begged) question of what "life" means; as my (Christian) biology professor taught, sperm are very much "alive," and yet no one mourns their loss--and no one mourns (never mind knows?) when a zygote fails to implant. Sperms are “alive” in the same sense that all human cells are. And while it might be true that no one mourns the loss of a zygote that fails to implant, it really has no bearing on the morality of actively destroying such an entity.

Has a person been lost at that point? I would argue no--implantation seems like a better bright line, if any, than conception.I once considered that argument but rejected it upon further review.

I would merely like to see your evidence that conception = personhood is inherent in either Old Testament or later Christian thought.I would make a minor substitution. The view is that “life=personhood.” Christians who were unaware of the biological beginning of life may have been confused on the issue but they would certainly have concluded that once a person was “alive” they were a “person.” It would be rather difficult to defend such a claim, however, since the people of the Biblical period would have no reason to state such an obvious point. It wasn’t until the Greek philosophical influence that dualism began to creep into Christian thought. Prior to then claiming that “personhood” began when life did would be like stating that circles are round.

Jim said...

I'm still not convinced that the whole argument isn't circular and definitional. Why does "life" begin at conception? Because the zygote is "alive." How do we know? Because we define "life" as... what? Existing as a clump of cells with no definable human characteristic, because of a substance view not inherent in ancient thought, and informed by recent scientific discoveries of debatable merit.

I doubt that Aquinas or Augustine would have considered the zygote, embryo, fetus, or child anything but "alive," but in their philosophical framework, they were not yet rational, did not have the third, defining, distinctive part of the human soul. They might be wrong, certainly, but again, my whole point is to demonstrate that even in classic Christianity there is a case for the non-personhood of an embryo.

Being a saint does not make one a Saint. But just because it was practiced does not mean it was endorsed by the religion itself. We're looking for evidence of condemnation, not of explicit endorsement; especially if, as Hugh Hewitt remarked, silence is tacit consent.

I’m not sure that many Christians would not consider all forms of fetuscide to be “murder.” I'm confused by the double negation here, and wait for a clarification. :)

Pre-modern Christians believed that the baby “came to life” – and hence, became a person – at this stage of development.

The question is, is their justification any less valid? Are we granting that O.T. or other pre-modern laws and morals are no longer applicable because they are based on ignorance? This leads one into murky theological waters.

Sperms are “alive” in the same sense that all human cells are. And while it might be true that no one mourns the loss of a zygote that fails to implant, it really has no bearing on the morality of actively destroying such an entity.... I once considered that argument but rejected it upon further review.I'll admit that the naturalistic fallacy may have some bearing here. But since we're talking about when "life" begins, it is a curious fact that, if we all would agree that life begins at conception, that no one mourns lost zygotes. Why should their loss be any less tragic? There are some things that are natural and moral; merely claiming that the naturalistic fallacy is a possibility does not make it real. In nature, some animals care for their young; others eat them. That does not negate the positive or negative morality of either; it merely means we must not look only to nature as a moral criterion.

Christians who were unaware of the biological beginning of life may have been confused on the issue but they would certainly have concluded that once a person was “alive” they were a “person.” It would be rather difficult to defend such a claim, however, since the people of the Biblical period would have no reason to state such an obvious point. It wasn’t until the Greek philosophical influence that dualism began to creep into Christian thought. Prior to then claiming that “personhood” began when life did would be like stating that circles are round.Two different measures of "life" are found in the O.T. quite explicitly: breath (Genesis) and blood (Exodus). Again, the issue is not whether zygotes, embryos, or fetuses are living creatures, but whether they are persons with legal and moral standing. Again, if we want to claim ignorance as the basis for OT moral judgment (as exemplified, for example, in the book of Numbers), then we are granting that it is possible that O.T. morality is in fact immoral. I'm quite willing to accept that, since I have no need to defend O.T. morality as a categorical framework.