Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/17/2012

To a childhood friend: Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

When I was in fourth grade, a good friend transferred to the new St. Agnes Catholic school in our small city.

How could he not?

His name was Mike O’Shea.

When he transferred, my mother taught me the evils of Catholicism. She didn’t know much about the theological differences between our two versions of Christianity. But she was adamant about two concepts: that Catholics all but worshiped the Pope; and that if, in childbirth, the life of the mother was in danger, those people would save the baby before they saved the mother, and that was unimaginable!

These days Mom would be in a tiny minority among Baptist preachers’ wives who’d say the life of a mother is more valuable than the life of her unborn baby.

I don’t understand a great deal of what goes on in the world (ask my friend Gordy—he’d tell you I’m too emotional or something, that I am a conspiracy theorist, or that I get too involved in radical divisive left-wing ideas).  Gordy notwithstanding, I am baffled—my view of the rightness of the world and the intelligence of human beings is completely and utterly transmogrified—when I consider that so many Americans have been convinced, in the short span of sixty or so years since Mike O’Shea went to St. Agnes School, that a fetus, an embryo, a zygote, for goodness’ sake! is a person.

St. Agnes

St. Agnes

Don’t take my word for it. Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, explains that

Those convinced that abortion is murder can, of course, maintain that this entire line of argument merely shows that we must hold that the fertilized egg is a human person: abortion is always wrong and it wouldn’t be if the fertilized egg weren’t a person (1).

The reason, he says and everyone knows, to believe abortion—even disposing of a zygote— is murder is that a human egg contains all the DNA necessary to develop into a human being and is one. However, Gutting says that is not enough reason to hold that a zygote is a person.  He explains that

analysis does show that those who do not agree that a fertilized egg is a person cannot argue that abortion is wrong because an embryo or fetus has human DNA.  To maintain a strong anti-abortion position, they must find some other reason for thinking that abortion is murder (2).

Here’s my sweeping generalization. Those who believe abortion is murder have “some other reason.” For Roman Catholics it is apparently the authority of the Pope’s teachings, and for other Christians it is apparently somehow related to “family values.” No one has one iota of evidence that a fertilized egg is a human being  At any rate, none of the dozens of articles I’ve read, and none of the explanations I’ve heard from students, from cousins, from members of churches where I’ve been organist have offered me any proof.

Perhaps I simply don’t have the mental capacity to comprehend scientific fact. I admit that.

On the other hand, the fact that a zygote has all of the DNA necessary to form what we know as a human being is not proof or evidence that it IS a human being. In order to assert that zygotes are persons, one has to use any or all of at least four logical fallacies: Appeal to Belief takes the form of, “Most people believe that a claim, X, is true; therefore, X is true.” Appeal to Authority asserts that Person A is an authority on the subject at hand; Person A makes claim C about subject S; therefore, C is true. An Appeal to Tradition assumes that something is correct simply because it is traditional, or “has always been believed;” that is, X is an old or traditional idea; therefore X is correct. And a Genetic Fallacy is a line of reasoning in which the origin of a claim is taken to be evidence for the claim. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form: the origin of the claim is presented; therefore, the claim is true because of its origin.

Belief: “Most people believe zygotes are person; therefore, zygotes are persons.”
Authority: “The Pope and Pat Robertson say a zygote is a person; therefore, zygotes are persons.”
Tradition: “People have always believed a zygote is a person; therefore, zygotes are persons.”
Genetic: “Scientists know a zygote has human DNA; therefore, zygotes are human.”

It is possible to use logical fallacies to refute these logical fallacies. I can give as my authority David DeGrazia, Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who says

Whether for religious reasons or because they find the idea inherently reasonable, many people assume that we have full moral status the moment we come into being. But this assumption is not self-evident.  . .  prior to the point at which a fetus becomes sentient – which  apparently occurs at around six months’ gestation – its moral status is only partial. As with many other philosophers, I hold that sentience is central to a determination of moral status. Sentience is the capacity to have feelings. . . (3).

The assumption that a zygote is a person is not self-evident. The Catholic Church itself thought not until the 20th century.

The Creationist views of Augustine and Aquinas were the norm in the Christian West . . . to the late nineteenth century. . .  Pope Gregory IX (c. 1241) affirmed the distinction between “vivified” fetuses (older than forty days) and those younger than so. Not until . . . Pope Sixtus V in 1588 did the forty-day rule vanish and abortion was declared illegal . . . But this ruling was rescinded by Sixtus’s successor Gregory XIV, and this repeal lasted until 1869, when Pius IX reinstated the earlier decision. Even so, Pius’s decree did not become canon law until 1918—a mere ninety years ago(4).

Family values unless you're poor

Family values unless you're poor

So how did so many Americans come to believe that the millisecond in which a human spermatozoa enters an ova, a fully human entity is created? Oh, heck, I’ll just quote:

By the end of the 1970s, the Christian right had devised rhetoric that made liberal reformers enemies of the family and positioned “family values” as mainstream fare. Opposing abortion, feminism, and gay rights. . .  would benefit all Americans. . . Americans viewed with suspicion any political movement that encroached on individual liberties. Yet the Christian Right  [succeeded]  by establishing the family as . . . instrumental to America’s success. “If America is to return to original greatness,” wrote [Jerry] Falwell, “we must … support the traditional monogamous family as the only acceptable form.” Falwell . . . suggested that America became great because it nurtured “traditional” families. Thus. . .  opposition to abortion, feminism, and gay rights became markers of mainstream identity (5).

Opposition to abortion, feminism, and gay rights became markers of mainstream American identity. The Christian right convinced the Christian center, and Rick Perry ends basic medical care for 130,000 women in Texas to prove that our state believes in “family values” (6).
(1) Gutting, Gary. “On Abortion and Defining a ‘Person’.” Opinionator. November 30, 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
(2) loc. cit.
(3). DeGrazia, David. “Moral Status, Human Identity, And Early Embryos: A Critique Of The President’s Approach.” Journal Of Law, Medicine & Ethics 34.1 (2006): 49-57.
(4) Disney, Lindsey, and Larry Poston. “The Breath Of Life: Christian Perspectives On Conception And Ensoulment.” Anglican Theological Review 92.2 (2010): 271-295.
(5) Dowland, Seth. “”Family Values’ and the Formation of a Christian Right Agenda.” Church History 78:3 (September 2009), 606-631.
(6) Beadle, Amanda Peterson. “130,000 Texas Women Lose Health Care Just So TX Can Prove How Anti-Abortion It Is.” Think Progress. March 16, 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.


  1. […] the continuing ballyhoo over abortion in state legislatures, especially the tyrannical law in Virginia (the anti-abortionists apparently […]


  2. I wish thought processes like this could get out to more people. People aren’t looking back to when ideas/movements started in this country or what the motivations were in starting them. Many were started out of hate or at least breed hate. Sometimes I think I am a conspiracy theorist and I have become obsessed with negative effects religion has on human relationships. I just see it as man’s invention to have control over other men instead of teaching man to have control over themselves. It is too fear based and fear creates control. I am interested to know your views on the legalization of marijuana (maybe you have written them and I haven’t gotten that far in your posts).



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