by Roger Resler
I discovered the writings of Francis Beckwith while doing research on the update and revision of my audio-book turned print edition, Compelling Interest. His name kept popping up in the reference section and footnotes of the materials I was reading. Unfortunately, I did not actually get a copy of his book, or see any of his writings (other than what was quoted in other materials) until after my updated manuscript was finished. Once I began reading his materials on abortion, I was amazed at how similar our conclusions are regarding the abortion debate. Certainly some similarities are to be expected, given that we are both pro-life and both writing on the topic of abortion, but I was amazed at just how similar our thinking is. For example, on page 114 of his book Defending Life, he quotes Harry Blackmun’s fallacious argument from pity in his dissenting opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) wherein Justice Blackmun attempts to illicit sympathy for the “millions of women” who have “ordered their lives around the right to reproductive choice…” but (it was believed at the time) apparently stood on the precipice of losing that right. By this point in the book, Beckwith has already shown how such a line of reasoning is fallacious because it says nothing about whether the “right to reproductive choice” should be a right in the first place, but instead, attempts to suggest that the right should be retained since millions of women have come to structure their lives around it.
I have a habit of making notes in the margins of books I’m reading in case I want to quote something in the future. When I read Dr. Beckwith’s quotation of Harry Blackmun, I noted that “This could be parodied to Dred Scott.” I continued reading and on the next page Dr. Beckwith presents a parody of Blackmun’s logic by substituting his defense of Roe with a similar defense of Dred Scott. After several additional instances like this I reached the conclusion that Francis Beckwith and I must be twins who were separated at birth.
Given all this, it is no great surprise that I would heartily agree with his latest blog posts at The Catholic Thing website. I responded to part two of his posts. The following is a re-post of that response.
Francis Beckwith wrote:
“What is key to understanding the third is that Blackmun concedes a symmetrical relationship between the right to abortion and the degree to which the fetus is not a person.”
“Degree” being the operative word. In theory, being a “person” or not being a person emerged as the pivotal moral factor in the abortion question during Roe v. Wade oral arguments, with even Sarah Weddington conceding that if the state could establish that a fetus is a “person” under the protection of the 14th Amendment, then she “would have a very difficult case.” (Pro-choice) Justice Stewart suggested that such a finding would render Weddington’s case “almost impossible” and Justice Blackmun wrote that Weddington’s case “collapses” with the establishment of fetal personhood. Thus, the metaphysical concept of “personhood” became the critical element that living humans are supposed to fully possess before their lives can be protected by the Constitution. This is a clear case of stacking the deck in favor of the pro-choice agenda.
It is precisely the ambiguous nature of the concept of “personhood” that was exploited by pro-choice proponents in order to facilitate the larger pro-choice notion that the decision (as to whether or not abortion is morally permissible) should be left up to each individual woman.
Ironically, with specific regard to the law, Justice Blackmun never conclusively suggested that the unborn are not persons, but rather that, according to the law, they had allegedly never been regarded as “persons in the whole sense.” The implication being that even if they were in some sense “partial persons” they were still not “whole” persons. This, of course, logically raises the question of how much “personhood” is required before one’s pre-existing life can be protected by the law; a question that can only be answered subjectively since personhood cannot be measured.
The debate over fetal personhood was therefore an ad hoc response specifically designed to facilitate the desire for abortion on request; a desire that had grown out of a larger desire to avoid moral responsibility to one’s own offspring. We would not be debating fetal “personhood” 40 years after Roe v. Wade, had there not previously existed a desire for legalized abortion on request