Commentary Magazine


The Unborn

To the Editor:

In his review of Clifford Grobstein’s Science and the Unborn: Choosing Human Futures [Books in Review, May] Richard John Neuhaus summarizes Grobstein as follows: “The status (as opposed to the humanness) of the unborn is not something that is ‘there,’ which we are then obliged to respect and protect. Rather, the moral status of the unborn—and, it turns out, of others already born—is both created and maintained by our assignment.” Pastor Neuhaus faults this position for its “circularity” and doubts that it will “build a consensus” acceptable to the “overall public ethos.”

Pastor Neuhaus’s criticisms, although valid, do not address the central issue. Let us suppose that the status and, consequently, the rights of the individual are not (in the language of the Declaration of Independence) “unalienable,” but rather exist only by concession and at the sufferance of others, as Gröbstem would have it. This constitutes the destruction of any possibility of human rights, of rights due to the individual in virtue of his being human. By this criterion there exists no principled reason why one human being need ever respect another. In practice, a person will respect only those who are in a position to do him harm. He will respect only those who are equal or superior to him in strength and will ignore those who are weaker, which in our time means the unborn. It follows that society is simply the arbitrary rule of the strong over the weak for the exclusive benefit of the former, an arrangement which generations wiser than ours would recognize as a kind of tyranny.

We can avoid this tyranny only through a ringing affirmation of the principle that in virtue of the common humanity of the strong and the weak, reason dictates not that we “assign” status to anyone but that we recognize and acknowledge the status that is there.

Pastor Neuhaus considers Grob-stein’s argument “an advance over earlier pro-choice advocacy.” On the contrary, Grobstein’s position is a retreat from the moral principle that the strong have responsibilities to the weak. Indeed, his position is virtually identical to one that Socrates and Euthyphro argued about millennia ago, which inclines one to doubt that much moral progress has been made since.

Pace Grobstein, the problem is not “the question of the rational criteria by which we will or will not assign status to a human life,” for such a decision can never be ours to make. The problem is what means we shall employ to afford protection for the rights of all human beings, regardless of their present dignity and status under the law.

David E. Bomar
Tarzana, California

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Richard John Neuhaus writes:

David E. Bomar and I have no argument. I agree thoroughly with his rephrasing of my contention that the proposal that only those possess rights who have the power to assert rights is a formula for the certain undermining of human rights in law and morality. My remark about Grobstein’s argument being “an advance over earlier pro-choice advocacy” was simply an acknowledgment that he at least recognizes the need to think seriously about what or who it is in the womb that is involved in our debates about abortion, fetal experimentation, and the such. Mr. Bomar and I are at one in believing that the question is the obligation of the strong to the weak.

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