National Affairs Rory Leishman

National Affairs Rory Leishman

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, has been aptly described by the New York Times Magazine as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” In his latest book, a collection of essays entitled Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, $31.32, 384 pages) he has summarized and advanced the reasonable arguments for upholding the sanctity of human life and the essential nature of marriage as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman.

Consider the question: when does human life begin? Pro-lifers are apt to assume that by now any reasonably intelligent and well-informed person must know that human life begins at conception. Yet many people profess ignorance. As an example, George cites the notorious statement by Nancy Pelosi, a self-professed Catholic and leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives: “I don’t think anybody can tell you … when human life begins.”

Is Pelosi really that ignorant? Perhaps, as a leading proponent of abortion on demand, she only feigns ignorance about the beginning of human life. Regardless, she should know that modern science has established that human life begins at conception. As George states: “The facts of human embryogenesis and early development make the conclusion inescapable: … Your life began, as did the life of every other human being, when the fusion of egg and sperm produced a new, complete, living organism – an embryonic human being.”

In last year’s vice-presidential debate, Pelosi’s fellow Catholic and exponent of abortion on demand, Vice President Joe Biden, said: “Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others.”

As George points out, Biden should know that the proposition that human life begins at conception is a matter of scientific consensus, not just clerical judgment.

For this reason, even many advocates of abortion on demand now concede that human life begins at conception. Yet they still argue that babies in the womb have no right to life on the ground that preborn children lack the self-consciousness and superior capacity for reasoning that elevates human persons over all other animals.

George aptly responds that it is not until several months after birth that human infants develop mental capacities greater than other animals such as dogs or cats. Therefore, according to the personhood argument, it is not just human embryos and fetuses, but also newborn babies that have no right to life. And by this same reasoning, just as it is permissible to kill human embryos for medical research, “it follows logically,” writes George, “that, subject to parental approval, the body parts of human infants should be fair game for scientific experimentation.”

Is this an exaggeration? Not at all. George notes that some philosophers, including his notorious Princeton colleague, Peter Singer, have explicitly endorsed this argument.

The reasons advanced by George for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death are clear and compelling. Thanks in no small measure to his intellectual leadership over the past 30 years, more and more people – especially young people – are finally beginning to grasp that direct abortion is an evil that can never be justified.

The same cannot be said for the persuasive power of the reasons advanced by George and others for the traditional definition of marriage. While faithful Christians can readily grasp these reasons inasmuch as they concur with divine revelation in Sacred Scripture, these same reasons are lost on a great many secular people, including most academics: many have renounced marriage outright, while others can see no reason for denying same-sex couples the right to marry on essentially the same basis as a man and a woman.

Given the fallen nature of man, such obtuseness is not surprising. Nonetheless, appeals to Scriptural authority are obviously lost on intractable atheists and agnostics. Many also have no regard for the wisdom of tradition. For these benighted people, there is no alternative to reason as a guide to the truth about the nature of marriage and the sanctity of human life.

There is no more persuasive summary of those reasons than that provided by George in Conscience and its Enemies. It’s a valuable resource for all pro-life leaders and academics.