In order to understand some of the problems facing us as lawyers and as physicians today, it is necessary, I believe, to ask and to answer correctly, three fundamental questions.

  • How do we attain the truth?
  • What is human life?
  • How do we value human life?
  • The following will, I hope, indicate how to proceed to answer these questions.

Since the unfortunate and unnecessary rupture between the Church and Science at the time of Copernicus and Galileo, it has come to be generally believed that the only road to truth is that of empirical science -that only that which can be measured by the tools of science is really so.

Now science has as its proper object, the material world.  It can give us information, rather than truth; information in regard to the causal relationships between phenomena; and this information is usually expressed in the form of data, statistical approximations and mathematical formulae.  However, the structure of science is built on an edifice whose justification and reason for existence depends on a completely different form of human reasoning, that of philosophy.

Does objective truth exist?

In order to fully justify and validate the conclusions of science, and discover its proper role in human life, one must first ask and adequately answer such questions as these.  Does objective truth exist?  What so I mean by being?  Existence?  What do I mean by knowing?  Does man have a spirit?  Is man free?  What is the meaning of man – his purpose?  Consequently, what should man do and what not?  Is there good or evil?  Why, in pursuing truth must I be logical?  In other words, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics etc., are needed in order to reach the truth about the role of science in our lives and to understand the basic assumptions on which science is built.

We are all today, aware of the world and of concerns about nuclear war, poverty, environmental pollution and bioethical problems.  These problems are not scientific only, they are moral in nature.  That raises several questions.  One simply must ask the question, Should I do it? Before performing any scientific experiment, passing any particular law, or performing any particular medical procedure, and one must answer correctly before proceeding.  But science alone can neither ask nor answer these questions.

“Kindly light”

The answer to these questions can be reached in part, by philosophical reflection.  But one more source of information is necessary to see revealed in its full radiance the beauty, the goodness and truth of our world; one more guide to moral action is absolutely required before we can see clearly enough o enable us to choose the really human way to act.  That source, that guide, is the light of faith.  This “kindly light,” ad Newman put it, leads us on the only truly human path.  It is through the faith, not through philosophy that we come closest to knowledge of God, of His nature, of His love for us; and of our own nature, destiny and responsibilities.

Science has, frankly, no complete guide to action.  The notion, that “if it can be done, it should be done” (the technological imperative) has led to our world of today.  We should realize that we mist not neglect either philosophy or faith, as our sources of moral truth.

What is human life?, is our second question.  The life of a human being, if only viewed from a biological perspective as that of an animal, starts at conception and ends at death.  But it is much more than that.  It is a marvelous gift of God and lasts for eternity.  How do we know this?  We know it not only through empirical science, and through philosophical reflection, but by our faith – and I mean knowledge with even more certitude then that derived from science or even philosophy.

Faith provides real knowledge.  Today, this is not a popular or even a well-understood concept, but it is nonetheless true.  We know, therefore, by faith infinitely more about the full stature of man, than would ever be possible from philosophy and science.  Thus, for those with the Judaeo-Christian heritage, the implications about the way we should lead our lives, have to be worked out in the light of this faith.

The moment of conception

Let us consider in a little more detail the nature of the human organism at its moment of conception.  There is an unfortunate failure of imagination on the part of those who see early embryonic human life as “a mere clump of cells,” or “a lump,” or “tissue,” etc.  The human being in its earlier forms and most exquisitely in its earliest form, the single cell, or zygote, is a marvelous example of micro-miniaturization.  What we wonder at and applaud in the latest products of our technology, we dismiss with pejoratives in a human being.  In that cell is one whole physical being which will unfold over time – represented, as Jerome Lejeune has said, by coded information, coded as it were, like the symphonies of Mozart on a cassette.

The micro-molecular structure of that one cell is of mind-boggling complexity. The distance between the tiny particles of matter of which the cell is composed and the cell membrane or outer wall is of a similar order of magnitude In relative terms as the distance between us and the edge of the known universe.  The mathematics of the programming of the cell defy the imagination.  Everything, from the eye colour to our psychic characteristics, is encoded in these molecules.

At the other end of our lives we come to the moment of death.  Nowadays, this can be defined with some precision by medical science.  A number of criteria – the so-called Harvard criteria – of brain function are used.

It is of interest to note how gladly and eagerly lawyers and jurists have handed the death problem over to medical science.  For death has interesting legal consequences; they now have the task of determining the moment of death.  But as regards the moment when life begins, the law tells us, “NO:  This is a matter for philosophers and religionists to debate.”  An interesting inconsistency, I should say.

One must carefully distinguish, however, between cessation of brain function and total brain death.  The Harvard criteria tend to emphasize the former in defining brain death; but, for Catholic and Orthodox Jews, a person cannot rightly be regarded as dead unless total brain death is certain. This cannot be inferred from physiological evidence which only indicates that, though not now certainly dead, the brain may soon be so.  The brain may be malfunctioning, or non-functioning, but is not necessarily destroyed.  Persons who have suffered from hypothermia, cardiovascular shock, overdose of morphine, Phenobarbital, etc. have been shown to have all the Harvard Criteria of total brain non-function which are commonly misinterpreted as indicating brain death – only to be restored to “life” by continued medical treatment.

Organ harvesting

A new agenda is now appearing on the horizon: organ harvesting.  Occasionally a doctor who wants organs for replacement purposes may perhaps be a little over-zealous when it comes to declaring some person who is “in extremis” to be actually clinically dead.  A new motive has surfaced for pulling the plug.  Also, some doctors are now resorting to the legal fiction of declaring patients dead when they are not yet so, in order to protect themselves from the dangers of litigation.

In regard to abortion, one hears on argument nowadays that the definition of when life begins is a matter of philosophical and theological debate and may never be settled.  So, it is of no practical importance, and legal matters pertaining to, say, abortion of euthanasia must be settled pragmatically by the courts.  Those who reason this way so, in fact, deny the relevance of philosophy and declare themselves to be totally neutral and then they adopt a philosophy and a moral posture which is itself relativist and consequentialist and which has its own distinctive bias.

There are a few clear-headed, if bloody-minded, materialists who recognize the humanity of the fetus, but still regard it as insignificant and valueless.  Most resort, however, to the semantic subterfuge of declaring it non-human “in a purely legal sense”, while avoiding the issue of its human-ness as a matter deserving and requiring rational discourse.  The behaviour of the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. is a supreme example of this.

This leads me to my third question: how do we value human life?  I can recommend to you for your perusal, a short article called “Controlled Reactions” by Ellen Wilson in a book called “An Even Dozen” (The Human Life Press).  Here you will find a most lucid, intelligent, and elegant philosophical answer to this question.

No matter how much biological evidence is adduced of the humanity of the unborn child, it is not fully convincing for all.  The publication of pictures, taken in utero, the ultrasound evidence of the obviously-human characteristics of the fetus (i.e. sucking his or her thumb at twelve weeks) – are fine in a way, and indeed they must not be under-estimated.  The International Planned Parenthood folk in the United States are, apparently, far more concerned that the recent evidence from fetal surgery and the articles in Life and Time, etc., will allow the general public to realize the humanness of unborn children, and to identify with them, than they are about the efforts of their pro-life opponents.  Indeed, the recent evidence, published in The New England Journal of Medicine indicates that if a pregnant woman sees her unborn child on the ultrasound TV screen, she is less likely to abort it; further, the physician is also less likely to abort, even as he, who really ought to know better, identifies more with the baby as a result of this encounter.

However, having said all of that, one is left with the sad fact that many people are still skeptical and remain strangely unmoved.  So, the matters of rights of the unborn and of the value of human life, cannot rest only on this kind of knowledge.

James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, would grant the newborn three days to prove itself fully human, before allowing it to receive its birth certificate.  These three days could, it is assumed, be used to allow a convenient euthanasia id so desired.

The following two arguments are commonly used in defending the fetus.

First:  the value of human life

Second:  the sanctity of human life

Market value?

The person who is pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia may admit that human life has value, but yet believe that, in his scheme of things, the value should be assigned by others.  The value of the person is for some people, not intrinsic to the person, but is more like a market value, a sort of average of all the values assigned by the population at large.

The sacredness of human life is asserted by some, even by those who have no belief in a deity at all.  They feel only the reverence that one human being has for another.  It speaks for itself, they think.  But it is based only on a human feeling.  What happens if the feeling is one of revulsion?  Then we are back to getting the common opinion, and again the sacredness is attributed to, is extrinsic to, the person, not intrinsic.  It may be given, or withheld, or withdrawn.

Our society is pluralistic; it contains people of every, and of no faith, people who feel reverence for human life, even that of the so-called “unworthy” and those who so not feel.  An attempt to answer the questions I have outlined above is not likely to reach a satisfactory conclusion by reaching for a popular consensus in our day or our nation.

Instead, I suggest that the answers will come after we have attained a proper understanding of science, philosophy and our faith.  We must all work very hard to find the proper answers, and we must do our duty, in all charity and justice, to make the truth of these matters known and to apply them to our personal and public lives.  Faith does not obscure reality, but reveals it.  It is not a hindrance, but a help.  It is not a diminution, but a completion.

We therefore, have a duty to all who have not yet seen life in all its glorious dimensions – a duty to help them come to that knowledge and to act in accordance with it by virtue of their good will and response to the inspiration of the Spirit.

The above is the revised transcript of a speech given last fall in Toronto, by Dr. Shea to the St. Thomas More Guild of Lawyers and The Toronto Catholic Doctors Guild.  Dr. Shea is Director of Department of Radiology, Centennary Hospital, Scarborough.