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Our Soulless Society

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

Back in 2005, The New York Times asked a number of contemporary thinkers what idea that is taken for granted these days they think will disappear “in the next 35 years.”

Peter Singer, the professor of bioethics at Princeton

University’s Orwellian-named “Center for Human Values,” responded: “the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.” That view, he explained, will “collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments.”

It’s been less than ten years since that prediction, but the professor is already being proven a prophet.

The Journal of Medical Ethics is a peer-reviewed academic journal in the field of bioethics, established in 1975. A scholarly paper that appeared in its pages in 2012 has, for some reason, been receiving new attention. It deserves it.

It was titled “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” and was written by two academics, members of the philosophy departments of, respectively, the University of Milan and the University of Melbourne.

Its authors’ summary reads, in its entirety, as follows:

“Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that 1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, 2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and 3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”

And the paper goes on to expand on each of those contentions. In The Weekly Standard, where he serves as senior editor, Andrew Ferguson offered his synopsis of the paper:

“Neither fetus nor baby has developed a sufficient sense of his own life to know what it would be like to be deprived of it. The kid will never know the difference, in other words. A newborn baby is just a fetus who’s hung around a bit too long.”

By using the word “newborn,” Mr. Ferguson is too kind to the writers. In their own words they make clear that they are not limiting their considered judgment to the moments, or even days, after birth. “Hardly,” they write, “can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth.”

While the writers concede that killing babies, or terminating pregnancies, does prevent a meaningful life from happening, they contend that “it makes no sense to say that someone is harmed by being prevented from becoming an actual person. . . . In order for a harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is in the condition of experiencing that harm.”

Missing entirely in the authors’ calculus is the possibility that something other than “harm” to a human being, whether born or potential, may be in play here. Any such concern, they would surely say, is for their universities’ religion departments to consider, not their own.

That is part of the toll taken by the compartmentalization of contemporary scholarship. Once upon a time, no essential distinction was made between what was called “natural science” and “moral science.”

The latter, part and parcel of philosophy, concerned things like G‑d, teleology, human purpose, and the soul.

In the absence of the concept of a human soul, there is indeed nothing to prevent us from casually terminating a yet-unborn life or a life no longer “useful” or a life not yet cognizant of its potential. Neither, for that matter, would one be justified to consider humans of any stage or age inherently more worthy than animals. Put succinctly, a society that denies the soul is not only soul-less but soulless.

There are many issues where contemporary mores stand in stark contrast with the Jewish values that have permeated the world since the time of Avraham. The issue of dispatching babies, unborn or otherwise, is one.

To be sure, halacha makes clear that the life of a Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is hardly free from controversy, there are respected rabbinic opinions that extend that precedence as well to cases where there is serious jeopardizing of the mother’s health. But those narrow exceptions certainly do not translate into some unlimited mother’s “right” to make whatever “choice” she may see fit about the child she carries. And certainly not about a child already born.

Judaism has little to say about rights; it speaks instead of right, and of wrong; of duties and obligations. And one obligation, although it is being degraded by the increasingly soul-less society in which we live, is to value human life, born or otherwise. v

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran.

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.

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Posted by on March 20, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.