Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the editor


Sorry, Dr. Ramm
S.C. Kennedy 
Department of Pathology 
Queen's University Kingston, Ontario, Canada

From: JASA 27 (June 1975): 96.

Bernard Ramm's suggestion (Journal ASA 26, 137 (1974), that the ethical problems involved in decisions about abortion would be simplified if the question, "When does human life begin?" were to be replaced by the question. 'What is human life intended to be?" was a good try, but wins no cigar. In theory, the use of such a question would permit abortion of a defective fetus but prevent abortion of a normal fetus. However, consider the following problems. First, there is no general agreement on what constitutes a "defect." Dr. Ramm suggested that a defect might be anything which presented the fetus from becoming a mature, rational, integrated adult. Others might add anything which caused a physical defect. Still others night add anything which transmitted Jewish genes into the general pool, or anything which caused dark skin. Not so long ago we had a whole country convinced that Jewish genes were a defect which should be eradicated, and this idea is not yet extinct by any means. Remember also that one branch of the "evangelical" church in South Africa maintains that negroes have no souls; it would he a small step indeed to accept the idea that abortion of the "human-animal" hybrids produced by interbreeding is not only acceptable but a duty to the "human" race. Miscegenation laws are already strictly enforced in South Africa, for that reason. However, obtaining general agreement on the type of defect which prevents a fetus from becoming human is not the only problem: the degree of defect must also be specified so that a cutoff point can be established. What should be the lowest limit of intelligence to be defined as "human?" When it comes to physical defects, are club feet sufficient justification for abortion? Cleft palate and hare lip? Congenital heart disease? Blindness or deafness? Hydrocephalus? Lack of arms or legs? Defects of bowel or bladder control? On what grounds (other than arbitrary) could one possibly set a cot-off point for either mental or physical deficiencies?

The problems do not end here. If it is moral to kill a fetus which is not able to become "a mature, rational, integrated adult," then it is certainly ethical to kill a newborn, a child, a teenager, or an adult who by reason of accident, infection, metabolic disease, or old age, (or psychological abnormalities?) is judged to be incapable of ever becoming mature, rational and integrated. The same problems of deciding on the type and extent of the disability which justifies killing such a person are again present. Sorry, Dr. Ramm, but I think it would be better to stick with the original question. At least that can be answered biologically.