Perhaps our commonsense moral intuitions still allow us to consider infants “persons,” to use that unfortunate term that so dominates our current legal and moral evaluation of virtually every life issue. Perhaps those intuitions do not. But I should have qualified my confidence by referring only to “normal” infants, as we become more and more aware that all too often abnormal infants are not considered “persons.” Some studies suggest the termination of 80% of prenatally-diagnosed Downs children, technological developments enable parents to prenatally-identify defects including cleft palates, and at least one study shows that such information leads to abortion. The problem of course does not remain an in utero one; thinking that defective fetuses are not “persons” (which really means “sufficiently human”) bleeds into way we conceive of infants generally.
My point is not that the logic invoked by those who terminate defective fetuses can be used to justify infanticide should those fetuses be fortunate to be born — though that is true. The infallibility of the logic that extends abortion to infanticide has been shown and accepted in candor by (among others) Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who has shown that nothing morally significant distinguishes the pre- from the post-natal human being. My point instead is that we face an unavoidable problem once we accept the creation of a subcategory of human beings which we call “persons.”
The argument in favor of distinguishing persons from human beings arises from a concern about “speciesism;” the “-ism” signaling an arbitrary preference for the category to which it is appended. Thus, as “racism” involves preferring one group of people based on race, “speciesism” involves arbitrarily preferring one species to another; in this case preferring human beings to other species, say Gallus gallus (the chicken) or Fuligo septica (the “dog vomit” fungus that grows in our mulch). In an act of wanton species discrimination, this summer my two oldest daughters raked a Fuligo septica into a puff of smoke. I have not yet submitted them to species retraining.
To avoid such arbitrary preference of the species Homo sapiens as my daughters exhibited, then, one must posit certain qualities of the human being to which one can attach moral weight. This concern animates the search for identifiable qualities distinguishing human animals from non-human animals. I'll mention just two of many such searches. One is to locate in the human animal certain cognitive capacities, such as prolonged consciousness of self. This is an approach favored by some philosophers. Another approach, embraced by some dissenting Catholic moral theologians, locates in the human animal the capacity for certain kinds of relationships.
I do not have, nor do I think I need, the space to point to all the problems of these kinds of approaches. One general point should suffice. In both and every such case of identifying a quality or qualities that distinguishes mere belonging to the species Homo sapiens from the superior membership in the class “person,” the quality or qualities may be lost (or never possessed) through injury, illness, or defect, or only exist in potential, as in fetuses and infants. I am aware of nothing in the Christian tradition that suggests that such fragile qualities as these serve as the ground of God's love for us. Instead, the Christian tradition continues to assert mere membership in the species Homo sapiens suffices for God. This should be enough for us as well. This summer, should a Fuligo septica be foolish enough to test my daughters' sensitivities, I shall raise a toast to my daughters' embrace of speciesism.
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.