Abortion: The Consuming Soul and the Soul Consumed

Peter Chojnowski
Reproduced with Permission

Given by Dr. Peter Chojnowski at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, March 15, 1994
Topic: The roots of the contemporary claims that one human being has the fundamental "right" to take the life of another human being are in a new philosophical view concerning the soul or the "self's" relationship to the world. It will be the thesis of this lecture that the recent Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey can only be fully understood if the contemporary secularist view of the soul, what will be referred to here as the "consumer model" of the soul, is contrasted with the Classical Christian understanding of the soul and its relationship to the world. Whereas the Classical Christian understanding of the soul's proper relationship to the world grounded the legal and moral prohibition of abortion, it is the secularist view of the soul which provides the justification for the utterly unprecedented claim that one human being has the "right" to terminate an innocent human being's life.

Classical Christian view of the Human Soul:

1) The most important aspect of the human soul is that it is an Image of God which resembles its archetype by being personal, free, intellectual, capable of knowing itself, capable of knowing God, and capable of understanding the nature of the world around it. Unlike its archetype, however, it is created and therefore depends upon another for its existence. The human soul has active and passive aspects. The soul's most fundamental stance towards the world is a passive and receptive one. Its "situation" is such that it finds itself in a world of beings, values, goods, social situations, and a physical world which it did not create, but which it is called upon to respond properly to as is befitting the particular nature and the particular value of the realites it encounters.

This ability to "respond" to that which is other than itself is the essence of the soul's moral life. To respond in a "fitting" way to that which is encountered is the essence of moral goodness and to respond in an "unfitting" way is the essence of moral evil. The "moral moment" occurs when the soul is called upon to respond adequately to the "other" which it encounters. This is when the passive soul, the soul which has encountered that which it has not created, is called upon to be "active" in the most far-reaching and profound sense of that term.

The activity which the soul performs in its moral acts is the most perfect activity of which any being is capable. It is the most perfect form of activity because in this act the soul either affirms or negates the inner-most reality of the being which it encounters. To "affirm" a being, and here I am referring primarily to other persons, is to consciously recognize the majestic dignity of the other person as Image of God, to cherish the other person as an utterly unique manifestation of the visage of God, to will the integrity of the other person's being, and to minister to the integrity of the other person's being according to the demands of the particular situation To "negate" another person's being in a morally evil act, however, is to refuse the call to will the integrity of the other person.

In a morally evil act, I choose to "view" the other person as some "thing" the sole person of which is to satisfy my own egotistical needs and desire for mastery. A morally evil response to another person involves my consciously reducing that person to an instrument meant to minister to my own desire for satisfaction. Here it is not the personal integrity of the other which is affirmed, but rather, my own demand for satisfaction.

Contemporary Secularist view of the Self:

2) This leads us to the point where we can now treat what I will call the contemporary secularist view of the self. This contemporary view of the self has been shaped by such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger. I will refer to this view of the self as the "consumer" model of the soul. The reason that I will refer to this as the "consumer model" of the soul is that this model portrays the self as a predator which seeks as its ultimate goal self-fulfillment and self-actualization. In order to achieve this goal, however, this self must first fundamentally alter its stance towards the world and towards all that which is "other" than the self. In the classical Christian understanding of the soul's relationship to that which is other than the self, the self is understood to exist in a world of beings, none of which were given their being, value, or meaning by the self.

According to this understanding, the soul was "bound" by the "others" which it encountered in the world. It felt "called upon" to respond properly to the value of each and every thing which it encountered. This included one's parents, one's spouse, and of course one's own children whether inside or outside the womb. By respecting the autonomous independence and dignity of the individuals which the person encountered, what was implicitly being recognized and respected was God's possession of the other person and that other person's right to "possess" themselves. I could never legitimately claim to possess another person as I could claim to possess nonpersonal things such as a house, a dog, and a piece of land. Slavery, of course, was an intrinsically unjust exception to this rule.

In order for the "consuming soul" of the secularist model to achieve its goal of self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment, it must fundamentally alter its view of the "other" which it inherits from the Christian past. In order never to be thwarted in its drive, it must now view the other person as a means for attaining satisfaction. If, however, the other person proves to be utterly "unsatisfying" or is seen as impeding my drive for self-satisfaction and fulfillment, I "toss them aside" as so much meaningless and valueless rubbish."

At this point, I must introduce the terms "appropriation" and "incorporation" into our discussion. The claim that I will make is that the secularist model of the self is a "consumer model." This means that it understands the self as "consuming" the world in order to fill and satisfy the self. In this stance towards the world I appropriate the "other," making them "my own." The world in which I exist becomes a "world for me," in which things have meaning only in so far as they satisfy me. Other persons have meaning and value only insofar as they are incorporated into "my world" which is "for me."

The reason this view of the self's relationship to the "other' should be referred to as the "consumer model of the soul" is that the best analogy we can employ is from our experience of eating. In our experience of eating we understand that the food in front of us is meant to satisfy our appetite. It has no other purpose. Our fork and our jaws exercise power over the food in front of us. We chew it up until it is capable of being "dealt with" by our stomach. Our stomach is now full, we are satisfied, our craving to fill ourselves has been assuaged. Now the food which we have taken in to the inner confines of our bodies becomes incorporated into our own being. It ceases to have its own being and, instead, becomes part of us.

Abortion: What does this all have to do with abortion? Before we can answer this question, we must define what abortion is. Abortion is the intentional taking of an innocent human life in his or her mother's womb. In an abortion, the abortionist claims the right to take possession of the life of the unborn child and exterminate that young life which he or she has claimed. The abortionist refuses to view the child as a being which has value, dignity, and rights of its own, but rather, as "raw material" which can be appropriated and incorporated into the abortionist's life as that which will bring money to him or her.

In order for this to take place, however, the mother (perhaps on the prompting of the father) must decide that she will hand her child over to the abortionist. Her fundamental motivation for this act is to rid herself of that which gets in the way of her own drive for self-fulfillment, her fundamental stance towards the child in her womb is different from the one which "naturally" characterizes a mother's relationship to her own child. Rather that experiencing an overwhelming sense of being "bound" by the reality and value of her child's life, the mother frees herself from this natural feeling of obligation by reducing the child to a "potential good for me." In this mental act, the child is reduced from a being with autonomous dignity and worth, to a "thing" which has worth only insofar as the mother chooses to bestow worth and value upon him or her. Moreover, by handing her child over to the abortionist, the mother is claiming what has traditionally been understood to be a divine perogative, the right to possess and dispose of human life.

In its 1992 decision Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Supreme Court enshrined this nihilistic, radically subjectivist view of the nature and ultimate value of human life into the United States Constitution. According to the opinion of the joint authors of the Casey decision, Souter, Kennedy, and O'Connor, the word "liberty" in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment entails the right to "define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under the compulsion of the State." 112 S. Ct. 2807 (1992). From a moral, philosophical, and juridical point of view, this is the most radical statement which can be made. If the value, meaningfulness, inherent rights, and fundamental dignity of a human life depends on the subjective "valuating" consciousness of another human being, then we are led to the position that human life in itself has no objective meaning, value, or dignity. This is complete nihilism. It is complete nihilism because it views as "nothing" that which is most fully "something," a person.

The question which we must pose to ourselves is what are we to do when philosophical madness is part of the supreme law of the land and when that madness facilitates the destruction of 1.66 million "unwanted" human lives a year. In deciding on our response, we should first remeber the fundamental attitude which produced the proliferation of abortion. This fundamental attitude is held by the "consuming soul" which attempts to achieve mastery over reality by reducing everything to something which can potentially satisfy it. Rather than being people driven by our "needs," and ultimately consumed by our "needs," those who would defend life must pledge themselves to a life of sacrifice. Since unborn human beings are of such great worth and dignity, they are suitable beneficiaries of a life of sacrifice. By sacrificing something of what is "mine" in order to try to safeguard the life of another, I explicitly acknowledge and affirm the objective dignity and worth of that other human being. In an act of sacrifice, I give something of what belongs to me for the sake of another. By these acts I acknowledge that other persons are not there merely to satisfy my desires. The objective reality of their being demands from me a response of reverence. By sacrificing my time, my money, my career, my social acceptibility, and, perhaps, even my freedom for the sake of the unborn I can offer to God's most perfect earthly creatures, human persons, the reverence which is their due.