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Robert George on Politics and Conscience

4/22/2007 - 5:55 AM PST

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"Freedom Is a Two Way Street""

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 22, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the text of an address by Robert George on political obligations and moral conscience.

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XIII General Assembly
Program of the Preparatory Meeting of September 29-30, 2006
Casa Bonus Pastor
Vatican City

Political Obligations, Moral Conscience, and Human Life

Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence
Princeton University

The Catholic Church proclaims the principle that every human being -- without regard to race, sex, or ethnicity, and equally without regard to age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency -- is entitled to the full protection of the laws.

The Church teaches that human beings at every stage of development -- including those at the embryonic and fetal stages -- and those in every condition -- including those who are mentally retarded or physically disabled, and those who are suffering from severe dementias or other memory and mind-impairing afflictions -- possess fundamental human rights. Above all, each of us possesses the right to life.

Now this teaching is disputed by some. There are those, including some Catholics, who deny that human embryos are human beings. They assert that and human embryo is merely "potential" human life, not nascent human life.

The trouble with this position is not theological but scientific. It flies in the face of the established facts of human embryology and developmental biology. A human embryo is not something distinct in kind from a human being -- like a rock or potato or alligator.

A human embryo is a human being at a particular, very early, stage of development. An embryo, even prior to implantation, is a whole, distinct, living member of the species Homo sapiens. The embryonic human being requires only what any human being at any stage of development requires for his or her survival, namely, adequate nutrition and an environment sufficiently hospitable to sustain life.

From the beginning, each human being possesses -- actually and not merely potentially -- the genetic constitution and epigenetic primordia for self-directed development from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages and into adulthood with his or her unity, determinateness, and identity intact. In this crucial respect, the embryo is quite unlike the gametes -- that is, the sperm and ovum -- whose union brought a new human being into existence. You and I were never sperm or ova; those were genetically and functionally parts of other human beings.

But each of us was once an embryo, just as each of us was once an adolescent, and before that a child, an infant, a fetus. Of course, in the embryonic, fetal, and infant stages we were highly vulnerable and dependent creatures, but we were nevertheless complete, distinct human beings.

As the leading textbooks in human embryology and developmental biology unanimously attest, we were not mere "clumps of cells," like moles or tumors. So the basic rights people possess simply by virtue of their humanity -- including above all the right to life -- we possessed even then.

Another school of thought concedes that human embryos are human beings; however, it denies that all human beings are persons. There are, according to this school of thought, pre-personal and post-personal human beings, as well as severely retarded or damaged human beings who are not, never will be, and never were, persons.

Proponents of this view insist that human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages are not yet persons. Indeed, logically consistent and unsentimental proponents say that even human infants are not yet persons, and therefore do not possess a right to life; hence, the willingness of Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, and others to countenance infanticide as well as abortion.

Permanently comatose or severely retarded or demented human beings are also denied the status of persons. So euthanasia is said to be justified for human beings in these conditions. Although some who think along these lines will allow that human individuals whom they regard as "not yet persons" deserve a certain limited respect by virtue of the purely biological fact that they are living members of the human species, they nevertheless insist that "pre-personal" humans do not possess a right to life that precludes them from being killed to benefit others or to advance the interests of society at large.

Only those human beings who have achieved and retain what are regarded as the defining attributes of personhood -- whether those are considered to be detectable brain function, self-awareness, or immediately exercisable capacities for characteristically human mental functioning -- possess a right to life.

The trouble with ...

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