Unborn Persons: Pope John Paul II And The Abortion Debate, by Peter Lang
What this book does in its relatively short length is to demonstrate the complexity of the pro-life debate (particularly among Catholics) and to demonstrate the way that a pro-life person like the late Pope John Paul II came to his pro-life positions quite honestly and expressed them in a way that was nuanced and complex. In reading this book I was struck by two particular threads of personal interest to me. The first is the intellectual pedigree of thoughts about the dignity and value of life that influenced Pope John Paul, some of which, at least indirectly, influence me as well personally. The second is the complexity of the debate over when it is that human life is recognizably human and whether or not that matters when it comes to questions of abortion. It is hard to have a good and honest discussion about abortion but this book at least makes it possible to examine some of the murky ground when it comes to the beginning of life and to express that this ultimately may not matter when it comes to a defense of life and its worth against those who would reject it.
This book is a short one at just over 150 pages of double-spaced printing and is divided into three chapters. After a prologue, which contains an introduction as well as a discussion of Wojtyla’s life and some notes, the first chapter contains a discussion of the theological and philosophical influences into the subject’s thought, which includes the influence of Christian mysticism, the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, the influence of phenomenology, and indirect Thomsitic notions of the person (1). The second chapter discusses John Paul II’s notion of person, including the importance of experience, the basic elements of personhood, and the question of human dynamism, which is summarized and followed by various notes (2). It seems, for example, that questions of transcendence and subjectivity were particularly important to Wojtyla’s thinking. Finally, the book ends in a dialogue written by the author between the subject’s thinking and that of other people concerning whether or not the living human embryo should count as a human being (III), including questions about ontological status, individuation, developmental views of personhood, brain formation, relational criteria, self-consciousness, and potentiality. After an epilogue there is an appendix that discusses the biological development of preborn human life.
As far as the two main elements of the book that I found interesting, it is perhaps the first that will influence me the most in what to study and the second that will influence me the most in terms of how to discuss the question of human life. The author’s case that John Paul’s defense of human life was motivated by both several trains of Thomism (including something called Lublin Thomism that I am personally unfamiliar with) as well as various other trends in phenomenology appears pretty reasonable to me as a non-expert in these fields. Likewise, the author’s discussion about the meaning and timing of ensoulment and its relationship to the period of about two weeks between fertilization and individuation is quite interesting as well. The author makes a reasonable case for John Paul II’s ambiguity about defining the moment at which a clump of cells becomes life while defending the providence of God in dealing with human life at any stage, even if that life is not necessarily “individualized” yet where twinning or chimerism are still possible and where ectopic pregnancy is still a threat as well. These are matters well worth thinking of and pondering even if few of us are asked to be experts in abortion or right to life matters.