Who counts? The question of membership

Editor’s note. The following appears on the blog of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life at http://prolifemn.blogspot.com/2011/09/who-counts-question-of-membership.html. It consists of excerpts from a piece written by O. Carter Snead, titled. “Protect the Weak and Vulnerable: The Primacy of the Life Issue.”

O. Carter Snead

“At bottom, the ‘life issues’—including especially the conflicts over abortion and embryo-destructive research—involve the deepest and most fundamental public questions for a nation committed to liberty, equality, and justice. That is, the basic question in this context is who counts as a member of the human community entitled to moral concern and the basic protection of the law? Who counts as ‘one of us’? Equally important is the related question of who decides, and according to what sort of criteria? These are not narrow concerns commanding only the attention of a small number of highly motivated activists at the fringes of our society. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a public matter that is more important than this ‘question of membership.’ …

“The pro-life movement offers the only answer to the question of ‘who counts’ that is consistent with America’s grounding norms of equality and justice. …

“[E]ach human being is intrinsically equal in basic dignity simply because of who he or she is as a member of the human family. Each human being is valuable and irreplaceable, regardless of her age, size, location, race, sex, usefulness (or burdensomeness) to others, her possession or lack of certain favored physical or mental capacities, or the worth assigned to her by others. …

“The pro-life movement rejects the notion that there are pre-personal (e.g., embryos and fetuses) or post-personal (e.g., cognitively disabled patients) human beings. Indeed, the pro-life movement sees such competing approaches as inverting our best moral traditions, effectively privileging the claims of the strong over those of the weak. The pro-life movement believes that these frameworks for contingent personhood produce monstrous practical results (including, for example, a sliding scale of moral and legal standing for people based on their cognitive ability, usefulness, strength, and so on). Instead, the pro-life movement takes its bearings from Hans Jonas’s injunction that ‘utter helplessness demands utter protection.’ ..

“The pro-life movement holds that the only coherent (non-self-destroying) understanding of human equality is one that encompasses all human beings, without discrimination on the basis of accidental characteristics such as age, size, condition of dependency or vulnerability, circumstances, or the esteem of others. It is anathema to the norm of equality to permit a part of the polity to set exclusionary criteria that disqualify other living human beings from moral regard and the most basic forms of legal protection. True respect for equality dictates that if anyone counts, everyone must count. Conversely, to treat any human being as sub-personal is to commit a grave injustice.”

— O. Carter Snead

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