Pro-life materialistsJuly 7, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Here’s a “talking point” I’ve been meaning to bring up for a while. Did you know that the pro-life movement is even more materialistic than atheists are? Who else but a die-hard, extremist materialist would insist that personhood could be reduced to mere DNA molecules? Talk about reductionism! Yet that is what they tell us. A single-celled organism (i.e. a fertilized egg) is a person, with all the rights and liberties of a person, just because it possesses human DNA. Simple, chemical molecules are the essence that makes that single cell a complete human being, a person, a living soul. Simple, physical chemicals.
Isn’t it ironic that those who will preach the loudest, and with the greatest indignation, about the evils of materialism, become such ardent materialists themselves when it suits their rhetoric? Yet this expedient sort of materialism is not, in fact, very well thought out. While it’s nice to see pro-lifers endorsing a purely materialistic definition of humanity and personhood, I can’t praise their application of materialistic principles because they do it so badly. Reducing the meaning and worth of human life to a mere tinker-toy assemblage of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other atoms, is taking materialism blindly and clumsily. There’s a lot more to materialism than that.
Thoughtful materialists will realize, if they think about it, that there is more to the material universe than simply matter. Reality is not just made up of matter, but is also made of the properties of matter. For example, matter has properties like weight, size, location, and so on. These properties are not themselves made of matter (“weight,” for example, does not possess size or location). However, these properties are just as real as the matter they pertain to. To the materialist, therefore, not everything that is real is necessarily made of matter. Some things are the properties of matter, or the relationships between material things.
Notice, I’m not speaking of ghosts or fairies or magic or other so-called “immaterial” realities. I’m talking about things that are real; “immaterial” in the sense that they are not made of matter, but just as much a part of the material world as matter is. Indeed, if a rock has a certain size, that size is dependent on the material rock: if the rock is destroyed, the size of the rock also ceases to exist.
This is where pro-life materialists drop the ball. Humanity is not a quality that can be reduced to a chemical compound. There’s more to personhood than the electrostatic bonds between the atoms in a DNA chain. The person we are and the person we become are the product not just of biochemistry, but of life, of experience, of development and of choices. Consider the corpse: all the chemicals are still there, but the person they once were is no longer present.
Abortion is never a good thing, but there are times when it can be the least of multiple evils. We should not let the misguided and mistaken materialism of pro-lifers raise unnecessary obstacles in what is already a difficult choice.