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Commonweal . August 16, 2013

Thomas Baker


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Cover design: Cecilia Guerrero Rezes Cover photo: Matt Wade

The Abortion Stalemate Biofeedback I congratulate Peter Steinfels on his insightful delineation of the broader issues surrounding abortion (“Beyond the Stalemate,” June 14). I offer a consideration of two biological facts that may help reduce some of the discomfort Steinfels describes; they are relevant to the hard cases (to save the life of the mother and following rape). First is the fact that there are three actors on this stage: the mother, the embryo, and the placenta. The placenta, while a “product of conception,” is not the fetus and is not a part of the fetus. The placenta is largely autonomous; its role is to latch onto the mother’s blood stream to ensure adequate nutrition for the embryo. In addition, it secretes substances into the mother to alter her metabolism, redirecting it to meet the needs of the organism growing within her. Those substances are responsible for many of the changes (physical and emotional) related to pregnancy. Sometimes, however, that process goes wrong and the chemicals produced by the placenta create disease in the mother that threatens both her life and that of the child she is carrying (as in the infamous Phoenix case). It is important to understand in those instances that it is not the fetus that is threatening the mother—nor is it the fact of the pregnancy, per se. It is the placenta. What must be removed under such circumstances is the placenta, not the baby. Unfortunately, with available technology, removing the placenta results in the loss of the baby, but the loss of the baby is not the intended consequence, nor is removing it the means for saving the mother’s life. Catholic moral theory is perfectly capable of dealing with such unintended, indirect effects. The second fact bears on the question of when human life may be said to begin. Steinfels notes a preference for eight weeks after fertilization, based on resemblance. He is careful to describe the union of the paternal and maternal chromosomes as “fertilization,” not

“conception.” Fertilization is an observable biological event, while conception is a construct, often used to connote individuation. (Thus the phraseology often includes such words as “an individual human from the moment of conception.”) Steinfels rightly stresses both the ambiguity of that “moment” and the fact that it is inherent in the situation itself. Some of that ambiguity may now be dissipating as a result of the finding that many normal singleton pregnancies start out with fertilization of two egg cells by two spermatozoa, an event that had previously been thought to lead to fraternal twinning. New evidence has shown that after fertilization those two genetically distinct cell masses sometimes fuse into one, which then goes on to develop as a normal fetus. The resulting “blended” embryo is a literal chimera, a fact detectable only by modern DNA technology. The prevalence of such chimerism is unknown, but there is reason to believe that it could involve a significant fraction of all singleton births. Fusion can occur up to about twelve to fourteen days after fertilization. To call the embryos prior to fusion “individual humans” and then “a single individual human” after fusion presents formidable philosophical difficulties. Chimerism makes it biologically difficult to push the time of individuation back to fertilization. This is not to argue that termination of the life of an embryo prior to individuation is a morally neutral act. But it is to say that its moral character differs from that of termination following individuation. robert heaney, m.d. Omaha, Neb. Life after death Peter Steinfels hopes that a reappraisal of the Catholic Church’s entire engagement with the abortion question will help to move the United States “Beyond the Stalemate.” I share his hope and commend him for taking the lead. Alas, most politicians would rather pander to whatever constituency best serves their own interests. continued on page 4

Commonweal August 16, 2013  •  volume 140  •  Number 13

short take 8

An Act of Theology

The future of Catholic biblical scholarship Frank L. Matera


upfront 2



editorial The Truth about Marriage

Books 25

Is God Happy? by Lezek Kolakowski George Scialabba


The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss Luke Timothy Johnson


The War on Heresy by R. I. Moore J. Patrick Hornbeck II The Undivided Past by David Cannadine Francis C. Oakley


The Court & Marriage

Three views Richard W. Garnett, Michael J. Perry, Marc O. DeGirolami


An Ancient Dispute

Shiites, Sunnis & the future of the Middle East Patrick J. Ryan



Looking Away

Funerals aren’t what they used to be Paul J. Schaefer

34 “On My Way” by Joseph Horowitz Barry Gault

film 22

Hannah Arendt A Hijacking

Rand Richards Cooper

television 24


Celia Wren

35 The Tenth of December by George Saunders John Garvey

Poetry 18

Recipe Book Emily Stout

The Last Word 39

Out of Sight Sarah Ruden


Commonweal Magazine - Aug 16th, 2013  

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