January 28, 2014 ( – A philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame published an opinion piece at the New York Times arguing that Pope Francis should reconsider the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion.

“Pope Francis has raised expectations of a turn away from the dogmatic intransigence that has long cast a pall over the religious life of many Roman Catholics,” writes Gary Gutting in his column, “Should Pope Francis Rethink Abortion?”

While Gutting acknowledges that the Pope seems “unyielding” on the abortion issue, he argues why he believes the Holy Father should reconsider.

“I want to explore the possibility, however, that the pope might be open to significant revision of the absolute ban on abortion by asking what happens if we take seriously his claim that ‘reason alone is sufficient’ to adjudicate this issue,” he writes. “Revising the ban on abortion would not contradict the pope’s overall commitment to the ‘value of the human person.’”

Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, said that Gutting’s article is a test of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity: “Gutting’s article is outrageous public dissent in the guise of an academic argument.  In this, he has no claim to authentic academic freedom: He is outside his field, dabbling in moral theology and lobbying the Pope on a matter of life and death, while directly opposing the Catholic teaching that is essential to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.  Far more than the University’s occasional displays of pro-life sympathies, how Notre Dame responds to such dissent will provide a true measure of its integrity as a Catholic institution committed to the truth about human life.”

In his column, Gutting claims that “from conception on, an embryo or fetus is at least potentially human” and then makes the case for the morality of some abortions.

As the philosopher Don Marquis has pointed out, one reason it’s wrong to kill a human being is that, when you take a life, you take away a human future.  The same is true when you kill a potential human being: All the human goods that it might have enjoyed are eliminated.  At the very least, even early abortions for trivial reasons (e.g., not having to postpone a trip or pass up an athletic competition) would be immoral, even if not the “murder” of pro-life rhetoric.

At the same time, the “inviolable value of each human life” does not imply that no abortion can be moral.  Here the case of rape is especially relevant.  It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception.  We might admire someone who has the heroic generosity to do this, but talk of murder is out of place.  As the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has noted, if someone kidnapped you and connected your kidneys to those of someone who would die unless the connection were maintained for the next nine months, you would hardly be obliged to go along with this.  How can we require a woman pregnant by a rapist to do essentially the same thing?

Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future —that underlie most moral considerations.  An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense.  As we saw, Marquis’s argument shows that killing a potential human is in itself bad, but there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans.

Gutting argues that a woman’s moral right to abortion is a good that can offset a person’s right to life, especially in the earlier stages of a pregnancy, when he says the unborn baby has “only the moral standing of potential, not actual, human life, which may be overridden by harm to humans with full moral standing.”

Gutting does not specify a timeline on which an unborn child would cease to be a potential human and become an actual human.

He does, however, state that in cases of rape and “extreme poverty,” abortion may be moral: “Allowing for exceptions to the moral condemnation of abortion in some of these painful situations would not contradict the pope’s overall commitment to the ‘value of the human person,'” he writes.  “Rather, it would admit what reason shows: There are morally difficult issues about abortion that should be decided by conscience, not legislation. The result would be a church acting according to the pope’s own stated standard: preaching not ‘certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options’ but rather the gospel of love.”

Gutting claims that pro-lifers don’t support research to prevent miscarriages and that, in itself, is evidence that the obligation to defend human life doesn’t begin at conception.

“If 30 percent of infants died for unknown reasons, we would all see this as a medical crisis and spend billions on research to prevent these deaths,” he argues.  “The fact that pro-life advocates do not support an all-out effort to prevent spontaneous abortions indicates that they themselves recognize a morally relevant difference between embryos and human beings with full moral standing.”

Ed Morrissey, a Catholic, counters Gutting’s argument at the conservative website HotAir: “Who says there is not an ‘all-out effort’ to end spontaneous miscarriages?  As any parent who has experienced one or more, those usually mean emergency medical intervention, long hours praying for the safety of both mother and child, and a long life of grieving the life that was lost,” he wrote.  “This happens a lot less often in developed countries, precisely because we have spent enormous resources in improving gestational care.”

This semester, Gutting is teaching “Philosophy and the Human Sciences” which, according to Notre Dame’s website, deals with how “psychology, neuroscience, economics, biology, medicine interestingly overlap on topics such as freedom, consciousness, religion, morality, happiness, politics, education, and art.”  Gutting is also editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Reprinted with permission from


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