Logical Thinking Requires Right Reason: The Tiller Case

June 4, 2009 09:00 AM

In a commentary for the Time web site, Nancy Gibbs addressed a subject that is difficult to understand without the proper grounding in right reason. She attempted to contrast the words of those who have survived as Dr. Tiller lay dead with the politics that are confronting us as a nation, not to mention the pro-life versus pro-death movements. Though she never used the phrase, “culture of violence,” I think it would have been a good idea if she had.

For as Pope John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor


Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.


Viewed in this context, a person who reasons with natural law as a basis for his life actions would think twice before arguing in defense of late term abortions, as Gibbs points out in Tiller’s case, "
Dr. Tiller, like others before him, represented a challenge to both sides. Late-term abortions have always been the hardest to defend, but he and his supporters would point to cases when the procedure, however morally troubling, was medically necessary."


Gibbs is accurate in her portrayal. However, she avoids mentioning that Dr. Tiller and others like him, including Dr. Martin Haskell, who devised the dilation and extraction method of taking the lives of preborn children, do not think of their action as the equivalent of direct killing. Rather, as Haskell wrote in the conclusion to his 1992 paper,


Dilation and Extraction is an alternative method for achieving late second trimester abortions to 26 weeks. It can be used in the third trimester.

Among its advantages are that it is a quick, surgical outpatient method that can be performed on a scheduled basis under local anesthesia.

Among its disadvantages are that it requires a high degree of surgical skill, and may not be appropriate for a few patients.


Medical practitioners like Tiller and Haskell have convinced themselves that the action they are taking is nothing more than a type of surgery and they sincerely believe that their practice is a service to women.

Of course, people like me know that this is ridiculous. We understand the reality that the outcome of any abortion is a dead child. But if the practitioner does not see that child as a human being deserving of life, what then? What does he see and how has he convinced himself that nobody dies during such an action?

When the partial-birth abortion debate, which was actually about dilation and extraction abortions, occurred, there were many abortionists who claimed that the procedure was at times “medically necessary.” Such a statement provided further justification that their actions are, to people like me, nothing short of heinous crimes. However, as the Guttmacher Institute reported in October 2004,  “According to Judge Richard G. Kopf in the Nebraska decision, ‘the overwhelming weight of the trial evidence proves that the banned procedure is safe and medically necessary in order to preserve the health of women under certain circumstances. In the absence of an exception for the health of a woman, banning the procedure constitutes a significant health hazard to women.’”

In contrast, the Justice Department filed a statement:


The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 “bans a late term abortion procedure that Congress found is gruesome, inhumane, never medically necessary and, indeed, poses serious health risks to the mother. The Act bars the killing of a living fetus that is deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivered until it is largely outside the body of the mother – either head-first or, in the breech position, to at least the navel – and, at that point, killed before delivery is completed. The banned procedure is one in which a living fetus is mere inches from a completed birth, and an autonomous existence, before it is killed at the last moment.”


In addition here is an excerpt from a statement by four physicians entitled “Partial-Birth Abortion is Bad Medicine,”


Consider the dangers inherent in partial-birth abortion, which usually occurs after the fifth month of pregnancy. A woman's cervix is forcibly dilated over several days, which risks creating an "incompetent cervix," the leading cause of premature deliveries. It is also an invitation to infection, a major cause of infertility. The abortionist then reaches into the womb to pull a child feet first out of the mother (internal podalic version), but leaves the head inside. Under normal circumstances, physicians avoid breech births whenever possible; in this case, the doctor intentionally causes one – and risks tearing the uterus in the process. He then forces scissors through the base of the baby's skull – which remains lodged just within the birth canal. This is a partially "blind" procedure, done by feel, risking direct scissor injury to the uterus and laceration of the cervix or lower uterine segment, resulting in immediate and massive bleeding and the threat of shock or even death to the mother.

None of the risk is ever necessary for any reason. We and many other doctors across the U.S. regularly treat women whose unborn children suffer the same conditions as those cited by the women who appeared at Mr. Clinton's veto ceremony. Never is the partial-birth procedure necessary. Not for hydrocephaly (excessive cerebrospinal fluid in the head), not for polyhydramnios (an excess of amniotic fluid collecting in the woman) and not for trisomy (genetic abnormalities characterized by an extra chromosome). Sometimes, as in the case of hydrocephaly, it is first [sic] to drain some of the fluid from the baby's head. And in some cases when vaginal delivery is not possible, a doctor performs a Caesarean section. But in no case is it necessary to partially deliver an infant through the vagina and then kill the infant.


What a difference! The kernel of truth between the two sides is that the reality of what abortion is and what it does to someone has been divorced from the politically-charged claim that because it is a “woman’s right,” it is legitimate to perform such acts on a child not yet born. This is, indeed, the core problem that confronts those who favor abortion and those who oppose it. The central difference between the two worldviews is exactly as Pope John Paul II explained. Those who favor aborting preborn children have discarded the universal knowledge of what is good and can be known by reason alone in favor of a personal perspective on what is good for them as individuals without regard for the common good, for justice or essentially for truth itself.

This past week has presented us with this clash of worldviews in a tragic way. It has shown us the ugly side of the culture of death, of the crazed world of the unstable and of the sad reality that killing people is all about headlines, politically charged statements and irrational rants. Somewhere in all this rhetoric, the real reason why we abhor abortion and all the brutal acts that this culture of violence has spawned has vanished.

The dignity of the human being is not addressed and yet it is the central truth about which we should be speaking. Those who do not acknowledge it, who avoid it or who disagree with it are already thinking illogically. Sadly, the tragedy is that they do not realize it. Until this situation changes the culture of violence will flourish because a denial of the very idea of human nature persists.

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