A philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax is drawing rebuke from experts in bioethics, medicine, and philosophy for a column in which he advocates abortion based on the notion that “a fetus is not a person.”
If pro-abortion advocates can show that the unborn child is not a person, argues Dr. Mark Mercer in an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen, then a woman’s reason for aborting him or her “cannot be outweighed by the fetus’s right to life, for, not being a person, the fetus has no such right.”
But according to bioethicist Dianne Irving, who ripped into Mercer’s column in an essay of her own, Mercer’s science is “grossly objectively erroneous” and his concept of “delayed personhood” is “deceptively achieved by means of using academically indefensible ‘philosophy’.”
Mercer admits in his article that “abortion involves the deliberate killing of a human being,” but maintains that that is “no reason for abortion to be illegal,” and that one should not be “morally troubled by it.”
It would normally be unacceptable to kill a reader of the Citizen, he says, for example, because the reader is “a creature richly aware of its environment and full of beliefs and desires, including the desire to continue living. … To kill a reader of this paper would be to destroy a self-aware locus of experience, one, moreover, that prefers not to die.”
“A human fetus, on the other hand, though human, has only a rudimentary awareness of its environment and lacks self consciousness entirely,” he continues. “It has no interest in living, for it can have no interests at all.”
While he admits that an unborn child is “potentially a person,” he claims that this fact is only a concern “if it is better to have that particular future person walking around than it is to respect a here-and-now person’s autonomy.”
“The overall point is that abortion is not in any degree a morally fraught option,” he concludes. “A woman considering whether to have an abortion or, instead, to raise a child is making a practical decision, not a moral one. This is what we who are pro-choice have to make more widely known.”
Irving points out that Mercer’s arguments have been used by pro-abortion bioethicists, such as Princeton’s Peter Singer, for decades, “regardless of their fatal faults.”
If Mercer is right about the unborn not being a person based on the fact that they don’t have “rational attributes,” she says, we must also accept that the following are not persons: “the comatose, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and depressed, drug addicts, alcoholics, a lot of teenagers, etc. – even Mercer, or the Readers when they are sleeping!”
In fact, she points out that Singer does indeed say that the mentally disabled and others are not persons.
Are Mercer and the readers, just like Singer, willing “to argue seriously that all these same living adult human beings could be intentionally killed, used in destructive medical research, dismembered and then pitched into mass graves, etc.,” she asks, “since they are just human beings but not ‘persons’ who actively exercise ‘rational attributes’?”
“We should demand no less than an immediate response from Mr. Mercer. Come on, Mr. Mercer – if Peter Singer has the gall to so conclude, why not you?” she adds.
Irving argues that “in the real world, there is no real distinction between a human being and a human person.”
In fact, Professor Michael Schintgen, the chairman of philosophy at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, pointed out that Mercer “takes a definition of person out of thin air – assuming without argument that what distinguishes a person from a non-person is awareness.”
Irving, on the other hand, relies on the traditional definition of person, as introduced by the philosopher Boethius in the 6th century, that a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature.”
“A human being, simply by virtue of being a human kind of being, with a specifically human nature, is a human person precisely because he/she is an individual of a rational nature,” she writes. “If allowed to grow, develop and flourish, these human persons hopefully will be able to eventually actively express ‘rational attributes’ and ‘sentience’ if possible.”
But even if the human being does not reach Mercer’s established attributes, Irving continues, they are still “innocent living human persons who possess a rational nature,” and who thus also possess “the same inherent rights as all other human persons – socially, ethically, legally, etc.”
Professor Schintgen noted that Mercer’s arguments are “just warmed over ideas from the Disco Era.”
“Mercer dredges up arguments used by Peter Singer, J.J. Thomson, Mary Anne Warren, and others from the 70s. The only thing missing is the bellbottoms,” he told LifeSiteNews.
Schintgen also said that Mercer assumes a false notion of autonomy. “Even if we grant that the fetus is not a person, why should I be allowed to do what I want with it?” he asks. “A great deal of modern talk about rights assumes this idea of autonomy without giving any reason for it. Does wanting to do something automatically give me a right to do it? I might like to have lobster for breakfast. Does that mean I have the right to have lobster?”
“One would expect a professor of philosophy to have arguments that meet the objections raised to these arguments in the past 30 odd years, but none are in sight,” he concluded.
Mercer also got a rebuke from Dr. Paul Claman, a professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Ottawa, who wrote in a letter to the editor that Mercer’s argument “does not hold water.”
“Extrapolating Mercer’s argument would make a parent’s decision to kill a month-old baby or a dependent parent with severe Alzheimer’s disease only a practical and not an a morale one,” he said.
Despite his abortion advocacy, Mercer did take a stand on behalf of pro-life students at his university in 2009, when he told media that SMU had given in to mob rule by allowing pro-abortion activists to silence a speech by Jose Ruba of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform.
“I don’t want to defend what he said as non-hate speech because I think that’s irrelevant,” Mercer told the Chronicle Herald. “Even if he was saying ‘Black people suck,’ people who shout him down should be carried away.”
“We’re not to silence anybody on campus, not to prevent people from listening, not to prevent people from expressing themselves,” he added.
Saint Mary’s University was the first Roman Catholic university established in Canada, dating back to 1802, though it has formally separated from the Church.
Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax, who sits ex officio as a ‘Visitor’ on SMU’s Board of Governors, told LifeSiteNews: “My personal position on the question of abortion is that of the Roman Catholic Church. I hold and uphold these views, knowing that everyone neither shares nor accepts this point of view.”
“As for the ideas expressed in the article in question, I do not agree with them professionally or pastorally,” he added. “No doubt there are professors at Saint Mary’s University who also hold views quite different than those in the article.”
Read Dianne Irving’s complete essay here.