Who Is Adam Gopnik Arguing With?

Over a decade ago when I was in the employ of a small Christian law school in southern California I had a conflict with its dean. He had suggested to the university’s provost that I had agreed with him on a policy question when in fact I had not. So I went behind his back and directly informed the provost of my real opinion. A week later at the school’s advisory board meeting, the dean confronted me on what I had done, asserting, “You really hurt my feelings.” I replied, without missing a beat, “I didn’t know we were dating.”

Although my response elicited a hearty laugh from many of the board’s members, it’s purpose was to make a deeper point: what you said is worse than wrong; it’s not even part of the conversation. That’s exactly the sentiment that overwhelmed me when I read Adam Gopnik’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “Arguing Abortion,” in which he offers several arguments contra the prolife position while summarizing the new book by his friend, Katha Pollitt, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. When I finished Gopnik’s essay, I thought to myself, “With whom is he arguing?”

From what I know of Gopnik, he is a gifted and accomplished essayist, author of the marvelous book Paris to the Moon. But like so many similarly-situated literary types who inhabit a world of liberal pieties in which virtually none of its priests have studied its heresies or engaged its most serious apostates, Gopnik’s analysis of the sanctity of life ethic – the view that the human community consists of both the post and pre-natal – does not even rise to the dignity of erroneous.

Space constraints prevent me from dissecting every faux pas found in his essay. So I will focus on this one passage: “One of the greatest moral achievements of human history – the full emancipation of women – should not be seconded to a metaphysical intuition, one with no scientific support or even coherent meaning: that a fertilized egg makes the same moral claims as an entire person.”

This is a tangled mess. First, it is a misnomer to refer to what is conceived in the womb as a “fertilized egg,” for the egg (or ovum) does not undergo change at conception because it is not even present at conception, just as no man is present in the room when the room only contains a dead man. Conception, in fact, is evidence of the ovum’s demise, as the chronology of reproduction clearly shows.

Adam Gopnik (photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Adam Gopnik (photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

At time t1 a germ cell (ovum) exists; at t2 it is penetrated by another germ cell (sperm); and either at syngamy or at sperm-egg fusion, t3 or t4, a new organism comes into being from the merging of the organic parts of the two germ cells. This new organism is not a germ cell. It is an individual organism intrinsically ordered to develop into a mature version of what it is, a human being, a rational animal. It may, of course, divide in the first two weeks of its existence (as in the case of monozygotic twinning) or die at any time during its gestation or even afterward. But that does not change what it is by nature, an individual human being in its earliest stages of existence.

Gopnik may think this analysis is mistaken. But it is clearly coherent, and it is consistent with what we know from the biological sciences, as the leading textbooks maintain (some of which are written by supporters of abortion rights). So for Gopnik to claim this position has “no scientific support” is mere rhetorical bluster.

Second, as Gopnik correctly implies, whether or not this new human being has moral status is the central question. As those conversant with the literature know, it is a question answered by a variety of philosophers, some of whom are advocates for the sanctity of prenatal human life. But what these latter scholars offer are not mere metaphysical intuitions, or religious dogmas, as Gopnik maintains, but actual arguments, often quite sophisticated arguments. Among the many authors who offer such a case are Christopher Kaczor, Patrick Lee, Christopher Tollefsen, Jason Eberl, Alexander Pruss, Russell DiSilvestro, Hadley Arkes, David Oderberg, and yours truly. (Politt, to her credit, briefly mentions the book that Tollefsen co-authored with Robert P. George, though she completely ignores their arguments addressing the moral status question).

It would ordinarily be a mystery as to why Gopnik and Politt, writers with such an impressive array of intellectual powers, would not want to apply these gifts to the strongest versions of their opposition’s case, if not for the fact that we all know that they will incur no professional price for their literary neglect.

Third, if abortion is essential to the “full emancipation of women,” as Gopnik claims, then it stands to reason that it is unjust for any human being to be required to care for a child that he or she did not intend to bring into existence. In that case, the man who takes care to use the proper birth control when engaging in intercourse, since he does not want to sire an heir, should not be required by law to support a child brought to term by his lover. After all, if the desires were reversed – if he had wanted the child but the woman did not – she would, under Gopnik’s understanding of emancipation, be under no obligation to refrain from aborting their offspring. It seems, then, that Gopnik’s essay is as much an apology for abortion as it is a brief for Dead Beat Dads.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).