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

Francis J. Beckwith

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).

  • ABBonnet

    Gopnik isn’t arguing with anyone. His brief at the New Yorker is to be the bell-ringer in the Pavlov’s kennel called “New Yorker subscribers”. There’s no argument or rational discourse involved, precisely since, as Dr. Beckwith points out, New-Yorker-copy never engages with the genuine pro-life positions. It’s all just meant to get the saliva flowing with that liberal rag’s left-minded readers.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Obviously, the proposition that “a fertilized egg (read “zygote”) makes the same moral claims as an entire person” can have no “scientific support,” for there can be no “scientific” support for any ethical proposition. Science, by means of observed regularities, can tell us what happens; it cannot possibly address what ought to happen.

    I am not sure what meaning Mr Gopnik intends us to attach to the expression, “entire person,” but science is no help here either, for questions of semantics, like questions of ethics, fall outside its purview.

    In his Rethinking Life and Death, Princeton bioethicist, Peter Singer exposes the fallacy “[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.” This demonstrates the irrelevance, if such demonstration were needed, of supposedly “scientific” arguments for ethical judgments.

  • Noah_Vaile

    Mister Beckwith’s argument, that at conception the egg is no longer that but now the very beginning of the human experience (paragraph 6) begs the question of contraception. The egg, just as the sperm, are themselves “proto-humans” if you will. Their only purpose is to become a human being.

    If we do not recognize this truth then contraception via barrier methods, at least (condom, what have you), becomes a wholly acceptable preventative. As Catholics & Christians we know that they are not. The only acceptable barrier method is to keep your pants on.

    As far as the “emancipation of women” is concerned I don’t think that denying (through contraceptive techniques or abortion) the essence of being a woman is emancipating, it is perverting. No, men can’t get pregnant. But if they get a woman in such a state their responsibility for the care and raising of that child is no less than the woman’s. Getting pregnant requires the conscious act of two people of the opposite sex.

    They should not engage in the act if they don’t want to take part in its consequences.

    • chesterlab

      That’s easy to say. I married a man I had known since high school (I was NOT PREGNANT AT THE TIME EITHER), we had a child a couple of years later, and then another, and he was so feckless he decided that the responsibility of caring for a family was far beyond his capabilities. I certainly was ready to take on the responsibility of caring for our children, and did so. I also worked part time in our business, at his demand. He left me twice and I would even have taken him back even the second time, but he refused. The 18 year old girl he hooked up with was far more valuable than a good, faithful woman (and I was only 28 at the time) who gave him two beautiful sons, kept an immaculate home, took good care of his family, helped him whenever he needed it. All that means nothing if the man refuses to develop some intestinal fortitude and live up to HIS responsibilities. My ex decided that it was time to start dating again and that he did, and left and never came back. This had nothing to do with emancipation of women, and I refused to have an abortion. So I raised my sons alone. I was willing to be a traditional mother and wife, yet that wasn’t enough. I don’t know what you men want from us.

      • Frank

        I think lumping “you men” in with your irresponsible ex is more than a little bit unfair. Until then, you were making a lot of sense. Perhaps you really meant to say you don’t know what HE wanted from you. That is an entirely reasonable question.

        It irritates me to no end when men do not take responsibility for the children they father. I have been married to the same wonderful woman for 34 years and we never were given the gift of children, yet we see examples like yours (any many even worse ones, I’m sorry to say) all around us. We were not even allowed to adopt because of my wife’s medical condition. Yes, state employed bureaucrats were empowered to judge whether or not we, both with advanced degrees and a great desire to love and rear children, were acceptable as parents. She would have been a stay-home mother and a good one, her medical issues easily controlled through medication and therapy. That is the price many would-be parents must pay when they are not able to have children in the usual way. Perhaps things have improved by now, as these things happened to us 25-30 years ago, but I don’t know. In any event, seeing parents who walk away from their children is simply incomprehensible to me.

        • chesterlab

          No, I am not “lumping all men” into one category because I had a bad apple. I make my judgments based on my 20 year career as a legal assistant working for matrimonial/family court lawyers. If you weren’t aware, the divorce rate today stands at 50%. My ex husband’s behavior is just a fraction of the bad behavior I’ve observed in the law firms I’ve worked for. Men don’t want to hang around to take care of their families. They don’t want to let their wives stay home so that they can raise their children in a loving,Christian (or Jewish) environment. They don’t want to be the heads of their families. And you may be surprised to hear that I think feminism has been a lie. We have gotten nothing out of it but two jobs-work and home.
          With men today, things go along ok for a while after the wedding, and then one day they tire of their wives, kick them to the curb and look for some new young thing. I didn’t make the statistics up, my friend. Now, this does occur the other way around with women tiring of their husbands, but by and large, it is still the men who are the ones who generally bail on their wives, because for men it is oh so important to always have to have some young thing half their age.
          I also commend you for your faithfulness and devotion to your wife. I know there are good men out there. However the good men-obviously-are all married and stay married. This issue is the result of the 60s “me first” generation, drugs, free love, no commitment. And I would have taken my husband back for my children had he given me the chance. He preferred what he got, and consequently divorced two more times after me.

          • Frank

            Thanks for your reply. I think you’re likely correct about the cause of this pattern of behavior, and about feminism’s loss of its way, as well. And thanks for your explanation, although I have to say you might still be tarring more broadly than I believe is justified with the divorce brush. I know the statistics, and I’ve seen a fair number of the kind of situations you talk about, but I’m also an attorney who practiced litigation and labor law for 35 years, and over the years I have had to remind myself often that the things I saw (involving how badly many employers and employees behave toward one another, how unscrupulous many businesses can be, and the like) are not necessarily representative of the whole world. For every lousy situation I had to deal with for my clients, there were lots of good employers, good employees and honest businesses out there who behaved well. Similarly, even with a 50% divorce rate, which is tragic and scandalous, that leaves quite a large number of marriages that still manage to last. It’s a struggle, for sure, but no one ever said it would be easy, just like the Christian life in general.
            And I really am genuinely sorry for what you have gone through. My brother has had a similarly awful experience, with his wife having walked out on him after three children and seven years of marriage, leaving him with the children and seven-figure credit card and mortgage debts, not one cent of which she has ever paid. Of course, she still wants to be Mommy, she just doesn’t want any of the responsibility. And I don’t bring that all up just to make the point that it was the wife who was irresponsible in this particular case, as I think you’re likely correct that in most cases it is the men who seek “greener pastures” or whatever. I only mention it so you know I have reason to be sympathetic to anyone who is the wronged party in one of these situations.
            In any event, I wish you well and hope you can find a man who will treat you with the respect you deserve, as a Mom and a woman made in the image of God!

          • chesterlab

            Thank you. But at this stage of my life, although I am still attractive, I no longer trust men. I love men, but I can’t trust them. I simply can’t go through that kind of pain again and even though I struggle financially, it isn’t worth it to put myself into a situation that is likely to go south once the honeymoon wears off. So I sing Gregorian chant and polyphony in my church choir and go to mass every day. Better I improve my relationship with our Lord and Savior than waste time looking for another man. And if God wants me to have one, he will provide. But I’m done looking.

  • Mark Chance

    Well said, sir.

  • givelifeachance2

    Fourth, becoming a “house” slave
    by allowing Ole Massa BigGov/Eugenics to “breed” you
    and then be thrown the sop of “entitlements”
    because you’re a single parent, you know…
    whether through youthful lust or through divorce
    (room of one’s own, you know)
    instead of marrying and trusting for life one’s true love
    founding one’s own family
    is hardly “emancipation”.

  • Frank

    Thanks, Dr. Beckwith, for this analysis. Another of Gopnik’s throwaway phrases in the quoted passage also jumps out at me, i.e., “metaphysical intuition.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “intuition” as “something that is known or understood without proof or evidence.” Thus, it seems Mr. Gopnik either doesn’t know or refuses to accept what metaphysical thinking really is, i.e., sound reasoning based on observable facts. In the overwhelmingly self-centered world view of the Left typified by Gopnik and Politt, if a way of analyzing an issue tends to produce results one doesn’t like, one simply rejects that way rather than engaging with the undesired result.

    • Murray

      Very well put. One of the most striking things about converting to Catholicism from atheism, as I did, is that for the first time in my life, I found myself standing on solid ground, intellectually and morally speaking. For me, one of the greatest proofs of the Church’s divine foundation is that she provides ordinary men and women with the tools to make reliable moral judgments for themselves, without constant recourse to shamans, mullahs, or academics. (I assume good catechesis, of course, which has been very thin on the ground, lo these past fifty years.)

      The Gopniks and Pollitts, by contrast, are lost, drifting, treading water, what have you. Their language resembles that of moral or intellectual argumentation, but is easily shown to be self-contradictory, or built on one or two very shaky assumptions, as Dr. Beckwith demonstrates above. I cringe when I see these arguments, partly because they’re so typical of the debased quality of modern secular reasoning, but more so because that was me not so long ago. LIke Gopnik, I was a smart man wading in the intellectual kiddie pool, but believing myself to be a competitive swimmer.

      • Frank

        Welcome home!

  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    QUOTE: “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.”

    To reverse much ancient custom and Roman Law, Gopnik’s complete emancipation of women would include the woman’s standing as the absolute adjudicator over life (at least its emergence and stake at survival). This is, in fact, a claim for totalitarian authority. Woman the totalitarian! As the backside of some coin, this is truly a metaphysi8cal position.

  • kainzh

    On the other hand, Gopnik’s analysis is perfectly consistent with the
    contraceptive mentality. If women’s emancipation implies a right to
    non-procreative sex, those engaging in emancipated sex have no duties to
    their unintended and unwanted fertilized eggs.

  • ericdenman

    What an extraordinarily macabre commentary on our ever increasing march toward Western man’s de-civilization to decree that a female’s emancipation is founded on her “right” to deny her distinguishing capacity as a female, bringing forth new life. How proud we should be that a female’s emancipation is predicated on her “right ” to destroy human life, female and male, in and ex utero. Just how long will we humans survive as subjects to this new anti-survival frame of mind?

    • ForChristAlone

      The argument is truly a house built upon sand.

  • Rosemary58

    And the Catholic Church would agree with Mr. Gopnik that the zygote, or blastocyst or embryo, etc. does not have the same value as the life of the mother. The Church has always defended the right of the mother to defend her life, as is the right of all persons. No one can force a woman to sacrifice her life for the sake of her fetus; if she chooses to do so, to forego her life-saving treatment, that is a special grace but she is not a breeder who must do or die for the sake of the unborn. that would be contrary to the rights given us by God. That is the point I take away from Mr. Gopnik’s quote.

    Pro-lifers should refine their opposition to abortion. They should consult Church teaching on the “health of the mother” option because that is usually the red flag pro-abortion rights activists use against them. The life of the mother has always been paramount; respect for her life has always been part of moral theology. Most surveys show that Americans reject elective abortion but are on board for it when the life of the mother is threatened. We need to deflate that argument by showing that it is not the issue.

    • ForChristAlone

      The “health of the mother” tactic is a slipperly slope.

      Just so I can understand your comments in context, are you a Catholic who believes all that the Church teaches on abortion?

    • Mark Chance

      What you say is only partly true. While the Church “has always defended the right of” anyone to defend their life, the Church has also always rejected as gravely wrong the direct, deliberate destruction of innocent life. A pregnant woman may certainly seek “life-saving treatment” that would risk the life of her unborn child, but abortion is not one of those treatments.

  • Peter

    I very much agree with the idea “writers with such an impressive array of intellectual powers, [should] want to apply these gifts to the strongest versions of their opposition’s case” but as the author has shown here, there is some value in exposing weak arguments for what they are. Well done. I look forward to reading the author apply his gifts to the strngest version of his opponents – just not in this article apparently.