Asking the right follow-up

One of the things for which Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert was best known was his informed follow-up questions and his tenaciousness in pursuing an issue when a guest waffled or misinterpreted. Russert, a devout Catholic, was noted for his questioning of then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore on the issue of when life began.

Russert’s questions to Gore in 2000 came to mind Sunday night as I listened to the podcast version of that morning’s interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Meet the Press interim moderator Tom Brokaw asked Pelosi to comment on Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s question recent question to the presidential candidates on at what point a person gets human rights.

Needless to say, Brokaw failed to ask good follow-up questions on the subject of when life begins:

MR. BROKAW: Senator Obama saying the question of when life begins is above his pay grade, whether you’re looking at it scientifically or theologically. If he were to come to you and say, “Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?” what would you tell him?

REP. PELOSI: I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator — St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose. Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child — first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There’s very clear distinctions. This isn’t about abortion on demand, it’s about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and — to — that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god. And so I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this, and there are those who’ve decided . . .

MR. BROKAW: The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it…

REP. PELOSI: I understand that.

MR. BROKAW: . . . begins at the point of conception.

REP. PELOSI: I understand. And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. That’s why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. My Republican colleagues do not support contraception. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must — it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think. But that is not the case. So we have to take — you know, we have to handle this as respectfully — this is sacred ground. We have to handle it very respectfully and not politicize it, as it has been — and I’m not saying Rick Warren did, because I don’t think he did, but others will try to.

MR. BROKAW: Madame Speaker, thanks very much for being with us.

What a terrible time to end an interview.

Before all of GetReligion’s beloved commenters even consider discussing the merits of Pelosi’s statement on this blog post, please remind yourself that this is not the place to do that. A better and acceptable line of discussion would be along the lines of the types of follow-up questions Brokaw could have asked Pelosi.

The response to Pelosi’s response has been harsh and swift from some Catholic quarters. The Associated Press reported late Monday night that two “prominent Roman Catholic archbishops” have said that Pelosi “misstated church teachings about abortion.”

Here is what the AP has reported:

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, citing the teaching responsibility entrusted to bishops, issued a statement late Monday that read, in part: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.”

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and his auxiliary bishop, James Conley, said in a statement posted on the archdiocesan Web site: “Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is a gifted public servant of strong convictions and many professional skills. Regrettably, knowledge of Catholic history and teaching does not seem to be one of them.”

Abortion “is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it,” the statement continued.

Other news organizations are also reporting on the conflict, and more recently the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s pro-life and doctrine committees has leveled criticism against Pelosi.

Please use this post to ponder why Brokaw did not attempt to challenge the self-described “ardent, practicing Catholic” on her answer? Was Brokaw satisfied with the answer?

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  • Shaun G

    Well, one obvious follow-up is asking whether she thinks the Church’s teachings about contraception are just as up in the air as she says the Church’s teaching about abortion is.

  • Brian Walden

    Brokaw at least tried refute Pelosi with Catholic teaching. That’s more than a lot of bishops have done with members of their flock who publicly dissent – and Brokaw’s not even Catholic (as far as I know). I didn’t see the program, but from the transcript I’ll give Brokaw the benefit of the doubt that he was out of time for the segment or something like that.

    BTW another bishop, Cardinal Egan in NY, is the latest to issue a press release in response to Pelosi’s statements – and his may be the most concise and straighforward yet:

    This story has been THE story on all the Catholic blogs over the past few days. I wonder how much play it will get in the mainstream media?

  • Amy

    I think another related topic is the lack of coverage of this (so far) in “local” media. The Denver papers have not yet run a story on it (granted they have a lot to report with the convention in their backyard, but considering it was Chaput who issued a very strong statement first, and then was present that night at a prayer vigil at a Planned Parenthood clinic – strikes me as newsworthy), nor have the California papers. In fact the only secular news outlets that have covered it have been wire services and the Washington Times, to my knowledge, as well as The Hill, which you cite. Oh, Fox News has started running a story on it as well. But still nothing from Denver or CA papers.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I am sure Tim Russert would have come up with questions probing Pelosi’s attitude toward Obama’s pledge that his first act as president would be to wipe from the books any and all pro-life legislation nationwide (using Roe V. Wade as the bludgedon). Thus does Pelosi also support wiping out all laws that protect the consciences of doctors and nurses who do not want any part of what they consider to be a form of homoicide??? Does Pelosi also agree that the Born Alive Act (supported by even the most pro-abortion radicals in the Congress, but strongly opposed by Obama) should also be wiped from the law books????
    This Brokaw interview points up how important questions are never even raised by the media because of the overwhelming liberal-radical tilt of its members. Really probing questions of liberals and Democrats just never come to the mind of even well-meaning liberal journalists steeped in their liberal culture.
    But you can be sure very pointed and probing questions will be asked of any conservative or Republican by these
    same interrogators.
    I still haven’t seen anywhere whether Biden has been asked if he is now in favor of NOT banning partial-birth abortion to match Obama’s stand. Does he now share the absolutist pro-abortion positions of Obama (so pro-abortion that most pro-abortion groups chose Obama over their former heroine Hillary in the primaries.)

  • Peggy

    I see your point. I missed that part of the interview. I couldn’t stand watching it all. I’m a channel flipper. I was surprised in general at how frequently Brokaw challenged Pelosi on other issues such has the low ratings of Congress. She even corrected him stating the single-digit approval # when Brokaw got the #s backwards! Brokaw also pointed out that she and her husband recently invested in the T BOone Pickens wind power venture. She generally looked nervous and licked her lips anticipating his questions.

    Sorry those weren’t religion issues. I just wished to point out that the entire interview by Brokaw was not all that weak.

  • Martha

    The one question I wish would be asked, by television interviewers or journalists, is a simple one: how, if you disagree with the clear and clearly stated teaching of the Church, can you call yourself a Catholic?

    I mean, if she said “I don’t agree with the stated and agreed and binding policies of the Democratic Party on X, Y and Z but I still say I’m a Democrat”, wouldn’t the interviewer explore that?

    For a little light relief, here’s something from the Ironic Catholic on the Biden selection (I leave it up to the professionals if this accurately represents the journalistic mindset – and yes, I do realise this is a made-up story for humorous purposes) :-)


    Journalists Slip, Break Ankles on Lather Produced by Biden Pick

    Hannibal, MO: The reporters making up The Hannibal Ledger had a collective fall last Saturday when Senator Barack Obama announced Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

    “At first we thought it was news, although not especially exciting news. Then it was released that Biden was a pro-choice Catholic, and we went a little crazy. I think the main problem occurred when someone shouted ‘Hey! We get to do a Church watch on the whole Eucharist thing!’ and we began to…well, it’s embarrassing to admit…drool like lap dogs,” said religion beat reporter Bradley Thomas, sporting crutches.

    “That was the kicker,” said Raina Lyndale, news editor. “Watching someone twist in the wind wondering whether this parish or that parish will deny him communion…it’s that kind of moral drama that sells papers. If we’re really lucky, we’ll get bishops barking at each other on page one! It was then that the floor got so lathered, we all slipped and broke our ankles.”

    Apparently treatment was delayed after the prone reporters told other newspaper staff the good news, they danced for joy, and promptly broke their ankles as well.

    The Obama-Biden campaign had no comment.

    In related news, in this Sunday’s Ledger: an in-depth investigation on faulty ankle braces in local hospitals.”

  • Brian

    “Senator Obama saying the question of when life begins is above his pay grade…”

    Why is it a surprise that Brokaw didn’t ask appropriate follow-up questions when his initial question was based on a misrepresentation of what actually happened? Rick Warren asked about when human rights should be extended to babies, NOT when life begins. Sen. Obama should have been interrupted when he initially misinterpreted the question, and the media should be competent enough to not compound the mistake.

  • Joe Perez

    A follow-up question would have been in order. Perhaps there was a follow-up question, but it was edited out of the interview?

    P.S.: I think Pelosi’s historical claim was more right than wrong. Readers can make up their own minds with info like this:

  • Dale

    Joe said:

    I think Pelosi’s historical claim was more right than wrong. Readers can make up their own minds with info like this:

    Oh, cool! The Magisterium is now a wiki! Do Prots like me get to edit?

  • Brian Walden

    Joe, are you serious? That link says nothing about The Catholic Church’s teaching about abortion. It only shows that people have always performed abortions, just as they’ve always committed every other type of sin. Archbishop Chaput demonstrated that Pelosi’s claims are both unscientific and ahistorical (not to mention theologically heretical) in “On the Separation of Sense and State”:

  • Jerry

    Nancy Pelosi said: St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. Her statement is a bit imprecise but still accurate. The Wikipedia article had a bad URL which I fixed which pointed to While the Catholic Church has usually issued statements against abortion there was a period where there were counter-examples

    Pope Innocent III (circa 1161-1216):
    bullet He wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not “animated.”
    bullet Early in the 13th century he stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening” – when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.

    St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an “animated” fetus as murder.

    Pope Sixtus V (1471-1484) issued a Papal bull “Effraenatam” in 1588 which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty.

    Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591) revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the “quickening” test, which he determined happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks).

    So a followup question could have been “even though the Catholic church at times in its history has made other statements, shouldn’t a Catholic pay heed to the all the modern popes that have stated that abortion is murder?”

  • Susan

    “Harsh” responses. Hmmm, that’s interesting. I would have characterized the responses as “clear,” “direct” or “instructive.” I am curious; why did you choose to describe the responses as “harsh”?

  • Sheri

    Rep. Pelosi as an elected member of Congress do you believe your responsibility is to push the agenda of the Catholic Church or to push for the issues supported by the majority of your constituents?

  • FW Ken

    From the earliest days, the Catholic Church has taught that abortion is evil. The bishop’s have responded to Speaker Pelosi with that fact, passing over technical questions of ensoulment. It seems to me a legitimate follow-up question would focus on that distinction, but I wonder if Tom Brokaw would be knowledgeable enough on Catholic teaching to key in on it. One supposes Tim Russert’s education (Jesuit wasn’t it?) would have prepared him to ask such a question.

    Which is to say that Tom Brokaw is no Tim Russert.

  • Martha

    “Ensoulment” is a bit more complicated than you make out, guys.

    It is the point at which the rational soul was believed to enter or be infused with the foetus, at which point the foetus became fully human (and therefore it was murder to kill or procure an abortion).

    Before that, the foetus possessed the vegetative and animal souls. The foetus was alive and was a human life – there has never been any question about this. However, the early theologians were basing the interpretation of Exodus 21 – “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she has a miscarriage but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” upon Aristotelian biological theories, in order to determine the punishment appropriate for procuring an abortion early in pregnancy.

    Since Exodus did not mandate a punishment commitant with murder for causing a miscarriage, then that must mean the early stage foetus was not fully human – enter the science of the day with the ‘quickening’ theory.

    This does not mean that inducing a miscarriage before the quickening was not an offence or a sin or not deemed punishable; it was deemed a lesser offence (think manslaughter versus homicide and which deserves the death penalty in our time), which means it was still an offence.

    However, since we are not living in the fifth century, it would behoove us to consider the rules of the Church nowadays. And indeed, I find it amusing to see someone arguing for pre-Darwinian science, when the usual castigation is that the Church is not sufficiently in tune with the discoveries of modern science.

    Has a binding decision on abortion been made? Yes? Then you may agree, or you may disagree but obey, or you may disagree and be disobedient. But if you choose that last, you do not get to say “I am an ardent, committed Catholic.”

    You may be an ardent, committed politician. You may be ardently committed to your ambition and clambering up the greasy pole of office. But you are not ardently committed to your faith when you have to shuffle and equivocate to excuse your record of public voting.

  • Dale


    The texts referenced by the web site and Rep. Pelosi are good examples of proof-texting determined by the desired result. All of the teachers you reference were guided by a mistaken understanding of the biological process of life–they believed that motion or “quickening” determined whether something was alive or not. We now know that to be untrue. Our increased understanding and technology has even made the original reasoning of Roe v. Wade obsolete–despite Justice Blackmun’s finding of fact, infants can survive outside of the womb before the third trimester.

    Will Speaker Pelosi reference ancient and medieval clerics with regard to Darwinian evolution and conclude that “we don’t know if evolution is true”? I think not. Her answers are disingenuous. If Brokaw and others in the MSM are going to provide Rep. Pelosi and the Democrats with a public forum to dissemble about abortion, they should bring in a Roman Catholic theologian to discuss their claims to be “pro-choice” and an “ardent Catholic”.

  • Colm

    Brokaw should have asked Pelosi how she would respond to the Church’s call for pro-abortion politicians to refrain from receiving the Eucharist. He would have avoided a ‘direct’ confrontation and still asked a pointed, revealing question. I think he fails as a reporter when he says ‘the Catholic Church at the moment’. The Catholic Church, like it or not, has always been opposed to abortion.

  • str1977

    Nancy Pelosi, self-proclaimed ardent Catholic, merely uses her half knowledge about differing views in history to justify her dissent from the teaching of her religion.

    She leaves out the fact that the differences were never about whether procuring an abortion would be morally acceptable but about the point during pregnancy that the growing human life is ensouled. A similar debate happened in Orthodox Judaism.

    And of course she uses the standard fallacy of pro-aborts, she paints this as a merely theological or religious question (which in her mind means subjective and of no further importance), leaving out the scientific findings.

    Had the Saints Augustine or Thomas had the scientific insight that we today have, they would of course agree with modern, pro-life views.

    So much for pro-aborts respecting science. Only as long as it suits.

    Her comments about “safe, legal and rare” do not merit comments.

  • Shaun G

    I think Dale is right on the money.

    Those earlier theologians thought that “quickening” determined whether something was alive (animated). Later, science showed that a new human life begins not at quickening but at the moment of conception. So, the Church’s constant teaching can be said to be: “Don’t kill an alive human.”

    If Brokaw had wanted to hit her with a real zinger, he could have said, “Your party claims to be the party of progress. But on this issue, you seem to be ignoring both scientific progress and theological progress and relying on a third-century understanding of fetal development. What gives?”

  • Brian Walden

    Jerry, those quotes show that Catholics in the past did not have the understanding of biology we have today. Despite the lack of information about fetal life, Augustine, Aquinas, and the popes you cited all taught in unison with the ordinary magisterium that abortion was a grave crime. Lacking today’s technology and scientific knowledge, they just weren’t sure whether abortion was murder or something more like extreme contraception.

    Pelosi on the other hand, with modern science and her ardent study of of the issue, still can’t get it right. She can make the claim that abortion is morally justified if she likes. But she can’t use a 1500-year-old bishop (even if he is a Doctor of the Church) to refute modern biology which shows that babies in the womb are living humans. And she can’t make up her own version of history when the record is clear that the Church has always condemned abortion as morally evil.

  • CourageMan

    Here is the passage from the Washington Times article today:
    Several of the bishops have acknowledged Mrs. Pelosi’s point that the church didn’t always teach that abortion was homicide and that canon law sometimes specified different penalties for abortion and murder.

    But they reiterated that this was based on the poor science of premodern times and that in any event none of the Church Fathers who denied that abortion was homicide ever doubted that it remained a grave offense against both the potential life and against God, the author of life.

    And (on the previous page of the Times site from the link above) the article quotes Cardinal Egan:
    “What the Speaker had to say about theologians and their positions regarding abortion was not only misinformed; it was also, and especially, utterly incredible in this day and age,” said his statement posted on the archdiocesan websiteWeb site.

    “We are blessed in the 21st century with crystal-clear photographs and action films of the living realities within their pregnant mothers,” he continued. “No one with the slightest measure of integrity or honor could fail to know what these marvelous beings manifestly, clearly, and obviously are, as they smile and wave into the world outside the womb.

    As I said on another site, I find it darkly humorous that so many liberals deride the Church as the enemy of mankind, holding back science and thought, keeping the people ignorant, etc. (we all know the litany). And yet, speculative debates about ensoulment based on that supposed Theodoric of York Dark Ages Nonscience … that gets dragged into debates about abortion in place of the plain pictures that modern science gives us.

  • liberty

    I wonder – now that the USCCB, Archbishop Chaput, Cardinal Egan, Archbishop Wuerl have all responded to her misrepresentation of Catholic teachings… will the media cover that?

    Will Meet the Press give Archbishop Wuerl a chance to come on this week and rebut her mis statements? At the very least will Meet the Press read the statement by the USCCB in response? If they want to keep it in the political realm what inviting one of the 19 Catholic House members (including John Boehner – House minority leader) who signed a letter asking her to correct her statements.

    I will read a failur to do so as a case of Meet the Press ‘taking sides’ in this issue with Nancy Pelosi against the Catholic Church.

    I imagine if Tim Russert were there he would not have allowed Pelosi to get away with this in the first place… but he would have definitely had someone on to respond if it created this much of an uproar.

    I think there are those who are hoping if they just ignore it it will go away. I don’t think that will happen, it is THE story among active Catholic this week. Easily eclipsing the nomination of a Catholic to the Democratic VP slot.

  • Jerry

    Some who criticized my post did not read through to the end where I suggested a follow-up question which specifically related to modern Catholic church doctrine.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So far coverage of the Pelosi- Biden Medieval positions on abortion seems almost non-existent. Yet I lost count of all the alleluias and hosannas in the MSM about Obama picking a self-proclaimed “rosary” waving Catholic to appeal to lunchbucket Catholics in Scranton.
    The big problem for Catholics who know and believe in the Catholic Faith is that–according to some polls–75% of their fellow Catholics get most of their religious information from the secular MSM which usually doesn’t know diddly-squat about the Catholic Faith (or any other faith, for that matter).
    Sometimes I wonder if the news we get on medicine, international affairs, government, etc. is equally incompetent or erroneous. If so, then may God help our democracy.

  • Brian Walden

    Just to further this story, The Hill reports that Pelosi issued a response to the bishops through a spokesman citing Augustine yet again and Archbishop Wuerl responded to it:

  • Brian Walden

    According to the American Papist blog, two more bishops have responded on 8/27:

    Pelosi’s local bishop, Archbishop Niederauer, is rumored to be releasing a statement in the diocesan paper on Friday, September 5th. That means this story will likely be in the news long after the DNC ends. Fox News and other conservative outlets have already started picking up on it, when will it be carried by the rest of the national media?

  • Julia

    I’d ask Pelosi if she was getting her information from original sources or second hand from Fr Drinan’s writings or Catholics for Choice booklets.

    The Church has always condemned abortion which set it apart from the normal practices in the Roman Empire. The church also condemned exposing newborns to the elements and wild animals at crossroad and other desolate places to die or be picked up by others to raise as their own child. This “exposure” is the source of ancient myths about children being raised by sheepherders and claiming royal thrones when they grew up. The Church’s condemnation of exposing newborns and abortion made it an uncomfortable critic of what was considered normal – kind of like today.

    What Pelosi was citing were arguments in a time when natural science was still a branch of philosophy. (It’s hard to tell when you are reading the ancients whether they are talking about theology or natural philosophy because these areas of knowledge had not yet separated.) They were making causal inferences from false premises with a bit of Scripture thrown in, doing the best they could to understand human physiology and biology.

    About 1830 the scientific community finally realized that it wasn’t just material from the father that made a baby. With microscopes they discovered that the mother’s reproductive system produced an egg which was fertilized by the father’s sperm causing human life to begin. Before microscopes it was assumed that the mother merely nutured what had been placed within her by the father. They thought that at some point God decided to form a human out of the material; it wasn’t considered a new human life until it had limbs, etc. Then a soul was supposedly injected when the the mom first felt the baby move (quickening).

    The people Pelosi cites didn’t have our scientific knowledge of conception e.g. uniting of sperm and egg resulting in an entity with DNA differing from both its parents. Brokaw could have asked if she had considered that in choosing whose views to accept on abortion.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Well, Nancy could have gone back to the early Church Fathers who stated baptisms should not be performed on babies in the womb. You have to wonder what brought that up. Brokaw could have probed deeper about the context of the Augustine quote. Did he quote an opponent’s opinion as he set up his side of the argument? Was the quote intended as a point on a completely unrelated point of doctrine? Were there any other quotes that Ms. Pelosi could offer to support her contention that the Church has always struggled with this issue? Or are there “outlyers” who held that life doesn’t begin at contraception but Ms. Pelosi conveniently leaves out the counsels and synods those debates led to? Alas, Mr. Brokaw may have had time constraints. This might be better explored in the print medium.

  • Dave2

    Dale wrote:

    All of the teachers you reference were guided by a mistaken understanding of the biological process of life—they believed that motion or “quickening” determined whether something was alive or not. We now know that to be untrue.

    I’m no expert in Aristotelian or medieval Aristotelian biology, but I’m pretty sure they recognized that pre-quickening human embryos were alive. What Martha said earlier seems right, that the vegetative and animal souls come in before the rational soul.

    And even today a neo-Aristotelian hylomorphist (and they do exist!) could insist that the rational soul doesn’t show up until quickening, and I believe no amount of contemporary science could prove him wrong.

  • Dale


    I’ll let the man speak for himself:

    Now whether the soul is moved or not, and how it is moved if it be moved, has been stated before in our treatise concerning it. And since all inorganic things are moved by some other thing—and the manner of the movement of the first and eternally moved, and how the first mover moves it, has been determined before in our Metaphysics, it remains to inquire how the soul moves the body, and what is the origin of movement in a living creature. For, if we except the movement of the universe, things with life are the causes of the movement of all else, that is of all that are not moved by one another by mutual impact. And so all their motions have a term or limit, inasmuch as the movements of things with life have such. For all living things both move and are moved with some object, so that this is the term of all their movement, the end, that is, in view. Now we see that the living creature is moved by intellect, imagination, purpose, wish, and appetite. And all these are reducible to mind and desire.

    Although Aristotle’s De Anima goes on at greater length, that idea continues through out. Life, especially animal life, is defined by movement. A body that moves without another body moving it is alive. What moves a living body is the soul. If a fetus moves without the mother moving it, it has its own “soul” and thus life separate from the mother. So Martha and I are in agreement.

    And even today a neo-Aristotelian hylomorphist (and they do exist!) could insist that the rational soul doesn’t show up until quickening, and I believe no amount of contemporary science could prove him wrong.

    Read De Anima and On The Movement of Animals. Aristotle isn’t proceeding with an argument beginning from his metaphysics–he starts by asking “what is a soul” and “why do animals move”. He notes that there are some bodies that are the source of their own movement, including development. He calls the guiding principle of that development the “soul”. We now know that the development of living things are partially attributable to DNA, which is unique to individuals upon conception. It is not credible to maintain that a modern understanding of genetics wouldn’t impact Aristotle’s thinking on the subject.

  • Dave2

    Dale, let me begin by making sure we’re on the same page. I took it that you affirmed and I denied the following proposition:

    (*) These guys thought that quickening marked the onset of life (i.e., according to Aristotle and his medieval commentators, it is not until quickening that pre-natal life actually counts as being alive).

    I denied it, citing what Martha said: that, prior to the ‘ensoulment’ that might come with quickening, pre-natal life is very much alive but is not yet human, as it possesses only a vegetative soul or animal soul and does not yet possess a rational soul. In other words, if quickening marks anything, it marks the onset of humanity as opposed to the onset of life.

    If I understand you aright, you are suggesting that the reason why, for these guys, quickening marks the onset of life is that (i) life itself is understood in terms of motion and that (ii) quickening marks the onset of motion. But I would have thought that the sort of ‘motion’ definitive of life is very different from the sort of ‘motion’ involved with quickening. Feeling the fetus move in the womb is certainly ‘motion’, but does not exhaust the forms of kinesis (or motus) that are definitive of life, and which are more a matter of change than of motion as we understand it (cf. Aquinas’s first way). So, since pre-natal life might well have kinesis prior to quickening, I would have thought that quickening does not mark the onset of life.

    But I think you might also be suggesting another kind of argument: that (a) suitably independent kinesis is what’s definitive of life, that (b) it is not until quickening that the fetus manifests the right sort of independence, and that therefore (c) quickening marks the onset of life. The first premise is plausible enough, in that a pre-natal body whose movement was merely the result of the body of the mother (as opposed to any internal principle of change) would not be alive. But I doubt the second premise’s claim that it is not until quickening that the fetus manifests an internal principle of change: quickening is simply when we feel it moving, and it might have had a vegetative or animal soul long before that.

    Also, finally, I would never suggest that Aristotle would ignore the findings of modern genetics. My point was just that it’s a long road from genetics to any arguments against quickening as a criterion of humanity / rational ensoulment. If anything, modern genetics comes from a mechanistic revolution in science which renders Aristotle’s entire hylomorphic account of souls obsolete.