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Reviewed by:
  • Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life by Fabrizio Amerini
  • John Langan
Review: Fabrizio Amerini, Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life, trans. Mark Henninger, Harvard University Press, 2013

The ongoing and apparently interminable debate over the moral and legal status of abortion has come over the years to resemble the Western front in World War I, with two contending armies facing each other with limited maneuvering room, familiar and overused weapons, periodic artillery barrages, increasing casualties, not much new to report, and a deadly ‘no man’s land’ between them in which virtually nothing survives. Against the gloomy monotony of the abortion wars, in which reductivist accounts of the opponents’ views and repetitious restatements of familiar and cherished views predominate, this book by Fabrizio Amerini, a professor of philosophy at the University of Parma, appears as a refreshing surprise. It is surprising for a number of reasons, which I shall present later. But its refreshing character comes primarily from its moderate tone and the care with which its arguments are presented. Amerini is clearly familiar with the Catholic tradition on abortion and euthanasia; he is respectful of this tradition, which he does not directly challenge, but his sense of scholarly integrity prevents him from simply presenting Aquinas as a defender and synthesizer of all the positions championed in that tradition or by its papal custodians. He has an impressive command of the relevant texts in Aquinas and the Fathers of the Church, which he joins with a scrupulous style of [End Page E-103] philosophical argument which has an affinity with the clarifying labors of G. E. Moore in the early days of analytic moral philosophy. The result is not easy reading, but the reader can be confident that the desire to score rhetorical points and political victories will not distort the philosophical and historical analysis. The book is intended primarily for those who can benefit from careful scholarship, but it should be instructive for all who regard the questions of abortion and euthanasia as genuinely difficult and as deserving our best intellectual efforts.

The most important surprise is Amerini’s focus on the issue of delayed versus immediate hominization in the development from embryo to complete human being. Since Pius IX in 1867, the Vatican has insisted that from the moment of conception the embryo becomes a human person whose life is sacred and deserves full protection. This view is ordinarily discussed as ‘immediate hominization’. In Amerini’s view, the embryo lacks the development and differentiation of organs which would enable it to have a sustainable potentiality to perform the acts which are proper to a human person, particularly reasoning and choosing. In the Vatican’s view, the soul is immediately infused by God, though it obviously requires many years of development before it is able to function as a complete and distinct human person. Amerini regards this position as untenable within Aquinas’s metaphysical system and finds in Aquinas’s own texts evidence that he teaches a discontinuous process in fetal life. Amerini regards the insistence on immediate hominization as an arbitrary effort to maintain an absolute uniformity of moral status in all the stages of embryonic and fetal life. He sees the Vatican’s position as leading to an equation of abortion and homicide which he regards as unjustified. He does, however, affirm that there is an identity of subject running from the embryo to the developed person and also that this grounds an ethic of respect for life in all of its stages. The practical conclusions in bioethics he would draw from this position “could allow space for a judicious and discriminating ethical evaluation of individual cases,” as he puts the matter in the concluding sentence of the book.

Other surprises are the author’s discovering from a careful reading of Aquinas’s texts that he taught a progressive plurality of substantial forms in the development of the embryo. For Aquinas, it is the substantial form which answers the question about what sort of being the object of our inquiry is. In the case of human persons, the substantial form is the soul, which includes the intellectual properties of...


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