Abortion and Radical Dualism


On January 23, 2019, amidst cheers and applause, New York State passed legislation that added abortion rights to their state constitution. The crowd chanted “Free abortion on demand! We can do it! Yes, we can!” The World Trade Center joined the celebration by lighting its spire pink, the color of Planned Parenthood (ironically, while the memorial below bears the names of the unborn children who lost their lives in the attacks on 9/11). To those of us that oppose abortion, the jubilee cut right to the heart. Abortion is no longer regarded as a necessary evil, but something to be celebrated, even shouted from highest rooftops. What caused such a shift?

Today, things like abortion and euthanasia “have been elevated into ‘legitimate expressions of individual freedom.’”[1] In “John Paul II meets Francis Schaeffer,” Nancy Pearcey writes that the shift is driven by a radical mind/body dualism in which the human person is divided between a lower story composed of meaningless matter and an upper story where they are free to determine their identity. This splitting of the human person can be detected in the arguments used to defend abortion rights, euthanasia, embryo research, transhumanism, and the LGBTQIA movement.

Philosophers like John Paul II and Herman Dooyeweerd both warned of dire effects such a dualism would have on modern society. Materialistic science and relativistic ethics have enabled “crimes against life” that are “more sinister in character” than ever before in human history.[2]  Materialism encourages us to treat our bodies as raw material, devoid of meaning and purpose (or teleology), while moral relativism puts the post-modern self as the sole arbiter of meaning. In essence, in modern society, nature is no longer intrinsically good, its goodness and purposes being things to be discovered. Instead, nature is instrumentally good, its goodness arising from how it can be used to achieve human desires.

Such a dualism creates a tension between a lower realm that is essentially deterministic and an upper realm that is founded in self-determination. Modern secularism seeks to resolve the tension by giving complete power of the upper story over the lower. The lower, material realm can be shaped and determined by the upper realm. Today, the prevailing culture sees as most valuable the free exercise of individual rights and freedoms (upper story), perhaps as a sort of romantic reaction against the mechanistic, determinism of the Enlightenment (lower story). Thus, something like the right to abortion becomes an expression of freedom and autonomy. This is why an entire room of well-meaning adults can cheer at the passage of legislation that effectively removes all constraints on abortion.

Ultimately, this dualism leads to a denigration of the material realm – a common theme on all the attacks on human dignity, from abortion to transgenderism. “Practices such as abortion and euthanasia are justified by a radical mind/body dualism that identifies moral worth based solely on mental abilities such as self-awareness and consciousness,” Pearcey writes, “while denigrating the human body to the level of raw material that be readily tinkered with or simply disposed of.”[3]

The field of phenomenology that taught John Paul II and Dooyeweerd to recognize this dualism seeks to overcome it by reconnecting the mind and body. This discipline within philosophy is sensitive to the fact that philosophical thought is fundamentally artificial. In philosophy, “we abstract one aspect” of reality “from the connected fabric of experience in order to study it and formulate theories about it.”[4] Dualism occurs when we totalize that abstraction, treating it as ultimate and complete, instead of seeking to apply it to our embodied experience to test its veracity. It is important to note that this absolutizing occurs in both the upper and lower stories – to such an extent that they crowd the other out. Today, the upper story absolutizes the conscious life and freedom whereas the lower story makes an idol of the materialism and the mechanistic realm. In the end, the two views compete rather than communicate. What can reunite the two?

Standing in opposition to this dualistic narrative is the Biblical account that presents “a holistic anthropology that treats the person as an integral unity, with intrinsic value at all levels.”[5] In his essay, “Biblical Bodies,” Don Welton incorporates a Biblical understanding of the human person with the discipline of phenomenology in an effort to reunite the upper and lower stories. He establishes that the concept of body and mind that emerges from the Bible is one that is fully integrated and interdependent, suffering under a temporary sort of dualism in a fight between life and death, the finite and infinite – versus one in which the two are hopelessly and permanently at odds as modern dualism assumes. Instead, “our corporeal existence is caught in an order that exceeds the sphere of moral choices … beyond a psychology of stain or guilt into an ontology in which it is caught in the battle between life and death … or in a struggle between God and Satan.”[6] Suffering causes the sense of estrangement that gives rise to dualistic thinking if not understood in terms of the Biblical narrative.

“The fall haunts the present,”[7] Welton writes, and as long as the modern world lacks this understanding, radical dualism will remain a difficulty for it.


One World Trade Center, lit up to celebrate abortion, includes a memorial to unborn babies.


[1] Nancy Pearcey, “Evangelium Vitae: John Paul II Meets Francis Schaeffer,” The Legacy of John Paul II, ed. Tim Perry, InterVarsity, 2007, 182.

[2] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor,” http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html

[3] Pearcey, 182.

[4] Ibid., 203.

[5] Ibid., 195.

[6] Donn Welton, “Biblical Bodies,” Body & Flesh: A Philosophical Reader, 245.

[7] Ibid., 242.

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