It’s safe to assume the TV commercials played during the Super Bowl are usually more memorable than even events taking place during the game. During this year’s Super Bowl, Pringles aired a comical commercial depicting a young man being consoled by his grandfather after his hand became stuck in a can of Pringles chips.
The grandfather tells him that it happens to everyone, from judges, to surgeons, to game show contestants, and concludes by showing an ultrasound photo of a baby in the womb with his hand stuck in a minature can of Pringles, saying “It even happened to your little cousin Timmy!” To which his grandson replies “But that doesn’t even make sense.” The commercial is corny and lighthearted, but it raises some interesting questions in light of current controversies over abortion.
Why does the punchline of an unborn baby Timmy having his hand stuck in a Pringles can make us laugh? Aside from the absurdity of a baby who has yet to exit the womb having a Pringles can stuck on his hand, it makes perfect sense for us to identify “Timmy” in an ultrasound photo because it actually is Timmy.
As philosopher J. Budziszewski points out, when it comes to the contemporary moral issues of our day, it seems obvious upon reflection that there are things(in his words) that we “can’t not know.” Truths about our world that are self-evidently obvious to us, no matter how much we may try to ignore or obscure them.
Abortion might be the best case in point, and one which accidentally became obvious in this year’s Super Bowl. Why is it that when we are shown an ultrasound photo of someone we know, we immediately recognize the entity in the womb as our friend or loved one? It might well be, as Budzisweski notes, one of the things we “can’t not know”. If we reflect long enough, we can recognize the entity in the womb as a fellow human being, especially when we’re not considering the question in light of how it may impact our own selfishness.
The challenge for pro-life advocates in today’s world is that there are several biases that help abortion make sense to the culture: Confusion over human development, and Body-Self Dualism. Both of these factors help explain why abortion makes sense to many of our friends and family.
The confusion of human development is easy to understand: In a post-Industrial Revolution age, many people think of development as a sort of construction by an outside agent, rather than self-directed process. The philosopher Richard Stith provides a helpful example to illustrate: If you consider a Polaroid camera, when a photo is taken, the photo is printed on film which self develops after being exposed to light. The image captured develops itself based on its own nature(or, in this case, the nature of the chemicals the film has been treated with). Nothing needs to be done to the film to create the picture; the picture is already there, it just needs time to develop itself until we can see it. In a similar manner, once fertilization has taken place, the human being is already there, as they are developing according to their human nature. We may not see them yet, but in time we will. And because humans are all united equally in our having the same basic human nature, it makes perfect sense to say we are all equals in what we are, even if we all can’t do the same things. “Timmy” was there all along before his ultrasound picture was taken, even if we didn’t see him yet.
Body-Self Dualism is different. This view is a bit more complex, and asks a different question: Are you a body, or a mind?
Body-self dualism holds that the “person” I am (Nathan) is linked to my thoughts, memories, and emotions. If these thoughts, memories, and emotions cease to exist, it seems to make sense to say “I”(Nathan) no longer exist. And if my existence is linked to these things, it seems like I can’t be harmed if I don’t exist. Because the things that make me Nathan were not present before I was born, I wouldn’t have been harmed if my mother had obtained an abortion, so abortion may not be wrong.
This sounds complicated, but it is very common thinking, and helps explain why many people are persuaded to accept abortion. Most people accept the idea without even realizing they have done so. Body-Self dualism makes intuitive sense at first glance, and has become a dominant ethical framework for addressing most moral issues of our day, from abortion, to euthanasia, to sex, and other topics.
Body-Self Dualism is not without problems, and leads to absurd conclusions on closer inspection.
For one, because my existence would be directly related to my having thoughts, feelings, and emotions, this would mean I was never actually born, because my brain was not developed enough to have thoughts or feelings; my body was, but I wasn’t.
Body-Self Dualism leads to other problems as well. If my existence is tied to my mental faculties, then “I” have never hugged a close friend, had a first kiss, skinned my knee, lifted heavy weight, or eaten a hearty meal. Only my body, which houses my mental faculties, has done these things. It also means it’s impossible to express unconditional love for another personacting solely on another person’s behalf for their own good without regard for my own); I could only show conditional love, because my mental faculties would be satisfied as a result. This seems problematic.
There is a better way to think of our nature as human beings. As Robert George and Patrick Lee argue, humans are embodied beings with a nature geared towards rationality. What this means is that we are not merely a mind inhabiting a body, we’re an embodied being with a mind.
We’re bodily beings that have thought processes, not mere thought processes inhabiting a body. Sure, if my ability to engage in thought processes ceases, it could be said that I cease to be, that I have died. However, as Stephen Napier points out, if your heart stops, you might be dead, but it doesn’t follow that you are identical to your heartbeat. In a similar way, if you have yet to exhibit thought processes, it doesn’t mean you are your thought processes, or are identical to them.
This might sound complex, and more can be said, but in order to be effective pro-life advocates, it is essential to understand and be able to respond to the worldview issues that make abortion seem acceptable to our culture.
It is often said that the goal of the pro-life movement is not simply to make abortion illegal; our goal is to make it unthinkable. Confronting cultural confusions over what it means to be human will go a long way toward creating a culture that values all human beings. We laugh at a silly Pringles commercial of an unborn baby getting his hand stuck in a potato chip container because deep down, we know that Timmy is one of us, regardless of how small he is, less developed, the environment he is in, and his level of development on others for his survival.
J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide 2003, Ignatius Press
Stephen Napier, Uncertain Bio-Ethics 2019, Routledge
Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics, 2009, Cambridge University Press