January 5, 2008

Ethics of Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is a writer at the University of Regina who has received attention for her critique of the Straussian neoconservatives. (For example, see Drury's Saving America: Leo Strauss and the neoconservatives). I am inclined to disagree with much that Drury says on that subject, but my present concern is to briefly discuss her views on abortion and homosexuality, with an emphasis on her misrepresentation of St. Thomas Aquinas on abortion.

Regarding abortion, Drury stated,

"I agree with St. Thomas Aquinas about abortion: it is wrong after quickening i.e. when the cells come to life and begin to move... about the fourth or fifth month... then you have a living thing...but prior to that I don't think it is wrong. But in any case, it is not the business of government...but of individuals and their conscience." (09-13-03)

Even though Drury claims familiarity with the middle ages and the writings of St. Thomas, she has significantly misrepresented the thinking of St. Thomas on abortion. So, let us take a quick peek into the high middle ages and see what facts Drury has failed to present.

Medieval biological science, following Aristotle, mistakenly believed the male pre-natal child was not sufficiently developed to be 'ensouled', and therefore human, until 40 days, while the female took about 80 days.

The position of St. Thomas is that the nutritive and sensitive souls precede the presence of the spiritual or intellectual soul. The intellectual soul, which contains within it the powers of the lower nutritive or vegetative and sensitive souls, is created directly by “God at the end of human generation, and this soul is at the same time sensitive and nutritive, the pre-existing forms being corrupted” (
S.T. Ia, q. 118, art. 2, reply 2).

St. Thomas followed the latter-day Aristotelian theory, which held that the fetus is not sufficiently developed until about 40 or 80 days for the intellectual soul. Yet, he considered abortion in the earlier stages of either the nutritive or sensitive states to be counted among those “the evil deeds” that “are contrary to nature”, (IV Commentary on the Four Books of Sentences of Peter Lombard, dist. 31, q. 2, art. 3 Exposition). Thus, for St. Thomas, abortion is a grave moral evil in the early stages of development, and clearly murder during the latter stages.

St. Thomas made reflections based on the science of his day, yet his conclusion that abortion is always a grave moral evil, is a position that remains independent of the state of science at any particular time in history. If accurate biological knowledge had been available to him, he would have considered abortion to be murder at any stage of pre-natal development.

Oddly enough, Drury’s depiction of “quickening” during “the fourth or fifth month” does not reflect the scientific knowledge of the Middles Ages, or of the present-day. And certainly, one will not find any support in the writings of St. Thomas for Drury’s assertion that abortion is morally permissible before “quickening”.


Concerning homosexual relationships, Drury stated the following:

"As to homosexuality...I think there is so much hate in the world that any love at all is a good thing as long as it is not the exploitation of minors." (September 13, 2003)

I hope that Drury will not someday pretend that her inane view of homosexuality is in agreement with the ideas of St. Thomas. Nonetheless, in the interest of being forearmed, let us compare Drury’s view that homosexuality is “a good thing” with the teaching of St. Thomas on the subject.

In the Summa Theologica (
II, II, Q. 154, art. 12) St. Thomas cites St. Augustine, who said that of all "the sins belonging to lust, 'that which is against nature is the worst.' St. Thomas continues:

"In every genus, worst of all is the corruption of the principle on which the rest depend. Now the principles of reason are those things that are according to nature, because reason presupposes things as determined by nature, before disposing of other things according as it is fitting...In matters of action it is most grave and shameful to act against things as determined by nature. Therefore, since by the unnatural vices man transgresses that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions, it follows that in this matter this sin is the gravest of all. After it comes incest, which...is contrary to the natural respect we owe persons related to us. With regard to the other species of lust they imply a transgression merely of that which is determined by right reason, on the presumption, however, of natural principles.

"Just as the ordering of right reason proceeds from man, so the order of nature is from God Himself: Wherefore in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the Author of nature. Hence, Augustine says (Confessions III, 8): "Those foul offenses that are against nature should be everywhere and at all times detested and punished, such as were those people of Sodom, which should all nations commit, they should all stand guilty of the same crime, by the law of God, which hath not so made men that they should so abuse one another. For even that very intercourse which should be between God and us is violated, when that same nature, of which He is the Author, is polluted by the perversity of lust.""

Ms. Drury’s characterization of homosexual acts as "love" and "a good thing" is tantamount to repudiating all objective ethical standards in matters of human sexuality. The same rationale she uses to justify homosexuality easily applies to adulterous relationships, and so on. This is little more than a libertine ethic.

So, if Ms. Drury ever says she agrees with St. Thomas on some matter, just beware. Ms. Drury and St. Thomas have nothing in common.

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