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Abortion and Ideology | Part Two (Part One) | Raymond Dennehy, University of San Francisco | Ignatius Insight

But the injunction to honesty is not always observed among scientists, particularly when they commit themselves to purposes that collide with the evidence gained from their research. In 1866, Ernest Haeckel, formulated his Biogenetic Law, otherwise known as the recapitulation theory: "Ontogeny [the embryological development of an individual] is a brief and rapid recapitulation [review] of the phylogeny [evolutionary history of the organism]," [22] which teaches that "the embryo of a complex animal goes through stages resembling its ancestors..." [23] Haeckel's theory attained textbook status and for decades was accepted as the explanation for the supposed fact that the human embryo has primitive gill slits. But Haeckel was guilty of outright fraud. In 1874, biologist Wilhelm His was able to demonstrate that to support his Biogenetic Law, Haeckel had purposely altered previous drawings of human and dog embryos. [24] Why did he tamper with the evidence? It seems that Haeckel was a true believer in Darwinian evolution, [25] perhaps remaining convinced that since the validity of evolutionary theory was beyond dispute, the distortion of lower truths was justified by the cause of service to that higher truth. But Haeckel was but a single person. What happens when a government throws its support behind deceitful intellectuals?

Nazi ideology is a case in point of what happens when ideology is allowed to trump knowledge. Two German Nobel Prize winning physicists, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, led a group of "national researchers" in an effort to develop a German or Aryan physics, dismissing Einstein's relativity theory as "Jewish world-bluff." The two did not hesitate to hector and verbally intimidate colleagues who subscribed to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. [26] In 1936 the new rector of the University of Berlin instituted no fewer than 25 courses in racial science (Rassenkunde), purporting to supply scientific support for the Nazi claims of superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of the Jews, [27] when, in fact, the courses consisted of systematically distorted scientific claims. The replacement of inquiry and the love of truth with the specious certitudes of Nazi ideology produced a devastating result on the life and mission of the university:
The teaching of the natural sciences, in which Germany had been so preeminent for generations, deteriorated rapidly. Great teachers such as Einstein and Franck in physics, Haber, Willstaetter and Warburg in chemistry, were either fired or retired. Those who remained, many of them, were bitten by the Nazi aberrations and attempted to apply them to pure science. They began to teach what they called German physics, German chemistry, German mathematics. Indeed, in 1937 there appeared a journal called Deutsche Mathematik, and its first editorial solemnly proclaimed that any idea that mathematics could be judged nonracially carried 'within itself the germs of destruction of German science.' [28]
Science in the USSR fared no better. It was a Stalinist dogma that the science developed in the capitalist west was "bourgeois science." The communists hoped that Soviet science would eventually rival Western science and, in the end, surpass it. But even after the end of World War II, it was clear that, with the exception of physics, the sciences in the USSR had not made any progress worth talking about. A major figure in the Soviet scientific program was the biologist, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. In 1940 Stalin appointed him director of the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences and by 1948 he had managed to attain absolute control over Soviet biology. Having the might of the Soviet Union at his disposal, Lysenko succeeded in repressing support among Soviet biologists for the Mendelian doctrine of hereditary genetic transmission despite its worldwide acceptance by the scientific community. [29]

If obstructing a nation's progress in scientific research is bad enough, the loss of trust among scientists is itself also a terrible price to pay. But the payment does not end there. The lies and distortions that permeate elitist circles is a malignancy that will sooner or later spread to the public sphere, especially when, like the abortion debate, it pertains to the daily lives of ordinary human beings. When mistrust runs rampant in the population, civic virtue slowly withers; for, as a plant needs water, it is a virtue that cannot live without mutual trust. And without civic virtue, there can be no community of persons. As Hannah Arendt observed, the inability of a people to tell fact from fiction is one of the conditions for the rise of totalitarianism. In an atmosphere of conflicting opinions and skepticism, the authoritarian leader assumes, in the eyes of the public, an attractiveness that he could never have had otherwise. In the midst of their confusion, the people look to him for guidance. It made no difference to the German people when the facts proved Hitler's wild assertions to be false; they continued to believe and follow him. [30]

Ideology's Internal Contradiction

The inspiration and energy of an ideology comes far more from an object of will than reason, despite the ideologue's claims to the contrary. August Comte and his followers preceded Karl Marx in the attempt to establish sociology as the dominant field of knowledge. But the attempt rests on a premise that is incompatible with the premise that philosophy's object is the "pure object." For, if the validation of a statement's truth is preponderant social affirmation, then, of course, a pure object of knowledge must be regarded as a fiction. Consider, for example, Karl Marx's claim that all consciousness is conditioned by the modes of human production [31] or Thomas S. Kuhn's claim that it is impossible to determine whether science makes progress because the paradigm of what constitutes science is composed of non-rational, non-scientific cultural components that change from era to era. [32] There can be no doubt that socio-economic forces shape human consciousness; we are, after all, social beings. But it is quite another thing to say that such forces exert so powerful an influence as to render the human intellect incapable of arriving at objective, ahistorical, transcultural knowledge. And while it is equally beyond doubt that our fundamental scientific outlooks of the universe have changed radically since the Ptolemaic system, it does not necessarily follow that this leaves us bereft of any way of judging whether science makes progress. The fact that we are capable of ever more precise and successful prediction in science is perhaps a reliable standard of progress. [33] At all events, anyone who embraced the view that science is the standard of all knowledge of reality and, at the same time, accepted the claim that the standard of scientific knowledge was not grounded in rational considerations but instead in broad psychological and social elements would find oneself in the same camp as the Marxists, holding that all knowledge is socially conditioned.

The problem with sociologism is that harbors an internal contradiction. This contradiction bedevils the sociology of knowledge in general. Consider the proposition so dear to Marxists and sociologists of knowledge: "All knowledge is socially conditioned." It is one thing to construct a universe of discourse, D', in which all propositions are composed of terms that are assigned meanings on the basis of their relation to all the other terms in that universe, so that pd'1 cannot be understood apart from its position in relation to pd'2,pd'3,pd'4 ... and they, in turn, cannot be understood apart from pd'1, etc. While it would be true to say that every proposition in that universe of discourse is "socially" conditioned and thus cannot be understood apart from the other propositions, the term "all propositions" applies only to universe of discourse D'. The latter constitutes an object language that depends on a meta-language, D, for its meanings. The meanings that the meta-language assigns to the propositions that comprise the object language need not pertain to the propositions that comprise the meta-language.

But when the term all knowledge is taken as unrestricted in its extension, then the statement, "All knowledge is socially conditioned," is itself socially conditioned. Since the statement is supposed to mean that because all knowledge is socially conditioned it is, to that extent, not objective, it can only be inferred that the statement itself is socially conditioned and, to that extent, not objective. If the sociologist of knowledge wishes to extricate himself from this muddle, he will have to show why the knowledge claims asserted by the sociology of knowledge are not socially conditioned, and this he cannot do without contradicting himself or admitting that the statement is false. That is the fatal weakness of ideology.

Rejecting the object of philosophy, the pure object, the ideologue is left only with his demiurgic drive to impose an ideal on the world and for this he must claim that the meanings of institutions, practices, and realities, like human beings, are social constructions that, accordingly, have only the value that society confers on them. These characteristics express themselves today in the pro-abortion and feminist movements and, indeed, both have a Marxist ring to them. The principal argument advanced by feminists is based on equality: women can never achieve the equality enjoyed by men until they have the power to control their reproduction. And true liberation requires not only economic equality but gender equality as well. But the latter goal will forever remain out of women's reach as long as social institutions rest upon the belief that gender is a biological imperative rather than a social construct. To show that it is the latter, Marta Llama presents us with a minimum of five genders: (1) men (persons with two testicles); 2) women (persons with two ovaries); 3) hermaphrodites (persons who simultaneously have one testicle and one ovary); 4) masculine hermaphrodites (persons with testicles but who also display other female sexual characteristics); 5) feminine hermaphrodites (persons with ovaries but who also display male sexual characteristics.) [34] Her point in adverting to this panoply is to support the contention of the gender feminists that the traditional division of the sexes exclusively into male and female is a social decree rather than a biological imperative since the other three manifestations of sexuality are equally real. Although the ontology of physical differences between men and women cannot be written off as social constructions, the psychological and intellectual differences can be explained as products of socialization. But this explanation requires buying into the feminist fable of a paradisiacal time long ago when male and female were the same in those parts of their being until the biological imperative of bearing and nursing children confined women to the home while men remained free to build culture. [35]

Therefore, the claim that all ontology is really ideological reveals itself as more dogmatic than rational. By its own admission, it is not an ontological proposition since "All knowledge is socially conditioned" can only be a proposition about knowledge, not about things or events. Society's acceptance of propositions as "true" must therefore rest on pragmatism: the particular social construction produces results deemed desirable and is accordingly held to be "true" or "good." So the ideologist finds himself in the position of having to admit that pragmatism is a true philosophical proposition about human knowledge. But this conclusion is incompatible with any claim that pragmatism is not ideology; instead it must be the philosophical foundation of ideology. An ironic outcome, this; an ideological idea of ontological truth as really social truth rests on an non-ideological idea of truth about the nature of knowledge. [36]

The internal contradiction of the sociologism embedded in ideology thus fails to dissolve ontology, which remains independent of epistemic claims. On the contrary, epistemology depends on things: ontology precedes epistemology; things are the measure of mind; mind is not the measure of things. That independence refutes, above all, the self-destructive statement, "All knowledge is socially conditioned." Philosophy's task is not to change the world but to discover the truth of things in the world, unborn humans, for example, as the premise for how they ought to be treated

This essay appears in The Human Person and a Culture of Freedom (Catholic University of America, 2009), edited by Peter Pagan Aguiar and Terese Auer, O.P. It is reproduced here by the kind permission of the editor-in-chief of the American Maritain Association Publications.


[1] San Jose News, (San Jose, CA, March 12, 1973)

[2] Bernard Nathanson, "Confessions of an Ex-Abortionist,"; also see his book, Aborting America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979)

[3] Quoted in Robert Marshall & Charles Donovan, Blessed Are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), pp. 294-95

[4] Quoted in Blessed Are the Barren, p. 295

[5] Psychology Today, October, 1998, p. 44

[6] Psychology Today, p. 47

[7] Psychology Today, p. 47

[8] David Baltimore, "Don't Impede Medical Progress," The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2001

[9] Lee M. Silver, Remaking Eden (New York, NY: Avon Books Inc., 1997), pp. 25-26 & 48

[10] Mary Ann Warren, "On the Moral and Legal Status of the Fetus," The Monist, Vol. 57, #1 (January, 1973); Michael Tooley, "Abortion and Infanticide," Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2/1 (1972)

[11] Raymond Dennehy, "Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right," Telos, No. 134 (Spring, 2006), p. 58

[12] Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, 188 (1973)

[13] Yves R. Simon, The Tradition of Natural Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), pp. 16-17

[14] Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, Edited by T.B. Bottomore & Maximilien Rubel; tr. by T. B. Bottomore (Harmonsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1963), p. 84

[15] Jacques Maritain, Scholasticism and Politics, Translation edited by Mortimer Adler (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1960), pp.163-64

[16] Tradition of Natural Law, p. 18

[17] E.g., Naomi Wolf, "Our Bodies, Our Souls, The New Republic (October 16, 1995); Sally Markowitz, "A Feminist Defense of Abortion," Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, 1 (Spring, 1990)

[18] Tradition of Natural Law, p. 21

[19] Wm. Oliver Martin, Metaphysics and Ideology (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1959), pp. 1-2

[20] Yves R. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 203

[21] Rom Harré, Varieties of Realism, A Rationale for the Natural Sciences (Oxford: U.K.: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 12

[22] Percival Davis & Dean H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins 2nd Edition (Dallas, Texas: Haughton Publishing Company, 1993), p. 129

[23] Quoted in Eric J. Blievernicht, "Gill Slits in Human Fetuses?", p. 1

[24] Blievernicht, p. 1

[25] Blievernicht, p.1

[26] Leslie Stevenson and Henry Byerly, The Many Faces of Science: An Introduction to Scientists, Values, and Society (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), p. 157

[27] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 250

[28] Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 250

[29] Many Faces of Science, pp. 165-67

[30] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p. 305, n. 1

[31] Karl Marx: Selected Writings, p. 67

[32] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), Ch 2

[33] W.H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), pp. 38ff.

[34] Babette Francis, "Is Gender a Social Construct or a Biological Imperative?" Family Futures: Issues in Research and Policy, 7th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Sydney (July 24-26, 2000), p.2

[35] Sherry Ortner, Making Gender: the politics and erotics of culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), Ch 2.

[36] Metaphysics and Ideology, p. 79, n.1

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond Dennehy
Contraception and Homosexuality: The Sterile Link of Separation | Raymond Dennehy
Privacy, the Courts, and the Culture of Death | An Interview with Dr. Janet E. Smith
What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci
The Truth About Conscience | John F. Kippley
The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
Personally Opposed--To What? | Dr. James Hitchcock

Raymond Dennehy is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco.

After serving from 1954-58 as a radarman in the U.S. Navy aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Rochester in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he attended the University of San Fransisco, obtaining a B.A. in philosophy. He studied philosophy in the graduate school of the University of California, Berkeley, finally getting his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto.

He is the author of Anti-Abortionist at Large: How to Argue Intelligently about Abortion and Live to Tell About It and, most recently, a novel, Soldier Boy: The War Between Michael & Lucifer (2007). His previous books are Reason and Dignity and an anthology he edited, Christian Married Love. He is frequently invited on radio and television programs, as well as university campuses, to speak and debate on topics such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and cloning.

He is married to Maryann Dennehy, has four children and eleven grandchildren.

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