Note: The following article originally appeared under the title "Abortion: Seeking for a Sensible Solution" as issue #14 of Dialogos: An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology at the beginning of the year 2000. It has brought, needless to say, rather sharp responses. I have reproduced it here in a new expanded form taking many of the original critism in mind, complete with the original introduction below. I would ask the reader to keep the content of this preface very much in mind, particularly the disclaimers in the third paragraph.
No single issue has divided the American public in recent years quite the way that has the topic of abortion. Indeed, since the U.S. Supreme Court decision known as "Wade versus Roe" some thirty years ago, there has been only increasing public polarization over the issue, with a marked increase of partisanship and incivility within our political institutions, and even outright violence. The same has been true even to some extent in Canada, and the issue continues to be a highly volatile one in many other places in the world, especially in those which claim to be heirs of Christian civilization. Yet all efforts to find a logical, moderate, or even simply sensible solution seem to flounder. If there is any growing consensus at all, it seems to be that there is no solution -- other than to agree to disagree and then try to ignore the matter altogether.
In face of the most recent advances in both contraceptive as well as reproductive technology, as well as medical experimentation involving things like "stem cells" taken from so-called "pre-embryos", such a state of affairs must not be allowed to continue indefinitely. So this issue of DIALOGOS is going to suggest a philosophically rational approach, which includes a firm grounding in contemporary science as well as a healthy respect for the human values which religion has attempted to defend, in hopes that we might possibly find a sensible solution, or at least one that could guide public policy in a way that might allow some workable compromise.
It is not expected that everyone will agree with what will be proposed here. Nor am I suggesting that this proposal represents any position other than those of the editor perhaps modified somewhat by feedback from others, especially those who have agreed to serve on this web-site's editorial consultants staff. Nor should this paper be taken as in any way representing those institutions to which the editor or his consultants may belong. We would also encourage reader's comments -- but with the caution that they review the DIALOGOS editorial policies before they respond. (R.W. Kropf, editor)
Abortion: Seeking a Sensible Solution
The Situation Today
When one surveys a good part of the literature on abortion, one cannot be but struck by the extremes which this subject inspires, particularly on the part of those who are against abortion in any form. We hear voices raised against what they call "baby-killers", "murderers" and ready comparisons with Auschwitz and the Holocaust. If the rhetoric simply stopped there, it would be bad enough. But open invitations, even exhortations, have even been made by some abortion opponents to incite violence, even leading to outright assassination or homicide in the name of defending innocent life.
On the other hand, on the "pro-choice" side (often unjustly termed "pro-abortion" by their opponents -- another breach of civility undermining any attempt to understand a varying point of view) we typically find an emphasis entirely on women's rights, the right to privacy, etc., with a tendency to avoid what is most fundamentally at stake, which is the beginning of another human's life. In other words, while the anti-abortion group tends to simply beg the question, the pro-choice advocates appear to avoid it. And that question is, of course, the actual status of the embryo or fetus -- is it really, truly a "human being" or not?
Not that there are not other, even much broader issues at stake, but we think that until this one crucial issue is faced in all its complexity, that the other issues, or at least the complete range of ethical or moral dimensions of this issue cannot be adequately addressed.
A: The Role of Philosophy
One of the strange things about this whole issue is how little attention is paid to philosophical analysis. Pro-choice people often complain about how the anti-abortion people are seeking to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of society, while the latter, no doubt sincerely, seem to think that their opposition to abortion should no more be seen as a specifically "religious" doctrine than are our criminal laws against murder and homicide or for that matter, against child-abuse. The fact is that almost all these ethical concepts show quite a spectrum or variation of understanding -- as for example what constitutes "abuse" or even "murder", which may even be seen as a form of rough "justice" in some societies, while in contrast, in most modern countries, capital punishment is considered a particularly barbaric form of revenge left over from a more primitive time. So too whether one considers an unborn child as a human "person" or not has deep philosophical underpinnings, even though these opinions may (or may not) take the form of religious beliefs.
One way of looking at this phenomenon is to see the anti-abortion or "pro-life" people as "essentialists". For an essentialist, while an acorn may not be exactly the same as an oak, nevertheless they both are seen as belonging to the same species, and therefore an acorn is seen as essentially the same -- a potential oak tree. It has the same DNA or genetic make-up, and given the right conditions, soil, water (and not being eaten by a squirrel) will eventually, even inevitably, become an oak, and not a maple, or a pine, or some other species of tree.
On the other hand, the "pro-choice" people are, in contrast, predominantly "existentialists" in their thinking, at least in one sense of the term. Unless something is manifestly existing or functioning according to the specific characteristics of its species, they are inclined to classify it as something quite a bit less than the object, or in the case of human beings, the subject, in mind. Thus when it comes to oak trees, they would certainly insist that they must have trunks and branches, and perhaps produce acorns themselves, before whatever is growing there can be classified as a "tree". And while they may admit that acorns, when left unmolested eventually become oaks, they are hard-put to explain how it is or when it precisely is that the transition takes place that distinguishes the acorn become seedling, become sapling, become tree.
Yet another way of understanding this conflict is to look at it from the viewpoint of the history of western philosophy and its influence on our religious and ethical thought. Two philosophical approaches in particular have been combined in Western civilization in various ways to form our attitudes regarding abortion today.
One of these -- perhaps the most obvious influence when one looks at the literature and rhetoric of the pro-life movement -- has been the platonic view of the "soul" as an immortal, immaterial "substance", a kind of spiritual "double" of the self that is destined to continue to live on after death simply because it is what it is, and which is something that can exist independently of the body and thus is destined (according to the prevalent Christian version of this understanding) to an eternity in either heaven or hell -- or in the case of unbaptized babies, to a kind of "limbo" in between. There seems to be little awareness among Christians that such a belief in its original form also included a belief in the pre-existence of the soul which was to be reincarnated in a whole succession of lives, not unlike the belief the transmigration of souls still widely held in Asia today.
But even aside from reincarnational beliefs, a similar idea that the soul in some sense gives rise to the development of the body (the "preformation" theory) seems to have been held by Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician whose ethical prohibitions against physicians doing any harm to their patients included a prohibition against administering abortificants. Thus the oath that bears his name was endorsed by early Christianity and became the basis of the traditional ethical code of Western medicine.
The other major influence on our Western ideas on the subject was that of Aristotle, who while he also spoke of the "soul", seems to have had quite different ideas about it than Plato or his mentor Socrates. For Aristotle, the soul was not a kind of spiritual "substance" but rather an abstract principle or "form" that gives shape (i.e. "informs") the prime matter or stuff out of which something is made. From this point of view, all living beings were once thought to possess "souls" -- though few of them were necessarily thought to be immortal. Thus plants had plant souls and animals possessed animal souls, each of which gave each organism its species characteristics, while its numerical individuality came from the particular hunk of matter which was so informed or as the medieval scholastics said, in the case of humans, "ensouled".
What is most interesting about this Aristotelian understanding, particularly from a modern biological point of view, is that each stage in an organism's development was seen as preparatory to and necessary for the succeeding stage. Thus the first stage of gestation was described as being "vegetative" and could not pass on to becoming "animate" until nature worked through the stage of purely vegetative growth. So too, in the case of human pregnancy, a truly human being, or at least distinctively human fetus, could not be present until the "animate" level of development had been accomplished, which, back then, was thought to take somewhere between 40 to 80 days. Until this middle stage of development was complete, there was, in the opinion of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, not a enough developed biological infrastructure to support the presence of a distinctively human level soul.
Certainly, the science of human embryology, as well as biology in general, has advanced a great deal from the time of Aristotle (4th. century BC) but one cannot but be surprised by the continuing relevance and influence of his views (as in the Roe versus Wade decision of the US supreme Court and the continued furor especially about "late term abortions"). The reasons are obvious. It certainly seems to represent a fundamentally more "scientific" approach -- in the sense of being empirical, i.e., beginning with observation of nature rather than with philosophical presuppositions. It is also, surprisingly (but really no great surprise if one goes back some into the history of Western philosophy) an approach that greatly influenced the views of Christian theology for a long time. It is not that medieval Christians had a lax view of the seriousness of abortion. In fact, all forms of deliberate interference with the natural processes of reproduction (including all forms of contraception) were thought of as serious "sins". But they did not naively think of all abortions, as morally serious as they might be, as equal to murder or infanticide. Robert T. Francoeur, a Catholic biologist and embryologist, drawing on more extensive studies, has summed up the situation in an article published by C.C. Harris and F. Snowden in the volume Bioethical Frontiers in Perinatal Intensive Care (pp. 19-37).
For 400 years, Christian theologians followed Hippocrates' preformation theory and condemned any interference with fetal life. Then, after toying with the idea of a human being preformed in the semen, Augustine adopted Aristotle's view of a series of animating life principles or souls. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas added his authority to Aristotle's view. Between the fifth century and the close of the Middle Ages, terminating the life of a fetus in the first trimester or before "quickening" was not considered abortion or homicide, though it might be an immoral interference with a natural process that could lead to a human being (J. Donceel, Philosophical Psychology, 2nd. ed., and E. Messenger, Evolution & Theology, Sands, 1949. (Op.cit. p. 23)
Current embryological research has become much more exact. Were Aquinas and his colleagues around today, undoubtedly they would revise their estimate as to the possibility of "ensoulment" to something as early as between the fifteenth and twentieth weeks of gestation, or in other words, between the fourth and five months of pregnancy. But even dividing the whole process roughly into two, like this, would mean a major change from the kind of all-or-nothing simplistic thinking that seems so prevalent on both sides of the argument today.
In the light of this philosophical history, how the widespread opinion, common among religious people -- that there is an immortal human soul present from the moment of conception -- became official dogma, is something of a mystery. Some have suggested that it began with the first experiments with crude microscopes a few centuries ago, when some researchers swore they could actually see tiny little people ("homunculi") in samples of human sperm. Francoeur goes on to recount the story:
As the Renaissance dawned with its emphasis on observation, the idea of a sequence of life principles and the acceptance of early abortion was challenged. At Louvain University, Fienus reported a fully formed human three-day old embryo. Around 1670 the human egg and sperm were first observed in primitive microscopes, opening a century of debate. From all over Europe, professors of medicine announced startling observations of human forms all curled up in the head of the sperm or in the egg, or starting to unfold in embryos only a few days old. If preformed humans could actually be seen in the egg or sperm, then a revolutionary conclusion became logical and inescapable: The soul and the human person must be present from the first moment of conception. Any interference with this fully human person from the moment of conception and even before conception, then, has to be immoral. One theologian even advocated mandatory polygamy to give as many preformed human sperm as possible the chance to develop.
As new observations came in, Pope Sixtus V outlawed all interference with fetuses after conception to save the preformed humans. Three years later, Gregory XIV reaffirmed Aristotle's position and again allowed first trimester abortions, only to be reversed by a later Pope. A century later, in 1775, Fr. Spallanzani experimented with artificial insemination, proving there was no preformed matter in either egg or sperm and that both were essential for conception. Still the preformation theory triumphed in Catholic circles while many Protestant reformers followed Aristotle and scientists with better microscopes and less imagination. (Ibid.)
Thus the loss of the fine distinctions made by medieval theology -- no matter how crude their biology -- gave way, despite the advent of modern science, to a return to a platonic view of the soul that was oddly enough never fully compatible with Christian belief. How can this be explained? Certainly there seems to have been a lot of confusion among the early scientists. But perhaps the most obvious answer is that the more "spiritual" view of the soul held by Socrates and Plato never really lost its fascination and grip over human thought. Indeed, the "enlightenment" era which brought the advent of modern science was partly an outgrowth of the Renaissance which, along with its return to ancient Rome and Greece for artistic and literary inspiration, had sparked a revival of platonic thought and neo-platonist philosophy. So it was that the platonic view of the soul which had been taken over (after being purged of its reincarnational ideas) wholesale by the earliest Christian theologians and "read" into Christianity's understanding of the Bible, returned full-force, this time with help of imagined evidence gleaned from microscopic examination.
Despite the modifications introduced by the revival of Aristotle's thought, the platonic doctrine of the naturally immortal soul has continued to shape most Christians' thought on the subject and even today, despite brave attempts to rethink the subject (see for example, the attached list of articles that have appeared in the American Jesuit- sponsored quarterly, Theological Studies, over the past fifteen years) continues to haunt the debate. The result has been that religious people today, while thinking of themselves as traditionalists, or even as "fundamentalists" on this issue, have, in reality bought into a philosophical tradition that in reality, may have very little to do with what the scriptures actually say.
B: Scriptural Confusions
A word count of English translations of the Bible turns up 156 instances (according to the topical index supplied with the Catholic version of the New Revised Standard Bible -- which includes the so-called "Apocrypha") where the word "soul" appears. But in fact, of the five different words in the Hebrew bible that are sometimes translated as "soul", few if any even come at all close to what Socrates and Plato meant when they used the word "psyche". Typically, the Hebrew word "nephesh", which by far and large is the word most often so translated and which seems to have been derived from the word which meant "throat", should be more accurately translated as denoting a "living being" and by extension, in a self- referential way, to one's own life or "self". Three of the other terms sometimes translated as "soul" also refer to various parts of the anatomy, most often derived from the Hebrew k-b-d root, which has to do with the heart, liver, or entrails in general, but which in the form kabod, while it generally means "glory", "honor" and even "riches", is also occasionally translated as "soul", especially when the reference is to the most valuable or expressive aspect of one's self.
So how was it that the Hebrew word "nephesh" became so commonly translated as "soul"? This tradition clearly goes back to the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures -- so-called because tradition holds that it was the product of seventy Jewish scholars working in Alexandria, then (second century BCE) the cultural center of the "diaspora" (and mostly Greek-speaking) Judaism. This translation is noteworthy for its tendency to modify the more concrete expressions characteristic of Hebrew idiom to more abstract terms provided by Greek vocabulary. Certainly the Greek word "psyche" falls into this latter category, even when it does not necessarily mean what Socrates or Plato meant by the term.
It is only when we come to the Book of Wisdom, one of the deuterocanonical books (considered as one of the "apocrypha" by most of the Reformation churches) that was included in the Septuagint, but which instead of being translated, seems to have been originally written in Greek, that we find the psyche and its potential for immortality described in terms vaguely reminiscent of platonic thought. Here we find a description of the soul as escaping from the body to live on in another more etherial realm at death. But overall, despite this fleeting Jewish flirtation with the siren of platonic thinking, the biblical view of the possibility of immortality is NOT predicated upon the existence of some sort of naturally "immortal soul", but instead on the idea of a "new creation" or re-creation effected by the Holy Spirit breathing new life or spirit into the mortal body, in other words, by some sort of "resurrection" at the end of time.
As a result, when it comes to the Greek New Testament, where we would expect to find the Greek word psyche, we still have situate the thought of Jesus (who we can assume spoke in Aramaic -- the contemporary equivalent to Hebrew for Palestinian Jews of his time) as being squarely within this continuing Jewish tradition. It is clear that Jesus, apparently siding with the Pharisees (for a change) and contrary to the hellenized Sadducees, insisted on belief in the resurrection. So while the term psyche may appear fifteen times in the four Gospels, it makes little or no sense to translate it in a way that makes Jesus sound like a Greek platonist discoursing on the immortal "soul".
Next, if we turn to the epistles of St. Paul as the predominant source of theological understanding in the New Testament, the term psyche is found only at most a dozen times and only then if we count the Epistle to the Hebrews (see Darton's Modern Concordance to the New Testament, Doubleday, 1976). But very few commentators or exegetes think Hebrews was actually written by Paul, and was more likely composed by a disciple with a command of more elegant Greek. That leaves us with only the six indisputable instances of psyche being used by Paul himself, and three of them are usually translated (depending on the context) as "heart" or "mind". In one of the three remaining instances, Paul speaks of "body" (soma), "soul" (psyche), and "spirit" (pneuma), while in some other places where we might expect Paul to speak of the psyche he uses the word nous or "mind" instead. Hence there is good reason to think that by psyche Paul could have meant little more than the sum of our thoughts and emotions, as contrasted to the divinely imparted pneuma or "spirit", which is the real source of eternal life. Otherwise, the whole promise of "resurrection", so central to the New Testament message, whatever it actually means, appears quite superfluous. (For more on this, see The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1968, Nos. 34:12; 48:29; 77:66.)
Nevertheless, despite such a complex philosophical and theological history (or perhaps because of it) pro-life or anti-abortion advocates take a much more cut and dried approach. For them, the essence that makes all the difference between seed and organism, between human and mere animal, is to be found in the presence of the human "soul". Abortion is, in their eyes, "murder", because it is destruction of the life of an organism that no matter how underdeveloped it be, is the bearer of an immortal soul. The question of legal personhood or even of psychological "selfhood" has nothing to do with it. For them, the deliberate termination of a pregnancy represents the taking of a human life which is all the more heinous in that it is a completely innocent and defenseless one. But were the case really that simple. Unfortunately it is not.
C: New Problems with Old Arguments
As of late, these various ancient ideas (which never did completely agree with each other) have run into a whole new set of problems.
For one, the old idea that a "soul" is somehow infused by God into an organism (or alternately, created by the parents themselves) at the moment of its conception, raises a number a serious complications, both biologically and philosophically speaking. The fertilization of the ovum by the sperm is itself a fairly complex process involving a series of stages lasting about 24 hours during which any number of malfunctions might occur. (See Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th. edition, W.B. Saunders Co., 1968, pp.34-36). Thus "conception" is really more of a philosophical concept than a medical one, and which attempts to pin-point an exact moment (when human life begins) while medicine can only point to a division of cells which occasionally may not even result in anything like human life (e.g, the phenomenon of "hydatidiform moles"). Even more, the phenomenon of twinning -- when an additional cell division suddenly begins, sometimes several days after "conception", to divide into distinct individual embryos -- certainly presents great difficulties for the belief in the simultaneous creation of the "soul" upon conception. Were there really two souls to begin with? Or was another soul later created to "inform" this new twin? That this situation persists and can even be reversed during the first two weeks of pregnancy with the possibility that this "pre-embryo" (prior to the appearance of the primitive neural cord), may even be reabsorbed into the reproductive system, makes the idea of a human "person" being present at this early stage highly unlikely.
Secondly, we have to face the hard fact of life that far from all conceptions result in pregnancies that can be carried to term. According to authorities cited by Moore and Persaud (Ibid. pp 57-58) large numbers of embryos, perhaps even many as half, are spontaneously aborted, entirely apart from any deliberate abortion. And there are other authorities who would see even these figures as being rather conservative -- some even claiming an embryonic survival rate as low as 16% or less! So if we were to actually hold to the theological opinion that God sees to it that a "soul" somehow comes into existence for every child that is conceived, then we are faced with the mind-boggling possibility that God seems as much interested in populating heaven with the souls of aborted babies as in seeing children born here on earth. And if that were the case, then how could abortion be considered immoral -- particularly when God apparently allows it to happen naturally on a scale that can only be considered wholesale in its extent?
Mark Johnson (see article in Theological Studies, No. 56, as noted below) objects that such an argument is more properly a theological objection or a matter for philosophical theodicy rather than a medical or biological one (see Dialogos Issue #4) and would also be weakened by comparison with the rate of infant mortality in past ages. But it could be countered that it is precisely because of the theological difficulty that all these spontaneous abortions presented to Christian consciousness that the doctrine regarding "limbo" (a state of natural happiness apart from heaven) took root. Could a merciful God permit the souls all these unborn children to suffer forever in hell? In any case, the belief that the souls of children (whether born or unborn) are relegated to some kind of eternal fate (whether happy or not) in a way that is entirely divorced from any conscious choice on their part remains problematic to say the least.
Third, there is still the philosophical conundrum as to just exactly what is the function of this supposed "soul". We have already seen that philosophically speaking (according to the refinements of Aristotle's thought on the subject) that the soul was thought of as the "form" of the body as contrasted the still unformed "matter" from which the body was shaped. In other words, it was the soul that gave the organism its particular shape or unique characteristics. Today, we assign that role to DNA and the resulting genetic make-up which is distinct for every individual -- except in the case of identical twins or, more recently, clones.
Perhaps it is only here, in this latter case, that a distinct "soul" would might be seen as possessing a differentiating function. But again -- if we return to Aristotle here -- it would be not the form (or DNA) that imparts individuality but the "matter" as such. This is why Aristotle seems to have thought that upon death, individual immortality was problematic, and that the human soul, if it continued to exist after death at all, did so only as part of a kind of collective "world soul". This view is also a clue as to why certain medieval Christian theologians, like Aquinas, stressed the need for some kind of a physical resurrection of the dead to insure their immortality as individuals.
Nevertheless, despite all these problems and inconsistencies, many good Christians and other religious people seem to have gotten themselves into an impossible bind in this matter, fearing lest backing down on their misreading of both the Bible and of their only half-remembered theological traditions, they destroy or jeopardize the "seamless garment" they have attempted to construct around the very real and vital necessity to revere and protect human life at all stages of development. Certainly this is a worthy cause. But can it be advanced by arguments which avoid the crucial issue that has been addressed here so far?
This is not to say that all those who advance this broader agenda are unaware of the problem. Pope John-Paul II in his wide-ranging encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life") admits in sections #60 and #61 of this lengthy document that there are those who may have philosophical as well as scientific doubts as to the presence of "a personal human life" for a certain number of days after conception, but counters that "from the time the ovum is fertilized, a life has begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with its own growth."
But while no one can dispute that this new growth is distinct from that of the parents, with its own genetic code and its own dynamic pattern of growth, still there remains a question that the pope attempts to answer by quoting an earlier document, in which this difficulty is dealt with by a rhetorical question. Thus "even if the presence of a spirtitual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embyo provide 'a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the first appearance of human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?'" So as to half admit that we really don't have an absolute answer to this question, the pope goes on to say that "from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo." (Emphasis added.) Then, as if to further emphasize this moral obligation in the face of this uncertainty, the pope goes on, again quoting from an earlier statement on the subject.
Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium [i.e., the Church's official teaching] has not expressly commited itself, the Church has alway taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: "the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception: and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life."
From this point on (in section #61) the pope goes on to show how even if "the texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion, and so do not directly and specifically condemn it", still, Christian tradition from the very earliest days has never had any doubts about the fundamental immorality of abortion, claiming that "even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion."
So here we have it: the clearest possible statements of exactly why it is that the Church not only condemns abortion at any stage, but (as section #63 goes on to specifiy) even goes on to condemn any form of experimentation with embryos which would involve the killing of those embryos, would forbid in vitro conception (which would involve the discarding of surplus embryos), the growth of embryos for the production of "biological material" (such as "stem cells") and expresses grave doubts about the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques used with "a eugenic intention which accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children affected by various forms of anomalies." Finally, it is this "eugenic intention" that the pope sees as particularly "shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of 'normality' and physical well-being. thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well."
If, in the just-quoted passage we see the pope "upping the ante" so to speak, it is not just because the next section of the encyclical goes on to "end-of-life" issues like euthansia and assisted suicide, but because he sees abortion as particularly heinous, yet still only one of the life-or-death issues facing humanity today. Among other life-threatening issues mentioned early-on in this encyclical (Section #10) are poverty, malnutrition and hunger, and "the unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes". So too, war, the arms trade, "reckless tampering with the world's ecological balance", "the criminal spread of drugs", or "the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity which, besides being morally unacceptable, also involve grave risks to life". Later on, the pope also questions the legitmacy of the continued use of capital punishment (Section #56 ) . All of these issues play a critical role as to whether or not the over-all climate will be one of a "culture of life" or a "culture of death".
Given this whole range of "hot button" issues, many of which even divide various Christian denominations, how can American society ever expect to reach some degree of consensus over the issue of abortion? For if the Bible does not specifically address the question of abortion and and we have to rely on a Christian tradition which, although unwavering in its condemnation of abortion, nevertheless has seen a long history of debate over precisely the nature of and/or degree of the humanity of the embryo at its various stages, how can we possibly expect to find a practical solution in a society such as ours in which religious beliefs and a philosophical approaches vary so widely?
D: Finding a New Solution
Any new solution to this very ancient problem needs to be approached through the one medium that people of all backgrounds might possibly agree upon, which is to say, through up-to-date science. For despite the importance of situating the issue of abortion within the whole spectrum of life and death issues that face society, reliable and accurate data is a prerequisite of any informed decision.
Indeed, this was part the genius of medieval Christendom when it turned to Aristotle to revolutionize its approach to philosophy and theology. Aristotle (the son of physician) had begun his reasoning on the basis of the empirical science of his day. The problem with the medievals was that they neglected to reinvestigate the scientific data that Aristotle had used, and instead simply took him as the authority on most questions of physics and biology. It wasn't until centuries later, with the invention of instruments like the telescope and microscope, that it occurred to anyone that Aristotle's observations might have been inaccurate or in some cases simply wrong. Even the long-accepted division of the normal pregnancy into three "trimesters" used by the US Supreme Court in its controversial 1973 "Roe v. Wade" decision bears close reexamination in light of more contemporary science -- especially as medical technology is able to push back the point of "viability" (the point at which a prematurely-born child can be saved) towards the beginning of the fifth month on the one hand, and experimentation with in vitro conceived "pre-embryos" raises the troubling prospect of science-fiction scenarios of cloned humans or fetuses raised in artificial wombs someday becoming a reality!
Nevertheless, despite the scary possibilities that science may hold, the fundamental principle that all our human reasoning begins with what we are able to observe -- which needs to be confirmed up with rigorous testing by means of the scientific method -- is the necessary starting point if we are to come to any reasoned consensus as to what we are actually dealing with. Without that scientific foundation, we are at best only trading guesses or opinions.
This is not to say that religious beliefs should not play an important role. Science can only attempt to explain the what and how of things as it best can, and has done so brilliantly as of late. But only rarely can it suggest the why -- a realm that is more properly the province of philosophy and religion. However, this being said, it is necessary that religious beliefs be understood as a method of expressing these "whys", these higher meanings and values that should not be confused with the often poetic and unscientific language in which these values and meanings are expressed. But it is also noteworthy that serious biblical scholarship has shown us that the ancient Hebrew outlook, when rightly understood, taken at face value with its very down-to-earth views of human nature (Adam or "man[kind]" so-called because he was fashioned from adamah or "the earth") in many ways had a lot more in common with modern scientific views than did our later reinterpretations of scripture under the sway of the platonic doctrine of the immortal "soul". This is not to say that the biblical idea of immortality through "resurrection" is any more scientific, but at least it makes it clear that any eternal life must be a result of God's saving intervention and not some imagined naturally eternal self.
Yet, this is still not a reason to overlook the role platonic "idealism" or similar ideas of the spirit in the development of human culture and values. It is noteworthy that the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (literally, "no soul") attributed to Gautama and still stressed by Theraveda Buddhists, appears to repudiate the Vedic Hindu doctrine of the immortal atman (soul) even more strongly than the biblical viewpoint contradicts the platonic view. Still, the much more popular Mahayana Buddhism seems to have adapted itself to reincarnational views prevalent in many pre-buddhist societies, much like the way Christianity adopted platonic ideas of the soul. As a result, Gautama's doctrine seems to have been largely "psychologized" into an emphasis on selflessness as a means to the eventual attainment of nirvana. In this way the doctrine of the "soul" and its ascent to the Ultimate (with its counterparts in Hindu and Buddhist teachings) continues to serve an evolutionary function in its own right -- which is to set a goal for human striving that transcends the humility of our origins and the limitations of our life.
Indeed, modern psychological theories, not just those of Freud, but more especially the researches of Jung and many others have shown us that realm of such mythic thinking has played a vital role not only in the development of civilization but even in our future as individuals. Our "soul" (our "Self" to put it in Jungian terms) is a projection not so much of what we are but what we can truly become to be. Or as the ancient Church Fathers so often dared to put it, as they tapped into the insights of the neo-platonist philosophers, "God became man that man might become God!" If we are not naturally immortal, still our destiny is an immortal one. The tragedy of an abortion is not that of a soul cut off from the chance of ever living a human life as it is the denial of the chance of an embryonic or fetal life ever becoming fully human with the potential that, in turn, holds for ever becoming an immortal spirit or soul.
Looked at in this combined light of science, philosophy and faith, it certainly seems that the Catholic Church and all those other concerned Christians, as well as those Jews and Muslims and all those of other faiths who are concerned about the erosion of human values and respect for life at all stages, would do well to remember that life is a biological process that has many phases, not all of them as clearly distinguishable as we might like. Indeed, it is precisely because of this gradualist view of human development that we must be doubly cautious about assuming that abortion, even at early stages, can be anything but a very serious matter demanding equally serious reasons before it can be justified. Recently, even the Dalai Lama, the esteemed representative of the third great branch of Buddhism -- the "tantric" Buddhism of Tibet -- has weighed in with his opinion that abortion directly violates the Buddhist doctrine of the sacredness of all "sentient beings".
Still, as difficult as it may be to make clear distinctions, critical decisions must nevertheless be made, especially at life's beginning and end. But sweepingly dogmatic prohibitions will seldom prove to work. While the "slippery slope" that we all fear is very real, simplistic solutions cannot adequately address complex situations. Just as we are forced to agonize as to whether or not to terminate a life-saving procedure that has turned into a useless prolongation of what appears to be a semi-human or even only a quasi-vegetative level of existence, so too we be forced to agonize over whether or not to bring to an end a pregnancy that appears to promise, at best, a only semi-human existence for the fetus, should it be brought to term.
In this regard, recent reports from China and India indicating a higher percentage of abortions of female fetuses than of males should be viewed with alarm. This report, should it be accurate, can only underline the seriousness of the situation, particularly when ancient prejudices are allowed to combine with modern technology. So too, the issues raised by in-vitro fertilization, embryo transplantation, etc. All of these developments demand that we develop a much more sophisticated understanding and approach to the question of what exactly constitutes a human being.
To simply say that fetus has an "immortal soul", and therefore must not be aborted, is not a really adequate answer. Indeed, theologically speaking, IF that were true there would really be nothing to worry about. Instead, taking the life of a being that might possibly develop a capacity for immortality, were it allowed to be born, is a much more serious matter! In other words, in adopting an evolutionary view of the emergence of the "soul" would make abortion an even more difficult -- even if it allowed, especially in the early stages, for more exceptions.
Taking all this into account then, must we not all work together to find a common sense solution to the abortion problem? Must we not allow, even if reluctantly, the termination of a pregnancy if and when it is deemed necessary, but with increasing restrictions (as well as safeguards) the later into pregnancy the procedure is to take place? For instance, while any truly serious reason (certainly the mere determination of sex would not seem to be one of them) might be sufficient to terminate a the development of the "pre-embryo" during the first two weeks of its development, at the other end of the fetal development scale -- from twenty weeks on (the period after the appearance of the essentially human characteristics of the neurological system) -- only the most grave danger to the mother's life would seem to justify any procedure that was not designed as much as possible to save the child's life as well -- just the same as if it were born prematurely. So while the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision upheld the right of any state to legislate against third trimester abortions "except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgement, for the presevation of the life or health of the mother", the clear intent of the court's decision was to affirm the right of the state to protect the life of the unborn child once it had reached the point of viability. Yet as medical knowledge improves and techniques of saving premature infants move the point of "viability" further into the latter part of the second trimester, that the Roe v. Wade decision particularly needs to be rethought.
But legislating regarding the earlier stages is even more difficult. While Roe v. Wade affirms a woman's "qualified right to terminate her pregnancy" and leaves the decision and its "effectuation" during the first trimester to the "medical judgement of the pregnant woman's attending physician", serious questions about the safety of the newly introduced abortificant RU-486 would certainly seem to indicate that the same Roe v. Wade decision, which gave the states the power, during the second trimester, to "regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health" maybe needs to be applied to the first trimester as well, considering that this new drug is considered to be most likely used between the third and ninth weeks of pregnancy.
In fact, it is the whole eighteen-week period of extremely rapid embryonic development (that which follows what is now termed the pre-embryonic stage) -- that same period being when most abortions take place -- that remains philosophically, and thus ethically, the most problematic. For some, especially those who find the concept of the embryo as this stage being in any sense a "person" highly unlikely, any serious reason, particular those relating to any well-founded doubt as to the normalcy of the developing fetus, may seem sufficient reason to bring such a pregnancy to a halt. Yet the psychic scars suffered from even this, especially by a woman -- regardless of her religious persuasion -- can be considerable. It comes far too close to the very roots of our human existence!
Still, after everything in our society that can be done to make abortions unnecessary has been done, should not the procedure itself must be decriminalized -- providing that everything possible has been done to minimize the practice? The ordering of society in terms of what is considered a crime or not is one thing and is, based on its effects on that same society, is admittedly a very difficult matter. It must not be confused with what we or someone else thinks sinful -- which is ultimately a matter of one's personal relationship with God.
But we must realize that such a distinction (between what is criminal and what is sinful) is largely lost on many people, and that typically what may be "legal" is confused with what is "right". (See Dialogos issue #12 on Faith and Belief, and especially Chapter 4, Part 3, on "Faith and Morality" in the linked book Faith: Security & Risk) Thus the "liberalization" of anti-abortion laws will almost inevitably lead to moral or ethical laxity, while a tightening of restrictions will tend to underline the seriousness of the issue -- yet almost as certainly lead to more attempts to circumvent the law. It is a difficult matter for any society to decide -- even when all the facts are known. Nevertheless, we must begin with the facts if we are going to arrive at any consensus.
J. Donceel, Philosophical Psychology, 2nd. ed., New York, Sheed & Ward, 1961.
C.C. Harris and F. Snowden, eds., Bioethical Frontiers in Perinatal Intensive Care. Natchitoches LA: Northwestern State University Press, 1985.
Modern Concordance to the New Testament, Michael Darton, ed., Darton, Longman & Todd, Ldt. and Doubleday & Company, 1976.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice-Hall, 1968.
John-Paul II, "Evangelium Vitae", Vatican, 1995.
E. Messenger, Evolution & Theology, London, Sands, 1949.
Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th. edition, W.B. Saunders Co., 1968
Plus the following articles appearing in Theological Studies over the past fifteen years (listed in order of publication):
Tauer, Carol A., "The Tradition of Probabilism and the Moral Status of the Early Embryo", TS 45, No.1 (Mar. 1984) pp. 3-33.
Shannon, Thomas A. & Wolter, Allan B., "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo", TS 51, No.4 (Dec. 1990) pp. 603-26.
Cahill, Lisa Sowle, "The Embryo and the Fetus: New Moral Contexts", TS 54, No.1 (Mar. 1993), pp. 124-42.
Johnson, Mark & Porter, Jean, "Delayed Hominization", TS 56, No.4 (Dec. 1995), pp. 743-770.
Shannon, Thomas A., "Delayed Hominization: A Response to Mark Johnson", TS 57, No.4 (Dec. 1996), pp. 731-34.
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