Thursday, November 10, 2011


The so-called "Personhood Amendment" recently failed to pass in Mississippi, though the referendum was quite close.

I support the intent of such amendments. Pro-choice folk (even and even some "moderate" pro-lifers now, whatever that means) are calling such an amendment extreme, granting full legal protection to all fertilized eggs as persons under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment and such. Of course, if you do believe life begins at conception, then its homicide regardless of the circumstances (rape or, they always add as a scare-tactic, "incest"...even though that's redundant as the incest in question is almost certainly already rape) and even in things like IVF and certain forms of "contraception" which work by preventing implantation of already fertilized ova.

Now, human life clearly begins at conception; there is a unique living organism there of the species Homo Sapiens with separate DNA from either the mother or father, and it's growing into a baby. As such, abortion is at least virtual homicide.

However, the idea that personhood (in the sense of rational ensoulment) begins at conception is a separate question, and one not actually binding on Catholics. I am frankly rather agnostic on the question.

On the one hand, I am inclined to sympathize with Cardinal Ratzinger when he said in Donum Vitae, "the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?" Though the document recognizes, "The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable."

I am likewise sympathetic to the argument from potential/finality something along the lines of: "Though as miniscule as the dot of a pen, a unicellular human organism is an individual substance with the substrata of rationality there in place, ready to evolve into the complexity of a human brain and related organs. Since every stage of hominization is a needed building block integral to ongoing growth, ensouled personhood [...] begins at the very beginning of a uniquely individual identity with inherent human potential."

However, of course, there are arguments against this too. For one, the mainstream philosophical assumption of the Church for centuries was that ensoulment happened later than physical conception, that it happened at "quickening," or at 40 days for a boy and 80 days for a girl, because the embryo had to first pass through stages with just a "vegetative" soul and then a purely "animal" soul before receiving a rational soul.

And while a distinction between male and female fetuses now seems ridiculously, and while something as cut-and-dry as "40 days" seems absurd, in some ways it does seem counter-intuitive (or like a mere abstract philosophical proposition, however true it may be) to think that a clump of cells has a rational nature, or that a little fish-looking thing has anything more than an animal nature at that point. Before it starts looking like a baby, before it has a brain even, telling people that consciousness-of-nothing is different than not being conscious (as true as that may be) can seem rather metaphysical and detached from anything concrete. It's hard for people to think of something microscopic with no face or even feelings as human when even animals have those things.

I am also given pause by the enormous number of spontaneous abortions that apparently happen within the first few weeks of pregnancy (before it can even be detected). What are we to think of the fate of all these children in a world where the only means of salvation (that God has Publicly Revealed, at least) is baptism? Does it make sense to imagine that most of the human race never really has a human life, never even develops a brain or senses or even knows another human being?

And yet, I come back to, "how could a human individual not be a human person?" I'm not sure Aristotle or Aquinas were right that "progressive ensoulment" makes any sense. Why should rational nature only come after a certain (but still very minimal) stage of brain or bodily development? Isn't it the already rational form of the human substance that makes it tend toward developing that in the first place (whatever material impediments may arise to its fulfillment?)

Still, I will make two points: one, either way it is better to err on the side of caution. Since there are problems with any other "line" we might draw, fertilization is still where we must err. Second, even if ensoulment were concluded to occur at a later point, this is an abstract theological question that does not change the sinfulness of abortion nor the need to protect all human life on the civil level. Human life is sacred, a human individual would be sacred even if it were somehow not an ensouled person. Abortion would remain [virtual] homicide equal in gravity to any murder either way (and this was the constant attitude of the Church even when ensoulment-at-a-later-date was the mainstream assumption).

But even beyond the realm of immorality, in the realm of ethics and rights, it will be noted that the civil law's protection of human individuals, human lives, is not dependent on some theological notion of ensoulment. Even officially atheist communist countries punished murder and recognized a general imperative of the State to protect people from violence. The State's imperative to stop homicides is not dependent on some notion of human beings having a soul; even officially atheist States that do not believe in souls recognize such a natural imperative to protect life.

An appeal against abortion dependent on the existence of a soul is not necessarily the best argument to use with people who don't believe in souls for anyone in the first place, and though we probably have bigger fish to fry with such people, it is still not impossible to tell them that abortion should be illegal for the same reason killing they themselves should be illegal (unless they are so disgustingly nihilistic or materialistically utilitarian that they don't even have an absolute opposition to that).

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