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 criticisms 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. (Ed. 4/9/2014)

Abortion Reconsidered

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 Septuaginttranslation 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 (whom 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 psychemay 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.

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