Monday, August 2

Thoughtful Thursday: The Soul Reason for Debate


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

Abortion is a subject fraught with manifold hazards for unwary bloggers who insist on rushing in where angels fear to tread.  So this column will not be about abortion.  Instead, it will be about the abortion debate and an aspect of that debate that has puzzled me for a long, long time.  Maybe someone out there in Beguine Again Land can help me resolve this apparent paradox.  The paradox is as follows. Many abortion opponents -- I won’t say all, but the “many” is certainly justified – believe that abortion is a criminal act, in fact, at least to some degree homicidal, because by definition it entails the termination of a human life. The word “human” is important, of course. By definition, one cannot murder an entity that is not human.  So abortion opponents seek to demonstrate that the fetus in the womb is a human being.  Now, many – I am tempted to say “most”, perhaps even “all” -- abortion opponents are motivated to their opposition by deeply and passionately held religious beliefs about what is constitutive of a human being. I think it is fair to say that, regardless of religious tradition, this belief is twofold.  Human beings are constituted of:  (1) a certain fairly determinate genome and (2) something often called a soul, where the latter is understood, not necessarily in Christian terms, but at least as something, some essence, that for an indefinite time, perhaps eternally, survives bodily death.  But after having observed literally many dozens of debates about abortion, and having participated in several, I find the following most curious, given (1) and (2):  religiously motivated abortion opponents almost always – and I am tempted to remove the “almost” – confine their arguments demonstrating the human-ness of the fetus to principle (1), the genome, i.e., the physical aspects of the fetus.  In fact, in the roughly-dozen years I have been paying close attention to these debates, I have never – not once – observed an abortion opponent invoking the presence of, or even belief in, any kind of soul, immortal or otherwise, in support of the humanity of the fetus.  I find it remarkable that so many religious people, otherwise so passionately committed to belief in the existence of a soul, especially an immortal soul, apparently leave this belief out of consideration in formulating their definition of what constitutes a human being.  Why?


I was a Christian for 50+ years and we were passionately concerned about souls. Everything, individually and as a church community, everything revolved around souls. The saving of souls.  The nurturing of souls. The eternality of souls. Souls, souls, souls. That was pretty typical. Christians, especially conservative Christians -- I was one of those, too, for many years -- are likewise concerned about souls as essentially constitutive of what it means to be human. But when abortion is the subject of the conversation, a strange thing happens: when the discussion comes around to the humanity of the fetus ... suddenly all the "soul talk" just sorta- kinda ... well ... dies away ... without so much as T. S. Eliot's "whimper", let alone his "bang". Instead, when it comes to the fetus, all the "soul talk" is replaced by elaborate disquisitions about genetics, embryology, fetology, neonatology -- just the genetic, all the genetic, and  nothing but the genetic, so help us Watson and Crick. Every time.  So, when it comes to the humanity of the fetus, I'm left with the following question, which is sincere and intended to be neither rhetorical nor inflammatory. Why is it that a group of people who are so otherwise passionately concerned about the soul in other contexts exhibit such a lack of passion about the soul when it comes to the fetus?

At first, I thought maybe it was because they do not believe the fetus, at that stage, even has a soul. But ... wait ... most (dare I say "all"?) people in the pro-life movement say the fetus is human from conception. By their own orthodox definition of human-ness, that would seem to indicate that the fetus, being human from the moment of conception, therefore likewise has a soul from the moment of conception. Well ... if the fetus is human from conception, perhaps their silence about the soul means they do not believe that the soul is essential for being human, or at least, not important enough to even mention.  But there is an enormous problem, from a Christian standpoint, that comes with supposing that the defining essence of human-ness is to be understood strictly and exclusively in physical / genetic terms with no admixture of spirituality or considerations of “ensoulment”:  from that purely genetic standpoint, a human corpse is physically / genetically indistinguishable from a live adult human and also from a fetus in the womb.  Granted, a corpse is dead.  But that merely begs my previous question by restating it:  what does "being alive" have to do with genetics and biochemistry?  Is "being alive" merely synonymous with "having the right set of chemicals"? All three – cadaver, live human, and fetus – share a common genome, i.e., a common (bio)chemistry.  All three have identical chemicals. So endowing a fetus with a full suite of constitutional rights means that a human corpse should share those rights.  Same chemicals, therefore same rights? Whaaa-aaa-aaazat again? But should fetuses and corpses have the right to vote, to serve on juries, to drive cars, to pilot aircraft?  If so, then perhaps the legendary – and, to be sure, perhaps urban-mythical -- Chicago practice of registering the dead as voters should not be called “fraud”.  Perhaps “voter registration drive” would be a more appropriate term.  Voila! A democratic zombie apocalypse:  the dead rise and vote!  Seriously, it is clear that the wheels come off the reasoning somewhere if we define human-ness purely and exclusively in terms of physical parameters.

Not to put too fine a point on it, such are the bizarre consequences that ensue from the tacit tendency of pro-life advocates to remain reticent on the issue of how the soul relates to the fetus and to concentrate purely on the physical / genomic parameters of human-ness. The question remains as to why.

I would suggest the following as at least part of an answer. The issue of the soul presents a real dilemma because there are only two possibilities: the pro-life movement can (1) break its odd silence and affirm its belief in the ensoulment of the fetus, or (2) it can deny it. If the pro-life movement follows path (1), then it cannot advocate for anti-abortion legislation as part of the civil law in the public square. Why? Because a soul is a religious concept and the "establishment" clause  of the First Amendment to the Constitution explicitly forbids the writing of religious doctrine into civil law. So any anti-abortion law founded on the basis of the fetus being human because it has a soul would be automatically and "facially" unconstitutional, for such a law would amount to the "establishment of religion". On the other hand, if the movement follows path (2) and denies the ensoulment of the fetus, then that either amounts to (2a) the pro-life movement renouncing one of the cardinal Christian doctrines: the existence of the soul; or (2b) the pro-life movement renouncing that the fetus is ensouled from the moment of conception, which would mean the fetus is not human from that moment and only becomes such at some subsequent point. My conclusion: (1) and (2) above are why abortion should be treated, from the "public square" standpoint and individual religious traditions' doctrines being as they may, as a cultural, not a legal, issue. Except for obvious requirements like ensuring sanitary conditions at abortion clinics and setting standards for the professional competence of the staff, the law does not enter into the question. Moral suasion – toward pro-life or pro-choice -- replaces legislation. Hearts change, not laws.

(c) James Cowles

Skeptic Collection graphic from

1 Comment

Leave a Reply