by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Religious Dimensions of the Abortion Debate
Despite recent attempts by pro-life groups to bring science into the argument against abortion, the critical difference between conservative Christian anti-abortionists and pro-choice opponents really is religious in nature. I know that many people in the pro-choice camp resist this claim. It clearly isn’t how they want to frame their narrative. But the religious nature of the abortion divide remains true because, when you drill down, conservative Christians, who are driving this debate, truly believe we are endowed with an immortal soul at the moment of conception, or even prior to conception. They deeply believe that a human zygote is sacred. This belief separates conservative Christians not just from most people in the pro-choice groups, but also from many who identify more closely with pro-life sentiments. Avoiding the religious dimensions of the abortion debate isn’t the most constructive path forward, in my view.
While the concept of “soul” is fundamental to Judaeo-Christian theology, the origin of a soul, and how or when it enters human flesh, is a matter of conjecture. There is no scriptural guidance on this point in the Old or New Testament, nor in the Koran. You won’t hear much debate in churches or synagogues even though matters of the soul are unsettled questions. It is a fact that there was no concept of “soul” at all in the Hebrew tradition prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great, who brought Greek philosophy to the Middle East.
There has been religious and philosophic differences for centuries regarding the origin of the soul, and how we come to be “ensouled.” Most people today, however, are not well equipped for this discussion. People prefer instead to take positions based on what seems morally right. They have a sense for what it means to be human and they recognize when actions or procedures are inhumane. This guides the thinking of many. Disrupting the growth of a few human cell in a woman’s womb may not fit their understanding of what is inhumane, while calling a zygote a human stretches their idea of what “human” means to them. Then there are people of other faiths and people who aren’t religious who hold entirely different notions on what it means to be “human.” America is a pluralistic society with a great variety of different beliefs, so attempts to create a social norm around the most conservative Christian views on the sanctity of life aren’t likely to succeed.
If you are a Christian who believes a fertilized human egg is endowed with a soul, then the immorality of abortion is an obvious and immutable fact. Abortion is simply murder. But If your religious beliefs don’t specify when human flesh receives a soul, or if you believe the ability to terminate the pregnancy of a twelve-year-old rape victim is really answered pray, your views on the morality of abortion may differ. It is not theologically unreasonable to assume an all-knowing God knows which pregnancies will result in live births and which will not. Spontaneous abortions are a part of nature, so why would God ensoul a fetus that will never be born? Is it an automatic process over which God has no control?
And if God does control which human flesh receives a soul, an omnipotent God already know what decision a woman will make in her pregnancy. Why would a loving God condemn a young woman by intentionally ensouling a fetus that God knows will never be born.
The theology and theory of “soul” is seldom publically debated, yet the sanctity of a fertilized human egg is the position of the Roman Catholic church and most conservative Christian sects. Many otherwise faithful Jews and Christians instinctively resist this view and the moral position it requires. For them, for those of other faith traditions and for non-religious people, the morality of abortion remains an open question, which make it a personal matter. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is therefore a private and personal choice. This group does not want governments dictating morals that are not universally shared and they do not want governments telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies on religious grounds.
I believe these observation correctly demonstrates that there are more than two sides to the abortion debate. The duality of our public discourse on the subject is a fiction created by our mass media. Mainstream media tends to over-simplifies and reduce most issues to a polarized duality. The effect of this media bias benefits conservative views on abortion because it suppresses public debate on the underlying theology. This creates an impression that there is more religious support for banning abortions than is actually the case. Confident that they are making progress on theological grounds, the religious right is reaching out to the secular community to continue building towards an anti-abortion social norm. This brings us back to the effort of conservative Christians to incorporate science into the abortion debate.
Science and the Anti-Abortion Debate
In an article entitled “The Best Pro-Life Arguments for Secular Audiences,” author Rob Schwarzwalder counsels believers on how to use scientific arguments to persuade non-believers that abortion is wrong. It is clear from the beginning that the author assumes human life begins at or before inception. He writes:
“At the moment when a human sperm penetrates a human ovum, or egg, generally in the upper portion of the Fallopian Tube, a new entity comes into existence. “Zygote” is the name of the first cell formed at conception, the earliest developmental stage of the human embryo, followed by the “Morula” and “Blastocyst” stages. Is it human? Is it alive? Is it just a cell or is it an actual organism, a “being?” These are logical questions.”
These questions, however, obscure more than they illuminate. The author is asking, “Is a zygote human?”
First, we must ask ourselves, what is a human? This latter question does not have a single clear answer. Is “human” defined by a collection of qualities, state of being, a class of species or is it the presence of that spark of deity we call spirit or soul? Do all cells have some sort of divine being? Does DNA determine what sort of being a cell will have? Are all cells autonomous? Do they have agency? And even if they have a cellular being, does that make a human cell a human being?
When we think of “human” we most generally intend the word as shorthand for a “human being”. But what do we mean by “being”? According to dictionary definitions, the first definition of ” being” mean a state of existence. This would cover everything in the universe, from stones to photons and beyond. So in this sense the quality of “being” merely refers to that which exists in this world. This definition of “being” doesn’t advance our understand of “human being” very much.
The second meaning of the word “being” refers to living, as opposed to inanimate. Beings are alive. This eliminates most of the known universe of things but still leaves a planet full of beings, from bacteria to mushrooms, tomatoes and whales. In this sense a human being can accurately be distinguished from other living things as a member of a specific species. This definition is somewhat more satisfying, but it still doesn’t explain how a zygote can be a classified as human since it is only one cell and not the fully developed organism with all the attributes that allow us to be identified as a species. If we only ever existed as a single cell zygote we would not be capable of classifying our existence at all.
The third meaning of “being” is a living thing with an essence that is divine in it’s nature. He the author writes, “.. Is it just a cell or is it an actual organism, a “being?” The implication is that if it is “just a cell” it is not an organism, but if it is an organism it might be a “being”. Since both a cell and an organism actually exist in the universe and are also alive, this use of the term “being” clearly doesn’t refer to either of the prior definitions. It refers to “being” as a living entity containing a spark of the divine. It refers to a soul.
To be fair, there are many other definitions of the word “being” but each of these fails to solve the riddle of how a zygote and a human being are the same thing.
To solve this the author states the following: ” The zygote is composed of human DNA and other human molecules, so its nature is undeniably human and not some other species. The new human zygote has a genetic composition that is absolutely unique from itself, different from any other human that has ever existed, including that of its mother.”
All molecules are chemical in nature, and most are not unique to humans. That said, DNA can be undeniably human and unique. The distinction between mother and embryo is evidenced by activation of the mother’s immune system to rid her body of this foreign organism. From shortly after inception, the embryo releases chemicals to trick the mother’s body into not rejecting it. In the early stages of pregnancy this drama is often manifested as morning sickness. Later in pregnancy the relationship becomes more symbiotic and less parasitic. What science proves is that a fetus is a unique organism, but it is not separate and apart from the mother’s body. It cannot exist except in the womb. So it isn’t the viability of a fetus that makes a fetus human in this view, but its unique DNA signature. In essence, a human cell becomes a human being if it’s DNA signature is unique. It begs the question, Is a unique pattern of DNA the essence of what it means to be human?
The author answers this by writing, ” Finally, is the human zygote merely a new kind of cell or is it a human organism; that is, a human being?
Here again we see that the difference between a ordinary cell and a single celled “human” organism is whether or not the cell has a complete and unique set of human DNA. If it does, this single cell is a “human being,” according to the author.
This seems like a biologically flimsy distinction from both a religious and scientific point of view. If you have two human cells, one that shares a DNA signature with other cells and one that has a unique DNA signature, why would one be a cell and the other something more? We know we can take DNA from any cell in our body and insert it in a human egg to grow a clone. This clone would have DNA identical to the human donor. Is this clone not a human? Would it matter that it does not have unique DNA? Any reasonable person would say a human clone is fully human. Even the author would probably admit a cloned person has a soul, so is it a distinct new soul or a shared soul. Either way, it isn’t the uniqueness of the DNA signature that makes a human cell a human being.
Despite incorporating science into the abortion debate The position of those who hold that life is sacred from birth cannot be advanced by incorporating scientific knowledge into their debate. The abortion debate isn’t about science, it is about theology, morality and humanity and personal liberty. It is about religion and philosophy. Until we push beyond the didactic constraints imposed on our public debate and grapple with the underlying philosophies and theologies, we will never get beyond our present deadlock.
In the next essay I will offer some perspectives on the philosophic evolution of the human soul as a means of opening up the broader public discussion that we need to have.
To read Part I of this series please go to http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-great-abortion-divide.html