How belief in the soul distorts the abortion debate

Why did Missouri Congressman Todd Akin so uncritically accept the false notion that women can’t get pregnant by rape?

Before you answer, “Because he’s an ignorant dick who hates women,” let’s go a little deeper. This isn’t about Akin. It’s about an idea that allows people like him to be taken seriously by a large part of our population.

Rape pregnancies pose a dilemma for pro-lifers. It’s obviously a harsh thing to tell a rape victim that she must carry her attacker’s baby to term—or to tell a twelve-year-old incest victim that she’s required to deliver her father’s baby. But mainstream pro-life organizations are still doing this. (And see this from National Right to Life.)

It’s more comfortable for these people to believe the dilemma doesn’t exist. They would wish it away if they could. Akin tried.

But I wish people would talk about the way belief in the soul underlies this discussion. The debate over reproductive choice isn’t only about misogyny and people trying to drag us back to some imagined golden age when women raised the kids and kept their mouths shut. Those people haven’t gone away, but I think most ordinary pro-lifers (and I speak as a former one myself) are cornered by the logic of their beliefs into accepting brutalities that they would never consider otherwise.

I’m not making excuses. I’m trying to understand how otherwise reasonable people support inhumane ideas.

The soul—the notion that there’s an immaterial part of each human being that survives death and which contains the essence of that person’s humanity—is an idea with no evidence to support it, only theology. It’s an ancient speculation grown heavy with the weight of tradition. It comes from a time before we began to understand how the brain produces consciousness.

But the soul isn’t just a quaint idea. It has real and profound consequences.

We each start out as a single cell with no consciousness, and only gradually take on the characteristics of personhood. As a result, opinions about abortion naturally form a continuum. People tend to object less to emergency contraception than they do to abortion, and less to early abortion than to late-term abortion, and less to that than to infanticide.

The soul isn’t just a quaint idea. It has real and profound consequences.

But not everyone is comfortable with biology’s shades of gray. And if you believe in the soul, it’s even harder to look at personhood as a continuum. It becomes an either/or question. You have a soul or you don’t.

So when do you get your soul? Today the accepted answer is “at conception,” but this wasn’t always so. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) traces the centuries-long development of the soul-at-conception doctrine at their website. Canon law on abortion distinguished between the “ensouled” and “unensouled” fetus until 1869.

The USCCB insists that the Church has always prohibited abortion, but Catholics for Choice argues that the Church hasn’t always considered it a serious sin:

In the fifth century A.D., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago. “The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church” (Conscience, Autumn 1996)

The belief in “ensoulment” at conception made the difference, both for Catholics and Protestants. Today conservative Christians—those who take the idea literally and consider its implications— believe that an adult has a soul, a child has a soul, an unborn fetus has a soul, a microscopic embryo has a soul, and a fertilized egg has a soul. And therefore they’re all equally human.

So naturally they oppose not only abortion in general, but abortion even in cases of rape and incest, even in cases where the life of the mother is in jeopardy. In 2004, the Catholic Church made a saint of Gianna Beretta Molla, who died in 1962 after refusing an abortion and hysterectomy that would have saved her life. Today she’s held up as a role model for women.

Biologists have been saying for years that human embryos used in stem cell medical research are clusters of 100-200 cells each. But believers are sure those hundred cells have a soul, and they are working to outlaw the research.

Believers are sure those hundred cells have a soul.

Emergency contraception reduces the number of unplanned pregnancies (and thus the number of abortions). But many people, believing (incorrectly) that EC terminates a pregnancy, and believing that this involves a fertilized egg with a soul, oppose EC, sometimes even refusing it to rape victims.

The other day I was listening to a radio program called “Catholic Answers Live” on the way home from work. In answer to a caller’s question about the ongoing church sex abuse scandal, the host admitted that it has harmed the Church’s “witness,” but argued that the Church’s liberal critics are guilty of justifying something far worse with their pro-choice attitudes. Abortion, he said, is “the ultimate child abuse.”

Which only makes sense if a ten-year-old child equals fetus equals embryo equals zygote… which in turn only makes sense if they all have souls. And many intelligent people believe this is so, and they vote, donate money, and send their kids to catechism and Sunday School accordingly.

Belief in the soul distorts the entire discussion of reproductive choice. If you wonder why both sides are continually talking past each other, it’s because one side sees a continuum of personhood, and the other doesn’t.

The irony is that believers in the soul—the faithful ones who accept without question that it’s the seat of personhood and the eternal core within the mortal body, and who would fight against its denial as if it were a denial of humanity itself—are inflicting needless suffering on their fellow human beings precisely because of that belief.

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One thought on “How belief in the soul distorts the abortion debate

  1. Pingback: How the doctrine of the soul makes us less moral | Pretentious Ape

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