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The Soul of the Embryo:
An Enquiry into the Status of the Human Embryo in the Christian Tradition
by David Albert Jones
(270 pages, $23.95, paperback)
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Christian tradition on abortion is misrepresented today, sometimes with invented facts. Some scholars, for example, claim that the early Christians opposed abortion because they feared that infants who died without baptism would go to hell. But according to David Albert Jones, no Christian text in the first millennium connects abortion to infant baptism.
Other, more effective misrepresentations give the facts a meaning they do not bear. Some scholars assert that abortion was not an offense under Catholic canon law until recently, and the Anglican (and pro-choice) bishop of Oxford told the House of Lords that the Catholic Church’s view of the embryo is only two centuries old. As we will see, neither of these facts mean what the pro-abortionists insist they mean.
The Definitive Account
Thankfully, in The Soul of the Embryo, David Albert Jones corrects such misrepresentations with a well-documented, definitive account of Christian tradition from the early Church to the twenty-first century. In a clear, irenic style, Jones, a Dominican theologian who directed the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics in London and now teaches bioethics at the University of Surrey, shows that for two millennia Christians consistently “repudiated abortion at any stage of pregnancy.”
Starting with Jewish and pagan antiquity, Jones shows that in the Old Testament, the embryo was “the subject of God’s invisible informing activity,” the chosen one being called from and molded in the womb. No surprise, then, that the Jews considered deliberate abortion a grave sin against God and nature.
The first Christian text on abortion is in the Didache (first century), which states, “You shall not kill a child by abortion nor kill it after it is born.” The same teaching is found in other works of the second to the fourth centuries, including apocalyptic texts where people face their aborted children at the Judgment. In the fifth century, John Chrysostom calls abortion “something even worse than murder” because it involves killing one’s own flesh and blood.
At the start of the fourth century, Christians began to legislate on abortion: A synod in 305 gave a lifelong sentence for hiding adultery by abortion, but another in 314 reduced the penalty to ten years. Two laws promulgated by Basil the Great about 375 were especially important, since they were incorporated into the canons of the Eastern Church, where abortion, early or late, was termed homicide.
Basil wrote: “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder,” whether the child is “formed or unformed,” and those who take or give drugs “to destroy unborn children are murderesses.” Although the 20-year penalty he gave for homicide was twice that for abortion, a point used by some to claim that abortion was not considered murder, Jones calls it “a fallacy to think that where one offence is sometimes punished less severely than another then this act is only relatively offensive and that it may be ethically justified by the right circumstances.”
Opening to Error
The opening for the pro-abortionists’ misinterpretation of the Christian traditions comes in two ways: first, in the distinction between the formed and unformed embryo—meaningless in modern biology—taken from the embryology of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen and supported by the Septuagint version of Exodus 21:22–25; and second, in the related debate over the “ensoulment” of the embryo.
For example, Tertullian said the soul “begins from conception,” but then added that the embryo “becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is complete,” meaning at 40 days, while Gregory of Nyssa declared that because the body and soul of the embryo are one, the soul must be present as an inherent power from conception. (Although, as Jones remarks, he too sometimes reserved the term human being for the formed embryo).
Augustine called it “rash” to say that the soul is not present before the embryo is formed, since it might well be there without showing itself. Maximus the Confessor argued for immediate ensoulment that, since Christ is like us in everything but sin, and Christ received a human soul at conception, everyone else receives a human soul at conception.
Thomas Aquinas agreed with Maximus, but said that Christ’s ensoulment was exceptional and due only to his having been conceived as already “formed.” He based this explanation on the biology of his day, still drawn from Greek antiquity: Since Christ had no human father, there would have been no active semen to “form” his embryo out of Mary’s passive matter for the first 40 days, so Jesus had to be conceived as a formed embryo.
But, as Jones shows, even though the Fathers disagreed about the ontological status of the embryo in the first seven weeks, they never regarded an early abortion as anything less than a grave sin, and this has been the consistent Christian teaching since. Even when many theologians believed in delayed ensoulment, they also saw abortion of an unformed embryo as “unjustifiable” and at least halfway to homicide.
This theological debate affected the way the Church understood abortion, and created those apparent ambiguities pro-abortionists exploit today. The distinction between formed and unformed embryos affected the penitentials of the sixth to the ninth centuries, and then the codes of canon law developed later in the Middle Ages. These codes assert that abortion before formation is not “strictly” homicide, though “ethically equivalent to homicide.” In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, synods impose excommunication for abortion, and in 1588 this penalty is applied to the entire Catholic Church.
But soon after, another pope limits the penalty to abortion of a “formed” fetus. By the nineteenth century, this distinction no longer makes sense biologically; and in 1869, Pius IX removes it from canon law and imposes church-wide excommunication for all abortion, early or late. This ruling is repeated in the canon law codes of 1917 and 1983.
To take one practical example: Would Thomas Aquinas have supported early abortion, as some argue, basing their argument on his view of the unformed and un-ensouled embryo? Jones thinks it highly unlikely that Thomas would have accepted delayed ensoulment in modern times.
For it is undeniable today that the embryo’s development from fertilization is a vital activity of its own, which means “the embryo must already possess a human nature, because the active powers that something possesses are determined by its nature.” According to Aquinas’s own principles, the embryo’s intrinsic power from the start to develop into a human being means that it is a human being.
Turning to the history of secular law, Jones argues that it is “wholly unsustainable” to argue, as some have in recent years, that before the nineteenth century there was a “common law liberty” to have an abortion at any stage in Britain and America and that later anti-abortion bills were meant to protect only women, not unborn children. He recounts how, in the nineteenth century, physicians won stronger laws against abortion, with public opinion on their side; and then how, in the early twentieth century, eugenics, fear of overpopulation, and the birth-control movement contributed to changing public opinion about abortion.
At first, the promoters of abortion were hostile to religion, but from the mid-twentieth century, some Christian churches made a radical break with their tradition and began “re-imagining”
abortion as “an act of compassion, or even, an act of liberation,” a myth that left no room for “any consideration of the unborn child.” Indeed, compassion for the embryo was now seen as a “failure to identify with the mother.”
This brings us to the present. In the “new biotechnological context” of in vitro fertilization and cloning, it is imperative, Jones believes, to reflect deeply on what it means to be human. Some Christians have revived the medieval idea of delayed ensoulment, not for any scientific reason—for there is no biological transition from pre-human to human in the embryo’s development—but to justify abortion and embryo experimentation, though putting the old argument in the new language of “personhood.”
In the 1950s, the Episcopal theologian Joseph Fletcher (later famous for his book Situation Ethics) argued that the embryo might well be a human being, but it was not a “human person” deserving legal protection, because it was unable to exercise its intellect. According to his principle, it would be ethical to destroy nonpersons, even infants, in order to benefit persons.
But Christian tradition has always rejected infanticide, and so, to reject such an argument from personhood is a good starting point from which to restore balance. Laws exist to protect the weak from the unjust exercise of power, and the human embryo as the subject of experimentation is an obvious victim of injustice.
Jones calls it reasonable to define a human being as “an individual living being of the species Homo sapiens.” The embryo is “clearly a living being, is an individual and is human.” From fertilization, a “complete whole” is developing, not a part of a whole. It is, in other words, a person with a person’s full rights.
But the arguments from embryology continue to be made, and in more sophisticated forms. One objection to calling the embryo “an individual” from the start is that identical twins can form in the first fourteen days. On this basis, the Warnock Committee in the United Kingdom recommended that embryos be used for experiments until the fourteenth day, when (it claimed) “ individual development” begins.
But twinning, Jones replies, should be seen as analogous to reproduction, with souls multiplied according to bodies. He thinks it is ironic that twinning should now be taken as evidence for the absence of a soul, when twinning was precisely what caused Hans Dreisch, one of the founders of experimental embryology, to abandon his mechanical theory of life: When he saw that a sea-urchin embryo he had divided did not produce two half-beings, but two complete individuals, he realized that something like a soul must exist, for the whole was present in each part.
The Life of the Soul
In Christianity, Jones notes, the soul has always been understood to be “the principle of life.” But the eighteenth-century philosopher John Locke identified the soul with thought, not life, and later arguments from personhood deriving from Locke are the most influential for justifying unrestricted access to abortion and destructive embryo experimentation.
This argument restricts personhood to “self-conscious adults” who exercise “autonomy,” and excludes “the weak, the semi-conscious and the incompetent who are precisely those in greater need of protection.” (One thinks of Terri Schiavo.)
Jones finds a better definition in Christian tradition: A person is an individual being with a rational nature—a nature being something shared by all members of the species. The embryo is a person. (So was Terri.)
In modern biology, human life begins at fertilization. Since Christian tradition defines the soul as “the principle of life,” it follows that life and soul begin at fertilization and that the embryo has an ethical claim on our protection from day one. In 1 Corinthians 1:27–28, Paul reminds us that God chooses what is weak in the sight of the world.
What could be weaker than an embryo? For Christians, Jones reflects, “the weakness and apparent insignificance of the human embryo is reason to suppose that the embryo is more valued by God and not less.”
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.