Precious Life

(I live in Northern Ireland. Today the religious extremist Bernadette Smyth was found guilty of harassment of Dawn Purvis, director of Belfast’s Marie Stopes pregnancy advisory clinic.)

It seems to me that there is one basic core in the intractable differences between those who consider abortion to be acceptable under certain circumstances and those who oppose it unconditionally. That is, that the extreme anti-abortionists believe that at the instant of conception, the fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a human being. It’s a religious belief, based on the soul.

But the idea that the soul enters the fertilised egg at conception has only been generally accepted among Christian believers in relatively modern times. That concept was discussed throughout the history of the Christian church, but the mainstream view was different: that “ensoulment” was a gradual process.

In the main, Christians were following classical Greek thought. The early Christian church used Greek concepts and methods of debate to codify its theology, and the medieval church absorbed literature from the Islamic world, where scholars translated and expanded classical material.

The idea of a gradual ensoulment was described by Aristotle. He believed that a growing embryo started with a “vegetative” soul, acquired an “animal” soul as its body functions and complexity increased, and finally became a “human” soul, capable of thought and moral decision-making. Perhaps biologists today would see the analogies.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas followed the Aristotelian concepts, and wrote that although abortion was morally wrong, it was not equivalent to murder. (It seems that Aquinas thought that Aristotle’s “human” soul only arrived at birth.) The Christian church took this view, except for a three-year period from 1588 to 1591, when Pope Sixtus V declared that abortion was a religious and civil crime at any stage of conception. His successor Gregory XIV modified the rules so that they did not apply if the fetus was “unformed” (i.e. early pregnancy).

It was only in our great-gandparents’ time, 1869, that Pope Pius IX stated complete opposition to abortion at any stage of pregnancy, although having read his Bull ‘Apostolic√¶ Sedis’, I don’t think that it is totally clear that he was actually overthrowing Aristotle and setting “ensoulment” at the instant of conception. However, that’s how it has come to be seen. (Pius was also the Pope who declared himself infallible, a year later, in 1870.)

Even though there was considerable separation in theology between the Roman Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity, you can trace to Pius all current ideas of conception as the exact beginning of full human existence. Fundamentalist Protestants and all.

This new belief is what drives the current gulf between religious people and the rest of society over abortion. Unfortunately, it perverts what should be the real debate. And I think there should be a debate.

The thing is that abortion is not a moral question with a clear-cut answer. Certain instances where religious law has been replaced by civil law are completely clear. Gender discrimination is bad. Hate crimes are punished. Marriage is an option if you like that sort of thing. But abortion is more complicated.

I think the complication is because laws have to be precise, and biology isn’t. Perhaps the end points are definite enough: an unfertilized egg cell (or a sperm) is not a baby, but a newborn baby is a baby (obviously). Flushing the former down the toilet is not a sin (Christians who think that was Onan’s sin should go back and read their Bible). Killing babies is bad though.

But, is a newly-fertilized egg cell a baby, as the more extreme religious believers have been claiming? I would say not. So I don’t regard it as immoral to destroy that cell with the relevant drug, any more than losing a tooth (or a kidney) is a sin. There comes a point though — ah, but where? — when the law has to draw a line. It should probably be more complicated than a simple time limit, but that is what the real, intelligent discussion should be about, not the number of angels on the head of a pin.


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