Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Advocacy: The Shaky Ground of Certainty

For the most part, contraception and abortion voices come from two prominent camps. Pro-Life advocacy is primarily championed from a religious base, while Pro-Choice argument is voiced from a secular position. That said, Pro-Life does have a small secular faction and the Pro-Choice voice receives some amplification from a religious base. It should also be noted that while the secular Pro-Choice camp does not position God in its argument, it does not necessarily follow that its constituency is largely atheistic or agnostic.

For both Pro-Life groups, the moment of conception is definitive. For the Pro-Choice voices, the moment of conception is an underlying issue, but not a definitive one.

The religious Pro-Life affiliation is primarily Christian and addresses procreation through two essential concerns: God’s proclaimed will or directive for humankind, and the perceived moment of ensoulment (when a spiritual soul unites with a biological body). Currently, ensoulment and conception are accepted as simultaneous (or possibly simultaneous) events that conjointly create a human being. After conception, purposeful obstruction of embryonic or fetal development is thus deemed to be generally immoral and likely murderous.

Secular Pro-Life evades conjecture of ensoulment, but stands on the premise that human life is unlocked at conception. The resulting zygote is immediately declared a human being and is therefore instantly endowed with all human-based rights and considerations.

The secular Pro-Choice argument contends that conception initiates the process of becoming a human, but does not herald the event as being intrinsically definitive. Conception is viewed as merely the first biological step in the developmental process of becoming a human being. As there is no sudden and unequivocal moment of recognition in that process, it is deemed permissible to intercede in embryonic and fetal development before human being status is arguably conferred.

Religiously based Pro-Choice is primarily Judaic and like its faith-based Pro-Life counterpart, addresses procreation through the proclaimed will of God and the perceived moment of ensoulment, but differs with Christian understanding on both counts. God is understood to hold fetal development as secondary to the health of the woman carrying it, and ensoulment is firmly believed to occur at the end of pregnancy rather than at the beginning.

The religious Pro-Life and the religious Pro-Choice camps advocate from a position of certainty, as does the secular Pro-Life camp. Both religious camps lay claim to the certainty of God’s will, while secular Pro-Life lays claim to the certainty of human declaration (it is because I say it is). It’s only the secular Pro-Choice camp that admits to uncertainty.

The Christian Pro-Life camp is certain that ensoulment happens (or potentially happens) at conception, so the moment of conception must be accepted as the recognizable moment in which a human being is formed. The secular Pro-Life camp is certain that the moment of conception immediately creates a human being that will pass through developmental stages on the way to being born. The Judaic Pro-Choice camp is certain that a fetus becomes a human being upon leaving the womb. Secular Pro-Choice is admittedly uncertain in conferring status: a human being is considered not present at the moment of conception, but is present at the moment of birth. Somewhere in between, in the developmental process, an ambiguous threshold is passed, and human life becomes recognized as a human being.

The Comfort of Knowing

There’s comfort and confidence to be had when advocating from a position of certainty, but is it really justified? Where does it come from; upon what is it based?

The certainty of Christian-based Pro-Life advocacy comes as an adjunct to the belief of knowing and expressing God’s will. Certitude of God’s will might be acquired in several ways: receiving a direct communication from God, faith in another (living or dead) who claims a direct communication from God, faith that an accepted sacred text (i.e. Bible) accurately reflects the will of God, or faith in one’s own or another’s ability to interpret or project God’s will in the absence of a clear directive. Christian Pro-Life advocacy relies primarily upon the conjecture of God’s will through Biblical interpretation, and/or the recognition of God’s will through some who are deemed worthy of declaring it. It hasn’t been a constant; procreation conjecture and declarations of God’s intent have changed profoundly through the years. Presumably, God’s will has not changed, but those declaring it certainly have.

Abortion and contraception are not explicitly mentioned in Biblical text, nor is the moment of ensoulment precisely addressed. Because the Bible does not provide clear articulation with regards to abortion or contraception, inference is drawn upon to determine the will of God. Likewise, as it is not explicitly pinpointed in sacred text, human speculation rather than a pronouncement from God is used to ascribe the moment of ensoulment.  It’s particularly noteworthy that while the Christian and Judaic faithful share much in recognition of sacred text (the Old Testament), they differ in its interpretation. If pious and learned theologians can view the same text and draw different procreation conclusions, it should be clear that the given source of God’s word is either not clear, or is purposely misconstrued by some who are supposedly pious.

The Judaic procreation stance has been the more consistent. Citing Exodus 21: 22-23, ensoulment has long been deemed to occur at birth, along with full recognition of a human being. Fetal development issues then have been considered secondary to the health of the woman carrying it. It’s the Christian stance, particularly with the recognized moment of ensoulment that has been wildly inconsistent.

It’s not exactly clear when Christian thought on the moment of ensoulment began to diverge from the Judaic stance, but the influence of early Greek philosophy is clear. Even before the birth of Christ, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and probably others had opined on the existence of a human soul. Aristotle postulated that ensoulment occurred in the womb and somehow calculated that it happened about 40 days after conception for males, and 90 days after for females. Aristotle’s questionable timetable took hold among Christian theologians and was still maintained centuries later by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Accordingly, while abortive procedures were considered sinful, they weren’t thought to be murderous until the human soul (and thus a human being) was present.

Shifting Sands

For more than 15 centuries, Christian (Catholic) thought held to the Aristotle/Aquinas schedule of ensoulment. It changed briefly in 1588 when Pope Sixtus V declared that all abortions were murderous. But just three years later, Pope Gregory XIV reversed the decision, reinstating the position that abortion was homicidal only if it took place after ensoulment. He also declared that ensoulment occurred at “quickening” (first perception of fetal movement), about 166 days after conception. His declaration held for the next 278 years before being overturned by Pope Pius IX in 1869. Pope Pius IX declared all acts of abortion to be excommunicable, not because ensoulment clearly happened at the moment of conception, but rather that conception conferred the potential for ensoulment, and therefore the potential must be protected from the first moment of conception.

“Potential” appears to be the current Catholic fallback with regards to ensoulment. Ensoulment certainly takes place in the womb, but the precise moment of ensoulment need not be pinpointed. Biblical and/or scientific evidence provides no confirmation for that moment, nor is any required. Rather, it’s only the potential that now needs to be recognized. The potential to become a fully developed human being begins at the moment of conception, and with it, at that same moment, the potential to receive a human soul. Therefore, from the moment of conception, an embryo must be protected as if it were a human being, regardless of the immediate presence of a soul.

It’s a subtle, but profound change of stance. For centuries, Christian doctrine held that it was ensoulment, recognized as occurring long after conception that created a human being. It was considered a forgivable sin, but not murderous, to abort before ensoulment. The 1869 decree of Pope Pius IX drastically changed that position. By declaring that ensoulment might happen at conception, it suddenly became both sinful and murderous to willfully abort at any time in a pregnancy. His pronouncement had ramifications beyond stark abortive considerations. As became evident years later, it would also require pharmaceutical advances in contraceptive means to be seen as abortive and judged accordingly: the use of pharmaceutical contraceptives would be deemed sinful and murderous.

Nothing Biblically had changed; it was the same as it ever was. The 1869 declaration by Pope Pius IX could have been a simple admission that the precise moment of ensoulment was scripturally indeterminate had he left it at that, but he didn’t. In decreeing that ensoulment might actually occur at the moment of conception, he inserted his personal opinion to contravene the small bit of guidance that the Bible did provide. While it never indicates the precise moment that ensoulment takes place, a verse of the Bible does indicate a moment when it clearly hasn’t taken place:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, as according the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.  And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life. (Exodus 21: 22-23)

The verse clearly shows that a woman’s life is considered more significant than that of an unborn fetus, revealing that the fetus has not yet been ensouled to attain full status as a human being. So why, after two thousand years of Christian acceptance that it occurs after conception, did Pope Pius IX disregard Biblical text to assert that ensoulment might actually happen at conception? The long answer would require an investigational study, the short answer is that “why” doesn’t really matter. What matters is the recognition that he was opining on (rather than pointing to) Biblical text. In effect, the Pope was manipulating Church doctrine by supplanting what was considered to be God’s word with his own personal opinion.

It’s not like he was the first (or the last) to do so. It’s long been Christian tradition for its hierarchy to expand on (or beyond) Biblical vagueness to reach surety of position (Papal InfallibilityPapal PrimacyNatural Law). Thomas Aquinas confidently pushed Aristotle’s weird ensoulment timetable (40 days for males, 90 days for females) into Catholic doctrine that was accepted for centuries. The Church was equally confident (for 3 years) when Pope Sixtus V pulled the timing back to conception, and then became even more confident (for 278 years) when Pope Gregory XIV pushed the moment of ensoulment back out to 166 days. Perhaps sensing that confidence in Papal authority might waver if it kept declaring new ensoulment timetables, Pope Pius IX adroitly declared that its timing need not be pinpointed at all. He proclaimed that it wasn’t the precise moment of ensoulment that need be recognized, but rather the potential for that moment. Pope Pius IX confidently declared that the potential for ensoulment occurred precisely at the moment of conception. Maybe it didn’t actually happen at that moment, but it absolutely could! Artfully, without truly declaring a newly recognized moment of ensoulment, Pope Pius IX tied it to the moment of conception. With complete confidence, the Church would henceforth recognize the need to see conception and the moment of ensoulment as simultaneous events, even if they weren’t … or put another way, the Church would now recognize that a human being is created at conception, even if it isn’t.

More Certainty, Less God

It may have sounded innocuous, to seemingly address Biblical ambiguity with the word “potential,” as if in acceptance of that ambiguity. But it wasn’t innocuous, and it wasn’t in acceptance. Declaring that ensoulment might potentially occur at conception was a direct refutation of the guidance provided by Exodus 21: 22-23. Arousing hardly a ripple of institutional opposition (or even recognition), Pope Pius IX had subtly pushed aside the accepted word of God and replaced it with his own. Since 1869, the Church has used his declaration rather than Biblical guidance for its near total prohibitive stance on contraception and abortive measures.

It wasn’t just the Catholic Church that would take liberties with espousing God’s will. Much of the Protestant/Evangelical world would eventually follow Vatican precedent to establish its own brand of certainty. In the 1980’s blossoming of network Evangelicalism, Jerry Falwell redirected early Evangelical ambivalence and began espousing that “The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception.” He cited Luke 1:39-44 and Psalm 139: 13-16. Does an actual reading of the King James Bible provide the clarity that Falwell implies? Not really; in the cited text there is mention of human life in the womb, but there is no mention as to when life in the womb should be first recognized as a human being. Likewise, there’s absolutely no mention of conception or the moment of ensoulment. Like Pope Pius IX, Falwell was supplanting the vagueness of God’s word with the clarity of his own opinion and presenting it as the will of God.

It’s a big deal, or at least it should be. When a pope or priest replaces the given ambiguity of God’s word with the certitude of personal opinion, something quite significant takes place: a new god is created. Pope Pius IX desired a god that clearly tied ensoulment to conception, so he used his papal authority to recognize one. Jerry Falwell wanted a god who articulated the simultaneity of conception and ensoulment, so he used his Evangelical prominence to declare one. Both were making new gods in their own image and presenting them as the known God of their sacred book. Believers believed accordingly and now worship a distorted god that provides dynamic procreative clarity: recognition that a human being is formed (or potentially formed) at the moment of conception, and that abortion and contraceptive measures are thus sinful and likely murderous.

So, if one accepts the proclamations of Jerry Falwell and Pope Pius IX, one can be certain that God explicitly forbids contraception and abortion. Therein lays the surety of Christian-based Pro-Life advocacy: the supposition that one is upholding the will of God. It doesn’t really matter that it was derived from clerical fabrication — to a true believer, it’s still the will of God.

Like its Christian counterpart, secular Pro-Life also enjoys certainty, but without recourse to the supposed will of God or the concept of ensoulment. It simply asserts that a human being is created at the moment of conception. Its immediate personhood is deemed obvious and entitled to the full recognition and protection afforded all human beings. The surety of secular Pro-Life advocacy lies in the absolute acceptance of that assertion — it’s an asserted opinion, but one accepted as fact.

The Virtue of Not Knowing

Facing the certainty held by Pro-Life advocacy, it would seem that the secular Pro-Choice voice is doubly disadvantaged. It makes no claim to the will of God in its stance and offers no precise moment of certainty as to when fetal life becomes recognized as a human being. What it does have though, is acceptance — a virtuous acceptance of apparent ambiguity. What exactly is a human being? When does the growing amalgam of human cells become a human being? Where is the transitional Rubicon that will surely be crossed? Pro-Choice feigns no precise answer, but does acknowledges the existence of that crossing. On one side are biological human cells; on the other side is a human being. Like the minority of Christians who do recognize the ambiguity of Biblical procreation guidance, Pro-Choice adherents recognize the ambiguity of fetal development. A human egg cell at the moment of conception is not seen as a human being, but nine months later a human being presents itself. Somewhere in that interlude, the Rubicon is crossed; a single cell has multiplied and grown to irrefutably become a human being.

So, where is that crossing? Any answer to that question evades universal acceptance. To extremists, the only acceptable answers are at conception or at birth. For others, it’s somewhere in between, but the whereabouts is equivocal and evades consensus — there’s no scientifically held precise moment of recognition to be had, and there’s no clear scriptural guidance to ascertain that moment. The grey area of “crossing” then is based on conjecture — admitted conjecture derived without pretense to either scientific or spiritual exactitude. It’s an ambiguity that Pro-Choice accepts as a given reality, an ambiguity that needs to be admitted when making moralistic procreation decisions.

It may seem disadvantageous to hold onto the ambiguous position that Pro-Choice accepts. Christian clerics certainly saw it that way when they replaced Biblical vagary with opinionated clarity. There’s visible irony in that artifice: The secular Pro-Choice camp now finds itself more closely aligned with the given (but vague) Biblical word of God, than does the Christian Pro-Life camp that has adopted the certainty of clerical opinion. Whatever its positional disadvantage, Pro-Choice acknowledges the nebulous nature of human development — that grey transitional area of crossing, where living human cells become irrefutably recognized as a living human being. The Pro-Choice challenge is to conservatively recognize the proximity of that crossing in making moralistic decisions that respect a woman’s right to choose and a human’s right to live.

Vern Loomis lives in the Detroit area and occasionally likes to comment on news and events that interest him in whatever capacity available. Read other articles by Vern.