As I understand it, the reason most anti-abortion activists take the stand they do is that they believe abortion is murder. And that is based on their notion of “ensoulment,” that life begins at conception when a bunch of rapidly-dividing pre-blastocyst cells (the zygote) is endowed with a soul, and is therefore a person. (After seven days, the excitement settles down into a more organized clump, the blastocyst.) The great majority of those supposedly soul-encrusted cells die without any human intervention: many fail to glom onto the wall of the uterus, while of those that do, about half are miscarried, without anyone being any the wiser. That is, most of the supposedly ensouled zygotes never make it to first base. But still, a few do, leading to the idea that to willfully abort a growing set of cells anytime after conception is tantamount to murder.

(Incidentally, talking about a “moment of conception” is a misnomer, since fertilization takes about 24 hours.)

Week-old human (ensouled?) blastocyst. (J. Conaghan, National Institutes of Health, public domain)

If “ensoulment at conception” to justify a pro-life stance sounds a bit ad hoc — it’s because it is. It’s certainly not found in the Bible, which is understandable, given that two thousand and more years ago, pregnancy wasn’t understood as the result of fertilization of a female egg by a male spermatozoon. Aristotle, for instance, thought that the only role for the female in the process of creating new life was to provide a nest for the developing embryo — a man’s semen was all she needed. He, and presumably anyone influenced by Greek philosophy, certainly believed in ensoulment, except it happened later: 40 days after conception for male fetuses and 90 days after conception for female fetuses.

If Christians are to fall back on the Bible to justify banning abortions, shouldn’t they be checking what it actually has to say about the start of life? Like, Genesis 2:7, which says it’s all about breath: “And the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Breath equates with life. Not coincidentally, this followed the ancient Greek concept of pneuma (breath), which held that life only starts when breathing starts…nine months after conception.

FWIW, wise old Saint Augustine, who had clearly thought this through 1700 years ago, wrote, “I have not been able to discover in the accepted books of Scripture anything at all certain about the origins of the soul.”

Rather than falling back on religion (not as found in the Bible but as taught by the Catholic church hundreds of years later) shouldn’t we be facing the issue of abortion in the light of what we know now, not what was believed out of ignorance 2000 years ago? For instance:

  • About 1 in 4 women in the US have had an abortion. Of those, 60% already have a child, half of whom have two or more children.
  • 46% of those women who have abortions are single.
  • Abortion isn’t generally seen as a form of birth control: for 58% of women getting an abortion, it’s their first one
  • A sexually active woman who ends up with two children has to dodge nearly 30 pregnancies in her fertile lifetime if she wants to avoid having an abortion
  • Women living below the poverty line account for half of all abortions in the US (the only country in the “first world” that doesn’t mandate paid family leave).
  • Women want abortions for many reasons, beyond the more obvious ones of incest and rape, including: knowing they have mentally or physically compromised fetuses, economic hardship, failed or destructive relationships, health risks, and taking care of other children.
  • Legislating against abortion won’t end it, based on pre-Roe vs. Wade history. It will only make it more dangerous.
  • 61% of Americans say abortion should be legal, according to a 2022 Pew survey.
  • Oh, and no one’s actually seen a soul, in case that makes any difference.

Unfortunately, the people making the anti-abortion laws are almost entirely white, well-off men far removed from the plight of a desperate woman who is often poor and unmarried. They’re also ignorant, as when Texas governor Greg Abbott boasted that rape would be eliminated in his state, so abortions wouldn’t be necessary. Which reminded me of this: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” (Todd Akin, Missouri Republican and Senate candidate.)

Legitimate rape? Sigh.