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  When Does Human Life Begin? Conception And Ensoulment
  Issue: 75   Page No: 4   Updated: 12/27/2010 10:00 AM
Author:  Lindsay Disney , Larry Poston
Topics:  Abortion , Ethics: Bioethics , Life: Sanctity of
Type:  Article

When Does Human Life Begin? Conception And Ensoulment
By Lindsey Disney,
New York University Medical Center
Larry Poston,
Nyack College, NY.

            In The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph #2322 states that “from its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion . . . is a criminal practice, gravely contrary to the moral law. The Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.”[1]
            In an amicus curiae submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1988, the Eastern Orthodox Church stated its conviction that “modern science has borne out the prescient wisdom of the Holy Fathers of the Church, that life begins at conception, and at no other arbitrary or scholastically derived juncture.”[2]
            In May of 1982, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a “Resolution on Abortion and Infanticide” which contained the following phraseology: “Whereas, Both medical science and biblical references indicate that human life begins at conception. . . .  Be it finally RESOLVED, That we support and will work for appropriate legislation and/or constitutional amendment which will prohibit abortions except to save the physical life of the mother. . . .[3]
            And on January 22, 2007, Bill H.R. 618 was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA)—a Southern Baptist—proposing that the terms “human person” and “human being” be defined as “each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including, but not limited to, the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being.”[4]
            The examples above give clear evidence that a majority of Christians in the modern world believe (or are supposed to believe) that human life begins at the moment that sperm and egg unite. But in the history of Christianity there has never been a united voice on this issue. In actuality, neither the Christian scriptures nor modern science provide sufficient data to enable us to draw indisputable conclusions regarding this topic. But much of our confusion may be attributed to our failure to distinguish between the concepts of “life” and “ensoulment.”
Until quite recently, non-human creatures have been considered as lacking “something” that distinguishes human beings from all other living forms on the planet. Philosophically and religiously speaking, this distinctive aspect is called “the soul;” an immaterial “something” that endows a human being with an intellect, emotions, a will, and an autonomous “sense of self.” It is one thing to speak of “when life begins,” but quite another to speak of “when the soul enters” or “is present” in a human body. These are entirely distinguishable items, and though they may be simultaneous in their origins, they are not necessarily so.
Ensoulment in Scripture and Christian History
            The canonical Scriptures of the Christian faith do not directly answer the question of when “life” begins or when “ensoulment” occurs. To illustrate: Psalm 139:13, which contains David’s conviction that “you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” is often used as a model verse for Christian Pro-Life activists. The literary genre of the Psalms in general, as well as the context of this particular psalm, are not scientific in orientation. David is using the forms that are appropriate in a psalm—poetry and metaphor—to teach his listeners that God is to be praised because the Creator cares enough to know David intimately. Even if for the sake of argument we were to consider this passage literally rather than metaphorically, it may still be construed as saying no more than that God sovereignly brought about the life of David, one of his closest followers and “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14). The passage does not necessarily imply that God “creates the inmost being” of every fetus in every womb; nor does the passage address the issue of when such an inner-being creation occurs.
Looking to the “roots” of Christianity, we find that in Jewish law a fetus is not considered to be a full-fledged human being until its head emerges from the womb. Before that moment, “the fetus is the thigh of its mother” (ubar yerekh imo), meaning that it may not be considered an independent entity but instead a “partial life.”[5] This view is based on Exodus 21:22, which says that if a woman miscarries due to being struck by men fighting and she herself is not seriously injured, the offender is to pay the husband of the woman a monetary fine for the loss. Since the Mosaic Law requires a “life for a life” (Exodus 21:23), the above scenario implies that the fetus is of worth (since payment is required for its destruction) but not of equal worth to the life of a born human being (otherwise the punishment of the offender would be death). In addressing the issue of ensoulment, Philo (20 BCE—50 CE) used the scenario of Exodus 21:22 as his starting point. “If one have a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry; if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature—which was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being—from bringing him into existence. But if the child who was conceived has assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature. . . .”[6]
            Philo held that the time of having assumed “a distinct shape in all its parts” was the fortieth day after conception. But not all Jewish thinkers have concurred. During the Middle Ages, for instance, the issue of “doubtful viability” was introduced which held that an embryo remains an embryo until thirty days after its birth, becoming only then a bar kayyama, a viable, living being.[7] Because of the ambiguity of the scriptural passages cited above and the precedents established by Jewish law, the history of Christianity has seen the development of three distinct views of ensoulment: Pre-existentianism, Traducianism, and Creationism. 
            Pre-existentianism is the belief that “souls” are pre-existent entities that await the creation of bodies for them to enter. Historically, very few within Christian circles have held this view, though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints adopted it in the nineteenth century and certain “New Age” movements have more recently attempted syncretisms between Christianity and Eastern reincarnationism that include forms of pre-existentianism.
            The doctrine of Traducianism teaches that the “soul” is present in both the sperm and the egg when they unite, and the combination of the two entities forms a new “soul” automatically and immediately. Traducianism has been held by at least some adherents since the Church’s earliest years. Tertullian (c.160-c.225), for instance, wrote “we allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.”[8] Clement of Alexandria held the same view, holding that “the seed being deposited, the spirit, which is in the seed, is, so to speak, appropriated, and is thus assumed into conjunction in the process of formation.”[9]
            The Traducianist view was also held by Gregory of Nyssa (335-c.394) and Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662). The latter’s argument was based on the example of Christ, who was fully human and fully divine from the first moment of his conception—implying that he possessed a spiritual soul from that instant. Since Christ was like us (humans) in all things except for sin, then all human beings must receive a spiritual soul at conception as well.[10]
            Some scholars hold that the Traducianist view best explains the transmission of original sin. Bruce Waltke, for instance, concludes “that man’s spiritual element is passed on mediately from Adam and not as the immediate creation of God, who does not author sin.”[11]
            The doctrine of Creationism maintains that each individual “soul” is created directly by God and introduced into a fetus at a point of God’s choosing. Genesis 2:7—a key text for Creationists—says that “God formed the man from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Ecclesiastes 12:7 adds the comment that “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” And Hebrews 12:9 makes the distinction between “human fathers” and the “Father of our spirits,” concerning which theologian Francis Turretin comments, “Why should God be called ‘the Father of spirits’ in contradistinction to ‘the fathers of the flesh’ unless the origin of each was different?”[12]
            Berkhof and Turretin are just two of the more recent representatives of a stream of thought that is rooted both in ancient Hebrew beliefs and in Aristotelean philosophy. “In general,” Aristotle believed, “soul is imparted to the body in stages as each part is formed, and the specific soul is not actually present until the form is complete. . . .”[13] This “completion of form” takes place on the fortieth day after conception for males, and on the eightieth day for females. Augustine (354-430) was a proponent of this view, and Thomas Aquinas (1205-1274) adopted Aristotle’s schema practically in its entirety. Aquinas held that “the body was formed gradually through the power transmitted by the male seed but the spiritual soul was directly created by God when the body was ready to receive it. Thus the embryo was believed to live at first the life of a plant, then the life of a simple animal, and only after all its organs, including the brain, had been formed, was it given, by the direct and creative act of God, an immortal spiritual soul.”[14]
            The Creationist views of Augustine and Aquinas were the norm in the Christian West from the early fifth century to the late nineteenth century. As a consequence, the Justinian Code of the sixth century excused from penalty abortions performed prior to forty days after conception. Pope Innocent III (c. 1216) and Pope Gregory IX (c. 1241) both affirmed the distinction between “vivified” fetuses (older than forty days) and those younger than so.[15] Not until the Effraenatum of Pope Sixtus V in 1588 did the forty-day rule vanish and abortion was declared illegal at any stage of fetal existence. But even this ruling was rescinded by Sixtus’ successor Gregory XIV, and the repeal lasted until 1869, when Pius IX reinstated the earlier decision. Even so, Pius’ decree did not become canon law until 1918—a mere ninety years ago.[16]
            Our discussion of ensoulment has clear implications for many of the leading issues with which our contemporary societies are dealing. Chief among these are abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, and stem cell research. Simply put, if one is a Traducianist, completely convinced that an embryo is a fully-ensouled human being from the first seconds of its existence, the destruction of unused fertilized eggs, the harvesting of stem cells from fetal tissue, forms of contraception that are essentially abortifacients, and all elective abortions performed at any stage of the gestation period must be considered the termination of human life. If, however, one is a convinced Creationist, holding that ensoulment does not occur until—at the earliest—the fortieth day after conception, and possibly not until as long as thirty days after birth itself, then one’s convictions concerning the abovementioned procedures may be vastly different from those of the Traducianist. Let us examine the implications of these views more closely.
Given their presuppositions, it is completely logical for Traducianists to be convinced that “… abortion is nothing less than murder, the taking of innocent human life.”[17] There are, however, several problematic aspects of Traducianism. For one thing, Pro-Life advocates must often present their case in a skewed fashion. This is so because “lacking a secular rationale, pro-life forces nevertheless try to marshal apparently secular support for the fetal right to life. One stratagem is to generate moral concern for early stages of human life by playing on their later stages . . . abortion opponents never carry posters depicting newly conceived embryos, which when magnified look more like buckyballs than people.”[18]
Additionally, Traducianists find it difficult to prove that abortion causes mental harm (in the form of guilt or trauma) as well as physical harm (in the form of sterility and other gynecological difficulties). The general assumption that exists within the Christian community—that those who have undergone abortions incur higher rates of psychological distress—is not borne out by objective research. According to the American Psychological Association’s briefing paper on abortion, “well-designed studies of psychological responses following abortion have consistently shown that risk of psychological harm is low. Some women experience psychological dysfunction following abortion, but postabortion rates of distress and dysfunction are lower than pre-abortion rates.”[19] Based on these studies, it would be possible to argue that refusing to allow the termination of an unwanted pregnancy could conceivably add more to the sum total of pain and distress in the modern world than an abortion would yield.
            Also problematic is the fact that Traducianists are often not consistent in their position regarding pre-birth embryology. If the Pro-Life advocate’s purpose is to save lives by saving embryos, why are fertility clinics, which house frozen embryos that are discarded when no longer needed, not targeted to the same extent as abortion clinics. Such inconsistencies seem to indicate that many Traducianists choose to emphasize implications that are the most “trendy,” or have not considered that their views have implications for other areas besides abortion.
            Finally, there are serious theological problems that arise for those holding the Traducianist position. According to New York Times writer Gina Kolata, thirty-one percent of women experience a known miscarriage,[20] and this figure is considered by many to be on the low side: “the true rate of early pregnancy loss is close to 50% because of the high number of chemical pregnancies that are not recognized in the 2-4 weeks after conception.”[21] This statistic becomes extremely problematic if all miscarriages are deemed actual human beings. Consider that the cumulative population of the earth throughout history is estimated to be approximately 60 billion persons.[22] If that number represents the 50% that survived pregnancy, then there are, at least, 60 billion souls that did not survive. If those souls are innately evil—as Christianity teaches on the basis of such passages as Psalm 58:3—“The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies”—then more than 60 billion human beings were essentially born into Hell. Most, of course, would argue that fetuses and infants are innocent beings, and therefore those 60 billion souls are all in “Heaven.” But even this claim is problematic, for would it not imply that “Heaven” is overwhelmingly populated by fetuses that were spontaneously or intentionally aborted?
If the tenets of Creationism are true, and a fetus does not have a soul until God in His sovereignty introduces one into a body, then the social issues we have discussed above do not necessarily involve the termination of an innocent human life. The Creationist view appears to be most in line with what is, to many, psychologically obvious: “We intuitively understand this [that embryos do not have souls] when we judge, uncontroversially, that it is not a human tragedy that a high percentage of fertilized eggs never achieve implantation but are expelled naturally during menstruation.”[23] Proponents of Creationism are able to say in good conscience, “God does not create a soul for a fetus that He knows is going to be a spontaneous or induced abortion, or for a fertilized ovum God knows will be discarded.”
            We as Christians are called upon to speak about that which science—with all of its remarkable and subtle instruments—can say nothing. It is our lot to speak of “the soul;” of how its presence within a collection of living tissues distinguishes mere “biological life” from truly “human life.” We believe that inherent in this task are at least three objectives to which we should give our full attention.
            First, we must teach in our churches and in our classrooms in such a way that the general public understands that the matter of ensoulment should never be viewed simplistically. We must show by example that the implications of such a complex issue must not be undermined by denial or neutrality, but should be approached in a loving, fair, and nonjudgmental fashion. We must explain that religious beliefs regarding this subject—even within Christianity—span a very wide spectrum, and all attempts to simplify these matters in an unrealistic manner will doom us to continued misunderstandings and acrimony.
            Second, in our discussions we should adopt a vocabulary that avoids hyperbole and unwarranted assumptions. Terminology that is brutal and accusatory, such as “murderers” and “baby-killers,” should be eliminated. If there is no incontrovertible revelational teaching regarding this issue, might we not essentially be violating a moral requirement that is incontrovertible (i.e., “thou shalt not bear false witness”) by misinforming the public concerning “what God has said” regarding these subjects? Why not focus our attention and resources on larger issues, such as the spiritual, sociological, psychological, and physiological tragedies that give rise to the very ethical issues we are discussing? After all, there are many reasons for objecting to elective abortions.
            Lastly, we should do all in our power to provide a “middle way” between the extremists that inhabit both ends of the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice spectrum. We believe that a majority of Christians are embarrassed by and apologetic concerning the fanatical attitudes of many Pro-Life advocates. But separating ourselves from extremists will require more than pink-cheeked apologies. Gaining credibility in the eyes of a watching world will require patient listening, careful and thoughtful discussion, and self-sacrificing compassion. It will require a frank willingness to acknowledge a multitude of possible truths, and therefore, a necessary change in the overall approach of opponents of abortion to these issues.
            These are truly awesome responsibilities. As ambassadors of the kingdom of God, our words and our actions concerning these issues can have profound implications for social structures, for moral and ethical considerations, and for the psyches of both women and men. Let us therefore be “shrewd as snakes, and innocent as doves” in our stewardship of the concept of “ensoulment” and of its implications for humanity.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1994), 606, 607, 618.
[2] “An Orthodox View of Abortion,”
[3] “Southern Baptist Convention Resolutions on Abortion,” .
[5] Babylonian Talmud, “Hulin,” 58a. Cited in Feldman, Birth Control, 253.
[6] Philo, De Specialibus Legibus, II, 19.
[7] Feldman, Birth Control, 253-254.
[8] Tertullian, “A Treatise on the Soul,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, edited by A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A.C. Coxe (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1980), 27.
[9] Clement, “Excerpts of Theodotus,” in Ibid., 50.
[10] Cited in David Albert Jones, “The Appeal to the Christian Tradition in the Debate about Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (July 2005): 274.
[11] Bruce K. Waltke, “Reflections From the Old Testament on Abortion,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 19.01: 12.
[12] Francis Turretin. “Creationism or Traducianism: The Origin of the Soul,” On Doctrine (2002). 15 November 2007 .
[13] Cited in Jones, Appeal, 274.
[14] Ibid., 275.
[15] See John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 88, 91, 232.
[16] See David M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (New York: New York University Press, 1968), 268-269.
[17] Waltke, “Reflections,” 3.
[18] Thomas W. Clark, “Faith in Hiding: Are There Secular Grounds for Banning Abortion?” The Humanist (July-August 2007): 27-31.
[19] David M. Fergusson, L. John Horwood, and Elizabeth Ridder, “Abortion in Young Women and Subsequent Mental Health,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47.1 (January 2006): 20.
[20] Gina Kolata, “Study Finds 31% Rate of Miscarriage,” New York Times (27 July 1988): 15.
[21] John C. Petrozza, “Early Pregnancy Loss,” eMedicine (15 November 2007):
[22] Martin Rees, Our Final Hour (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 136.
[23] Ibid., 28.
  Cite This Page:
Disney, Lindsay , Poston, Larry. "When Does Human Life Begin? Conception And Ensoulment" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Fall 2009 (Issue 75 Page 4)
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