This article appears in the May 2005 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
The Soul of the embryo
David Albert Jones
The author of this excellent work is Senior Lecturer in Bioethics at St. Mary's college, Twickenham. The basic argument of the book is that the Church has consistently condemned abortion from the moment of conception as gravely sinful. In the words of St. Basil: "with us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed."
The book begins by looking at the Hebrew creation narratives. Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Jews respected life from the moment of conception. Procreation was seen as a blessing from God; abortion was only allowed to save the life of the mothers. Christianity - the fulfilment of Judaism - condemns abortion without exception.
Around AD 500, theologians sought to differentiate between "formed" and "unformed" embryos. Abortion after formation was regarded as homicide and abortion before formation was considered almost as bad. This distinction remained in Canon Law until 1869.
For many theologians, including Aquinas and Augustine, the soul was the life principle of the
body; the separated soul is thus incomplete until reunited with the body. The soul is immediately created by God and is infused into the body.
The notion that ensoulment took place at formation was widely accepted by Thomas Aquinas among others. Thomas was, of course, basing his views on false Aristotelian biology. If only he had lived in a post-Mendelian age!
Is direct abortion justified in order to save the life of the mother? Some Theologians thought so. The Magisterium condemned such a view. The Church has, however, distinguished between direct and indirect abortion.
Dr. Jones examines the much publicised issues of twinning and personhood. The wholly unscientific term "pre-embryo" is also examined and dismissed.
In 1967, many pro-abortionists referred to the foetus as a "clump of cells". With advances in scientific technology, this argument is no more. We are only beginning to realise just how extraordinary the human embryo is: the fact that it is "only the size of the full-stop at the end of this sentence" makes it even more extraordinary.
The book has many references to the Bible and to the Fathers of the Church and is, therefore a tremendous help in our own reflections on the profound mystery of the soul of the human embryo.