What follows is a fictional account of three conversations between a secular ethicist (whose wife happens to be a scientist) and a Roman Catholic abortion protester. While the characters are also fictional, the protester’s arguments reflect current Roman Catholic doctrine regarding the issues involved.—Eds.
Randall Terry had brought Project Rescue to Buffalo some years earlier, in 1992, organizing a series of demonstrations against abortion clinics, and had been met by pro- choice advocates such as Buffalo United for Choice. That controversy, and the subsequent assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 in his Amherst home by James Kopp, was long past. The current generation of college students knew little of those tense days. Occasional demonstrations still occurred outside clinics, but they lacked the violence and cacophony of the earlier times.
As I was teaching a bioethics course at the University at Buffalo, I went down to the site of one of the ongoing demonstrations to gather “color” for my course and to see if I could engage any of the demonstrators in useful dialogue.
I’d long been puzzled by what seemed to me a disconnect between prolife rhetoric about abortion and what I knew of the scientific facts. I’m married to a scientist whose specialty is reproductive physiology, and she has been the source of my education, such as it is, on the subject of reproduction—not only as my wife and the mother of my son, but also as my teacher.
So I was eager to find a prolife advocate who was knowledgeable about that position’s arguments with whom I could engage in some kind of probing exploration of its presuppositions. This group of demonstrators, I hoped, would yield such a discussant.
When I arrived at the site, a small park across the street from an ob/gyn clinic, seven demonstrators were marching in a rough circle in the parking lot, carrying various placards with pictures of aborted fetuses and slogans such as “Abortion Is Murder!”
One lady, dressed in a flower-print dress, a hat, white gloves, and crew socks and sneakers, caught my interest. She joined the others in chanting several slogans: “It’s a BA-by!” “Stem cells are murder!” “Abortion is murder!”
I watched for fifteen minutes or so, and then the group appeared to break for a rest. The lady moved away from the others to sit on a park bench and take some sips from a bottle of water. She looked a bit tired. I decided to ask her some questions and slowly approached her so as not to be alarming.
“’Scuse me, but could I ask you a few questions?” Not waiting for a reply, I went on. “I was listening to your slogan of ‘It’s a BA-by!’ and I wanted to ask you about it.”
She patted the bench next to her, indicating that I could sit.
“I’ve been studying some material at the university on human reproduction,” I began, “and also religious material from some Catholic publications. I’m puzzled about some things and thought that you might be able to help me understand them better. I teach medical ethics at the university to undergraduates, and I am always looking for greater clarity on the issues we cover.”
She brightened. “I’d be happy to talk to you, although I don’t know whether I can convince you of anything.”
I said, “Well, I’m really looking for information and understanding. Any convincing will have to wait until I’m better equipped to be convinced!”
She said, “Well, what do you want to know?”
“Let me see if I can state your position accurately for starters,” I began. “If I can do that, maybe I can clarify what puzzles me about it.”
She asked, “Are you Catholic?”
I said, “No, but I do read a lot of Catholic publications. They are interesting and raise a lot of questions in my mind.”
“Well, go ahead then,” she said. “I’ll see if you understand the Catholic view.”
I began. “Let’s see if I understand things as you see them. You think that fertilization of the woman’s egg occurs at the instant the sperm penetrates it and that this is the moment at which the unique, individual soul first becomes associated with the body, the point when a single, genetically unique individual human being comes into existence.”
She said, “Correct so far! The baby exists from the moment of conception.”
I continued. “I’ll get to conception in a moment. This product of fertilization, you hold, is identical with the infant that would be born if the natural course of gestation were not interrupted. Right?”
She nodded vigorously.
“So, anything ‘numerically’ identical with a human infant is itself that human being, whatever its apparent differences. Even though this is a one-celled thing, because it has a soul that will direct the development of the pre-embryo throughout gestation and continue in the body throughout the individual’s life and because it is genetically identical with the baby that would be born in nine months if nothing interrupts the pregnancy, it is that baby. That’s what you mean by the slogan you keep repeating: ‘It’s a BA-by!’ Correct?”
She smiled. “You understand me better than my husband!” she said.
I went on. “Now, from these claims you conclude that (1) abortion at any time during pregnancy kills a human being; (2) contraceptive measures that prevent the fertilized ovum’s implantation involve serious child abuse that results in the child’s death; and (3) creating fertilized ova as sources for stem cells involves the creation of human beings to be exploited and ultimately destroyed. Am I correct in drawing those conclusions from the earlier statements that we agreed you believe?”
She drew herself up. “Those are all facts about abortion and contraception and embryonic stem cells that Father Tom has explained over and over in his homilies.”
I said, “Good! Now that I have the basics of your view right, let me tell you what happened to me when I compared this conservative view with the scientific facts that my wife has been teaching me. Because it seems to me that some of the scientific facts clash with these beliefs of yours.”
She squared her shoulders and said, “Well, I don’t see how they could conflict. What you call the conservative view is the true view, so, if the facts conflict, so much the worse for the facts!”
“Bear with me, please,” I said. “It’s my head I’m trying to straighten out.”
“OK,” she said, “tell me where you are confused.”
“Well, in the first place, I don’t understand the view that talks about the instant of fertilization and even less about equating it with the moment of conception.”
“What’s not to understand?” she queried.
“Well,” I explained, “when the sperm enters the egg, the egg’s genetic material is not ready to fuse. The egg went through its first meiotic division when it was expelled by the follicle, but it has to go through a second meiotic division before its genetic material is capable of joining the sperm’s genetic material. And that second meiotic division only starts after the sperm has penetrated the egg.”
“Yes,” she said slowly, “so what?”
“The process of the second meiotic division and the combining of the sperm’s DNA with that of one of the products of this second division takes most of a day to complete. So fertilization doesn’t occur at a ‘point’; it is a process that occurs over some eighteen to twenty hours.”
She said, “I don’t see what any of this has to do with what’s wrong about abortion or harvesting stem cells from babies.”
“Maybe it is just the imprecision of the talk that bothers me,” I said, “but it seems to me that it is unclear in this process view of fertilization when the soul is infused. If it occurs when the sperm penetrates the egg, the DNA from the second meiotic division is not determined yet. There is a lot of crossing over and other mixing of parts of the chromosomes in the egg that goes on after the sperm penetrates, and the genetic identity of the egg is not yet fixed. So it seems to me that there is no definite complement of DNA to define the future child that is yet fixed for the soul to be associated with.”
She tossed her head. “Well, all you have done is replace a supposed instant of fertilization with a process. Why not suppose that, when the fusion of the man’s DNA and the woman’s DNA is complete, you have a fixed genetic identity? That’s when the soul is infused and takes over the processes of development. Then is when my slogan is true: “It’s a BA-by!”
I replied, “Perhaps that is a better way of thinking of fertilization: as a process over time. But that is different than conception.”
She said, “What do you mean? When the egg in the woman is fertilized, she has conceived!”
“Not so fast,” I said. “We need to be careful about our language here. You wouldn’t say that a petri dish had conceived when, in the process of in vitro fertilization, the genetic material from a sperm has fused with an egg.”
“Of course I wouldn’t. It’s the woman who provided the egg who has conceived the child.”
“But then what do we call the situation where that fertilized egg is successfully implanted in a surrogate host mother’s uterine wall? Don’t we say she has conceived—that she is pregnant, and that, if the pregnancy fails, it’s her pregnancy that has spontaneously aborted?”
She blinked for a moment then slowly said, “Well, I suppose that is a more precise way of saying what is happening. Conception starts when the fertilized ovum implants itself into the wall of the uterus.” She went on. “But that’s all irrelevant to what abortion in fact is. Terminating a pregnancy cancels any chances of that child being born, and that is murder!”
“Well, perhaps you are right that the question of what conception is actually is a bit tangential to the main issue. But clarifying the question of conception does seem to have one interesting consequence. If conception doesn’t occur until implantation has been successful, chemical or physical contra-conceptive measures that prevent implantation aren’t abortive measures. They don’t cause abortions but rather prevent pregnancies.
She looked at me with some irritation. “That’s all well and good. You can make our way of talking as precise as you wish. That doesn’t alter the fact that contraception that prevents implantation denies to the fertilized ovum its chance of becoming a human being—its destiny! And interfering with its destiny and preventing it from coming to term cancels its chances of being born and is murder!”
“You raise another area of my puzzlement. Why are you so sure that left alone, the fertilized ovum is destined to become a human being?”
“Well, it sure isn’t destined to become an oak tree!” she snapped.
“I’m glad you brought up oak trees,” I said, “because there is an analogy between acorns and fertilized human eggs that I want to explore with you.”
“So long as you don’t try to convince me that a baby is an oak tree, go ahead,” she said sarcastically.
“Well,” I said, “in a sense that’s what I am going to try to do—convince you that a fertilized human egg is more like an acorn that you might imagine.”
“Good luck! You’ll need it!” she glared.
“To start with, an acorn is the product of the union of the equivalent of oak sperm and oak egg.”
“Any acorn has several potential futures: as an oak tree, as a meal for a squirrel, as bread for a human who reads Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, as part of the forest humus. Which of these potentials will be realized is contingent upon intervening events and conditions after the acorn is created. Its chances of becoming an oak tree are very small.”
“Of course,” she said. “What does that have to do with a fertilized human egg?”
“Well,” I answered, “the fertilized human egg also has several potential futures. It may become implanted in a woman’s uterus and develop into an embryo that becomes a fetus and is born as a human infant. It may split one or more times, giving rise to identical twins or triplets. It may pass out of the woman’s body and never realize either of those possibilities. It may be spontaneously aborted. It may be stillborn. And with human intervention, it may become the source of embryonic stem cells and even, in the future, the source of cultured tissues and organs. Even if the egg is implanted in a uterus, it has the potential to give rise to a phenotypic male or a genotypic female, or to be born with birth defects, or to develop an Rh factor, and so on.”
“Every woman knows all that!” she snapped.
“But analogized with the acorn,” I went on, “the fertilized ovum has many potential futures, the realizations of which depend on events and contexts, on where it is and what happens to it in coming days and weeks.”
Beginning to see where I was going with this, she said, “Well, it still is a potential baby. It is not analogous to the acorn, since only a very few acorns ever become oak trees. The probability for the fertilized egg is that it will become a baby.”
“Actually, it probably won’t become a baby. Over 50 percent of naturally fertilized ova pass out of the body without ever implanting in the woman’s uterus. And this is not the result of contraceptives: it is just what happens without any human intervention.”
She looked shocked. “So there is only a 50-50 chance?”
“It isn’t even that strong. Of the 50 percent of fertilized ova that do generate a pregnancy by becoming implanted in the woman’s uterus, nearly a third to half of those don’t continue to term but end in spontaneous abortions. So the probability that a particular fertilized egg in its natural situation will proceed to birth is only 40 to 50 percent of 67 percent, substantially smaller than its potential not to give rise to a human infant. Put another way, for every one hundred naturally fertilized eggs, no more than forty-nine of them will implant; of those forty-nine, only twenty-five to thirty-three will naturally result in births.”
“Those are pretty poor odds,” she said. “Why hasn’t medicine done something about them?”
“Well, the restrictions on research on fertilized human eggs and on human embryos are so strict, it is very hard to improve these statistics. Tying the hands of science is hardly the way to make scientific progress.”
She looked genuinely distressed then seemed to pull herself together. “All the same, even though those statistics are sad, all you have shown is that fertilization takes a period of time, and that, once it is completed, there are obstacles to this young human being realizing his or her full human potential. But this entity is still continuous with and numerically identical to a potential human child. It is already that individual human being.” She warmed to her summary. “So, deliberately preventing the egg’s implantation, or disrupting the pregnancy after it starts, denies this individual human being whatever natural chances he or she has for continued life and creates conditions that result in its death. That,” she said firmly, “is what we call ‘murder.’”
“Well, perhaps it is. But I’m not yet convinced that we are talking about an individual human at this early stage,” I said.
“Why not?” she queried.
“It’s the case of twins,” I said, “the problem that bothered both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.”
She crossed herself almost reflexively. “St. Thomas had twins?” she asked incredulously.
“No, no,” I reassured her. “That’s not what I meant. Aristotle and Aquinas knew that some children were born as identical twins, and they thought that was a problem for dating the point at which the soul enters the body.”
“What’s the problem?” she said with eyebrows raised quizzically.
“After fertilization, there is a period in which the fertilized egg and the bundle of dividing cells that arise from it have the potential to split into two or more genetically identical bundles, each of which, if it is successful, will give rise to a human being.”
She said, “Every mother knows that.”
I said, “But the problem is that twinning usually occurs after fertilization is complete and several cell divisions have already occurred. Your view is that the soul enters the being at the point fertilization is complete. And you have also said that this fertilized egg is identical with the baby that is born in about nine months. So, in the case of twins, which twin gets the soul and which twin doesn’t?”
She said, “Now you are being silly…or too clever. Obviously, when God decides to make twins, he gives the fertilized egg two souls. One goes with twin A, the other with twin B. Where’s the problem?”
I said, “Apart from the number of souls infused, isn’t there a difficulty in saying that A and B are numerically distinct twins and that each is identical with the initial fertilized egg? A and B cannot both be identical with the fertilized egg but not identical with one another. Put another way, if placement of the soul occurs when fertilization is complete, and the subsequent bundle of cells splits into twins, which twin gets the soul and which is soulless?”
“Neither one is soulless, because you can’t have a human being without a soul. So there has to be a second soul. It is added with the first soul at fertilization, or it is added to one of the twins when twinning occurs.”
“I think you don’t want to hold to the second possibility, since that would imply that fertilization is not the only possible point at which a soul can be acquired,” I observed.
“Well, that’s probably right. So two souls are added to the fertilized egg that is destined to split into twins,” she said.
“Well, perhaps,” I said, “but that still leaves as a puzzle which soul directs the developmental processes. But I have a bigger problem with that view.”
“What problem?” she queried.
“Well,” I continued, “as you have probably read, efforts are underway to understand the processes of early development, in part to improve the rate of successful pregnancies. Scientists have fertilized human eggs in petri dishes and have watched them develop. As part of this research, at some point it is likely that someone will try to divide the early bundle of cells into two, to see if simple division will produce twins.”
She looked at me aghast. “I didn’t know that! Those poor children!”
Again, I reassured her. “I don’t think it has been tried yet. But at some point it is likely to be tried, if not in the United States then in another country, like South Korea. Now, if that is successful, it poses a real problem for your view.”
She said, “How so?”
I said, “Because your view holds that twinning is controlled by God, who decides for any given fertilized egg whether it is to become twins or not and infuses the requisite number of souls.”
“That’s correct,” she said slowly.
“And if humans succeed in voluntarily fertilizing eggs and then causing them to divide so as to produce twins, that would show there is another possible explanation for twinning: that it is some kind of natural, perhaps mechanical or chemical, factor that causes a fertilized egg’s subsequent bundle of dividing cells to split. And that means that, at least in the hypothetical case of artificially produced twins, it isn’t God that is driving the process.”
She said, “I don’t see why not. These could be eggs that are destined for twinning, just as in the completely natural state.”
“But suppose humans get good enough at this manipulation that they can produce twins at will. It would substantially alter the probabilities of twins being produced. And that would be a violation of the divinely ordained natural order, which has about four cases in every one thousand births.”
I continued, “Metaphysically, if you will, that means that humans would be making God distribute more souls than is his plan and would be giving humans power over the Divine will.”
“Well,” she said with determination, “I don’t think God would allow that!”
“It makes for an interesting crucial experiment, doesn’t it?” I said. “Your view predicts that artificial twinning, and probably also cloning, are not possible. The alternative view that dispenses with the metaphysics of souls and ensoulment altogether says that these forms of artificial reproduction are theoretically possible. If we try and succeed, wouldn’t that show your view is incorrect?”
She is quick. “And if you never make it work, will you grant that my view is the correct one?”
“Well,” I concede, “I just might have to in order to remain true to reason and science.”
She beams. “Now that we have solved all your problems, can I go back to my demonstration?”
I said, “Anytime, but not all my problems have been solved yet.”
She looks a little exasperated. “Now what?”
“There is one other natural phenomenon that we are just beginning to learn about: the problem of fusion. Two nonidentical fertilized eggs, or rather the bundles of cells that they produce, occasionally appear to fuse and produce one single individual. This fusion can occur, we think, at any time up to fourteen to sixteen days after fertilization. The result, depending on a lot of factors we don’t understand at all, can have two different blood types or cells, some of which have XX chromosomes and some of which have XY chromosomes, or even complete sets of male and female sex organs. The latter we call “hermaphrodites.” But all of them are chimeras, meaning they are individuals created by the fusion of two developing pre-embryos.”
“I don’t believe it!” she said.
“As they say, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,” I replied. “But, assuming this diagnosis of such people is correct, that they are the product of fusion of two bundles of cells derived from different fertilized ova, the problem arises of what happened to one of the two souls that, on your view, were infused at the point fertilization was complete. For your general view is one person, one soul. So when two become one, one of the souls has to go.”
Her brow was knitted up, and her face was in a frown. “I suppose God has decided to take back one of the souls and removes it.”
I protested, “But look what has happened to your view. One fertilized egg can get one or two or more souls infused into it. Two fertilized eggs can fuse and lose a soul. Humans might be able to cause twinning or cause fusion and thereby control processes that have long been thought to be under only divine control. Any given fertilized egg has less than one chance in three of becoming a human infant. The whole process has become incredibly complex.
“I think the answer for you,” I continued, “is to accept something more like Aquinas’s original account and place the point of ensoulment at or after the stage of pre-embryonic development, where twinning and fusion no longer are possible. It is still speculative, but some evidence indicates that that point may be somewhere between the end of the second and the third week of gestation.”
“So what are we before then?” she asks.
“Strictly speaking, ‘we’ are not existent before then; what you regard as the receptacle of the soul is still in a formative stage and is not yet biologically or metaphysically an individual. The situation is roughly analogous to that of the sperm and egg before their genetic material fuse: a set of a number of possibilities, but none of them yet actualized into a single human being. Only when this range of possibilities—of giving rise to two or more genetically identical individuals and of fusing to produce a human-human chimerical individual—has passed would it be plausible to suppose a single soul is infused.
“The significance of this for early abortions and harvesting of embryonic stem cells is considerable. Since you don’t yet have an individual, any destruction of these pre-individual being stages that results from preventing or aborting a pregnancy, or from pulling apart parts of the bundle of dividing cells for research or treatment purposes, is not the destruction of a human being. Even on your view,” I concluded, “such actions should be morally permissible, and to the extent that some of them may help individuals overcome terrible diseases and injuries, should be morally obligatory.”
She got up. Clearly, I had tossed too many conclusions at her all at once. “That is all very interesting,” she said, picking up her sign, “but it doesn’t change the fact that God can do anything he wants. I do believe it is impossible to produce twins artificially; human action cannot force God to implant a soul if that is not a part of His plan. And if it did work, that would only show that twins from that fertilized ovum were predestined anyway. The artificial actions would be redundant to what would have happened had those fertilized eggs been in a woman from the start. The same for your fusion experiment.”
I said, “I’m not sure you want to make that move. Your hypothesis has become untestable: you have claimed that any attempt to test your position by attempting to produce twins will fail as a test, because it either won’t produce twins or it will produce twins that would have been produced naturally without the artificial intervention.
“And I don’t think you want to do that. That opens the possibility for prochoice forces to make the same move regarding every abortion: any given abortion would have happened naturally anyway without human intervention. For you to reject our crucial experiment would mean that you have accepted in principle that humans don’t have any free will in any of the arena of reproduction, that whatever happens is foreordained, and that the demonstration you are about to rejoin is pointless.”
She picked up her placard and pushed her hat firmly down on her head. “Young man,” she said, “you are too clever by half! And you are only half right: I am about to rejoin the demonstration.” She stalked back toward the group that was reforming in the parking lot outside of the ob/gyn clinic. “It’s a BA-by!” she blared.
I raised my voice in her direction: “Well, perhaps!” And then, as I turned away, I added softly, “And perhaps not.”
I think she heard me, because she stopped and looked back at me for a long moment, a troubled frown on her forehead.
* * * * *
A month later, well into the semester, I was in my department office on a Friday afternoon grading the first set of exams for that semester’s bioethics course when there was a knock on my door frame. I looked up.
“Hi,” she said, “remember me?”
I peered at her face for a moment. She looked quite different. She was in jeans and a sweatshirt with a Windbreaker TM. The hat was gone, and she wore no gloves, but the sneakers were the same.
“Yes, I do! You’re the demonstrator from the park across the street from the clinic,” I said.
“Well, you are half right about that, too!” she said with a smile. “I’m not quite the self-assured person you talked to then.” The smile became somewhat wry, almost ironic. “You started some questions in my head that day; I’m hoping you’ll help me find some answers today.”
I set aside the exams. The prospect of a live dialogue is always more attractive than the staid assignment of determining letter grades. “Sure,” I said, “would you like to come in and have a seat?”
She entered and took off her jacket and laid it across her lap. She sat on the edge of one of the two chairs opposite my desk, leaning forward.
“So, what’s on your mind?” I asked.
She paused a moment, then said, “Why are you so sure the soul enters the body at day sixteen?”
That surprised me. I could understand why she might be driven to that position after our earlier conversation about the unsettled identity of the product of the fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm. She had assumed she could simply adjust her view so that the “moment of ensoulment” would coincide with the loss of the possibilities of twinning and fusion on or about the sixteenth day after fertilization was complete. That was the point of the view I had presented in our discussion a month ago, when individual, numerical identity of a human organism could first reasonably be supposed.
I said, “Why do you think I think the soul enters the body at day sixteen?”
“Well,” she said, “you argued that the soul could not be present before day sixteen in the individual because ‘the individual’ didn’t exist yet. What did exist up to then were . . .” she hunted for the word “. . .pluripotent cells loosely bundled together, any one or group of which could be cultured separately, continuing to divide and becoming just such a bundle. And the soul could not enter until the time had passed when the bundle could fuse with another bundle arising from another fertilized egg forming a human-human chimera.”
I was amazed. This lady understood the view I had discussed more clearly than most students in my classes. I said, “Well, you have restated those facts and their implications accurately enough. But why did you ask me why I was sure that, after the point of possible twinning and fusion was passed, the soul enters the body?”
She smiled triumphantly. “Because I don’t think you believe that souls enter bodies at all!”
“And why do you think that?” I feigned a scowl.
Noticing the scowl, she added, “Or at least you think that you shouldn’t believe it.”
“I shouldn’t? Why not?” I smiled.
Reassured that I didn’t seem angry at her presuming to know what I believed, she said, “I’ve been thinking and reading a lot in the past weeks. Before our conversation, I’d never entertained any doubts about what you called the “conservative view.” Since then, I’ve pulled out some of my old biology text books and started rereading them.”
I guess my amazement showed on my face. “You kept your textbooks? You didn’t sell them at the end of each semester?”
“No,” she said firmly. “I couldn’t believe I had gotten everything out of them I would ever want to know. And I was right! They are even more important to me now.”
“So, what are you finding?” I asked
“You have to understand that this is a tough time for Catholics. There’s all that flap about Intelligent Design and Creationist accounts versus Darwin’s evolutionary views. There’s also all that information about the genomes of humans and other animals, like chimpanzees.” She looked a bit sad for a moment. “The old explanations we got in parochial school now seem so, so . . . childish.”
Sensing that I was the one about to get a mini-lecture, I tried to remain neutral. “I do understand something of how a comfortable set of beliefs can fall apart, seemingly all at once. But, do go on. What about these biological advances have undermined your view of the soul?”
I had taken the tack in our first conversation of engaging her certitude with my puzzles and doubts. Now that she was thinking critically and actively about the clash of her views with the implications of science, it was my task to let her take the lead.
She said, “Several things have begun to bother me. First, I do accept the general account of Homo sapiens having its origins in some kind of species that existed prior to the rise of our species. The Church has taught that the Genesis account is a kind of metaphor for the actual facts of creation and that its ‘six days’ actually comprise millions of years. Science is too powerful, too useful, to be wrong about that.”
“So what does that have to do with human souls? Whether at fertilization or at day sixteen—the point of first individuation—why should I think souls are not necessary to humans?” I was really interested in what she would say, because reflections similar to where I thought she was going had occurred to me recently.
She paused again, thinking how she would put the point. “Evolution holds that species evolve from other species through the accumulation of random variations, some of which confer a reproductive advantage to those individuals lucky enough to have them happen over those unlucky enough to lack them. Those random variations get selected for and become gradually dominant in the species as its members confront the threats of disease and predators and drought and so forth. When the population having a significant number of advantageous new traits becomes numerous enough, it replaces the population lacking those advantages.”
I said, “So…?”
“So, if humans emerged through this gradual process of variation and selection, when did souls get introduced? Evolution holds that our prehuman ancestors were individuals, just as my cat, Twinkletoes, is an individual organism. The cat didn’t need a soul in order to proceed through its gestation and development and emerge from its mother as a kitten. Similarly, the last prehuman ancestor didn’t have a soul, and his or her difference from the first humans—those the Bible calls Adam and Eve—was presumably not a lot. At what point did the accumulation of variations produce a human being so radically different that a soul was required to make the difference ‘work’?”
I was amazed again. This woman, whose name I still didn’t know, was a first-class thinker.
“I have to ask you something. What is your name?” I said.
She blushed. “Why,I am called Rose, like so many other women in Buffalo. I guess I never properly introduced myself.”
“Rose, I’m Phil Wisdom,” I said with a smile.
“But what should I call you,” she said, suddenly flustered. “‘Dr. Wisdom’?”
“Look, you aren’t a student of mine, so we can be more informal. How about just plain ‘Phil’?” I said.
“No, I couldn’t do that.” She smiled coyly. “How about ‘Dr. Phil’? You are a kind of therapist for my thoughts.” She grinned at her pun.
“OK, Have it your way,” I said. “Dr. Phil it is.”
“And I’d like just to be ‘Rose’ for now. I really don’t know about giving my last name to you yet.”
I was puzzled at that but let it pass. “It’s interesting that you’ve identified that problem,” I said. “The Greek philosophers called it ‘the paradox of the heap.’”
“Heap? Heap of what?” she asked, puzzled.
“Of sand,” I answered.
She thought a minute and then brightened. “I get it! A grain of sand isn’t a heap. Add another grain, you still don’t have a heap. Continue adding grains. At some point we would clearly say there is a heap of sand, yet we got there through incremental additions of grains, not one of which seemed sufficient to tip us from a nonheap to a heap. The same is true of the changes in prehumans that preceded and led to the first human.”
She paused and then said, “But that’s not all that bothers me about evolution. It’s unfair to suppose that all humans have souls but that no prehuman ancestor had a soul. Souls are what are supposed to survive our bodies’ deaths, to have eternal life. Why should an ‘almost-human’ not have eternal life if she gave rise to children that did? She’s the mother of the human race!”
“Why, indeed?” I said, smiling inwardly.
She looked sad again and searched my face. “I’ve learned recently that chimpanzees are so like humans they have something like 98.5 percent of their genes in common with us. They are 98.5 percent human! It’s unfair for them not to have souls if we do. They are like our relatives. Their not having souls and our having them is so arbitrary!”
“Well,” I said, “perhaps they do.”
“But,” she protested, “Why stop with chimps? There’s ‘heaps’ of genes everywhere, and lots of those heaps have many genes in common with other heaps. Maybe chimps differ just a bit from Orangs, and Orangs from Macaques, and so on. You can’t—I can’t—believe that evolution produced us and also that only we have souls. Besides, all those other animals get through gestation without souls just fine. I don’t think humans need them, either.”
“That’s a pretty startling conclusion, if I may say so,” I said.
“It has startled me and worried me, too,” she said. “I feel like, without the soul, anything goes.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “If there is no soul, why wouldn’t abortion be OK at any point, even right up to birth? For that matter, what would be wrong with killing a baby, or even a child, or a teenager, just because he or she misbehave? Without a soul, a human is just another animal!” Her distress was evident.
I decided to jump back into the discussion more forcefully. “Actually, killing of others is worse without souls than with.”
“How so?” she quavered.
“Because it ends a life underway. With no eternal life, killing is the annihilation of the individual. People who are killed are no longer just without their live bodies. They are no longer at all. Their lives, their identities, have been cut short, snuffed out. And we value our lives, even our lives when they have much pain and suffering. Our valuing life is what gives it value. So depriving someone of the life he or she values, of all the possibilities for learning and loving, for making amends and reforming, for creating life plans and striving to realize them, is awful to contemplate.”
“But then my position that abortion is murder must be correct!” she almost wailed. “After sixteen days, when you have an individual life that is started, aborting the pregnancy and denying that life its chance to do all those things we value is terrible! It’s worse than capital punishment, because the baby has done nothing to merit being so punished.” Her face was a mixture of confusion and anger.
I said, “Think back on our first conversation. Most fertilized eggs don’t make it to a normal birth. Why are we not very distressed over the fertilized ova that don’t implant but pass out of women’s bodies? Why are we not as distressed at the death of an embryo or fetus due to a spontaneous abortion as we are at the death of a teenager? The Church doesn’t provide those embryos and fetuses with last rites, let alone the unwanted pre-embryos that have been created in petri dishes in the course of treating infertility.”
She stared at me, trying to comprehend the point. “It must be because God never intended those spontaneously aborted pregnancies to come to term. So those lives’ potentials haven’t been frustrated: those potentials never existed?”
“Well, that leaves the why of such carnage completely mysterious. Why would God allow two-thirds or more of the fertilized ova end in not becoming implanted, or becoming spontaneously aborted, or in being stillborn?”
I could see her beginning to regress, which was not surprising in light of the pressure of these new ideas. “God moves in mysterious ways,” she said, almost as a question.
“Well, perhaps. Perhaps we simply can’t comprehend the divine reasons for what happens. But my point was, whether we understand or not, we in fact don’t count as great a tragedy the loss of a fetus as the loss of a teenager,” I said.
She tried to pull herself and the conversation back to her original set of questions. “So, why don’t we, if fetuses and teenagers both have souls?”
I said, “There may be a different way of thinking about these things besides in terms of souls.”
“That’s what I thought!” she said, shaking off her mood of a moment ago. “You don’t believe in souls at all!”
“What I believe or don’t believe is not at issue here. What we are trying to do together, and what we were doing a month ago, is understand better both the conservative view and possible alternatives to it.” I paused then went on.
“Let’s consider the differences between a fetus and a teenager. Up until about the sixth month of a pregnancy, the fetus is not capable of any kind of perception. Before then, there are no sensory organs yet developed. Moreover, the thalamus, a kind of neurological relay station in the brain for incoming sensory information to the cortex, is not formed. And the neocortex, the locus of perceptual experiences of various sorts, hasn’t begun to function.”
Rose said, “That sounds about right from my biology textbook. But how do we know these things?”
“The onset of the function of sensory organs has been studied by means of the phenomenon of habituation. Studies have shown that by twenty-three weeks gestation, fetuses respond with a slowing of the heart rate during maternal speech, a demonstration of habituation that in turn implies learning dependent on memory of the repetitive input. Fetuses seem able to differentiate between the sounds of different persons’ speech and also show preference for their mother’s native language.”
Rose said, “Wow! That’s really interesting evidence!”
I said, “That’s not all. Experimenters have fed different sorts of food types to pregnant women. Their fetuses were therefore exposed to those food characteristic in the amniotic fluid. After birth, newborns so exposed were tested for their reaction to the taste of a range of foods, including both the ones previously fed to the mothers and to others that had not been fed to them. The fetuses were found to have developed a preference for the foods to which they had been exposed in utero. So, a fetus stores the receptions of the specific food tastes and smells, and this information is available after birth to influence the preferences of the child.”
“What about other evidence?”
“Fetuses’ heart rates increase when they are exposed to musical sounds to which they have not previously been exposed, but if exposed to those sounds repeatedly, the heart rates eventually return to the baseline. This response is carried over to music to which babies are exposed after birth. This phenomenon has been observed especially in regard to the theme music of popular television programs their mothers regularly watched during the last three months of pregnancy.” I stopped to organize the points I thought followed from this, but Rose had already anticipated them.
“So, when the developing fetus reaches the third trimester,” she concluded, “it begins to have something like preferences and a kind of memory. In this it is like the teenager but unlike fetuses at an earlier stage of development,” she said, excitedly.
“Right!” I said, “Habituation, and the receptive phenomena it contributes to, doesn’t occur before the twenty-third week of gestation. Now, why do you think this is important?”
Her brow knotted as she thought through the implications. “Well, for one thing, it is at that point that the fetus becomes more like adult humans, acquiring memories and preferences.”
“So?” I asked.
“So that process whereby we generate our lives—our hopes, plans, dreams, our experiences of doing good and bad things, of having good and bad things done to us—all begin at this point in gestation. That’s when we start to value some things and not value others!” Her voice rose with her excitement. “So, abortion before that point doesn’t kill a life that has begun, to put it simply. That is the point when life, not biological life but mental, emotional life, begins!”
I sat back in my chair. “So what is your conclusion from all that?” I said, hardly daring to breathe.
She said, “Abortion after the third trimester kills a human life, but before that it only ends the possibility of a human life. Earlier abortions, whether deliberate or spontaneous, are morally different than later abortions. Later abortions are murders!”
I said, “Well, perhaps you are right. Those conclusions certainly seem to follow from the facts we have been considering, along with other assumptions you have made all along: namely, that killing an innocent person (i.e., a person that bears you no ill will) is always murder. I’m not convinced of that, but that is another whole discussion. At least we can agree that, in light of the late-term fetus’s capacity for sensory reception, any abortion that occurs during this phase should be preceded by anesthesia of the fetus. We may not yet have evidence of the fetus’ capacity for experiencing pain, but certainly erring on the conservative side would be the most humane practice.”
Rose looked at me with a wide smile. “I feel like I have made some progress today,” she said. “Can I come back again?”
* * * * *
Mid-semester came, and I was not surprised when Rose showed up at my office door just as I was grading the midterm exams.
“Hi!” she said. “Do you have a few minutes?”
“I said, “Always time for you! Come in.”
She said, “I’ve brought someone to meet you.” And she stepped aside to reveal—a priest!
Searching my memory, I said, “And would you be Father Tom?”
He looked surprised then smiled. “Rose has told you about me!”
I said, “Only to refer to your homilies, from which she acquired some of her views about the moral issues in human reproduction.”
He replied, “And I gather that you disagree with some of those views?”
“Well,” I said, “I have had some difficulties squaring Catholic doctrines with what I have been learning from scientific sources.”
“Yes, I understand from Rose that you have had difficulties with some of the subtler concepts. She herself is now having difficulties with them, and I thought I could meet with both of you and try to make clearer and more evident some of the genuine truths of these matters.”
“Well, that is kind of you,” I said, struggling to keep the sarcasm from my voice, “although it would have been good to have a bit of advance warning. This is a conversation that I suspect won’t be over quickly, and there is this stack of midterm exams I have to grade.”
“If you’d prefer not to get into the matter, we can simply walk away from this meeting,” he said, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
“No, not at all. I’ve told Rose she’s welcome to come back anytime. I can make time for you both. Please, both of you, come in and sit.
“My guess,” I said, “is that you want to correct some of my statements about Catholic doctrine.”
Father Tom said, “Yes, that will do for starters.”
“Go ahead,” I said, “where have I got it wrong?”
He said, “In the first place, you seem to think that Catholic opposition to abortion rests on the supposition that the soul is present from fertilization on. Actually, it holds that ‘The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception, and therefore from that same moment his or her rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.’ That is taken literally from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s ‘Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day,’ first published in 1987 and written by our present Pope Benedict while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger.”
“Yes, I am familiar with that document,” I said, “and I found several things unclear in even that single statement you quoted.”
“Oh?” he queried. “What is unclear to you?”
I ignored the emphasis that suggested the lack of clarity was only in me, not in the document. “First,” I said, “You speak of ‘the moment of conception.’ But elsewhere in that ‘Instruction,’” I said, pulling down one of my readers and opening it to the second reading, “it quotes ‘The Declaration on Procured Abortion’: From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.’ So Catholic doctrines equate fertilization with conception.”
He interrupted. “That’s because they are the same!”
I observed, “Well, the language is really confusing, as I explored with Rose before. Because biologically, conception occurs when the fertilized ovum is implanted in the woman’s uterine wall. That’s when she has conceived, when she has become pregnant. And that distinction is important, since there are many cases in which fertilization takes place but conception never follows.” I warmed to the task. “In fact, in most cases in which fertilization takes place, conception never follows, simply as a function of the natural course of events.”
“Nonetheless,” he replied, “the determination of whether a particular conception will go to term is not ours to make. Our duty is to protect this child from its earliest possible moments, to assume the responsibility of every parent to give the child love and nurture since we have brought it into existence by our own actions.” Father Tom sat back, smiling in his irritatingly confident way.
“As Rose has probably told you, I have great difficulty identifying the product of fertilization as an individual child. Two problems with that identification seem to me to loom: the problem of twinning and the problem of fusion of embryos.”
Father Tom smiled. “Ah, yes, Rose said you had difficulty dealing with those in the context of Catholic doctrine.”
“And you don’t?” I queried rhetorically.
“Not at all. In the case of twinning, the original events of fertilization are either accompanied by infusion of two souls into the product of fertilization, or, when twinning occurs, the original individual is destroyed as the split of the morula into two occurs, and an event very much like the original fertilization event occurs with a soul infused into each of the twins at this point. I favor the former because it gives an explanation of the event of twinning as predestined from the initial event of fertilization: the presence of two souls in the single fertilized ovum necessitates the twinning. In the other alternative, the event of twinning becomes a chance event that would not account for the regularity of the occurrence of twins nearly as well.” Father Tom leaned forward. “So, you see, twinning not only is not a problem for the Catholic view, it actually is evidence for it, since the supposition of two souls at the point of fertilization explains and predicts the twinning event to come.”
“And I suppose you posit a similar explanation for the phenomenon of fusion?” I was sure he would give a similar answer.
“Well, that is a greater challenge,” he said, growing more serious. “The phenomena that you identify as fusion of pre-embryos are the result of speculation about the presence in individual humans of cells that have different DNA from those in the rest of the body. The supposition that they are the result of fusion of two pre-embryos is only one possibility. Others include that pluripotent cells that have originated in a pre-embryo became detached from it and then incorporated into the individual in which this mosaic of cells is later found. Their origin may well have been a pre-embryo whose soul the Heavenly Father decided to recall.”
I thought for a moment, then said, “Let me see if I understand you. You explain twinning as predestined by the Divine Will from before the events of fertilization are completed. Predestination is manifested by infusion of two (or in the rare case of identical triplets, three) souls into the product of fertilization. What transpires thereafter is under the control, if you will, of these souls, involved somehow in directing the developmental processes so that, at some point in the first couple of weeks, the bundle of dividing cells itself divides into two or more separate bundles, each of which possesses its own soul that continues to direct the process of hominization—of making this bundle into a being with all the properties of a human.”
The good Father looked surprised. “So you do understand the Catholic teachings after all!”
I went on. “And as for what I have called fusion, you acknowledge the existence of mosaicism, of humans with cells and tissues that do not originate from the original union of ‘its’ sperm and egg progenitors, but you consider it at least possible that the fusion was not between two pre-embryos but rather between one pre-embryo and pluripotent cells from another morula. This would be closely analogous to the transplantation of an organ from one human to another: such transplantation results in an individual with cells having distinct genetic identities. I suppose you find the other alternative, that of fusion of two morulas, to be less attractive because of the difficulties of accounting for the numerical identity with their ‘predecessors’?”
“Well,” Father Tom observed, “those difficulties are not insurmountable on a fusion hypothesis. We could well suppose that, just as in the case of twinning, a predestination of the fusion was already planned as part of the Divine Plan. In that case, the fusion would result either in the release of one soul to return to Heaven, or the release of both souls, with a new soul being infused to direct the hominization of what you call the human-human chimera.”
“So how do you decide between the two possible ‘Catholic’ explanations?” I asked.
“The Holy Father, and his College of Cardinals, have yet to pronounce on that issue,” Father Tom said, evincing a bit of discomfort.
“Now,” I began, “these explanations are not decided by papal infallibility, are they?”
“No,” the priest replied, “while they are the teachings of the Church, they are the result of deliberation about matters of fact as they become presented to us by science and experience.”
“And would you say,” I went on, “that continued deliberation about additional facts might alter these teachings, perhaps even radically, should those teachings not hold up against additional facts and discoveries?”
“That’s highly unlikely,” he replied, “as these teachings have been refined over hundreds of years as additional related facts have become known to us.”
“But not impossible?”
“No, I suppose it is possible the Church might have to revise its teachings about procreation in some of their details. But so much of the Catholic position on the sanctity of human life, and of our obligation to preserve it, is central to the Church that I find it hard to imagine a wholesale revision,” he finished.
“Perhaps Rose has told you about my proposed ‘crucial experiment’ regarding twinning and cloning?”
“Yes,” he said, “I thought it rather fanciful.”
“That’s hardly the judgment I’d expect,” I said, “given that one conceivable result of the experiment would completely refute the Catholic position on the doctrine of souls and its role in securing the Church’s positions opposing abortion and cloning.”
“Perhaps you’d better explain that,” Father Tom said. I thought I detected reluctance in his voice, as though he didn’t want my explanation at all. But maybe that was just my imagination.
“I think there are a number of related crucial experiments that might settle the matters, or at least constitute strong evidence for one set of positions or another. Suppose that restrictions on experimenting with fertilized human ova were raised just for the purpose of resolving these issues. Suppose that the American Fertility Society were to propose a set of carefully designed experiments on fertilized ova that involved seeing if the dividing bundles of early cells can be artificially split so as to produce twins, or artificially fused so as to produce human mosaics, what we call human-human chimeras. As Rose challenged when I first raised this idea with her, I and my kind would have to give up the notion that the processes that account for these processes of twinning and mosaicism are readily accounted for by essentially chemico-mechanical processes if artificial twinning and creation of mosaic humans were not possible, and you and your kind would have to seriously rethink the doctrine that in humans it is the soul and divine predestination that account for these natural phenomena.”
“The Church would never agree to that, nor do I think our government would,” the priest frowned, “for that is a most exploitative human experimentation on innocent and helpless individuals who cannot give their consent.”
“It is,” I agreed, “given the truth of your views. But were my views to hold up to such experimentation, no individuals would be deprived of life or opportunity, because individuation—the point after which numerical individuality is set—would not yet have occurred. And, since you grant that the Church’s position is not one of declared infallibility, and since the matter is so important, why wouldn’t the Church assent to such an experiment as a source of evidence relevant to establishing the truth of these matters. Call me the Devil’s Advocate, if you will, but it seems to me the Church cannot have it both ways: it cannot declare the matter of human individuation and ensoulment settled as occurring at the point when fertilization is completed if an experiment is conceivable whose outcome might put the Church’s position in doubt.”
“But the Church is clear on the necessity to hold to the dignity and worth of every human being. What you propose is a monstrous assault on the dignity of the very subjects of your proposed experiment!” Father Tom was visibly angry.
“I apologize if I offend you,” I said. “We are, for the moment at least, performing thought experiments. As one who has yet to accept the teachings of the Church, I am in a phase of questioning, and my reference to the Devil’s Advocate tradition of the church was intended to indicate that even in the Church’s epistemology, such questioning has a place.”
Father Tom relaxed somewhat. “I think I need some direction from our Bishop on these issues,” he said carefully. “It is not my prerogative to engage in these kinds of speculations without the Bishop’s permission.”
“Of course, of course,” I said, “by all means do discuss our talk with the Bishop. I have found him always supportive of what I have asked Catholics to do in my class debates, even when I have assigned them the role of defending the pro-choice position or the pro-elective death position.”
Father Tom looked surprised. “I knew the Bishop was somewhat liberal,” he said, “but I never would have supposed he encouraged the defense of abortion or euthanasia.”
“Let me be more precise. When students have taken my classes, I often have assigned them the task of defending views that they don’t share, as a way both of achieving better understanding of those views and challenging the strength of their own beliefs. This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s doctrine that its teachings must be capable of withstanding the challenge of opposing views if they are to survive.
“The thought experiment I have proposed seems to me to fall within that tradition. The results would indeed be momentous. Should they establish that the kinds of manipulation that have already been successfully done with nonhuman animals, such as cloning, were impossible with humans, the Church’s position that there is something special about the human organism that cannot readily be accounted for through naturalistic explanations that do not involve reference to efficient actions of super-natural entities, the opposition to cloning, abortion, and other forms of artificial manipulation of pre-embryos would be enormously strengthened.” I left the consequences of the alternative outcome unstated.
“Well,” the priest said, “perhaps we’d better let you get back to your paper grading.” He looked at Rose expectantly. “Shall we depart?”
Rose, who had been attentive to our discussion but had so far not said anything, began, “There is one other issue that came up in discussion with Dr. Phil the last time I was here that I’d appreciate your addressing.”
Father Tom settled back with a sigh. “Of course, Rose. We are here because of your doubts. If they have not all been resolved, by all means let us hear you out.”
Rose began. “When talking with Dr. Phil last month, he identified one of my concerns as ‘the paradox of the heap.’ Do you know what that is?”
“Of course,” Father Tom said, “all the paradoxes and fallacies were covered thoroughly in my Jesuit training. They are all pitfalls for correct thinking, and the Church teaches that we must scrupulously avoid them lest we fall into errors of belief.”
Rose went on. “I am bothered by a consequence of the notion that humans have evolved from ‘lower’ animals. Specifically, how could the first humans have been produced naturally if their parents didn’t have souls? Evolution proceeds through the accumulation of small changes in the genome, so the difference between the first humans and their parents cannot have been all that great. That’s like saying a collection of grains of sand that we would not regard as a heap suddenly becomes a heap with the addition of one more grain. Or,” she said, “like saying a man with three hairs on his head is bald, but one who manages to grow more hairs suddenly becomes no longer bald when just one more hair is added.”
Father Tom looked exasperated. “Rose, as I have said to you before, some of these questions require a leap of faith in order to be resolved. St. Augustine once said, ‘credo, ut intelligam’; believe, then you will understand.”
Rose said, “I understand that some truths may be revealed at a given time only through religious belief, but shouldn’t they ultimately be capable of answer through the application of reason? Isn’t it the Church’s teaching that faith and reason are both paths to the same truth? What seems impossible to me is to suppose simultaneously that the first humans, call them ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve,’ had souls, but that their parents did not. Would that not be an incredible development, literally impossible without an act of special creation? Their parents developed perfectly well without the guidance of souls, yet the Church’s position is that hominization—the transformation of the developing organism into a human being—requires a soul to direct and orchestrate that transformation.”
Father Tom looked a bit sad. “Rose, Rose, I sometimes despair of your ever resolving your doubts. When I try to resolve one, another springs up. It’s a bit like pulling weeds from a garden; the seeds seem ever present no matter how much cultivation is done.”
I must confess to a bit of schadenfreude at that point, seeing the sincere priest squirm under Rose’s probing. But that’s the lot of all who presume to teach others, finding themselves sometimes inadequate to the task. I moved to end the discussion. “Well, I really do need to get these papers graded and returned to my students. This has been a most interesting discussion, and I hope we can continue it at a future time.”
Rose’s eyes were shining. I found myself wondering if this mature woman was on her way to becoming a philosophy major, or, since I knew so little about her past, whether she had been one at one time. “You need have no worry,” she said with a smile, “I shall return, and I hope Father Tom does too.”
I looked at the priest. I’m sure that the sound he made was not a groan, but one of those we all make when we are not sure we want to continue a conversation. Then he said, “Well, perhaps.”
* * * * *
Richard Hull is Profesor of Philosophy Emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo, former Director of Development at Center for Inquiry/Transnational in Amherst, founder of CFI/ Community of Tallahassee, and a board member of the Humanist of Florida Association. He delivered earlier versions of this dialogue in talks at the thirtieth anniversary celebration for the Council for Secular Humanism in 2006, the Austin and Southern Arizona CFI Communities, and at other secular humanist groups in Dallas, San Marcos, and Atlanta.
This article has been expanded from an initial version published in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Free Inquiry. The episode on the second day of the dialogue was coauthored by Paul S. Penner, who has a PhD in philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the author of the book Altruistic Behavior: An Inquiry into Motivation (Editions Rodopi, 1995) and the coauthor, with Richard Hull, of “The Beginning of Individual Human Personhood,” forthcoming in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy.