It's Ensoulment, Not 'Life': Why That Distinction Matters

A recent post about the idiocy in Fairfax County regarding a student who was expelled for two weeks because she took birth control pills during school received some great comments. But as you might expect, with enough comments, one of the 'contraception is abortion' morons showed up (can't you morons leave me alone during my vacation?). Ordinarily, I would have let the commentors administer an ass kicking (which they did very well). But when the commenter wrote:

I just wanted to remind readers that some believe life begins at conception (and that it doesn't get a postmodernist exemption to protection of an individual's right to life) don't get to bring that kind of garbage here without a response.

First, thanks for 'reminding' us: because no one who has been sentient during the last three decades is aware that some people think abortion is wrong. Really. What would we do without you?

Anyway, onto the whole "life begins at contraception" hooey. The short version is: no, it doesn't--eggs and sperm are alive you twit. It's not like the egg is dead, and only Magic Sperm Power is able to bring it back to life. It's alive. In fact, many organisms spend most of their time in the haploid phase (half of the 'usual' chromosome complement), just as eggs and sperm do. Clearly, they're not dead (or stunned).

When you hear someone claim that "life begins as contraception", what they really mean is that ensoulment--the entry of the 'divine spark' to use Emerson's phrase--occurs at contraception. Of course, like most theopolitical conservatives, they lack the balls to admit that they are trying to force specific sectarian dogma down others' throats* (actually, it's not the throat, is it...). Instead, they use phrases like "life begins at contraception" that sound good, but, upon further examination, really make no sense at all.

The religion issue brings me to the next claim of "it doesn't get a postmodernist exemption to protection of an individual's right to life." I find this rather ironic--it definitely puts the lie to the phrase "Judeo-Christian." In Judaism, all denominations and rabbinic opinions are absolutely clear: for the first month, the embryo is considered "as water." Moreover, ensoulment does not occur until quickening. Again, this is not a debated point (some of the circumstances under which abortion can occur are debated**, but this debate occurs in the context that ensoulment does not happen until quickening).

These theological underpinnings are centuries old. They are certainly not 'post-modernist.' Hell, by definition, they're not even modern. I realize that for theopolitical conservatives 'post-modernist' is the new secular humanist, but, believe it or not, religions actually have different opinions on when ensoulment occurs.

This, of course, leaves only one option: extermination of the heretic apostates.
(Kidding. The Mad Biologist definitely does not approve of such things.)

Which leads to a final point. "Life begins at contraception" is a metaphysical concept (and if one doesn't believe in metaphysics, this is akin to the Easter Bunny, except that there's no chocolate involved). Of course, one could attempt to 'modernize' the notion of ensoulment by arguing that a rudimentary nervous system might constitute human life in some sort of experiential sense. Incidentally, that means 'life begins' at around the third trimester, which is kinda like that whole Roe v. Wade compromise (and, yes, it is a compromise). But I can come up with reasons for why that's a poor definition too.

But the point is this: "life begins at contraception" is a religious phrase, the goal of which is to hide that it is based in sectarian dogma.

And it's pretty fucking ignorant of biology too. On that note, I leave you with this:

*If you hold this belief, and only think it should apply to you--that is, you don't want to use government coercion to impose this religious belief on others, I have no argument with you. I disagree, but that's your business, not mine.

**What many theopolitical conservatives don't realize--and, again, there is uniform halachic consensus on this--in Judaism, there are situations where the ethical position is to have an abortion. To not do so (i.e., if a doctor were to choose the fetus over the mother) is tantamount to murder of the woman.

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"life begins at contraception" is an interesting phrase, but not what I think you meant to write.

Great post, MtMB. I completely missed the 'life begins at contraception' line, though. I read it as conception because that it what I expected it to say!

By ctenotrish (not verified) on 10 Apr 2009 #permalink

It's interesting how the term "soul" has evolved (heh!). Paul and Mark use the word "psyche" in a sense of "self", while they use the word "Pneuma" in a sense of "spirit" (as in a spirited horse). Paul makes a clear distinction in 1 Corinthians 15:44, which has been hidden in most English translations:

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body.

The actual term he uses for "natural body" is "soma psychikon" ("Ïῶμα ÏÏÏικόν"); the term for "spiritual body" is "soma pneumatikon" ("Ïῶμα ÏνεÏμαÏικόν"). Mathew, Luke, and John also mostly do so, although there are a few references to references to ghosts as "pneumas" (Mark calls them phantasms). How many modern Christians even realize Paul made a distinction, much less make one themselves.

The fact that the meaning of these words has changed so much since those times makes the whole idea of "ensoulment" silly.

On a more scientific note, I'll point out that even when they are born, human neonates lack many neural connections in the brain, as well as the majority of myelin. It's hard to believe that even a newborn has a "self" with a brain so lacking in capacity.

Incidentally, "Judeo-Christian" wasn't invented until the US Army decided to integrate the military so that Jews and Gentiles could serve together.

The term has found later use to suggest (falsely) that Jews and Christians worship the same God, just like they pretend all Christians worship the same God.

Of course, one could attempt to 'modernize' the notion of ensoulment by arguing that a rudimentary nervous system might constitute human life in some sort of experiential sense. Incidentally, that means 'life begins' at around the third trimester...

I don't believe in 'souls', but I do believe in consciousness, however the brain manages it. And I actually do think that has consequences relevant to abortion.

On what do you base your estimate of "in some sort of experiential sense... 'life begins' at around the third trimester"? (Note: I'm not challenging it, and from what little I understand of neurology and embryology it sounds right-ish, I just want to know what supports that.)

Which raises an interesting biology question: are there any examples in the animal kingdom of species that spend much of their time in the haploid phase? (That's not relevant to the philosophical point Mike makes. It's perfectly correct to point out that eggs and sperm are complete, living human organisms.)

Mad Biologist - I'm not interested in trying to defend the moral views of those on whome you are heaping such scorn, but I think that you know perfectly well that whan the "pro-life" people say "life begins at conception" what they mean is that the life of a particular organism begins at conception, not that life per se begins then. So you're taking a really cheap shot here.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 10 Apr 2009 #permalink

If one considers neural development in the determination of the moment of ensoulment, how about the case of anencephaly? For those not stillborn, are they born without a soul?

>>the life of a particular organism begins at conception, >>not that life per se begins then

This of course isn't true either. In one out of about 800 human conceptions, up to the 14th day post conception, the zygote or embryo can split producing twins. Their individual lives did not begin at conception.


[... A]re there any examples in the animal kingdom of species that spend much of their time in the haploid phase?

Yes, almost all males of the insect order Hymenoptera are haploid. I had thought it was all males, but my Google search for ref's brought up Functionally reproductive diploid and haploid males in an inbreeding hymenopteran with complementary sex determination. From the abstract (emphasis mine):

It has become a matter of orthodoxy that among wasps, ants, bees, and other insects in the order Hymenoptera, only uniparental haploid males that arise from unfertilized eggs are capable of reproduction. This idea is of interest because the best understood and perhaps most widespread sex determination system among these insects [known as single locus complementary sex determination (sl-CSD)] does not depend on ploidy alone and, paradoxically, consistently results in small numbers of diploid biparental males. To date, the reproductive potential of diploid males has been studied in 13 of the perhaps 200,000 hymenopterans world-wide; in each of these instances, the diploid males are genetic dead ends because they are inviable or sterile. The data from these species have resulted in a general conclusion that has been invoked for virtually all species with sl-CSD and has become the basis for assumptions regarding conservation biology, sex ratio analysis, and the evolution of social behavior. Here, we report that in the solitary vespid wasp Euodynerus foraminatus, both diploid and haploid males are fertile, which documents normal fertility in diploid males of a hymenopteran with sl-CSD. This wasp has high levels of inbreeding because of frequent brotherâsister mating in nature; therefore, diploid males are more frequently produced and thus more likely exposed to selection favoring their fertility. Because inbreeding and diploid male production may be important features of the population biology of many hymenopterans, we sound a cautionary note regarding ideas about the evolutionary ecology of these insects.

AK, thank you! That's a lovely bit of biology.

It should be noted that the Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, also believed that ensoulment occurred at quickening.

Incidentally, "Judeo-Christian" wasn't invented until the US Army decided to integrate the military so that Jews and Gentiles could serve together.

Eh? That's a new etymology (to me).

The OED has documented uses of the term (and similar) dating back to c.1900 in a history-of-religion context. So yes, it's only been around for c.100 years (and its meaning has apparently shifted a bit as well?), but the army didn't invent it. The army might have popularized its usage, but again, I've never before heard of an army connection with the term.

As well as twins etc, if one is to consider the matter thoroughly one should also look at artificial clones. Any rational definition of an individual needs to cope with clones, tissue cultures, organ transplants, amputations, physically and mentally disabled, and should also incorporate a definition of death.

To me, it seems clear that the most important thing is the mind. If a human organism has something like a mind it's a living individual, deserving of protection as such. If it doesn't, then it's just a bunch of cells.

Exactly when a fetus reaches this stage is difficult to say and we should probably err on the side of caution but clearly a newly fertilised embryo does not have anything remotely resembling a mind.

Still waiting on some serious search-and-replace on those Freudian slips in aisles 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13, Mike.

Interesting word: ensoulment. Never actually read that before that I can recall. As an atheist, talk of ensoulment just does not arise very often. For me it has no personal meaning whatsoever.

The state-sponsored enslavement of women as child bearing equipment however requires the absence of some soul in the proponents. The recent case in Brazil where a nine year old rape victim and her doctors were excommunicated for aborting the fetus she carried shows the depths to which theocratic definers of life's beginnings can sink. To condone this or situations like it is to negate all humanity in the one condoning.

Life begins when the host carrier says so or when the child she carries is born. Talk of quickening and trimesters enslaves the woman carrying the potential life within her.

If a fetus is a person, then to deny women the right to abort a fetus is to deny women the right of self defense. If people are allowed to kill an invader of our home, surely we are allowed to kill "someone" who has taken up residence against our will inside our body and is stealing our very substance.

Why do you think women fear their own children so much, as to call them invaders, and enslavers? What have we really done to our women to make them feel that their own bodies are something to be feared and controlled? Maybe a lie by the men using them, and the industry making money off of their fear. Do the math 3500-3700 abortions a day at $250-$450 each, 365 days a year, $607,725,000 planned parenthood's claim, not mine, look it up. The money makers bring in all kinds of lame excuses to back themselves up to make it look like that little ball of cells, with HUMAN parent contributors, with unique DNA isn't what we all know it is, cause if they told the simple biological truth they would lose their money. I don't have to come up with complicated answers as to why a human is one even when it's small, simple logic does it, but you all have to go on and on with all kinds of careless theories and sentences by people who wouldn't understand science if it was in cartoon form. Slavery doesn't come through the magic of a new human growing inside your body, slavery comes through destroying that human. Wake up women! I'm not afraid of my uterus or the people that live there, 10 so far, all beautiful people.

My reference is to your statement:
'Anyway, onto the whole "life begins at contraception" hooey.'

I believe you meant to say "conception". Contraception refers to methods to prevent conception.

I was happy to read the truth about ensoulment.