Time for a rational debate on when human life begins


When does human life begin? For most of the last millennium the Vatican did not hold that it begins at conception, writes Patsy McGarry

It is 137 years since the Catholic Church adopted its current teaching on abortion. Then, in his 1869 document Apostolicae Sedis, Pope Pius IX enacted the penalty of excommunication for abortion at any stage of pregnancy. For the previous 278 years, and following Pope Gregory XIV's Sedes Apostolica document in 1591, such excommunication only applied where abortion took place after "quickening", ie from those moments when a mother first detected the foetus move.

Pope Gregory determined quickening at just over 16 weeks (166 days) of pregnancy. Prior to quickening "no homicide" was involved if abortion took place, he concluded. In 1588, just three years previously, Pope Sixtus V issued the Papal Bull Effraenatum which decreed that those who carried out abortions at any stage of pregnancy should be excommunicated and should also be punished by civil authorities (with the death penalty). For the 377 years previous to that, and since 1211 when Pope Innocent III issued the decree Sicut ex, excommunications applied as it had before 1869 - when an abortion took place after "quickening".

So, for the greater part of the last millennium the Catholic Church did not hold that human life began at conception - its current teaching.

Indeed its adoption of that teaching in 1869 was dictated, not so much by a decision on when human life began, as by the dogma of the Immaculate Conception promulgated by Pius IX in 1854. It teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin.

In 1701 Pope Clement XI had declared the Immaculate Conception a feast of universal obligation. He settled the feast date at December 8th, exactly nine months prior to the feast of Mary's birth on September 8th.

It meant the church believed Mary's sinless soul came into being at the moment of her conception. When in 1854 Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the church, he stated that Mary had been free from sin "in the first instant of her conception". In 1869, therefore, he was being consistent with that teaching when he revived the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy. (This, by the way, was the same Pope who in 1870 promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility).

Among those who disagree with the teaching that human life begins at conception are some of the most eminent thinkers in Catholic history. These include at least three of its 33 "super saints" - Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, all of whom are Doctors of the Church.

St Jerome (died 420) wrote, in his Epistle, "the seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [ abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs". St Augustine (died 430) wrote in On Exodus that early abortion should not be regarded "as homicide, for there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not yet being fully formed". He also believed that ensoulment (whereby the foetus is infused with a soul and so becomes human) took place at 40 days after conception for males and 80 days for females.

St Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) held that "the vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without [ ie by God]".

This view was confirmed as Catholic dogma by the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has not since been officially repudiated by Rome. Aquinas also believed the human soul was present 40 days after conception for a male and 90 days for a female. This was in accordance with the theories of Greek philosopher Aristotle and was understood to mean that early abortion was not homicide, since it did not involve killing a person. Aristotle's views (as with Augustine and Aquinas) on differing gestation periods for male and female were based on a belief that males were more active and so quicker to develop and obtain a soul.

Outside Catholicism, within Christianity as with other religions, abortion is seen as (reluctantly) permissible for a range of reasons, generally in the first three months of pregnancy. This includes the Protestant churches, Judaism and Islam. In spite of this, it is extreme elements in the Catholic Church and, particularly in the US, fundamentalist Protestantism which have dominated public debate on this issue, often employing tactics and language which amount to incitement. Last month in a local newspaper the Bishop of Rockford, Illinois, Dr Thomas Doran, wrote: "We know, for instance, that adherents of one political party [ Democratic Party] would place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people ... The seven 'sacraments' of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation ... Since the mid-1940s we have been accustomed to look askance at Germans. They were protagonists of the Second World War and so responsible for 50 million deaths. We say, 'How awful,' and yet in our country we have, for the most part, allowed the party of death and the court system it has produced to eliminate, since 1973, upwards of 40 million of our fellow citizens without allowing them to see the light of day. They have done their best to make ours a true culture of death. No doubt, we shall soon outstrip the Nazis in doing human beings to death."

The High Court in Dublin has been considering the issue of when human life begins in a case (adjourned to next month) in which a woman is seeking the return to her of her three embryos in frozen storage.

And we have seen Youth Defence get into action once more. In recent weeks they have produced posters and pamphlets depicting an infant and the statement "Don't Use Me For Spare Parts". The implication is an outrageous misrepresentation of the views of those who disagree with Youth Defence's conviction that human life begins at conception, suggesting that what is favoured instead is infanticide, which is murder. It is to be hoped the Advertising Standards Authority will take notice.

What is needed in the context of developing biotechnology/bioethics is a calm, rational debate on when human life begins, not gratuitous provocation which serves only to inflame.