Abortion, Heartbeats, and Souls

Have you see those pictures anti-abortion protesters carry, the ones of aborted fetuses? The idea is to show, graphically, that a fetus looks like a little person, not a blob of cells (note: these images are often fraudulent, purporting to show a fetus at a certain number of weeks but actually showing a much older fetus). The idea behind showing women ultrasounds before letting them have an abortion is the same, as is the idea behind talking about when the heart starts beating and brainwaves start. The same with wearing that little feet pin that used to be ubiquitous:

But there’s something funny going on here, and it’s pretty obvious when you think about it. You see, it’s not really about whether the zygote or fetus has toenails or kidneys or a beating heart. If it was, anti-abortion activists would be totally comfortable with abortion when the zygote looks like this:

While they may be a few exceptions, anti-abortion activists are almost always against abortion from the moment the egg is fertilized. The next time someone talks to you about how it “has a heartbeat” or how it “has fingers,” ask if it’s okay to abort it before it has those things. Anti-abortion activists may talk about how the fetus looks like a person, but they’re almost always against abortion from the very beginning – and even against birth control drugs that (they believe, often mistakenly) prevent a fertilized egg from implanting.

This is why I think we need to strip away all of that talk of fingers and toes and heartbeats and get to what lies beneath it. The vast, vast majority of anti-abortion advocates have a problem with abortion because they believe the zygote/fetus has a soul. When I was anti-abortion myself, I believed that God placed a soul in the zygote at the moment of fertilization. Anything that killed a fertilized egg killed a little person. That is the foundation here. 

(Note: try asking someone who makes this argument about twins, which split sometimes days after the moment of fertilization. I thought about this in my anti-abortion days and concluded that God placed two souls in a zygote that was going to become twins, and that the existence of two souls in one zygote was why it split into twins. I don’t think most anti-abortion activists have thought it through this far, though.)

One thing that I have found true about many – though not all – religious believers is that there is a desire for absolutes, for black and white. This world is a complicated place often fraught with shades of gray, and religion often offers simple answers to complex and difficult questions. Believing that the soul enters at the moment of fertilization is easy to explain, easy to understand, and easy to lay claim to. This makes the argument very appealing, as simple answers in a complex world often are.

So if it’s really all about the soul, why the talk of fingers and toes? Two reasons, I think.

First, anti-abortion activists know that talking about the “soul” is a no no because it’s a religious argument. They can’t use it in public debate, though they can use it when they argue with other religious people. The discussion of heartbeats and fingernails, however, is something they can take into the public square, and it can inject a lot of emotion into the issue. (See, how could anyone kill that?)

Second, the whole fingers and toes thing helps to reinforce their belief that the soul is implanted at the moment of fertilization. How could you look at that little thing with a heartbeat and fingernails, after all, and think it didn’t have a soul?

Anti-abortion activists will often try to mix the soul argument with an argument about the zygote having its own “unique DNA.” These arguments become so entwined they almost become the same, and the benefit of the DNA argument is that it can be couched in scientific, rather than religious, terms. Of course, the obvious flaw in this argument is that cancer also has its own unique DNA, etc.

The next time you encounter an anti-abortion activist who talks about when the heartbeat begins or when the fetus gets fingernails, ask if they’re okay with abortion before those moments. If you ask the right questions, you’ll probably bring the anti-abortion activist to admit what’s at the core: the soul.

Because the argument from the soul is a religious argument, there is virtually no way to at that point. Short of persuading the person that there is no such thing as a soul, you’re not really going to get anywhere. There are a couple of other tactics available, though.

First, the Bible is by no means clear on the soul entering the zygote at the moment of conception. In fact, it’s exceptionally unclear and actually seems to contradict that idea in several points. There are plenty of Christians who absolutely do not believe that the soul enters at the moment of conception. Perhaps this will be the topic of some future posts.

Second, while this may be less effective you can at least point out that even religions that believe in a soul disagree on when the soul enters the body. Catholics used to believe that the soul entered at the moment of conception. Jews have always believed that the soul enters at the moment the newborn baby takes its first breath, since in Genesis God “breathed into man the breath of life.” I’m sure there are other examples as well.

But what this reality makes clear is that advocating the banning of abortion based on the ensoulment of the zygote really is about pushing specific religious beliefs on the general public in an area where there is disagreement even among religious believers. It points out dramatically why the argument from the soul is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state – it’s not just secular individuals verses religious individuals, but rather one group of religious individuals verses secular individuals and other groups of religious individuals. And it was, quite simply, why the founders enshrined separation of church and state – to keep one religious group’s beliefs from being pushed on every other religious group.

Here is an interesting comparison. Hindus believe very strongly that cows are sacred animals and must not be killed. That my look silly to those in western cultures, but they believe it devoutly. So if we had a strong contingent of Hindus here, would we be okay with them arguing that we should ban the killing of cows? No, of course not! Hindus are free to not kill cows themselves, but since not killing cows is based on their religious beliefs and we hold very different beliefs, they have no right to force the rest of us to stop killing cows.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Steve

    Some Jews are pretty serious about the limb thing, since 40 days is around the time arms and legs become clearly recognizable. Their rules are often also silly, but unlike Christianity you can often see an attempt to be practical. At least among non-Orthodox Jews

  • Contrarian

    I believe Augustine argued that the soul entered the child at quickening, did he not?

    • Anders

      Yes! The soul enters the body when they first cut of another Immortal’s head in combat… :)

      On a more serious note, I think you are right. I haven’t read St. Augustine in a long time but I seem to remember something like that.

      Also, there’s an even better thing that can happen with fetuses. Not only can they split, they can merge – something called chimerism. I couldn’t find any figures on it, but it’s not terribly rare. So, if two fetuses with two souls merge… what happens? Does one soul go directly to Hell? Does it disappear? Or does a chimera have two souls?

    • Skjaere

      I remember reading somewhere recently that Catholics believed the soul entered the body at “quickening” as well. With recently scientific advances, I don’t think anyone adheres to that argument anymore. It’s a really arbitrary milestone, and it’s easy to prove that a fetus can move on its own long before the mother ever feels it. But of course current conservative politicians would have us believe that Christians have always believed life begins at the moment of conception. It’s so easy to re-write history when no one knows it.

      • kisekileia

        I would be extremely surprised if that’s still official Catholic doctrine, since the Catholic Church hierarchy opposes abortion from the moment of fertilization.

  • lizdamnit

    Oh, my, just had this discussion of the foot-pins with Mr Lizdamnit. He hasn’t run into many pro-life activists personally, and almost didn’t believe me when I related that neat little synecdoche trick. Designed to trigger maternal impulses and shut down critical thought, since goodness knows women don’t think and we can be swayed by cuteness .

    As offensive as I find a lot of anti-choice materials, it’s the insistence on the cutsey visual rhetoric that gets under my skin most.

    Anyway, as you state, the heartbeats, nails, and gold baby toes are a dodge, and it comes down to ensoulment, “It points out dramatically why the argument from the soul is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state”. If someone can’t personally stomach the idea of contraception (preventative thru abortion), well, ok, fine, I hope you can support the kid. There’s simply no reason to impose this on anyone else – if a child is so precious, why try to cast it as a punishment on a “sinful” woman? Why not encourage only the “virtuous” to have kids, and sponsor contraception for those less “worthy” (which I would find reprehensible, but at least it makes weird sense with the “every pregnancy is precious” idea).

  • http://spacemandan.net Dan Gerhards

    It might be a good time to mention that even the bible does not always view a fetus as a human being:

    “If men quarrel, and one strike a woman with child, and she miscarry indeed, but live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman’s husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award. But if her death ensue thereupon, he shall render life for life.”

    Some translations use “mischief” instead of “her death”, but they all say that a life is given for a life. Not for a miscarriage though. That only rates a fine. Apparently, no life was lost in that case.

    • kisekileia

      There’s also Psalm 139, which describes a person being “knit together in his mother’s womb”. Any knitter knows that ripping out a few rows of knitting isn’t the same as ripping out a whole sweater. Reading that psalm, as well as the passage in Exodus 21 where the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry strongly suggested that the miscarriage was not viewed as a fully human person being killed, was how I as a Christian became pro-choice.

      • loraann

        are you serious kisekileia with your Psalm 139 reference? The Psalm states the Lord knew you BEFORE you were born while you were being formed in your mother’s womb! Life begins, at the least, with conception.

    • kisekileia

      And the Exodus 21 passage was what you just quoted. Sorry, it took me a second to realize that.

  • Anat

    Second, while this may be less effective you can at least point out that even religions that believe in a soul disagree on when the soul enters the body. Catholics used to believe that the soul entered at the moment of conception. Jews have always believed that the soul enters at the moment the newborn baby takes its first breath, since in Genesis God “breathed into man the breath of life.” I’m sure there are other examples as well.

    Apparently it was a common ancient belief that breathing equaled having a soul. The word ‘spirit’ has to do with respiration. In Hebrew all the words for soul/spirit – nefesh, ruah, neshama – have to do with breath and other movements of air. Dying is described as ‘blowing one’s breath away’. Also notice the English ‘expire’.

  • Garrett

    Just started following your blog (thanks PZ)and I really like your posts, and the one above is no exception. My mother is a die hard anti-abortionist and I’m a closet atheist, so stuff like this really helps me out. Now I’m gonna have to get up to speed on that whole subject of ensoulment. Off to Wikipedia I go …

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Wow, Libby, I really like your Hindu/cow example. It illustrates the point very well. I might steal it! :-)

    • Libby Anne

      Glad to see you here, PP! And as for the Hindu cow example – it just came to me out of the blue as I was writing, and I’m going to make sure to remember it too! I mean, they think cows are reincarnated people, right (along with basically all other living creatures)? I’m not seeing a lot of difference!

  • Makoto

    I think more people need to post their sonograms, or especially the 3D sonograms. Those things look so creepy. Whenever I show one to an unsuspecting person, their immediate response is “Kill it! Kill it with fire!”. So – post more sonograms, and we can easily overcome the stupid fake feet pins and such. That will help people realize that fetus is to person as acorn is to oak tree, I hope. Potential, yes, but not the same as the end result.

    • Contrarian

      Somebody should make a bumper sticker with a sonogram of a 6-week fetus on it, with the caption “I’m a choice, not a child!”

      • Makoto

        Or “I’m potential, not a person”

    • Libby Anne

      I have to say…first trimester ultrasounds are just, weird. They don’t look like little people. They move around, yes, but they’re not “cute.”

      • cactusren

        My sister just got a sonogram done at about 8 weeks, and said it looked like “a gummy bear with a heartbeat”. I haven’t seen the pictures yet, but having taken courses in anatomy/development, that sounds about right to me (short limb buds, but no distinct limbs or fingers/toes yet). Love the idea of posting lots of sonogram pictures!

      • minuteye

        Yeah… human embryos go through some very non-human-looking stages. “Your baby has fingernails!”, yeah, it also has a tail, how cute is that?

    • kevinkirkpatrick

      A related thought – post a series of 10 pictures of 6-week human, dog, cat, horse, cow, chimp, etc. and say, “which one is a person?”

      • cactusren

        I’ve thought of making a poster like that to take to anti-abortion protests and quiz people with. If you can’t tell the human embryo apart from that of the frog, then what makes it so much more special? Of course, this gets back to the point of the original post: for most of these people, it’s about the soul. I’ve had trouble coming up with enough useful pictures for this project, though.

      • ButchKitties

        I did this once on a message board abortion debate. Someone pulled the “Just look at a picture of a fetus and tell me you don’t recognize its humanity” argument, so I pretended to agree and posted a picture of a fetus. I waited until quite a few people had posted that the fetus in my picture was obviously a person before I let them in on my secret: it was a picture of a cat fetus.

        I wish I’d thought to take screen shots, because that board is sadly defunct now.

  • carlie

    I think a lot of people also have a gut belief in the old homunculus theory. Most people haven’t learned embryology, and even those who have tend to characterize embryos as little people. That’s a hard idea to shake.

  • Tony


    When I was anti-abortion myself, I believed that God placed a soul in the zygote at the moment of fertilization. Anything that killed a fertilized egg killed a little person.

    -One of the things I’ve never understood (I wasn’t raised in a religious household, and have gone to church maybe 6 times in my 36 years) is the ‘interactive’ god that many believe in. Sometimes theists believe god interacts with them and guides them, and sometimes they don’t. Yet isn’t god ‘unknowable’, ‘inscrutable’? If you can’t know his mind or comprehend the enormity of anything as great as he is supposed to be, you can’t claim any knowledge about his actions. I’ve wondered why people don’t attribute miscarriages to god. If he’s placing souls (at whatever point he’s supposed to do that) in a zygote, who’s to say he didn’t change his mind and decide to naturally abort the child by way of a miscarriage? Why is it ok for god to murder a fetus, but not humans? I even heard this horrible woman on Catholic Radio say that the loss a woman’s four kids wasn’t a tragedy, but actually a blessing. That god took the children into his embrace. Never mind the fact that he’s the one who put them there in the first place, then went and changed his mind. I was horrified to think that anyone could twist such a massive tragedy into something they consider ‘good’. I nearly slammed on the brakes in sheer disgust.

    • ozzyosborne

      @#10, Tony

      ‘Authoritarianism moves in mysterious ways.’

    • Anders

      ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ is just a fancy way of shutting down all further mental activity. It’s not meant to do anything except reduce cognitive dissonance.

  • Ace of Sevens

    It’s worth pointing out that most of the rank and file believe all this stuff to be accurate. Not that they aren’t all patriarchal, but the idea fetus is a person isn’t a pretense to boss women around. Some of the leadership made the lies up, but a lot of fundies are insulated enough from the facts that they have no idea this is even disputed. The pro-choice arguments you here in the media don’t generally contradict any of this stuff, so it’s easy to avoid knowing this.

  • howardpeirce

    A couple random comments:

    Re: Graphic images. There’s no shortage of forensic photos showing the corpses of young women who bled out following botched illegal abortions pre-Roe. The pro-choice movement hasn’t played this card in decades, but I remember seeing some of them in the 70s. On balance, I think it’s the right decision to avoid ghoulishness and emotional manipulation, but still . . . .

    Re. Ensoulment. Most religions have some sort of naming ceremony that occurs some time after birth (bris, infant baptism, etc.). In traditional societies with high infant mortality, the naming ceremony is the moment of ensoulment. This has only changed with advances in medicine and growth in general prosperity. Cockamamie ideas about prenatal ensoulment and abortion are far from being Bronze-Age superstitions. They are a direct result of modern medical techniques.

    It wasn’t until the 19th century, for example, that the Catholic church gave a crap about abortion, and the Protestants didn’t get on board until well into the 20th. (They were far more interested in protesting the use of anesthetics during childbirth.)

  • Brad

    Great article, Libby. I’ve been thinking about this a bit myself recently (I’m currently on a journey leaving my Evangelical faith).

    A few things I’ve discovered:

    The idea of ensoulment at fertilization is a fairly recent theological development, up until about 100 years ago, most church’s position on abortion was that it was allowed until “quickening”.

    There isn’t any direct scriptural support for this idea, and several scriptures that actually make a case against it (the verse that Dan quotes above, and another passage that uses a “trial” resulting in miscarriage as a test for adultery).

    I do like the idea, though, of re-framing the debate the way you have.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    Excellent points, Libby. :)

    On the issue of the soul, etc, it seems you’ve thought about the matter more than most anti-abortion advocates have.

    Have you ever considered issues such as what exactly is a soul, and why it would be immoral to kill a zygote with a soul? (or do you know what some anti-abortion advocates claim?)

    In practice, someone might just say ‘soul’ and then many others would be inclined to agree it’s immoral to kill an entity that has one without even assessing the matter, so I’m not saying that that kind of question would be a good debate tactic in a brief debate.

    However, in a setting that allows for more exhaustive discussion, I’d say that the anti-abortion activist would have the burden to explain that – and my guess is that it would be very difficult for them to do so.

    For instance, someone might make raise issues as follows:

    1) What’s a soul?

    Clearly, the development of minds follows that of brains, so it’s pretty clear that a zygote does not think about anything, cannot feel pain, and so on. So, it seems the soul is not a mind.

    Also, the soul is not some kind of life-force. After all, the zygote was alive one picosecond before ensoulment (there is no exact ‘moment of conception’, by the way), and so was the ovum before fertilization.

    So, the soul is neither a mind, nor some kind of life-force. So, what is it?

    2) Why would it be immoral to kill a zygote with a soul?

    Since the soul is some mysterious entity, as long as it’s not explained what it is, there is no good reason to suspect that it would be immoral to kill an ensouled zygote but not a soulless one, even if that destroyed the soul – which it does not, according to anti-abortion activists.

    Also, while it’s intuitively immoral to kill a person in most cases, that’s because when considering a hypothetical scenario in which a person is killed by another, the hypothetical scenario involves entities we regularly call ‘person’, not zygotes.

    3) Why would a zygote be a person, even if it does have the mysterious entity ‘soul’ attached to it?

    Saying that a soul is a person won’t help, since ‘soul’ is at best unclear, and the semantics of ‘person’ don’t seem to require any (at best) obscure entity.

    • Anat

      I’m wondering if any theologian ever claimed that miscarried fetuses are the result of failed ensoulment.

      • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

        Not as far as I know.

      • Contrarian

        Ohhh, that’s a neat idea! Of course, one would want to then examine the ensoulment mechanism — down that path lies the Enlightenment mechanization of God itself.

  • http://wonderingwanderingthoughts.blogspot.com OneSmallStep

    **When I was anti-abortion myself, I believed that God placed a soul in the zygote at the moment of fertilization. Anything that killed a fertilized egg killed a little person. This is what most anti-abortion activists believe as well.**

    How do evangelicals handle the whole fact that a lot of fertilized eggs fail to implant, and thus tons and tons of people die? I asked an evangelical friend that once, and she said that the fail to implant circumstance was different because that was God decided. To which I said, “then your argument isn’t about the sanctity of life. YOur argument is about ignoring God’s authority.”

    • ozzyosborne

      I’m not sure most anti-abortion people understand how frequently fertilized eggs fail to implant and how often women’s bodies terminate pregnancies on their own. I also think they haven’t thought through the consequences of banning certain procedures or making them hard to get when something goes horribly wrong and a woman has a late-term miscarriage. When I was a high school graduate, raised Catholic, and believed myself to be decently well-educated, I knew none of those things.

      I wonder if HS biology today teaches about natural economy. That kind of brings it all together.

      As for the God’s authority shtick, that is the Roman Catholic Church’s ONLY argument against family planning, birth control, reproductive health treatments, in-vitro fertilization, and even against same-sex marriage. The biblical story of Hannah is frequently cited. (It’s actually their argument against the death penalty and against assisted suicide as well.)

  • llewelly

    Identical twins share the same soul. That’s why they have telepathic powers!

    Chimeras are the result of God forgetting to ensoul the other zygotes. They don’t want to be without souls! So they join the zygote which has a soul.

    Miscarriages are what happens when Satan tries to ensoul a zygote. It’s a creature so vile God aborts it so as to spare the woman, and the world it would otherwise enter. One day God will forget to abort a zygote ensouled by Satan, and ON THAT DAY THE ANTICHRIST WILL BE BORN!!!

    • ozzyosborne

      Hahahahaha, I’m pretty sure demons were blamed when a “monster” (mutant) was born in the middle ages. Candles alight in the demon-haunted world.

    • http://giliellthinkingaloud.blogspot.com/ Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg

      So, what’s about those that would abort “naturally” and are saved by modern medicine (ya know, giving the woman the necessary hormones if her body fails to produce them)?
      Are those tiny little antichrists or is that god working in mysterious ways?
      And if, god has a sense of humor, saving the child of an atheist, pro-choice woman who’ll eventually grow up to become an atheist, pro-choice woman….

  • ozzyosborne

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head with the separation of church and state issue. When I was a believing Catholic, I was pro-choice for this reason. I grew up in an area that was not majority Catholic and I knew very well that different faiths had different beliefs about ensoulment, or the equivalent.

    (Actually, I always found the soul concept a bit too precious and was truly relieved when I found out I could ditch it. I feel a bit burned by public high school for wasting time on pious philosophers and not exposing us to alternatives. Heck, spending more time on the Greeks and Romans of antiquity might have been an improvement. Kant? I mean, seriously? Descartes? Mon dieu. There’s a reason he’s famous–for advances in mathematics.)

    I find that so-called secular or atheistic arguments for an absolutist anti-choice position are based on an abstract understanding of human reproduction and lack any insight into the messy, dirty, dangerous reality of pregnancy. Abortion is not an ethics question but a bio-ethics question. (And remember, class, we don’t play games with human subjects.) From a medical and biological point of view, the answer to the abortion question is not just yes, but HELL, yes.

  • http://thepartsthatpeopleskip.blogspot.com Zebralily

    Libby Anne, I just want to say that I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve been an FtB lurker for a while, but you’re really the first person I’ve felt free to engage (possibly because our similar backgrounds [though my family wasn't quite as fundie] give me a sense of sure footing, and definitely because of your approach to discussion). When I’m not quite as busy writing grad papers or grading freshman essays, I’ll have something much more substantial to say. For now, though, I look forward to reading all your posts!

  • carlie

    If they have trouble figuring out when twins each get their own souls, they’d be completely stopped in their tracks trying to figure out chimerism. Where does the second soul go when the embryos fuse? How do they figure out which soul wins?

  • sc_d071629743c6397525f9a67b095613d3

    To start, I have to agree with Carlie. The anti-choice folks really do probably have some sort of residual belief in the Hommunculus. The question is, are they spermists, or ovists? Do they believe that the form (little person, soul and everything) is delivered by the sperm and given substance in the womb by the ovum, or do they believe that both form and substance are given inside the Ovum, and that sperm just delivers the soul?

    Ok Ok. They probably have not thought it through that far, but little drawings of the sperm with a little person curled up inside are hilarious.

  • http://jadehawks.wordpress.com/ Jadehawk, cascadeuse féministe

    While they may be a few exceptions, anti-abortion activists are almost always against abortion from the moment the egg is fertilized.

    well, at this point we’re at a stage where even preventing ovulation while sperm is present is “abortion”, since the whining about Plan B is about a pill that can’t do anything to an already fertilized egg; it only prevents ovulation.

    • Phledge

      Not to be too pedantic, but Plan B works either by preventing ovulation or by preventing implantation; it just depends on what part of the menstrual cycle the user is currently experiencing that determines the mechanism of action. It will not work on established, eg implanted, pregnancies and is therefore not an abortifacient–unless you are one of the people who incorrectly believe that a fertilized egg = tiny tiny baby.

  • paulambos

    The Wikipedia article on “ensoulment” gives the Catholic Church’s checkered history on this doctrine. Under the traditional Aristotelian interpretation (valid up to 1869, but I read elsewhere that canon law wasn’t amended to conform until 1912 or so), the twin and chimera issues would never have been problems.

  • http://lifesettlementcash.multiply.com/ Dorian Ginger

    Due to this fact is pretty sound. Can’t wait for more.

  • interrobang

    I’ve never really had the opportunity to really get into the faces of these ensoulment types, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a red herring at best, and if someone tried it on me, I’d probably respond with, “So?! Who cares? I was here first. You don’t get to live in my house without my permission, why on earth should you get to live in my body without permission?”

    Bonus points for anyone who can point me to a forced-birther who is pro-”castle law.” I want an excuse to point and laugh at the rank hypocrisy.

  • Rilian

    I think it’s stupid and gross to insist that a gestating baby can’t possibly be a person. Just go ahead and grant that it is or could be a person, but that doesn’t give it a right to use your body.

    If I were going to get an abortion, I would keep a picture of the ultrasound. I hope I never get pregnant though.