Abortion, Heartbeats, and Souls

Abortion, Heartbeats, and Souls February 11, 2012

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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