Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology February 1, 2020

Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest post from long time reader Joseph Georges.

More than half of all human fertilizations end in spontaneous abortions at one stage or another – in “miscarriages” if pregnancy ends before the 20th week or in “stillbirths”, as pregnancy losses after the 20th week are generally called. According to a paper by evolutionary geneticist, William Rice, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, “abortion is nearly as common as live-birth for conceptions that occur in a woman’s early-twenties, but after the mid-twenties, abortions are the norm rather than the exception.” Rice’s paper, “The high abortion cost of human reproduction,” is based upon data gathered from diverse sources. It focuses on pregnancies mainly in economically developed countries and is available at a preprint site while it undergoes peer review. Rice was also able to develop an estimate for the” age-specific abortion rate in a natural fertility population” in the county of Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, given the likely differences in socio-economic circumstances, including access to medical care, the Bangladeshi rate was substantially higher.

Until now it has been common to find estimates that 10-20% of known pregnancies in the United States end in miscarriages, though the estimates have sometimes been accompanied by cautions like the one from the Mayo Clinic that “the actual number is likely higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman doesn’t realize she’s pregnant.” Such cautions apparently have had little impact upon public opinion in the US. In one study of 1,000 American men and women, more than half “thought that a miscarriage was a rare event occurring in fewer than 5 percent of pregnancies.”

There are earlier studies that found relatively high rates of miscarriage. But William Rice’s 2018 meta-analysis of years of data attempts with as much statistical rigor as possible to incorporate estimates of occult abortions. “Occult” in this context refers to abortions that are unperceived. Rice believes that “most spontaneous abortions are occult and go completely unnoticed by women.” The most common reason for such pregnancy losses is genetic – chromosomal abnormalities – and these tend to increase with the age of the mother and the aging of her ova. In the end, Rice concludes, miscarriage is “the predominant outcome of fertilization” and “a natural and inevitable part of human reproduction at all ages.”

If Rice’s analysis and earlier studies with similar results are accurate, then Catholic theology has an issue that has received too little attention. The Church teaches that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being. “The science of embryology states that from the moment of conception, a human being is formed,” the website of the Archdiocese of Baltimore proclaims.“ “No matter how one looks at it, abortion is murder.”

Very well. This suggests that every conceptus has an immortal soul and is thus truly human – or “hominized,” to use a term that has appeared in recent theological discussions. After all, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states plainly that “The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul.” (364)

But what if 50% or 60% or 70% of conceptuses spontaneously abort? Does God ensoul all fertilized ova even though most will never develop and be born?

Some theologians have recognized the problem. The late and illustrious German theologian, Karl Rahner, once asked:

“For a few centuries Catholic moral theology has been convinced that individual hominization occurs at the moment of the fusion of the gametes. Will the moral theologian still have today the courage to maintain this presupposition of many of his moral theological statements, when he is suddenly told that from the start, 50% of the fecundated female ova never reach nidification [implantation] in the uterus? Will he be able to admit that 50% of the ‘human beings’ – real human beings with an ‘immortal’ soul and an eternal destiny do not, from the very start, get beyond the first stage of human existence?” (Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, 287)

At least one theologian has responded to Rahner. The late Benedict Ashley (1915-2013) was a Dominican priest and a noted scholar. A philosopher and a theologian, Ashley was particularly interested in the junction of philosophy and science. The best known of his more than twenty books is probably “Health Care Ethics: A Catholic Theological Analysis,” that went through five editions. For his service to the Church he was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal by Pope John Paul II.

Ashley was a committed Thomist who wished to bring the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas to bear upon issues in the sciences, especially the life sciences. One such issue was that of the commencement of individual human lives. The arguments he made in several published articles on the subject are summarized in an essay, “When does a Human Person Begin to Exist?” published in The Ashley Reader: Redeeming Reason (2006).

Ashley rejects the delayed hominization theories championed by certain theologians and, most famously, by Aquinas, himself. Aquinas did not believe that ensoulment coincides with conception. Rather, following the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, he thought that embryos are at first alive with a vegetative life. After at least 40 days of development, embryos are ready to receive a rational human soul from God. Consequently, Ashley observes, for Aquinas “induced abortion before 40 days is a serious ‘sin against nature,’ because it destroys an organism whose natural purpose is to be transformed into a human being, but such abortion is not, strictly speaking, homicide.” This last point has been used by some Catholic political figures to suggest that if an embryo is not a “person” until well into pregnancy, then a pro-choice stand is at least somewhat defensible.

Father Ashley sets out to develop a Thomistic understanding of ensoulment that is compatible with modern embryology and that demonstrates that delayed ensoulment theories are incorrect. He makes a persuasive case. Aquinas “reasoned that since the human soul and its body are made for each other and are correlative causes of each other as form and matter, the matter of the human body has to be in a condition of proximate preparation proportionate to the soul that God creates for it. Otherwise, we would be ‘multiplying miracles,’ which good Catholic theologians are always reluctant to do.”

This is a sound principle, Ashley believes, and proceeds to show that freed from medieval biology, Thomism would agree that from the moment of fertilization, the conceptus is in a condition of proximate preparation for ensoulment. The zygote has all the genetic information it needs, as well as the developmental ability, to construct a human being.

But instant ensoulment at conception doesn’t necessarily mean universal hominization. To his credit, Ashley responds to the questions from Karl Rahner cited earlier. He acknowledges that fertilization is a process that often achieves only partial success. “There is good evidence that in most of those cases where the ‘fertilized’ ovum fails to develop into a viable fetus, this process was never normally and perfectly completed.”

And then Ashley makes an admission that even couched in careful language, as it is, has a startling implication. “Since I am arguing that hominization takes place at the completion of fertilization, it need not be concluded that God creates souls for all these hapless abnormal ‘zygotes.’”

So, many zygotes develop for a time in the womb, but have no souls and are therefore, from a Catholic perspective, less than human? Yes, if you consistently apply the Thomistic principle that Ashley articulates: The matter of the human body must be in “a condition of proximate preparation proportionate to the soul that God creates for it.” If a zygote lacks chromosomes required for normal development in the womb, then it is not prepared for ensoulment.

Certainly, the Lord knows which zygotes have the chromosomes required for regular fetal development and which ones do not, which fetuses will reach the point of live birth and which ones will not. It seems plausible that the Creator would not endow with immortal souls conceptuses fated to perish in the first or fourth or tenth week of gestation.

And so is induced abortion a case of homicide in a moral sense? Perhaps. Perhaps not. There is no way of knowing in each instance whether a conceptus at one stage of development or another is ensouled. You might think that genetic testing of the pre-born would provide at least the start of an answer. Possibly it could, though chromosomal defects detectable before birth are not necessarily fatal before birth.

But is abortion gravely immoral? I believe so, in great part precisely because there is no way to be certain whether a zygote targeted for abortion is a human being or not.

Some will disagree with my assessment. They may wish to argue that God gives each fertilized ovum a soul, and that saying so is not taking a mechanistic view of ensoulment. But then what of the large number of spontaneous abortions that theologians like Karl Rahner and Benedict Ashley have seen as a challenge? We’re not speaking about 5 percent of pregnancies, but instead perhaps 55% or 65% of pregnancies. This would be a difference so large that it would virtually define a new “normal” mode of human “life.” If God gives every fertilized ovum a soul, then can theology give us at least a plausible account of why so many real human beings with an immortal soul and an eternal destiny do not, from the very start, get beyond the first stage of human existence?

About Joseph Georges
Joseph Georges is a long time reader of Vox Nova. He has made previous guest posts. You can read more about the author here.
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