Abortion, Religion and Politics

Two thoughts on the nexus between religion in politics in the abortion debate:

(1) The Abortion Catch-22

Keep an eye open on this.  When religious leaders speak out against abortion from the pulpit, they’re said to be “getting involved in politics.”  Meanwhile, politicians who advocate against abortion are said to be forcing their religion on people.  Apparently, being pro-life is too religious for politics, and too political for religion… so it can’t be advocated by anyone in positions of authority, ever.

This, of course, massively perverts the First Amendment.  The Establishment Clause was never intended to separate faith and politics, and the Free Exercise Clause expressly permits the co-mingling.  It’s worth remembering that the fear the Founders had was that the US was going to install a state religion of the sort Anglicanism was in England.  Attempting to establish a state religion in the US would be against the religious principles of many of the colonists, and would almost certainly have started an immediate religious war of the kind that the Maryland Colony had already experienced (the Northeast was solidly Puritan and Congregational., while the South was still very Anglican, and these two camps had already caused enough bloodshed in England… see Cromwell, Oliver).  The Establishment Clause today is almost archaic, in that the notion of the US attempting to create a state religion is almost comically absurd.  One of the major reasons that the Founders felt the Establishment Clause was so important was so that everyone, including public officials, could practice their own religion freely and openly.  For this reason, they tied it with the Free Exercise Clause, which permits people to do just that: practice their religion freely.  And the Founders plainly had public officials in mind, too: they forbade religious tests for public officials in Article VI, para. 3 of the Constitution.  So it’s a perverse irony that the people most undermining the First Amendment freedom of religion now do so in the name of the First Amendment.  In trying to force religious poticians to act like atheists in public life is both preventing free exercising, and de facto establishing non-religion (which the Supreme Court has also condemned as impermissible).

The hypocrisy doesn’t end there, either.  Pro-choicers have formed the “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,” so it’s apparently okay to legislate based on your morals, but only if your “morals” are pro-choice. Even more tellingly, look at the second graph from this Gallup poll result, which found that 54% of those practicing a non-Christian religion favored abortion-on-demand, compared to only 39% of atheists.  So religion influences voters on both sides of the divide.

To be clear, it’s fine by me if pro-choicers base their support of abortion-on-demand off of their religion: the view itself is what’s the problem, not where the view comes from.  People make decisions based on what they think is right or wrong, and much of what we think is right or wrong comes from what we believe religiously.  If you’re a devout Quaker in Congress, you’re probably not going to vote for war, and it would be insane to expect you to be adamantly anti-war on Sunday and pro-war the rest of the week.  If I were to say, “I support your right to be a Quaker, but not your right to legislate based on those beliefs when it comes to voting on whether we go to war,” I would be saying something mindless and internally contradictory.  Either people are free to believe or they’re not.  When people claim someone is “pushing their religion,” they usually just mean, “that person treats their religion as if it’s true, not just a fun delusion!”  And Amen to that!  As long as the person isn’t attempting to establish their religion as the state religion (mandatory Society of Friends meetings on Sunday, to continue the Quaker example), they’re acting exactly as the Founders clearly intended that they would.

(2) Does the Pro-Life Movement Require Religious Belief?

Another argument pro-choicers like to advance, similar to #1, is that being pro-life is a “religious” belief.  This is plainly wrong.  The graphs I mentioned earlier (available here) show atheists as more pro-life than non-Christian religious, and a full 10% of atheists are against abortion in all cases (compared with 20% of the US population).  The pro-life argument boils down to two beliefs:

  1. Human life begins at conception;
  2. It’s wrong to intentionally end innocent human life.
It’s on the first of these two points that we see the biggest irony, because the argument “human life begins at conception” is a strictly scientific question . And there is absolutely no question about when life begins, scientifically.  None at all. For sexually-reproducing animals, life begins at conception.  So pro-lifers are arguing modern embryology to point out the obvious: a human being, with unique DNA, is formed at conception.  It has a separate genetic code than the mother, and is a separate living organism, even though the two are physically connected to one another.  We can even tell the contours of exactly where the baby’s body ends and the mother’s begins, and the two are connected by the umbilical cord.  It’s sort of a Lesotho / South Africa situation, really: Lesotho is enveloped by South Africa, and largely dependent on it (the stronger South Africa could blockade Lesotho pretty easily), but it’s still a separate country. Just think about it: how many limbs does the average pregnant woman have. four or eight?  If you said four, you’re right.  Those other arms and legs belong to her baby.  And if the baby is a boy, do we say that the woman now has both male and female sex organs?  Only if we have no idea how science works.  Even in non-human animals, this is obvious.  When a bird lays an egg, we don’t say that the fertilized egg is “part of the mother.”  Nope, it’s a separate living thing, and often is afforded legal protections of its own (as in the case of bald eagle eggs).  
So you don’t need to be religious to say human life begins at conception: you just need to be willing to accept science.  On the other hand, outgoing-Speaker Pelosi and VP Joe Biden have both explicitly invoked St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to attempt to argue that human “ensoulment” doesn’t begin at conception, an argument refuted here.  To be clear, Aquinas and Augustine thought that as a scientific matter, life didn’t begin until “quickening” (based on the lousy science of the day), but that it was still wrong to abort a fetus before or after this point, since a human body with or without a soul was still worthy of protection (a position I’m sure that those pro-life atheists would feel comfortable with).  Yet here are Pelosi and Biden, rejecting clear and unambiguous science, by hiding behind religious faith.  Are pro-choicers really comfortable with the argument, “I don’t care what science says about when life begins, I’ve got my religion?”  The argument would be embarrassingly bad under any circumstances, but never moreso here, where Augustine, Aquinas, and the Catholic Church flatly refute the very views Pelosi and Biden look to them for to escape the cold logic of science.
But what about this second view, that human life is worth protecting? Here, being religious probably helps, since we believe that everyone is made in the image of God, and that it’s wrong to murder.  But it’s certainly possible for atheists to think human life is worth protecting.  And I don’t think pro-choicers are serious about this argument, either: again, do they really want to argue that atheists can’t be in favor of protecting all human life?  So nothing in the pro-life debate requires you to even pick up a Bible, and a surprising number of atheists apparently get this.


  1. Granted that life begins at conception, but what about *rational* life? Doesn’t claiming that it begins at conception gain you a step on abortion and lose you a mile on the problem of pain? For we know that billions of lives are lost naturally in the first stages after conception. We can’t run the normal redeemable evil analysis on is because thhe kids never had a chance. So it seems like, maybe, a good God could set up the world like this only if these creatures don’t become rational till some later point.

  2. (1) There’s no need to subdivide humanity into “rational” and “irrational” for purposes of determining who it’s okay to kill. Once you start saying some human life is beneath legal protection, you’re beyond the realm of Dred Scott. From a moral perspective, any attempt to start weeding out the defenseless is abominable. From a legal perspective, it runs directly into the notion we have intrinsic value, bestowed upon us by the Creator, which the government is bound to respect, whether it wants to or not. This is the whole crux of both the Declaration of Independece and modern human rights law.

    (2) The question as to when “rational” life begins isn’t easily answered by science, and likely varies by child.

    (3) If it is okay to kill a small fetus or embryo, because he or she can’t feel it, then it’s okay to kill people in their sleep, if you do it gently.

    (4) For both the question of abortion and theodicy, what matters isn’t what’s helpful for “gaining a step,” but what’s true.

    So I’d say that the very young unborn likely are not cognizant, but are as human as you or I. As for the problem of evil, the majority of the unborn die before they have pain sensors, and we hope that they spend eternity with God. I don’t see that being a major blow against the goodness of God. Quite the opposite: Fr. William Most and others have speculated that it could be a way for God to save some of those who would otherwise reject Him.

    It sounds, though, that you’re disturbed that God would let innocent unborn children die. You should rather be disturbed that we do.


  3. On (1) & (3) I think you misunderstand me. I am not arguing that the law should not treat fetuses as people. Really, I am just agreeing with (2). And insofar as (2) is true, perhaps Augustine and Aquinas were right about “ensoulment” even if, in some sense, life begins before full “ensoulment”. But since these lives would be human in some sense, then it would not be okay to kill them, thus negating (3).

    And on (4) I’m using what is helpful as a theodicy as a clue to what is true, because on the assumption that a good God exists anything that would make a theodicy impossible is, by hypothesis, false.

    Your argument seems to avoid the doctrine of Original Sin. The point I was pressing is that, perhaps, there is no original sin b/c the embryos haven’t reached that level of “ensoulment”. This is similar to an animal. The animal never gets his Original Sin washed away, but this isn’t a problem for a theodicy because he never had original sin. And annihilating an animal soul is not an evil because it isn’t rational.

    But if the embryos are rational and do have original sin, then there seem to be problems. Are these embryos being saved by a special grace and then developing in purgatory? If so, why doesn’t God do that with everyone? Why does anyone live a complete earthly life and risk damnation?

    These are at least obstacles for those who think full ensoulment occurs at conception. But, maybe it doesn’t, as Aquinas and Augustine thought.

    Of course, maybe it does. And even this possibility means that abortion should be prohibited at the earliest stages. But that doesn’t mean that it does.

  4. HocCogitat,

    The question of ensoulment is actually much trickier than it seems. For example, when do identical twins get distinct souls?
    The fertilized egg divides at some point after conception. Would an abortion prior to the split be the murder of one child or two? And would there be one or two souls sent to the Great Beyond?

    Some of these questions are left open. The CDF made clear that the Magisterium isn’t diving into this one, in 1987’s Donum Vitae:

    “Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable. (26)”

    That said, what Aquinas and Augustine did teach was that once there’s a human person, there’s a soul. As C.S. Lewis said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” So there’s no such thing as a human body prior to a human soul. And since we now know (scientifically) when the human body is formed (other than for exceptional cases, like identical twins), we can say with a fair degree of confidence when ensoulment occurs. It seems that Aquinas and Augustine were right that it occurs with the formation of the body; they were just wrong as to when that was.


  5. That said, I think your bigger concern seems to be the theodicy, right? What to make of the countless dead children, through natural miscarriage? Here’s what we know.

    1. Original Sin is damnable (Council of Orange, Can. 2).
    2. Nothing impure can be in the presence of God in Heaven (Rev. 21:27).
    3. While we can’t earn Heaven, we can earn Hell. Everyone in Hell is there because they deserve to be, and God predestines no one to Hell (CCC 1037).

    Applying those three facts to the question of unbaptized infants is confusing.

    For (1), original sin is damnable in at least this sense: if, upon reaching the age of reason, you decline or refuse Baptism, your refusal earns your damnation, even if you commit no other sin. The mere presence of Original Sin means you need to be Baptized, and your refusal is sinful. (If original sin didn’t exist, there would be no reason to baptize infants, or those with no actual sin). But to send someone to Hell who is tainted by original sin, but had no opportunity not to be would violate basic principles of justice. So a child of the age of reason or beyond could be damned for Original Sin (and their refusal to remedy it in Baptism), but not a child without the capacity to be Baptized.

    So it sounds as if dead babies (both in the womb and through young childhood) can neither justly go to
    Heaven or Hell. Catholic theologians postulated about the existence of a limbus infantium, a dwelling place for dead infants who never rejected Christ, and which was the highest state of natural happiness, but without the Beatific Vision (since the impurity of original sin would bar them from that); if true, it would be similar to the spiritual state (limbus patrum) the righteous Jews who died before Christ were in, prior to Christ opening the gates to Heaven.

    There’s another solution, too, which has become more popular than Limbo in recent years. “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). The implication here is that if God wills, He can remove the taint of Original Sin from all of those dead infants simply by application of the merits of Christ’s graces. He can do this precisely because they never freely rejected Christ. Their extreme youth is a virtue here – without knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17) or an active will to sin or reject God, they can come to Christ without inhibition (Luke 18:16; Mt. 18:2-4).

    So it’s quite possible that they enjoy the fullness of Heaven. All of us are saved through grace, and God always moves first with grace (since to even accept Him requires grace). Infants just don’t resist or stop the movement of God’s grace. Either way, whether Limbo or Heaven is the final destination of unbaptized infants, it’s not a real threat on the theodicy front.


  6. Two asides to begin:

    1)Thanks for the replies, they are much appreciated!
    2)Lewis is often credited with coming up with the expression “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body,” But it really came from _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ by Walter Miller (a Catholic convert:-)). http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2006/07/on-canticle-for-liebowitz.html I have no idea why everyone thinks Lewis wrote this (perhaps he repeated it somewhere, but I have never seen that), but you are so far from the first one to make that mistake that your mistake is utterly without fault. In any event, I think it misrepresents Lewis as a Cartesian when he was closer to Thomism, at least with regards to dualism. If so he would have believed in “hylemorphic dualism”, “so called because it is informed by hylemorphism, the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic view that material substances are *composites of form and matter*.” http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2008/12/oderberg-on-hylemorphic-dualism.html

    But that is just by the way. As to the substance of your comment, you say:

    “So there’s no such thing as a human body prior to a human soul.”

    That’s true, I admit that. What I am arguing, and what the CDF appears to have left open, is whether this is a *rational* human soul. It would be human regardless, so that abortion at any time would be impermissible morally.

    How could a could a soul be human and not rational. We can see a possible analog in our evolutionary history. If you go far enough back, some of our ancestors were not rational. Then, we developed far enough that we became rational, or at least ready to receive rational souls. What I am saying is that the same think could happen in our gestational history. We were once non-rational human animals who could split into two humans, be frozen and unfrozen without dying, etc. And then we develop far enough that we become rational, or at least ready to receive rational souls.

    Now, obviously, I can’t prove the truth of this, but I am trying to argue that it is possibly true. And, moreover, I don’t think the Magisterium has ruled it out.

    You might be right, though, that it doesn’t matter. But I have to wonder why God let’s people develop on earth if it only puts their souls at risk and doesn’t do them any good. Why not just kill all embryos so that they can receive the special grace you mention in your penultimate paragraph? To me the big question for a theodicy is: Why does this world exist with all its pain and absence of God? As Lewis put the objection:

    “Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it?”

    Lewis’s answer is:

    “We can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely.”

    But if God could just save everyone without this world, without free will (for days-old embryos surely don’t have that), as your penultimate paragraph seems to imply, this negates Lewis’s answer.

  7. HocCogitat,

    I’ve really enjoyed this conversation as well. And thanks for the correction on the Walter Miller quote. I’ve got a hunch that the reason it gets ascribed to Lewis is the same reason many things were falsely ascribed to the Saints. It sounds more legit if “Lewis” says it than a relative unknown like Walter Miller.

    I think your objection is valid — the problem of free will is raised in a particular way here. But in general, that problem exists for all deaths before the age of reason. To damn all helpless children seems wrong, to save some and damn other based upon whether their parents were believers or chose to have them baptized seems wrong, and to save all of them raises the question of why we weren’t all allowed to die as children. So even special pleading about ensoulment doesn’t excise this quandary.

    Just look at those children whose souls are not in dispute:, a two-year old surely has a soul, but as between a baptized and unbaptized two-year old, they had no say in the matter. But the Church clearly teaches that baptizing infants matters. Can. 867 §1 provides: “Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it.” And given that Paul describes Baptism as the new Circumcision, it seems that the strong emphasis on baptizing quickly after birth is with the Church from the very start.

    So it may be that Limbo is yet the stronger theory. A baptized baby can experience the joys of Heaven without stain of original sin, while the unbaptized baby can only enjoy a paradisial state without the Beatific vision. That seems pretty just. The child in Limbo isn’t being punished, and can imagine nothing greater than what he or she experiences. But it still shows a distinction between one with and one without Original Sin, it preserves the sinlessness of Heaven, and it comports with the Scriptural evidence.

    The question of Eden should be worked in here, as well. Prior to having knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve are without sin. This is necessarily so. They don’t have original sin, and they’ve never done anything they knew to be a sin. So they enjoy natural paradise and the Presence of God. With their first act of intentional disobedience from God, they’re cast out of paradise. But through the mercy of God, they’re given Redemption through Christ, for “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20). The theory behind Limbo is, more or less, that the deceased unbaptized children cannot enjoy the specific presence of God in Eden (due to the sin of Adam), but can enjoy the rest of Eden’s pleasures (due to the lack of actual sin).

    That would seem to solve the problem.

    Of course, with the other option, I think the quandary can still be answered. Even if it were true that all children were saved prior to the age of reason, it would still be just of God to allow us to have free will. First, free will is good. Second, while free will creates the capacity for sin and damnation, it also creates the capacity to accept grace in a meaningful way, to choose to take up our Cross and follow Christ.

    So either possibility seems feasible without the question of free will becoming overly problematic. God bless!


  8. I feel like we’ve made some strides here. I agree with you that the problem extends to children before the “age of reason”. And, I think that you’re right that Limbo provides a possible solution to the quandry without–critically for the point I’ve been pressing–making life on Earth something worse than pointless. So I really agree with your 4th paragraph in saying Limbo is the stronger theory. I think it is far stronger than the mere special grace letting them into the beatific vision, because that does seem to make life on earth worse than pointless.

    The question is not one of free will as you put it in your penultimate paragraph. Rather it is one of where we exercise our free will, in Heaven or on Earth. We could get both of those benefits you mention by all dying as embryos and going to Heaven with free will. I think that it is important that Earthly life gives us a unique opportunity to freely justify ourselves. Otherwise, the world seems arbitrary.

    Also, I still think it is possible that embryos aren’t yet rational. And I think the magisterium has not spoken on the issue. And while you’ve convinced me that, given Limbo, it is reasonable to think otherwise, I still think that this is the stronger theory. The reason is that while 2 year olds sometimes die, it is unnatural or a rare result of a disease that can be seen as part of God’s plan for justifying humanity. But embryos die all the time before implantation and soon thereafter (something like 50% of pregnancies are miscarried). It is such a natural part of the world. I wouldn’t think God would make that a natural, regular occurrence. (I don’t claim to “know” this, but the non-rational theory seems to fit better with what we know of how God works, which is of course very imperfect.) And the scientific evidence (ability to freeze, splitting of twins, etc.) also makes it seemslike these aren’t yet rational souls.

  9. I think there’s another piece of evidence to add into play, so to speak: the Visitation (Luke 1:39-43). I deal with it in greater depth here, but the basic features: we see the unborn child John the Baptist filled with the Holy Spirit and leaping for joy in the womb at the presence of Mary and Her Child, Christ. At the time, Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary is less than a month pregnant with Jesus. They appear to be fully ensouled. That is, John isn’t leaping at a fetus who shall become Christ — the understanding is that the Incarnation occurs at conception. And that John can be filled with the Holy Spirit seems to presuppose a soul. So I’m still pretty skeptical about the delayed-ensoulment theory.

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