Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Soul of the Embryo

I just finished reading The Soul of the Embryo by David Albert Jones, a British bioethicist. This book was published in 2004 and is "an enquiry into the status of the human embryo in the Christian tradition." The date of publication is significant because science has already changed so much in the past decade that some of the facts in the last couple chapters of the book are already out-dated. For example Jones states that only sperm can be frozen and not ova, that is no longer the case. He also contrasts Britains publicly funded abortion and healthcare system with America's private health care system. With the HHS Mandate and Obamacare, abortion coverage is increasingly funded publicly by tax-payer dollars as part of our new nationalized healthcare system. So this changes the landscape of the debate. But I digress, and these are minor details.

The scope of the book is not the most recent scientific developments, but rather it is to cover 2000 years of Christian perspective on the status of the embryo from a theological, philosophical, ethical, historical, and scientific perspective. So the history of our scientific understanding of the embryo is an important part of the puzzle, but it is only one aspect of this ambitious work.

Jones' summary is comprehensive and deals with topics that get at the heart of the human mystery:  Do we have a soul? What is the nature of the soul? Where do our souls come from? Where do they go when we die? As you can see, these are questions not necessarily answerable by science, and so much of the book delves into intricacies of historical philosophy and theology. It begins with characteristics of the pagan society and their treatment of abortion and infants. (It was not good, infanticide and infant-abandonment was widely practiced.) He also gives a brief outline of Jewish perspective in contrast to this, and then traces from Judaism the emergence of Christian attitudes toward the unborn in contrast to the pagan standard.

Jones gives philosophical and scientific understandings of embryos from non-Christian thinkers such as Hippocrates, Socrates, and Galen. Then with the advent of Christianity he goes into the earliest writings of topics such as abortion and miscarriage from the Didache to the church fathers. Contrary to what some people have told me, the earliest church always forbade abortion and treated all life as sacred. The notion of delayed ensoulment did come from the ancient Greeks and reemerged in Christian thought with the middle-ages. Some later Church fathers offered contrasting opinions or were frustratingly agnostic on the topic of the time of ensoulment (notably Augustine among them.) Thomas Aquinas favored a delayed ensoulment.

But part of the great disparity of opinion and confusion that emerged in later Christian thought it precisely because of a failure to understand the basic science of how an embryo is formed. Some thought that men alone provided the seed, sowing little homunculi into the fertile woman, who simple cooked and grew the new individual within her. Others thought it was a mixing of male and female fluids. Others favored the woman's role as dominant over the man's. Some people thought ensoulment didn't occur until "quickening" when the fetus's movements become detectable. This stems from the idea that rational thought is required to an ensouled being, and movement of limbs indicates the presence of a will and thus a soul. There was a long-held belief that baby boys were ensouled sooner than baby-girls. All of this is because of a poverty of scientific understanding.

It wasn't until the invention of the microscope that the female egg was discovered in other mammals, and eventually the human. My guess is that some of these great Christian thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, if they access to the modern medical understanding of how fertilization and embryo development takes place, might change their opinion.

As a scientist myself, I was a bit bored by historical overview of Christian views on the embryo, although I know this is important material, because I felt that so much was argued from the realm of ideas, and I do believe science must inform this discussion, but for the longest time, there was no idea of how conception took place, or how an embryo developed. The term "soul" at times equated to "life-force" and there could have been no understanding by the ancients of the molecular fabric (DNA) that underwrites and directs the destiny of each embryo to unfold into a unique being.

I was most interested in the final few chapters which did focus on the modern legislation and societal effects of abortion, IVF, artificial twinning, cloning, etc. and how these have impacted the Christian view of the embryo. These last few chapters seemed the most relevant to me, but sadly already need an update to keep up with the rapid changes in biotechnology that has already occurred in the past 10 years.

And yet, this is the most comprehensive book I have found on the topic, and so it is still worth a read by those seriously interested in the topic. Although the author is writing about the history of the Christian perspective, he does a great job of acknowledging secular views (which obviously shape Christian thought) and addressing the diversity of perspectives within modern Christian circles. For example he takes a serious look at the view of abortion as a compassionate option for women, which is a common view I encounter in others today.

Perhaps the book needs a sequel or update, but again it is one of the only books I have seen that even begins to address this issue so deeply, and it is still worthy of a read, especially for those interested in the historical Church views on abortion and the state of the souls of the unborn.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?