Thursday, January 20, 2005

Quickening and Ensoulment

I finally got around to reading Londa Schiebinger's Plants and Empire, a fascinating book on colonialist bioprospecting which deals at great length with the controversy over abortifacients in early modern Europe, particularly as regards the slave trade. (Slave women frequently took abortifacient drugs in order to avoid having their children born into captivity.)

The part of the book that's especially pertinent right now has to do with the European views of "ensoulment": the point at which a fetus stops being a blob of protoplasm, and starts being a person. Initially, it seems, ensoulment was often thought to happen in the fourth or fifth month, after "quickening." When the baby started kicking, it was a person. Before that, it was simply biological matter with no special claim to respect or protection. (Though Schiebinger doesn't mention it, versions of this viewpoint were approved by Aristotle and Augustine; the latter drew a clear distiction between the ensouled "embryo animatus," and the unsouled "embryo inanimatus.")

Apparently, the combined authority of Aristotle and Augustine was more than enough for many early modern churches; Schiebinger notes that around 1600,

Church law was more lenient, teaching that "it is lawful to procure abortion before ensoulment of the fetus, lest a girl, detected pregnant, be killed or defamed. It seems probable that the fetus...lacks a rational soul and begins first to have one when it is born; and consequently it must be said that no abortion is homicide."
What's really fascinating is that laws specifying that ensoulment came with quickening made the pregnant women herself the arbiter of when a fetus was ensouled. Thus, it seems likely that the dogma that ensoulment occurs at conception was turned into law in order to take from women the authority to declare a child ensouled, which had made them the arbiters of whether or not they'd had a "criminal" abortion.

A very interesting book, and well worth reading given our current controversies. At the least, it provides further evidence that the modern pro-life view of ensoulment-at-conception by no means represents the traditional or scriptural religious view.


echidne said...

Yes. The Catholic Church used the quickening rule for centuries. The opinion began to change some time in the nineteenth century, I think. Also in the U.S. and previously in the colonies the quickening was the rule, and the emphasis on conception began in the nineteenth century. It is all linked to societal changes, I believe, though I haven't studied the matter in any detail. My tentative theory is that abortion becomes an issue when some group wants more babies to be born (like now with the white supremacists) and also when there is some sort of a challenge to women's traditional roles.

Amanda Marcotte said...

It seems to me, though I might be off-base here, that as men's rights over women slackened, the government control over our wombs increased. Abortion is no threat when women are under a great deal of control and couldn't get one without a husband or father's permission. Once women had rights and the ability to move around a little more freely, there was suddenly this chance that women could procure abortions for themselves for their own reasons. And that's when it became illegal.

Phila said...

It's all pretty complicated, that's for sure. I was already familiar with the Aristotelian/Augustinian view of the "embryo inanimatus" and all that...what really amazed me was Schiebinger's citation of a Christian church claiming that fetuses don't become human until birth, and that killing them is not murder. I guess I can't be too surprised, given the importance of rationality to the Scholastics, but it's still amazing to me to see it phrased so bluntly.

It seems to be the case that wealthy women had recourse to abortions regardless of what the law was (big surprise there), although this is a circumstantial argument based on the common observation in those times that wealthy women were either so indolent or licentious that they lost the ability to have large families. Obviously, contraception and abortion are more reasonable explanations for the lower birth rate among the wealthy.

Also, so many of the "anti-abortion" books went to great lengths to tell people exactly what not to do, much the way hackers' websites might do now. So are they against it, or for it? Very interesting questions, which show the difficulty of assessing this stuff from the remove of centuries...

Re: Amanda's comment...from what I understand, abortion really didn't become a serious legal issue 'til the 1500s, and even then it seems that the laws were pretty vague and generally lenient. In earlier centuries, though perhaps women had less freedom overall, they seemed to be more free to have abortions. Some of it may simply be due to an increasingly centralized, personally invasive legal system, which (not surprisingly) tended towards restricting women's freedoms across the board. But I'm no expert. The main thing I got from Schiebinger's book was the amazing complexity of the situation, especially when you see weird counterintuitive reversals, like some midwives being against abortions (or were they?), and some churches allowing them (or did they?). It's hard to know how much of it to take at face value...

Aquaria said...

I guess it's kind of pointless now to mention that the Talmud pretty much spelled out that a baby wasn't human until it was half in the birth canal. As stated elsewhere in your piece, abortion was probably more readily available before the ensoulment movent, and it wouldn't surprise me if the reason the Roman church went for that concept at all was to differentiate themselves from the Jews.

Graham Lester said...

The Wikipedia article on ensoulment is quite interesting:
"In the Roman Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical penalties for abortion have differed based on varying views of ensoulment. In the early thirteenth century, Innocent III stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of quickening when the mother first felt movement of the fetus. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal Bull, which subjected those that carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and punishment by civil authorities. Gregory XIV subsequently limited the penalty of excommunication only to abortions of quickened children. In 1869, Pope Pius IX clarified the Church's current stance in the Bull Apostolicae Sedis (ibid.), enacting the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy."

Justin (koavf) said...

In a sense, the Catholic approach hasn't changed - based on the best understanding of medical science, a person begins at the moment that there is a separate organism. Since the advent of genetics, we can know that a fertilized embryo - although it can't kick - can be identified as a separate organism.

Anonymous said...

The quote you useddid appear in a papal document, but to describe a proposition that was condemned.

Basically, it's like waiting for me to report one of Don Imus's more notable recent utterings, but then using my report to say that I defamed the women's basketball team.

Anonymous said...

the url got snipped.
this one should get you there. Scroll down to #35.

Unknown said...

Despite what's written here, it's also worth noting that the Didache (an early Christian document from the second century) listed abortion as one of the things that Christian's shouldn't do.

What I don't know, however, is at what point in the fetus' development aborting was actually considered abortion.

For all I know, they might have used the same standard mentioned here.

Anonymous said...

One would think that an organization claiming to be the infallible mouthpiece of God would have more of its facts and opinions about the natural world and His creation nailed down.

You know, little things like: Earth, flat or round? Solar system, heliocentric or geocentric? Person hood, instantaneous, after birth, or in between?

They flip flop more than Kerry.

Anonymous said...

"...or scriptural religious view."

um, just a point of clarification - there were no scriptures cited, because there aren't any on this particular matter.

JC said...

Justin: "Since the advent of genetics, we can know that a fertilized embryo - although it can't kick - can be identified as a separate organism."

Erm, I'm not sure that's an agreeable designation. If you want to get down to what modern genetics and biochemistry tell us, a living being must exhibit 7 characteristics; homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli, and reproduction.

Homeostasis, metabolism, and response all pose questions, if not outright doubt, about calling it an 'organism' at fertilization.

Homeostasis - the ability to control one's internals - is probably the biggest problem, seeing as the placenta and uterus exist quite literally because it cannot do this on its own.

Metabolism - in the case of humans, the break down of organic molecules to produce ATP, and the subsequent use of energy from ATP - is tricky, and depends on which point a fetus is merely capable of using ATP, and at which point it can actually produce it... a factor I know not.

Response speaks directly to 'quickening.' If an organism cannot respond to stimuli in its environment, it is not an organism.

To be considered "alive," an organism must adhere to all seven rules; no rule can be violated.

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