With these two sentences, Missouri’s state lawmakers have appointed themselves to the position of guardians of the mind of God:
“The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”
Missouri lags behind South Dakota, which was the first state to accept, unasked, the position of God’s stenographer.
Every woman seeking an abortion in Missouri will now be required to read (or at least confirm that she has been given) a brochure containing the above language before termination of a pregnancy.
As Tim Townsend of the Religious News Service points out, although “[scientists agree that when a sperm and egg unite, a living organism results,” what makes this new law problematice (to say the least) is that the conclusion Missouri’s lawmakers have linked to this simple biological fact is religious or philosophical, not scientific and certainly not universally shared:
“The distinction is between human life where you’re talking about an organism as opposed to a human life in a moral sense,” said Bonnie Steinbock, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Albany. “Those are two different debates that go back to Aquinas and the issue of ensoulment.”
Aquinas, and Augustine before him, wrestled with concepts first introduced by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. Aristotle believed that a soul could only inhabit a fetus when that fetus began to look human, a timetable he set at 40 days for men and 90 days for women.
The 40-day notion prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church until the 19th century, when Pope Pius IX removed the distinction between souled and unensouled fetuses from church doctrine.
Since then, the Catholic Church has conceded that man can never know empirically when an embryo gains its soul. Pope John Paul II said “the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo.”
Protestant denominations have a variety of positions on life’s beginnings, although more conservative evangelical churches largely embrace the Vatican’s absolutist views.
But other faith traditions disagree, and have for centuries.
“The Talmud says that from the moment of fertilization until 40 days, the embryo has a status of being nearly liquid,” said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “The question for Jewish law is not when does life begin, but when is the embryo entitled to the justice and compassion of society?”
Islamic law closely follows Jewish law, though different streams within Islam have various views, said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia and author of “Islamic Biomedical Ethics.”
Most Sunni Muslims “believe that life begins at the turn of the first trimester,” Sachedina said.
Hindus believe in reincarnation, so life beginning “at conception” creates theological problems. “Life cannot begin at conception when our lives have not ended in the first place,” said Cromwell Crawford, a retired professor at the University of Hawaii and author of “Hindu Bioethics for the Twenty-First Century.”
Critics, including Kate Lovelady of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, say the new law imposes one narrow religious view on others. “A lot of our members don’t believe life begins at conception–that it’s much more complicated than that.”