By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
Fetal idolatry and ensoulment
Elevating tiny, mindless, senseless human embryos and fetuses to a revered exalted status is fetal idolatry according to Rev. John Swomley, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, St. Paul School of Theology. Swomley writes that “Fetal idolatry is the major battleground issue for both the patriarchal and clerical control of women.” Fetal idolatry is strengthened by and dependant on the religious belief that what sets us apart from the animals and gives our lives ultimate meaning is the existence of a divine soul—a soul that appears with God’s miracle of fertilization.
Yet, given the importance of the soul in Christianity, the Bible is surprisingly vague regarding what a soul is, who has one, and when it enters the body. As a result, over the ages Christian theologians have variously asserted that the soul entered at conception, at the time of “quickening” (the 15-16th week), at birth and a short time after birth.
Churches over the centuries have also repeatedly changed their positions regarding the time of ensoulment, as have popes. In addition, for centuries there have been arguments over whether females, non-white races, and members of other religions had souls. Recently there have been debates over whether “test-tube” babies had souls, or sentient beings from other planets. Theologians have even argued over what happens to a soul if a blastula divides to become identical twins. Thus, rationality dictates that there’s just no way to tell for sure which religion (if any) to listen to regarding the time of ensoulment.
Many liberal Christian groups have endorsed a woman’s right to choose based on a belief that the soul can enter the fetus only after the brain and body have become sufficiently developed to receive a soul. For still others, it’s when breathing becomes potentially possible. Most conservative Christians, on the other hand, disagree. They claim that human life is sacred and to be protected from the moment of conception (which most believe is the time of ensoulment).
Fetal idolatry and the paranormal/supernatural
The possibility of divine souls in embryos would not seem so scientifically implausible if paranormal and/or supernatural phenomena (e.g., mind over matter, psychic readings, seeing into the future, past-life regressions, communicating with the deceased, near-death experiences, and weeping religious statues) were actually known to exist. Yet, after 100 years of negative research findings regarding the existence of paranormal and supernatural phenomena—after all the experimental variables have been tightly controlled to eliminate chance, errors, bias, carelessness and fraud—not a single person has yet been found to possess paranormal powers; not a single so-called supernatural event has ever been scientifically validated. All such claims have turned out to be unverifiable, scientifically explainable, wishful thinking, illusions, hallucinations, or fraudulent.
Fetal idolatry and scientific advances
Many religious folk consider pregnancies to be miracles from God and the chemical reactions of life imbued with “supernatural energies” and “vital forces”. Yet, after several hundred years of extremely fruitful research into the physics, chemistry and biology of life, including our four billion-year evolutionary history, it’s now widely accepted by scientists worldwide that all processes in living organisms (from fertilization to death) strictly obey the laws of nature. No supernatural inputs have ever been found (or even appear necessary) for fertilization to occur, for embryos to develop, or for life to function. This includes the human mind which appears to be totally a function of the neuro-anatomy and physiology of our evolved brain. While modern neuroscience cannot conclusively rule out the possibility that disembodied consciousness could exist, there now is a staggering amount of evidence to the contrary.
Today, the chemical reactions of life are routinely carried out in laboratories around the world. In fact, it’s now possible to insert the genetic material from a body cell (like a cheek cell) into an unfertilized egg and have it grow into an embryo. It is now possible to take living human cells (like the ones shed every time we scrape our knee) and coax them into developing into human embryos.
With advances in scientific knowledge, the need for supernatural forces to explain life and all its processes disappeared as a belief system for the large majority of scientists over 50 years ago. Today, the large majority of scientists are quite skeptical that an immortal soul (or anything else of a paranormal or supernatural nature) exists. However, fetal idolaters and other anti-choice supporters tend to either remain willfully ignorant or to reject all scientific knowledge that conflicts with their religious dogmas and beliefs.
Fetal development and evolution
The way a particular structure develops in an organism has proved successful in providing a window into how that structure evolved. The use of development to clarify evolutionary questions has spawned a new field: evolutionary developmental biology.
The human embryo first resembles a generalized vertebrate embryo with a number of fish embryo characteristics, then an amphibian-reptilian-like embryo, then a generalized mammal embryo, and finally a primate embryo. A six-week human embryo has a tail which occupies about one-fourth of its entire length. This tail does not continue to grow but remains a vestige along with a few tail muscles.
The early human embryo possesses a kidney very similar to that of a jawless fish. This kidney is completely replaced later by an amphibian-like kidney which, itself, later becomes part of our reproductive system as the mammalian kidney makes its appearance.
The human embryo has a series of six gill clefts in its neck, fully equipped with cartilage gill bars and gill arteries as in a fish embryo. But the gills never develop as they do in fish embryos. Instead, the first two bars end up forming the basis of the human embryo’s future jaws, repeating the evolutionary process that led from the jawless fish to the bony fish with jaws some 450 million years ago. The remaining gill bars become our larynx and supports for our tongue muscles. And the “gill” arteries in the human embryo either develop new connections or disappear altogether.
Male mammals have nipples. Female mammals evolved nipples for nursing. But males and females of each species are merely variations of the same embryological plan for that species. Thus, embryonic pathways for nipple development exist in all mammal fetuses, but later become more developed and functional in females. Simply put, males have nipples because they had strong survival value in females and so were selected for. For the same reason, human male embryos have ducts for making uterine tubes and a uterus. And human female embryos have ducts for making two vas deferens, the sperm carrying tubes in males.
The beliefs that a divinely planned human being with a soul exists at conception and that this event has special moral and religious significance are unprovable theological beliefs, not scientific facts. Yet, legislators continue to pass laws based on medieval theologies and pseudoscience that demean and endanger women and, in effect, treat them as obligatory breeding machines.
Although birth control has come a long way, contraception is still not perfect. There are also major religious, patriarchal, financial, educational and social obstacles to birth control. In addition, humans are a very sexual species that can be quite fallible and careless. We are into denial, sexual guilt and embarrassment. There’s also alcohol and other drugs which lubricate sexual behavior, while reducing responsibility. And never forget the hundreds of millions of young, sexually aggressive, determined, macho males.
As a result, we live on a planet literally awash with 80 million unplanned and mostly unwanted mindless, senseless developing human embryos every year, year after year! That’s an entire United States full of unplanned embryos every four years! And every year over 40 million women choose to, or are driven to abort, legal or not.
Yet, for those who are driven by power and money, medieval religious beliefs, male dominance, moral zealotry and fetal idolatry none of this matters. The enemy must be defeated. “We are called by God to save all His unborn children from being slaughtered by the baby killers.”
 Maguire, 1989, Abortion Rights and Fetal Personhood
 The Bible seems clear to many that a person does not begin at conception, but with breathing. In Genesis 2:7, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (in some translations, “a living soul.”) The Hebrew word for a human being or living soul is nephesh, the word for “breath”. “Nephesh” occurs over 700 times in the Bible as the identifying factor in human life. Thus, if the fetus is not breathing (or if its lungs have not yet developed, (before the 24th week) it is not yet a person in God’s eyes.
Druckman,D., & Swets, J. (eds). Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories and Techniques (National Academy Press). The National Academy of Sciences concluded emphatically that 130 years of research had produced no scientific justification for the existence of any paranormal phenomena. Also, in 1997 the James Randi Educational Foundation reported that anyone who could demonstrate any paranormal, or psychic ability under tightly controlled scientific conditions would be paid $1,000,000. Many have tried and so far no one’s collected a dime! See
Zeman, A., 2003, Consciousness: A User’s Guide (Yale University Press). Zeman is a neurologist in Edinburgh;
Fischbach, G., 1992, “Mind and Brain,” Scientific American, September. Dr. Fischbach is a professor of neurobiology and chairman of the department of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.;
B. Hinrichs, “Brain Research and Folk Psychology,” The Humanist, March/April 1997;