C Rulon: Abortion & fetal idolatry – Part 4 (Souls, science & evolution)

By | March 28, 2011

By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College (ruloncl@yahoo.com)

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.

In conclusion

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.”

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[1] http://www.population-security.org/swom-98-06.htm

[2] Maguire, 1989, Abortion Rights and Fetal Personhood

[3] 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.

[4]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 . Also see and

[5]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;

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