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January 05, 2006



Obviously, thorough-going pro-choice folks will say birth is the definitive event.

I suspect Andrew may go the Mormon route that seems to be catching these days and say implantation is the earliest possible time. (That's why, btw, some Mormons can enthusiastically support ESC research.)


Two points: First, Andrew points out the difference between contemporary usage and that of Aquinas. I have heard this before and have always found it ironic that people who are pro-abortion want to rely on medieval science while the Church wants to rely on modern research.
Second, while granting Amy's point that life is fatal, I would offer a different take. Perhaps at this early stage, when sperm and egg have just fused, God may still decide which of these to ensoul and which not to ensoul. Those not ensouled would cease to grow and develop. Hence in a true sense people are not dying. I see some problems with this view but I think it is another way of thinking about it.

Tom O'Malley

I am very wary of what Mr. Sullivan writes. Why we give him attention is beyond me.

Thomas Dunbar

For some philosophically rigorous discussion wrt zygotes, see G.E.M Anscombe's
"Human Life, Action and Ethics"
there's a minimal review at:

Fred K.

A fascinating question that leads to another. What about the high infant and child mortality rates of the past?


The question Sullivan poses is indeed a challenge, but it also strikes me as being on the same level of "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?" or why does God allow bad things to happen at all. These are the sorts of challenges to the faith that require a more thorough appreciation of God's will. We should not allow worldly evil to challenge our belief in God, or high mortality rates for zygotes to challenge our belief in the sanctity of life.


These are the sorts of challenges to the faith

But the proposition that zygotes are persons isn't an article of faith.

The biggest difficulty for those who would argue that zygotes are persons is not their high mortality rate, but the fact that a zygote can divide and twin.

Susan Peterson

Adult humans die too, not just of old age, but of epidemic disease. Didn't the bubonic plague wipe out a third of the population of Europe at one point? (not sure of the proportion but it was a very large one.) The mortality rate of zygotes doesn't seem to me to have any bearing on whether they are human or whether we have a right to kill them.

Twinning is more of a problem, but I think that can be solved by regarding that as a form of reproduction. Usually we humans reproduce sexually and in that way half of each partner's genetic material together becomes a new human being. But some organisms reproduce asexually, by dividing. When one streptococcus aureus divides into two, what we have is..two streptococcus aureuses (aureusae?). When one human at the zygote stage divides, what we have is two humans at the zygote stage. We can guess that God creates a new soul at the instant the two are separate.
Susan Peterson


It would seem that there should be no more pro-life person than Andrew Sullivan. Especially if you are a proponent of the idea that homosexuality is a genetic trait. That means that it would be identifiable in an amniocentesis...

Think about it.

Mike Melendez

I've heard the twinning argument before and for the life of me I don't understand it. By science, a zygote can grow into a complete entity or even more than one (to touch on twinning). Prior to the zygote, that is not possible. Most human zygotes that do grow into complete entities become individuals (note the lack of twinning). So why give magical status to the latest moment that twinning has been observed?

As soon as ensoulment is added, you've passed into the realm of pseudoscience or theology. God could "ensoul" us just before physical death, if God so desired. We don't know when or how, so I choose the route of theology. Science can't comment on what can't be measured.

By science, we have a human at the zygote stage. I'm with Amy. If that stage is not where we apply "human rights", then when and why? Both implantation and birth are mechanical. Neither fundamentally changes the entity involved. Twinning comes a little closer but at that moment the twins are as close to identical as possible. The fundamental changes then come with time, not unlike the fundamental differences between me at five and me at my current fifty-six.

Though not explicitly mentioned by the advocates, the arguments for implantation and birth as the "human rights" point seem, to me, to be circular. You want something, so you define nature to correspond. This is a most human tendency. So why the twinning argument? Are people really attempting to conflate science and theology? Do they really think ensoulment can be measured and therefore predicted as science requires? And what of the vast majority who don't twin?

Michael Kremer

Susan, the philosophical issue that is raised by twinning -- and which, I think, bothered Anscombe -- is that it isn't clear why one new soul would have to be created, rather than two. When an organism reproduces by splitting, which of the new organisms is identical with the old one? Either answer seems arbitrary, which suggests that the old organism is no longer in existence and has been replaced by two descendants. Which also suggests that at the moment of twinning, if the zygote is a person, one person's life ends and two other lives come into existence. This may seem an unpalatable conclusion.

The review mentioned in the Tablet of Anscombe's book is, it might be noted, by Michael Dummett -- like Anscombe, one of the greatest British philosophers of the post-war generation, who also happens to be Catholic.


Perhaps a zygote that is destined to twin already has two souls.


After all, presumably conjoined twins have two souls.


Rick is right, to divide is a more complicated question. Susan makes a good point about reproduction. But wouldn't that make the one twin son of the other, instead of brother?

I think the problem lies with we thinking too hard about the question of the soul. Every human has a soul. Does it really matter how? I don't think we could produce a souless person. Clones will have souls even if they are not produced in the current fashion.


I'm with amt. God knows if a twinning will occur and he bestows two souls on the one body. Just as two souls reside in the not quite two bodies of conjoined twins.

Susan Peterson

I accept the critques of my proposal. They are valid. I still say, the zygote before twinning is human, the two zygotes after twinning are human, God ensouls both, we don't know exactly how He deals with the issue of which zygotic human gets the "new" soul.

Mike, I didn't really think we were discussing a scientific issue at all. Science taught us about the zygote stage in human development and that twinning occurs. It has nothing to say about the moral status of a zygote. That is already a philosophical question, and if we bring in the idea of the immortal soul, a theological question.

Susan Peterson


Sullivan and others who make this argument about "natural abortions" from failed pregnancies miss a key difference, however: the difference between a natural death and deliberate killing. By this logic, all murder should be legal also. After all, if we're all bound to die eventually, why does it matter if we die naturally or are killed deliberately? Sullivan's logic here doesn't even rise to the level of sophmoric.

He also errs in criticzing those whom he says insist on the "belief" that zygotes are human beings. Again, his logic here is pathetic. It is not a "belief", it is a scientific fact that from the moment of conception the fertilized egg is a genetically distinct human being in the earliest stage of development. One can perhaps argue about the legal status and protection to be afforded such embryonic human beings, but one cannot argue that they are "non-human" (Even the odious Peter Singer concedes this. As vile as his views are, he is one of the only truly logically coherent pro-abort around).

It is also disingenuous for Sullivan to claim the authority of Aquinas to make his argument (What is the "new natural law" by the way? Is this the latest neologism du jour to brand one's enemies with, much like "neo-con" and "theo-con"?). Aquinas was working on the basis of scientific and biological knowledge as it stood over 700 years ago, when "quickening" was often the only way to determine if one was pregnant, and knowledge of embryo development was rudimentary at best (if not non-existent for all practical purposes). Obviously, our understanding of biology and embryology has changed quite dramatically since that time. I have no doubt that armed with such knowledge, Aquinas would agree that all human beings must be protected from deliberate killing from the moment of conception.


It is common for prolife Catholics to account for Aquinas's (and Aristotle's) teaching that animation is the point of becoming a person/ensouled is an error resulting from "bad science" corrected by more modern "good science." This is not true. Medievals and ancients obviously knew that the embryo/zyogote "lived" in some sense before animation, but saw the embryo/zyogote as having an existence insufficient to contain a human soul. This is no different in principle than those now who hold, for example, that an embryo/fetus is not a person/full human being until there are higher brain functions. "Science" in no way disproved Aquinas's position that animation is the indicia of personhood/ensoulment, any more than it disproves a philosophical position that claims higher brain functions are required for "personhood."


Celine, can you reference any actual passages from Aquinas or others that speak of "embyros/zygotes" living before animation? Did these terms even exist back then? In an age before x-rays, ultrasound, microscopes, etc., how would one have any knowledge of an embryo/zygote "living" before animation/quickening? At that time wasn't quickening the only reliable indicia of pregnancy?

It just seems clear to me that the attempt of Sullivan and others to co-opt Aquinas and other mediaevals and ancients on "quickening" to support contemporary abortion practices is unsound both scientifically and philosophically.


What interests me is the language involve in this issue. A zygote and a foetus are both stages of human development, same as babies, children and adults, but giving them scientific, Latin names, has depersonalised them. They can then be seen as merely part of a scientific process, to be viewed clinically.


"it is a scientific fact that from the moment of conception the fertilized egg is a genetically distinct human being in the earliest stage of development."

hi all - from a frequent reader - I just don't post often but -

Just wanted to say that ACOG (American College of Obstetrics and gynecology) has redefined that the moment of conception is at the time of implantation.

from Prolife.org (sorry lost the link)

Ask anyone on the street to define "conception" and they will call it synonymous with fertilization, when human ovum meets human spermatozoon, and a new 46-chromosomed human being is formed. But in the boardrooms of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology 30 years ago, the obvious, commonsense definition of "conception" was actually changed. "Conception", according to this official medical college, no longer meant "fertilization.” It was redefined to mean implantation of a blastocyst on the uterine wall, typically occurring 1-2 weeks after fertilization (5).

But why? Why on earth would the ACOG change its definition of conception from fertilization to implantation? The chilling answer was suggested by Dr. Richard Sosnowski of ACOG, who in his 1984 presidential address stated:

"I do not deem it excellent to play semantic gymnastics in a profession … It is equally troublesome to me that, with no scientific evidence to validate the change, the definition of conception as the successful spermatic penetration of an ovum was redefined as the implantation of a fertilized ovum. It appears to me that the only reason for this was the dilemma produced by the possibility that the intrauterine contraceptive device might function as an abortifacient" (6,7).

jenn E.

David R.

I'm with Dennis. The appeal to Aquinas is faulty in a couple of respects. First, it is based on the scientific knowledge of the middle ages (which I think taught that before quickening there was a mass waiting to be infused with the information necessary to develop). Second, equivocating ensoulment to the need for legal personhood is reckless because we can't know for sure when ensoulment occurs. Specifically, the fact that we don't know if it is a person with a soul does not permit us to assume there isn't one an kill it.

Zach Frey

if you believe that human beings exist from the moment a zygote comes into being, there are almost no environments more dangerous for humans than inside their own mother.

Especially if that mother walks into an abortion mill.

God have mercy.


I too have the question that Dennis has for Celine concerning what St. Thomas Aquinas knew about embryology. It is my understanding that it was not until the early to mid-nineteenth century that science understood that a separate living organism existed before "quickening."

What by the way is the "failure rate" for embryos? What percentage that are formed do not implant or spontaneously miscarry after implantation?

I am as pro-life as they come but the issue of spontaneous abortion is one that troubles me. Why would God call a life into existence only to have it die before anything meaningful happened to it? What troubles me is that spontaneous abortion seems more consistent with an uncaring and meaningless universe than it is with a process that has transcendent meaning. As many here have noted, many of God's ways are inscrutable and I think that's the best answer that can be given. But this answer does not relieve the sense that spontaneous abortion makes life seem meaningless.

c matt

The biggest difficulty for those who would argue that zygotes are persons is not their high mortality rate, but the fact that a zygote can divide and twin.

I really don't see why from a legal perspective this should be a problem. What is a soul anyway? Sounds like mixing religion and state - to be a protected person, I have to have this "religious" soul thing first. What if I am an athiest and don't believe in religious concepts such as souls? What if I am a completely materialist zygote and all we are is a collection of molecules arranged in the genetic pattern of human beings? Seems that is enough from a material pov and therefore s/b sufficient legally. Existence as a separately identifiable human being should be all that matters.

Twinning only means there is a potential for another human being to come into existence - it does not undo the fact that there was one human being before the twinning. Just like when one cell divides into two cells, that does not negate that the one cell existed before the two.

But this answer does not relieve the sense that spontaneous abortion makes life seem meaningless.

Any more meaningless than being born in an obscure corner of the world to die of starvation without anyone ever knowing you? Perhaps the very purpose of bringing such a life into being is to call attention to the fact that even such life is meaningful to God.

c matt

Why would God call a life into existence only to have it die before anything meaningful happened to it?

Seems that to God, and therefore to us, being called into existence is meaningful in and of itself.

Tom Haessler

Hello, Dan,

We usually think of the "Fall" as having effects only on the individual. But Tradition and Scripture speak of a fallen world. And really there are two falls - the fall of the angels and the fall of humanity. The latter embedded in the former. So there may be deleterious effects on the sub-human and the human world (even at the biological level). This could be a partial explanation of genetic defects, for example. And the Council of Trent said that we're worse off after the fall in BODY and in soul.

Mike Melendez

Susan wrote: Mike, I didn't really think we were discussing a scientific issue at all. Science taught us about the zygote stage in human development and that twinning occurs. It has nothing to say about the moral status of a zygote. That is already a philosophical question, and if we bring in the idea of the immortal soul, a theological question.

I think we're basically in agreement. Philosophy is what assigns a moral status to the entity. I can understand the twinning argument as something philosophy has considered but can't answer yet (if ever). But I have only just now heard it presented that way, by you, Susan. The previous presentations I have heard have been that until the primitive streak appears (the last observed moment of twinning, _if_ twinning occurs), the entity is not human. Given no twinning, the case in 90+% of us, how does the philosophical puzzle even apply? The issue of who is who's descendent doesn't even exist. If the moral argument is consistency, that twins and singles must be treated alike, then why does the much rarer case dominate?

Donald R. McClarey

"Why would God call a life into existence only to have it die before anything meaningful happened to it?"

Existence itself demonstrates the infinite power and glory of God. No matter how brief our existence, it is a gift of infinite value from our Creator.

"As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been born blind.
2 His followers asked him, "Teacher, whose sin caused this man to be born blind--his own sin or his parents' sin?"
3 Jesus answered, "It is not this man's sin or his parents' sin that made him be blind. This man was born blind so that God's power could be shown in him."

I think what Jesus said is applicable to all of us, whether we live for one second or for more than a hundred years. Every life is a demonstration of God's power and His infinite love.


Twinning itself is only part of the problem. Identical twins can and do recombine after twinning to become a single being again. How does one account for that?

Even more problematic, fraternal (non-identical twins) can and do combine to form a single being with two sets of genes, sometimes of two sexes, with one or the other set of genes sometimes dominating in one part or function of the body or the other.

If the existence of a human biological or "genetic" code plus growth are taken as the criteria for "personhood," as most of us prolifers claim, then what is a recombinant identical twin or a fraternal twins who unite into a "mosaic"? Is this one or two persons? Isn't the "singleness" of personhood a quality apart from genetic identities for such beings and, by implication, all of us?

Likewise, if sexual identity is a matter of genes (not a "social construct"), then what do proponents of this position have to say to a genuine bi-sexual mosaic? Doesn't such a person have a right to be either or both sexes?


Why would God call a life into existence only to have it die before anything meaningful happened to it?

It seems this is applying human standards of meaning and time rather than divine. Doesn't the psalmist remind us that: "a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night." Psalm 90: 3-5

God exists outside of time so our scale of measurement that says these individuals have a brief life does not apply. All men still have souls that will exist in eternity, however brief their life on earth.

Catherine L

Back to Sullivan's argument. A couple of years ago the Houston Chronicle op-ed page published an article by 2 Methodist ministers arguing that a 20% miscarriage rate is a justification for elective abortion. They also used free will as a justification: "God gave women intellect and ability to make this choice. Who are we to deny it?", or something along those lines. It's amazing what passes for reasoning these days.

Of course the only pro-life response they published on it was almost totally incoherent.


Cool -- So I can go on that embezzlement spree I've been, shoot my body full of heroin, run someone over in my car and finish things off by raping a child -- this free will thing is groovy.


make that "I've been thinking about . . ."

edit, kath, edit.

Old Zhou

All these zygotes are the products of eros.
I wonder if "saving eros" has anything to do with them.


Most pro-abortion people think a developing person becomes alive when 1) the fetus begins to have consciousness and/or 2) is "viable" outside her mother's womb and/or 3)feels pain, i.e. especially when being aborted. Many pro-abortion people would say that these things happen in the sixth or seventh month of pregnancy, and any younger fetus, embryo, or zygote is fair game for obliteration.

Some extreme pro-abortion people believe that no unborn children are truly human. Some like Peter Singer believe that even born children especially with handicaps can be killed. Phew, that was fun.

My take is pro-abortion people consider zygotes, embryos and fetuses to have less status than pets. I don't mean to be offensive in this pro-life forum. While animals don't have consciousness (I think therefore I am, etc.) they certainly feel pain and can live independently. Advocates of abortions differ radically from Catholics and other pro-lifers in their understanding of unborn humans. They just don't want to say what they think, because it sounds so dreadful.

Donald R. McClarey

"They just don't want to say what they think, because it sounds so dreadful."

Or rather because it would awake more of their slumbering fellow citizens to the fact that they regard Fido with a lot more reverence than the smallest of their fellow human beings, and thereby lose votes. If they were honest, their slogan would not be SAFE, LEGAL AND RARE, but rather SAFE, LEGAL AND WE DONT CARE (for the unborn that is). I would actually respect that more than some politico with a 100% pro-abort voting record braying that he is "personally opposed" or bemoaning the "tragedy of abortion".


Following Ramesh Ponnuru's latest reply to Sullivan on NRO, I notice that Sullivan has now elaborated his argument by posting some e-mails he has received from readers praising his latest crusade and claiming that the logic of Robert George, the Pope, and others who oppose procured abortion at all stages of pregnancy would mean having to resort to totalitarian methods of oppression in order to protect zygotes from spontanreous natural abortions and miscarriages while in their mothers' dangerous wombs!

Um, speaking of logic, what is it that Sullivan and his cheerleaders still don't understand about the difference between natural death/spontaneous natural abortions/miscarriages and deliberate killing? This is a very basic distinction. To fail to grasp it indicates that we are dealing with people profoundly impervious to reason and common sense.

Sullivan used to be an interesting and thought-provoking writer even when one disagreed with him. For the past couple of years, however, he has become such a shrill bore that he can no longer be taken seriously on any subject worth mentioning.


Precise point? What possible basis do you have for assuming that there is a precise point?

If you make that assumption I guess it takes you to the Catholic Church's position. The two answers that make any sense are "fertilization" and "birth" and while the moral consequences of both answers are repugnant in some cases, the moral consequences of answering "birth" are for more so, and it is far better the err on the side preserving life and assuming others' humanity.

But if there's one thing that the science is clear on, it's that there is no single moment. I don't know what the basis is for the assumption that there is a single moment.

Think of a sunrise, instead of a light switch. What is the precise point when night ends and day begins?

There is no definitive event, no zap, no lighting switch. Takes 7 whole days to make a world even according to young earth creationists. Takes 9 months-ish to make a child. During those months to say clearly "this is a person as much as an infant is a person" isn't right; to say "this is not a person" isn't right; all we know is that this is becoming more of a person every day, every minute, every second.


The recombination of twins really shook me when I first read about it years ago. I think it's a much more difficult phenomenon than the death of zygotes. I'm still totally against abortion, but I have to say I'm less horrified by it at such an early stage.

Recombination of twins shoots an enormous hole in the idea that ensoulment takes place at the moment of conception because it makes that simple idea much more complicated -- much less "elegant" as mathmaticians or philosophers would say. You can scrunch up your mind to sort of force yourself to believe that ensoulment at conception still takes place even though different soul-carrying zygotes combine into one person, but frankly, it takes too much energy to hold yourself in that position for long.

If ensoulment happens at conception, we're left with no satisfactory explanation of what happens to one (or both?) of the souls when twins recombine. There is no reasonable belief to be had about what happens with the missing soul. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe souls MUST be distinct in Catholic doctrine. THEY don't combine or divide. The idea of one human being with two souls is outlandish and, I assume, also against doctrine.

The only thing we're left with is to declare that what happens to one or both of the souls at the point of recombination is a mystery that God knows and we don't. Look at the two simplest options:

1. Either He put souls into zygotes that were destined to become part of someone else and lose those souls -- and obviously did so for some reason known only to Him -- or

2. He never put a souls into those zygotes in the first place and only ensouled the creature that resulted from the combination. If this alternative is the case, then He ensouled that human being in a circumstance that nearly all other human beings never experience. That just doesn't seem correct, does it?

We're left, really, with nothing seeming correct -- in other words, with a mystery. We might as well say we don't know when ensoulment takes place and there's no reasonable way to determine that point.

Why still be against abortion? Because killing other human beings, at whatever stage of development they're at, is wrong, even if those human beings are only potential carriers of souls. That is, even if they're not fully human yet. Human life is that sacred.

One practical problem with this position is that it makes it much harder to argue against early abortion with an atheist, but God put this obstacle in the way, and, after all, He doesn't put obstacles in our way that we can't overcome.

(Sorry about the length, but this post was years in the making.)


Forget that comment about arguing abortion with an atheist. Obviously the atheist doesn't believe in ensoulment anyway. What was I thinking ...?


There are pro-life atheists, btw.

While debates about ensoulment may not be helpful with an atheist, pro-life viewpoints need not rest on theistic morality. This is a very important point never to forget.

Susan Peterson

To most of us here, that many zygotes die from natural causes, whether it be 10% or 90%, says nothing about whether WE have a right to kill them deliberately. Yet to Sullivan and his readers, if the miniscule size and undeveloped form of the zygote did not make it acceptable to kill it, its likelihood to die on its own does. Now these are not stupid people. They know the difference between a car rolling over a cliff because there was ice on the road or it had defective brakes, and a car rolling off a cliff because someone pushed it over in order to kill the driver. There has to be some other difference between the standards they are using to evaluate the situation and the ones we are,
some fundamental assumption which is different.
I don't have this really refined into an argument, but I think they use a calculus of pleasure and pain to make their moral judgments. Not only whether they would be causing pain to the zygote, but what future pleasures they might be depriving it of by taking its life. If it were rather likely to die anyway, and thus not have any pleasures, then one has much less likelihood to be depriving it of any. This is why the argument that a child born to a mother who doesn't want it might be abused is so cogent to them. By killing the unborn child in this situation you are sparing it more pain, in their view, than you are depriving it of pleasure. If there is a right to life, it is a right to the pleasures and satisfactions of life that they are thinking of; therefore someone who can anticipate few pleasures and perhaps much pain, such as someone severely handicapped, does not have that right, in fact, the only right he has is the right to die, to be killed to spare him pain. And when one is also considering the pleasures and pains of the mother, and likely, of the father, of this tiny zygote, into the balance, it is clear how the calculation will turn out.
This is also why pets are valued much more highly than the life of a zygote. They can feel pleasure and pain. They may have some rudimentary self awareness. And they give pleasure to those who own them.
So how do we base our very different understanding of why taking a human life is wrong? There is the purely religious Biblically based argument that God said "Thou shalt not kill." There is the argument that God is the author of life and only He has the right to determine its end. That one would make it wrong to kill any living thing, however. We could make a Biblical argument that God specifically authorized killing animals in Genesis. Not using the Bible, wny do we say it is ok to kill animals but not humans? We could say that human beings are "made in the image and likeness of God" and therefore have a higher status than animals,that it is destroying God's image to kill them. Is there an argument which does not rely on any religious belief at all? If we said it is because humans are rational beings and have self awareness and are able to value their own lives, then zygotes don't fall into this category, nor do the profoundly retarded or those with severe brain damage like Terri Schiavo. We would be back in the territory of the pleasure/pain calculus.

I think I am saying that even when we think we are reasoning from general principles, not from religion, we are really basing our arguments and our understanding of a situation on underlying religious and philosophical principles which are radically different from those whose value systems have become almost totally divorced from the Judeo Christian tradition. ( Yes, two different traditions, but next door neighbors compared to the dark side of the moon value system of our opponents in this matter.)

Maybe more about twins and souls later.

Susan Peterson

Mike Melendez

Katherine wrote: There is no definitive event, no zap, no lighting switch.

Fascinating, I wonder what you make of fertilization.

Human life is indeed a continuum. I know I hope to keep learning until the day I die. Then I hope (and am trying to be ready for) learning a heaven of a lot more.

Mike Melendez

David wrote: If ensoulment happens at conception, we're left with no satisfactory explanation of what happens to one (or both?) of the souls when twins recombine.

Since when is God required to give us explanations for everything, let alone "satisfactory" explanations? We work with what we have and recognize that the darkness beyond is bigger than we can imagine.

Twinning or recombining: again I ask how do these much rarer and the rarest cases trump the fact that the vast majority of us are untouched by them? What's wrong with saying that here is the most common case (by a long shot) and we don't know how to handle the outliers, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt?

I've always found "I don't know" to be a perfectly valid statement. I couldn't learn anything if I didn't start there.

Mike Melendez

I think Susan onto something in attempting to guess at the philosophical viewpoints of others. If I'm not mistaken, the pleasure/pain approach even has a name, hedonism, though it is archaic in that usage.

I suspect most people's approaches are far more utilitarian than that, including our own, in details of everyday life. (Careful, Mike, utilitarian is also a philosophical term.) I think we, all of us, see an issue without context, reach a conclusion from that, and then look for arguments to support the conclusion. That makes rare details like twinning, recombination, hemaphrotism, and on and on assume huge importance sheerly from novelty value. They register where everyday mundane facts, e.g. fertilization, are too much in the background.

Being open to new arguments is key to forming a viewpoint based on reason, but that takes a lot of work. So we reserve that effort to "really important" issues if we make it at all.

I'm glad here we'll all making that effort and thank Andrew Sullivan for giving Amy an opportunity to get us to think about it.

Mike L

Ask anyone on the street to define "conception" and they will call it synonymous with fertilization, when human ovum meets human spermatozoon, and a new 46-chromosomed human being is formed.

I am not a bioligist or geneologist, but my understanding is that this is not always the case. Sometimes an extra chromosone gets added in, which can have anything from major to minor effects. Apparently there are cases of people have both xx and xy chromosomes, and I have long read of xyy people. I assume that if they have three copies of a chormosome that they are not missing a copy of another one. Since we generally define a species by their chromosomes, are those with a strange number of chromosomes considered human?

I have a friend who's child was a trisomy 13, that is having an exra 13th chromosome. As far as I know this is always fatal. His child did live for several weeks before starving to death since it had no esophagus and a none functioning digestive track. At what point can we decide that a genically defective feotus is not really human, or can we ever make that choice?

Mike L

Oh well, I found out how to make italicized text, now if someone will tell me how to end it, I would apprciate it (sigh).

Old Zhou

<>Italic off!<> Please?


Mike Melendez writes: "Since when is God required to give us explanations for everything, let alone "satisfactory" explanations?"

Well, He isn't required, but if WE are going to try to say that ensoulment happens at a particular time, then we have to account for recombination of twins in the womb.

Mike Melendez also writes: "Twinning or recombining: again I ask how do these much rarer and the rarest cases trump the fact that the vast majority of us are untouched by them? What's wrong with saying that here is the most common case (by a long shot) and we don't know how to handle the outliers, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt?"

Again, we're talking about what we can know, not about what God can do. Recombination undermines the idea that we can know that ensoulment takes place at conception. I no longer believe we can know that. That's all I was trying to show. I'm against abortion because I DO NOT know for certain that ensoulment takes place earlier, not because I DO know that it DOES take place at conception. If twin zygotes can be recombined, then I believe we lack the ability to say for certain that ensoulment takes place at an earlier stage. If we could say that it did, I think it would make the case against abortion stronger. I'm sorry that it doesn't.


At fertilization the egg and sperm combine to form a single cell with 46 chromosomes.

Mike Melendez

David writes: Recombination undermines the idea that we can know that ensoulment takes place at conception.

Did you notice that I didn't mention ensoulment other than to complain about people who attempt to turn it into science? Ensoulment is a theological idea and is not necessary to deciding humanness which is biological or "human rights" which is philosophical and decided by politics.

Science has determined that humanness begins with conception, i.e. fertilization. Prior to that we just have parts. Yes, the boundary is fuzzy, but a fuzzy boundary does not invalidate the category. Blue is blue even if it is somewhat green on the edge.

The philosophical question is the big one. To whom do we grant "human rights"? That requires that we drawn a line. You can follow religion, Amy's being a Catholic blog, in which case there's no problem as the teaching is clear. You can also try to understand the larger community. I think that's what we're attempting here. If the line should be other than fertilization, as Sullivan argues, then where and why? Sullivan makes his argument without context as others have demonstrated. Birth as the line seems equally without context to me. Susan has suggested that some are consistent in making the judgment from the idea of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. I grant the consistency of the foundation, but I have no idea how you make the judgment other than in the immediate present and only for myself. Here, I can only be sure of a point and everything else is fuzzy. I still don't understand why David, for example, is lost in the humanness fuzzy boundary when there's so much blue around. And stop thinking of ensoulment as some kind of natural phenomenon.


Yes, that great argument for killing more humans: gee a lot of this group die anyway so it must be ok to kill some more. Lots of children died up until the advent of modern medicine. The survival rates for the average infant or child were not that impressive, maybe it should have been ok to thin our the population by killing the young ones?

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