The moment of quickening

Patsy McGarry has an interesting article in the Irish Times today on the surprisingly fluid nature of the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion:

… some of the church’s greatest teachers and saints believed no homicide was involved if abortion took place before the foetus was infused with a soul, known as “ensoulment”. This was believed to occur at “quickening”, when the mother detected the child move for the first time in her womb. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV determined it at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks.

St Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) held “the vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without (ie by God)”.

Centuries of enlightened thinking (yes, even in the Catholic Church) understood that there were nuances of life, that human development was a process of many stages rather than an instantaneous event. He did not have access to our scientific knowledge, but nothing we have learned since has refuted Aquinas’s basic hypothesis. We now know the exact stage of embryonic development when the central nervous system forms, and have a fair idea when awareness of stimuli such as pain develops. It is no accident that Pope Gregory’s moment of quickening is similar to commonly defined abortion limits, because they both derive from the same logical considerations. The transition from “vegetative” to “animal” states of being is grounded in hard evidence, even if the line between “animal” and human consciousness continues to evade us.

It does seem strange then, that some time in the 19th century – just as scientific advances were shedding light on the moment of conception – the irrational notion of an instantaneous beginning to human existence began to take hold. One moment, there are apparently just a few cells swimming around and in the next a perfectly formed human soul appears, even though nothing much physically has changed. Perhaps it is just our instinctive aversion to ambiguity – we humans do like our tidy mental pigeonholes. Whatever the source of this gut feeling, it is difficult to muster a logical argument to back it up. If mere clusters of human cells were a human person, then HeLa would be a person, or the precipitate from your last blood test. If personhood were defined by a unique combination of DNA, then my twin nieces would not be two separate people. If it were the particular expression of that DNA, then how can you say that different organs constitute a single person? The only consistent way to define a “person” is through the presence of a mind. I think, therefore I am.

Without a mind, and by extension a brain to contain it, a person cannot exist. We already accept that braindead adults are no longer people and so can be unplugged and grieved for in peace without the law getting involved. If a living thing that no longer has a working brain is not a person, then surely a living thing that never had a working brain is not a person either?

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  • Coll Ciotach

    No – the analysis of Catholic teaching is rational – when the child becomes human it attains the right to life. The nonsense about thinking is really suspect. It leads to obvious questions such as. When do we first think? How do you measure thought? Is there a level of complexity of thought that makes you human? And so on.

  • Coll Citach,

    Please do tell us, then – Is one fertilized cell human? Or does it take two, or four…
    I’d love to know.

  • Apology, Ciotach.

  • socaire

    You’re OK, joe. In your case we’ll accept one :0

  • Coll,

    Yes, it leads to obvious questions – but they are in principle tractable. We already deal with them every day when a doctor declares a patient brain dead, or decides to discontinue life-saving treatment. To pretend that there is some absolute guideline out there for difficult moral decisions is to abjure responsibility, and can lead to grotesque anomalies. Better to admit that uncertainty exists and try to manage it wisely, than to pretend that messy reality obeys our arbitrary constructions.

  • RepublicanStones

    I must admit, I’m bitterly disappointed that this thread isn’t about a certain Scottish immortal 🙁

  • Alias

    There isn’t any real dispute about when human life begins since all sides agree that it begins when the sperm meets the ovum at conception. The dispute is about the stage of life, if any, at which it should be lawful to terminate human life.

    There is no test of ‘humanness’ beyond the life itself. Attempts to invent such abitrary tests are in actuality attempts to deny life – specifically, to legalise the abortion of it.

  • Alias,

    HeLa is human, and is alive. But it is not a person. A vegetative patient on life support is human, and alive. And yet we don’t arrest doctors for unplugging vegetative patients. We already have these arbitrary tests that you decry.

  • Alias

    “HeLa is human, and is alive. But it is not a person.”

    All such cells came from same person, conceived in the normal manner. Unless you’re arguing that your dandruff (which I’m sure you don’t have) has a right to life and other rights such as the right to vote, I fail to see what this has to do with anything. And, technically, as the cells reproduce indefinitely they can’t die so they fail that particular test for life. Perhaps the trick there is to conflate cells with humans, suggesting that as the former can be disposed of without concern so can the latter?

    “A vegetative patient on life support is human, and alive. And yet we don’t arrest doctors for unplugging vegetative patients. We already have these arbitrary tests that you decry.”

    These are separate ‘right to life’ issues that shouldn’t be conflated with the abortion debate. Just because life is terminated in x manner for y reason in z example doesn’t mean the same applies in other examples. Also, they are not tests for humanness (no one denies the ‘unplugged’ patient is human).

    Also, isn’t it a bit dodgy to use a philosophical proof of existence such as the one from Descartes to determine if a person has a right to life or not? It doesn’t determine the existence since that is already assumed. Next step is full-blown eugenics and “I think illogically, therefore I should be exterminated.”

    You can begin to see the problem with introducing arbitrary tests for humanness and then conflating those results with the right to life…

  • BarneyT

    Republicanstones – What about that Connor Mcleod? Was he not a prick in the curtain of the night or something 🙂

    Anyhow, back to the discussion. If we dwell on the comparison between terminating a foetus and turning off a life support machine, we reach into the realms of consent. We therefore give rise to the argument that the unborn cannot speak for themselves….that however would serve as a distraction.

    If the immediate death or long term physical health of a woman is the only criterion that is considered for termination, we are in trouble. Mental health (for men as well as women) can be highly corrosive for many aspects of life, directly for the sufferer and those around them.

    I read an article about a mother other of two young boys who found out at 38 weeks she was going to give birth to twin boys. She, I believe, elected to take her life, but in this particular case there were historical and current mental health issues at work, particularly acute depression.

    I am not advocating termination at 38 weeks, and as a pro-choice thinker, I am a quite angry that not only did she deprive her husband of a wife and her existing sons of a mother…but she took away the lives of two unborn boys. She gave store to the idea she would produce a girl, and on finding differently, it tipped her over the edge.

    I raise this point, not to discuss this particular case, but to ask the question, at what point do we take into consideration the mental state of the woman at all stages of the pregnancy and post birth.

    Are there not times when a productive pregnancy can serve as a social hand grenade for all concerned?

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    RE: brain death – I’ve always found it interesting that our society is so sensitive to the bodily integrity of dead people that our government can’t even produce an opt-out system of organ donation, but so neglectful of the bodily autonomy of pregnant women that I can be forced, against my will, to share my organs with a few insentient cells. It seems that those who argue for the ‘personhood’ of a fertilised egg (most of which, of course, pass from women’s bodies naturally without implanting and without anyone’s grief or knowledge) want to give these few cells MORE rights than we accord to actual born people. If you need the use of my liver to keep living, the government doesn’t just hook us up.

    Good stuff here on the far from clear-cut process of ‘life’ beginning:

  • Alias,

    Of course they are separate issues, but it’s logically inconsistent to take an absolutist view on one without taking an absolutist view on the other.

  • babyface finlayson

    Ní Dhuibhir

    The question surely, is when does the foetus become something more than a few cells, and what rights does it then begin to acquire.
    The article you link to does not touch on that.
    Somewhere between a ‘few insentient cells’ and a 38 week ready to pop baby something changes.
    That is where the shifting battleground lies.

  • Alias

    Andrew, who takes the ‘absolutist’ view? That sounds like a straw man. The Catholic Church doesn’t. (Link courtesy of BarneyT on another thread)

    I’m not aware of anyone who takes an absolutist view on the right to life. It pops up in regard to capital punishment, war, euthanasia, suicide, abortion, and self-defence. Most folks who support the right to life accept that self-defence, for example, is a permissible deviation from it. The mother’s right to self-defence is usually accepted as a valid reason to kill the unborn child where the child threatens the life of its mother. But you have to consider all of those issues on their own merits, as most folks do. There are plenty of pacifists who support unrestricted abortion.

    Even if a few folks do contradict themselves, so what? The argument exists independently of any characteristics of its protagonists.

  • Alias

    By the way, I wasn’t implying that you as a pacifist (who opposes the taking of life) were logically inconsistent by supporting abortion (the taking of life). Just thought I’d clarify that in case you assumed it was a personal comment.

  • Alias,

    The “absolutist” view I was referring to was the one that insists on the right to life of brain-dead (or more correctly not-yet-brain-alive) embryos, but does not similarly insist on the right to life of brain-dead adults.