Until the 1960s, it was rare to find mention of
Aquinas in non-Thomist English-language philosophy, and any reference would
most likely be in connection with natural law ethics and natural theology.
Anyone who did not know better could have formed the belief that these were
the sole topics of Aquinas’s concern. In truth, however, he addresses more
philosophical topics than most thinkers, and the texts standardly quoted in
relation to ethics and philosophy of religion constitute a tiny (but
important) part of his total corpus, which has been calculated to run to over
eight and a half million words.
Following the publication in the late 1950s of writings by Peter Geach
in which he drew upon Aquinas to illuminate issues in metaphysics, philosophy
of mind and metaethics, and the appearance in 1961 of his long essay on
Aquinas, things began to change.
It became more common to see references to and, in
time, discussions of Aquinas’s ideas about the nature of substance and
causality, and of mind, knowledge and agency; as well as to find more
wide-ranging discussions of his philosophical theology and moral, political
and legal philosophy. This interest has grown, and there is now
a significant number of books and essays in which Aquinas’s thought
is examined in some detail. There are, however, still many aspects of his
writings that remain unknown to those outside the field of Thomistic studies;
or which, though vaguely known are generally misunderstood. These include issues which have been quite widely debated
among followers and critics of Aquinas, and they number matters where Thomas’s
own view is other than what might have been supposed. Examples of such matters
include the nature of angels, the condition of disembodied souls, the extent
of actual human knowledge of nature, and the origins of individual human life.
The last of these is the subject of a chapter in a recent book by
Robert Pasnau on Aquinas and Human
Nature, a work which itself is an example of the extended interest
there will be readers whose only knowledge of the issues in question will come
from Pasnau’s account, and since that account is contentious in substance,
and advanced in advocacy of a particular moral interest, it is necessary to
provide another, and, we believe, more credible account of the issue of when
human life begins, as this may be determined on the basis of known empirical
facts and Aquinas’s metaphysics, and a more accurate representation of how
(and how extensively) this issue has been treated hitherto. Whatever readers
may conclude about the substantive issue they will, we hope, see that matters
are other than as Pasnau has chosen to present them.
on Aquinas and others on Abortion
The subtitle of Pasnau’s book is ‘A
Philosophical Study of Summa Theologiae
Ia 75-89’. Those fifteen questions of the Summa
constitute what is often referred to as the ‘Treatise on Human Nature’,
and they cover various aspects of the human soul, its union with the body, its
capacities and operations, including the operations of the intellect both in
union with and separated from the human body.
Nowhere in these questions, nor in the whole Summa of which (as Pasnau notes) they form less than 3 percent, nor
indeed in his entire corpus does Aquinas offer an examination or discussion of
the issue of intended abortion. Indeed,
in all of his voluminous writings there are only three places where aborting a
pregnancy is even mentioned, and then only briefly and each in relation to
another matter. First, unintended
abortion is cited in a quotation from Exodus
which forms part of a question on homicide in Summa Theologiae, IIa, IIae, q. 64, a 8. The issue is whether one is
guilty of murder through killing someone by chance. Aquinas writes as
Objection 2. Further,
it is written (Exodus. 21:22): ‘If . . . one strike a woman with child, and
she miscarry indeed . . . if her death ensue thereupon, he shall render life
for life’. Yet this may happen without any intention of causing her death.
Therefore one is guilty of murder through killing someone by chance.
He then responds:
I answer that:
According to the Philosopher (Phys.
ii, 6) ‘chance is a cause that acts beside one's intention’. Hence chance
happenings, strictly speaking, are neither intended nor voluntary. And since
every sin is voluntary, according to Augustine (De Vera Relig. xiv) it follows that chance happenings, as such, are
not sins. . . .
Reply to Objection. 2. He that strikes a woman with
child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of
the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide,
especially seeing that death is the natural result of such a blow.
Second, again in the Summa (III,a, q. 68, a 11), in a passage paralleling one from the
earlier Commentary on the Sentences,
Aquinas considers whether in circumstances in which the life of a child in the
womb is in danger one may ‘open the mother’ in order to baptize it and
thereby equip it for salvation. In both texts Aquinas responds negatively
citing the anti-consequentialist ‘Pauline principle’:
Evils are not to be done that goods may come from
them, Romans 3 , and therefore a man ought rather to let the infant perish,
than that he himself do so by committing the crime of homicide in killing the
Given the brevity and evidently incidental character of these passages,
and the fact that they occur outside the context of Pasnau’s specified text,
one may be surprised to find that chapter 4 of his book is mostly concerned
with the issue of abortion, and more precisely with the effort to show that
Aquinas can be deployed against a ‘pro-life’ stance on the issue. In fact,
Pasnau’s discussion is more pointed, being an attack on the official
sanctity of life doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Since his remarks are
fairly extraordinary in the context of a scholarly study it is appropriate to
quote them in full (page references are given in parentheses). Pasnau writes:
There is an unfortunate tendency to conflate
interest in medieval philosophy especially on the work of Thomas Aquinas, with
sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church. Inasmuch as the Church’s
intellectual foundations lie in medieval philosophy, above all in Aquinas,
sympathy for his work naturally should translate into sympathy for
Catholicism. But the conflation is still
unfortunate, because in recent years the Church has identified itself
with a noxious social agenda - especially on homosexuality, contraception, and
abortion - that has sadly come to seem part of the defining character of
Catholicism. So it should be gratifying, for students of medieval philosophy,
to see how in at least one of these cases Aquinas provides the resources to
show something of what is wrong with the Church’s position (p. 105)
And later he remarks:
Aquinas’s view on these matters is not widely
known. Those who do know are generally not eager to advertise it, and indeed
have often attacked it in scholarly circles (p. 115).
On the same page, Pasnau writes ‘To suppose that the human soul comes
into existence at the moment of conception is to endorse, at least implicitly,
a highly Cartesian conception of the soul’ (p. 115). In support of this
Pasnau cites an article by the Jesuit theologian Joseph Donceel and in the
same footnote lists three other articles (by E. H. Kluge, by Thomas Shannon
and Alan Wolter, and by William Wallace) as providing similar lines of
argument. He continues ‘If these articles were more widely known and
appreciated, much of this chapter would be unnecessary’ (fn 19, p. 420).
We shall engage the substantive questions shortly, but given the tone
and implications of Pasnau’s remarks so far as concerns both Catholic moral
teaching and the integrity and activities of scholars, it is important to
address these directly. In summary his suggestions are as follows. First,
Catholicism has chosen to advance a ‘noxious social agenda’ at least part
of which runs counter to the view of Aquinas, its greatest theologian and a
proclaimed Doctor of the Church. Second, those who are aware of the latter
fact try to avoid its becoming generally known and in scholarly circles attack
Aquinas’s view. Third, there are, however, a few writers who know the facts
and are not afraid to announce and argue the case for them, though they have
rarely managed to be heard. Fourth, were their contribution properly
acknowledged then truth would out and the Catholic Church’s position would
Quite contrary to this impression of concealment, however, it is a
commonplace of informed, scholarly discussions in this area that Aquinas
(along with other ancient and medieval writers) believed in late human
ensoulment, often referred to as ‘delayed hominization’, and there is an
extensive scholarly and semi-popular literature on it contributed to by
parties from different sides of the interpretative, philosophical, theological
and moral debates. In another footnote Pasnau mentions two authors (Stephen
Heaney and John Finnis) who argue that if Aquinas had known the facts of
embryology he would have held that the human soul is present from conception
(fn. 11. p. 419). These and those mentioned above are just a few among many
others who have contributed to the well-known, and still ongoing debate in
Catholic theological and philosophical circles concerning immediate vs.
delayed hominization and the relevance to this issue of Aquinas’s views.
It is surprising that Pasnau seems unaware of the
extent of this literature, not least because the few items he does mention
contain references to other works. As it is, his treatment of the matter
suggests an overly hasty rush to judgement. Indeed, echoing Pasnau, we are
inclined to think that if this literature had been known and appreciated by
him then much of the chapter would have been avoided or, at the very least ,
that it would have been different in tone and substance.
Evolution of Catholic Teaching
Not only are scholars in the field generally well
aware of Aquinas’s views about human ensoulment, but the Catholic Church
itself has made reference to these in its public declarations promulgating a
contrary position. The latter fact is unsurprising given common knowledge of
the medieval view and, as Pasnau notes, the important position of medieval
thought in general, and that of Aquinas in particular, in shaping Catholic
philosophy and theology. For example, in the historically important and
oft-cited 1974 ‘Declaration on Procured Abortion’, the Sacred Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith writes as follows:
In the course of history, the Fathers of the
Church, her Pastors and her Doctors have taught the same doctrine [that human
life must be protected and favored from the beginning, just as at the various
stages of its development] - the various
opinions on the infusion of the spiritual soul did not introduce any doubt
about the illicitness of abortion. It is true that in the Middle Ages, when
the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until
after the first few weeks, a distinction was made in the evaluation of the sin
and the gravity of penal sanctions. Excellent authors allowed for this first
period more lenient case solutions which they rejected for following periods.
But it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the
first days, was objectively grave fault. This condemnation was in fact
The principle factor in effecting a change in the Church’s teaching
about the nature of the (objective) sinfulness of early abortion was the
development of knowledge of human embryology. We will return to the specifics
of this in the next section, but in general the ancient, medieval and early
modern view was that sexual reproduction involved the solidification and
formation of menstrual fluid under the influence of the father as mediated by
the semen. This led in due course to the production of a body (a recognizable
human figure) to which a rational soul was then conjoined. This being the
scientific-cum-metaphysical view, a moral distinction could then be drawn
between terminating a pregnancy before and after the point of rational
ensoulment (hominization). Prior to this the act would be life-destroying but
not homicidal; subsequent to it abortion would be the killing of a human
being. Such was Aquinas’s view, hence his previously quoted verdict that if
one deliberately strikes a pregnant woman, knowing her to be pregnant and
knowing of the risk of death, then ‘if there results the death either of the
woman or of the animated fetus he will not be excused from homicide’ (emphasis
added). Had the blow been delivered prior to animation then the abortion would
be sinful but the sin would in effect be that of contraception (understood in
the special sense indicated above).
This teaching is reflected in subsequent theological and confessional
manuals. In his Summa Theologica
Antoninus (1389-1453) Archbishop of Florence, and like Aquinas a Dominican,
considers whether homicide can be justified to avoid another evil. His
examples include the case of abortion, and he maintains that if a foetus is
animate then it is impermissible to kill it so as to save the mother, and
impermissible for the mother, even though she may be going to die, to
accelerate her death to save the foetus (ST,
II, 7, 8). Another Domincan, Silvester Prieras (1456-1523) in his widely
referred to Summa summarium draws
the distinction between abortion pre- and post-hominization, and offers the
direction that in circumstances where it is uncertain which may have been
performed the penitent should be required to confess to and be absolved of the
greater sin,.but punished according to the lesser one. This is an example of
the ‘lenient case solution’ referred to in the 1974 ‘Declaration’.
Other later, and also prominent works, such as the Enchiridion
sive manuale confessariorum et penitentium of Martinus Azpilcueta (1492-1586) follow the same course.
By stages, however, a change of view begins to emerge about the facts
on which the pastoral practice was based. In his De
formatrice foetus, Thomas Fieinus (1567-1631), a professor of medicine at
Louvain, argues that the soul is present from conception. What earlier
writers, following Aristotle thought of as a succession of formative
principles (souls), each replacing its predecessor, can be viewed as
successively emergent functions attributable to a single original principle
(brought to life by the effect of intercourse). Fieinus then claims, rather in
the style of later critics of delayed hominization, that if there were no
rational soul present until the exercise of higher mental functions then one
would have to say that rational animation only occurs two to three years after
birth. Another influential figure, Paulo Zacchia (1584-1659) argues in
that the soul which organizes the development of the conceptus is internal to
it (i.e. not a remote cause such as the father, mediated by an instrumental
power in the semen).
Subsequent to this, embryological studies led to a modern understanding
of the ovum and the general process of fertilisation. Inevitably, these
influenced philosophical and theological thinking about the origin of
individual life, and in the course of the nineteenth century the Catholic
Church moved towards its current position. That new position, which was
increasingly reflected in moral teaching and pastoral direction, was given
theoretical support by an anonymous article entitled ‘De animatione foetus’
published in Nouvelle Revue Theologique in 1879. In this the author argues in
favour of immediate animation on the basis of biological and philosophical
considerations. Citing Fienius and Zacchia in support, the writer develops the
line of reasoning (though now put in terms of a fertilized ovum rather than of
a preformed embryo) that if the principle of formative development is immanent
then animation is immediate.
He also tries to show that this is theologically
acceptable inasmuch as arguments from scripture and tradition are in
themselves inconclusive on the matter. Subsequent Church documents have
consolidated this position. Allowing that there may be some indeterminacy in
best current accounts of when exactly a new human being begins to exist, the
Church nevertheless teaches that this should be deemed to occur at conception.
The point is stated clearly in a later declaration of the Sacred Congregation,
Donum Vitae ‘The Gift of Life’ -
more prosaically described as an ‘Instruction on Respect for Human Life In
its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the
The Congregation recalls the teachings found in the
Declaration on Procured Abortion: "From the time that the ovum is
fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the
mother: it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. ...”
. . . This teaching remains valid and is further confirmed, if confirmation
were needed, by recent findings of human biological science which recognize
that in the zygote resulting from fertilisation the biological identity of a
new human individual is already constituted.
Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its
existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the
unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and
spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person
from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights
as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the
inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.
The same passage from the 1974 Declaration,
embedded within a quote from this later statement is cited by John Paul II in Evangelium
Vitae, ‘The Gospel of Life’ (1995) where he adds
Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that,
from the standpoint of moral obligation, 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.
on Human Ensoulment
So much for the history and evolution of Catholic
teaching. What of Aquinas’s view of when human life begins and the question
of whether, if it can be restated free of erroneous embryological assumptions,
it lends support to Catholic teaching or undermines it?
Aquinas held that in higher animals the efficient cause of generation
is the male, while the female is only the material cause:
‘In perfect animals, generated by coitus, the active power [virtus]
is in the semen of the male, according to the Philosopher in De
Generatione Animalium, but the matter of the fetus is what is provided by
Aristotelian view was that the menstrual blood provided by the female is
nonliving and relatively lacking in organization or differentiation. Thus, the
main question Thomas faced was that of how the male causes the generative
process, given that this process occurs in the body of the female. It is a
general principle of Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, preserved in
Descartes’ idea that there must be as much reality in the cause as in the
that a process directed towards the production of
an effect must have a fully adequate cause;. one at least equal in perfection
to the effect itself. Accordingly, the process of generation must derive from
a cause as elevated in the order of nature as is its product. The problem in
the case of sexual reproduction arises from the belief that the semen from the
male and the menstrual blood from the female are not, by themselves, capable
of producing a living animal.
Aquinas adopts Aristotle’s solution: the male is the principal active
cause of the generative process, but this cause acts through a medium, the
semen, which is therefore an instrumental cause.
Within the semen there is an active part which he calls the ‘animal
spirit’, a gaseous, airy material entity; and within the animal spirit is a
‘virtus formativa’, a formative
power similar to the power in any instrumental cause imparted to it by a
principal cause. As in the saw
producing a bed there is a power or motion from the carpenter, so in the
animal spirit of the semen there is a power or motion from the male, a virtus formativa.
formative power organizes the matter provided by the female in the menstrual
blood, first to form a being with vegetative
life, then a being with lower sensitive
life, and so on, until the organization is produced sufficient for an
animal of the same species as the parents. The active part of the semen (the
animal spirit) remains until the generative process is completed. This part also obtains heat from the sun, confirming the
claim of Aristotle, that ‘man is generated by man and the sun’.
describes the (imagined) process:
And after the sensitive soul, by the power of the
active principle in the semen, has been produced in one of the principal parts
of the thing generated, the sensitive soul of the offspring begins to work
towards the perfection of its own body, by nourishment and growth. The active
power which was in the semen ceases to exist when the semen is dissolved and
its spirit vanishes.
He also held that, unlike the souls of brute animals, the human soul is
directly created by God. In various places he argues that the rational soul
has intellectual powers of conceptual thought that are independent of matter,
and hence the operations of these powers are not performed with a bodily
organ. Therefore, the rational soul must have its existence independently of
matter. But what has existence independent of matter cannot come to be through
the coming into existence of a matter-form (or body-soul) composite. Thus,
Aquinas held that God immediately creates the human soul and (at the same
time) infuses it into the body.
said, the human rational soul is created and infused into the body only when
the human parents have, by their generative act, produced a material substance
that is disposed to receive and to be informed by a human soul.
one place Aquinas follows Aristotle in saying that the rational soul is
infused at 40 days for males, and at 90 days for females.
Why, then, did Aquinas hold that the process of human conception must
occur gradually and incrementally? Why did he hold that first vegetative
life was produced, then sensitive
life, and so on? Why not immediate hominization? The answer lies in his
belief that there is a great distance between the beginning point of the
generative process, that is, the material out of which the human being is
produced (menstrual blood), and the end point, the coming to be of a human
being. Traversing this distance requires a gradual process.
In one of his fuller treatments of the issue, he writes:
And we must observe a difference between the
process of generation in men and animals and in air or water. The generation
of air is simple, since therein only two substantial forms appear, one that is
displaced and one that is induced, and all this takes place together in one
instant, so that the form of water remains during the whole period preceding
the induction of the form of air. On
the other hand, in the generation of an animal various substantial forms
appear: first the semen, then blood and so on until we find the form of an
animal or of a man.
According to Pasnau, Aquinas held that in order for
the rational soul to be infused, certain material conditions have to obtain.
In particular, while intellectual acts are not themeselves material they
depend upon the operations of the senses, and these require a developed brain.
Hence the organs upon which the rational soul’s activities rely must be
fully developed, in the sense of having their powers not in remote
potentiality but ‘in hand’, that is, as immediately exercisable capacities
to support intellectual operations.
It is indeed true that Aquinas held that organs
must be present before human ensoulment. In the Summa
Contra Gentiles, for example, he writes:
For, since the soul is united
to the body as its form, it is united to the body as its proper act.
Now the soul ‘is the act of an organic body’ (Aristotle, II De
Anima, 412b, 5-6) Therefore, the
soul does not exist in the semen in act [as opposed to in potency or
virtually] before the organization of the body.
But this is not to claim that the organs must be developed to the
extent of having a directly exercisable capacity to support the operations
relevant to them. It is not the same as saying, as Pasnau does, attributing
this to Aquinas, that in the generation of human beings the brain must be
developed sufficiently for the capacity for conceptual thought to be ‘in
hand’ or immediately exercisable. Nowhere
does Aquinas assert this stronger requirement; and it is quite unlikely that
he held it. As was said, he maintained that the rational soul was present
after 40 or 90 days, and it is difficult to think that he really believed that
embryos at this early date are actually engaging in conceptual thought, or
have the immediately exercisable capacity to do so. Rather, Aquinas’s
argument only shows, and he surely only held, that the beginnings, or primordia,
of such organs, and in particular, the primordium
of the brain, must be present.
was seen, the key metaphysical principle concerning the question of the time
of ensoulment is the following: P) in a
material substance the matter must be proportioned to the form, or in a living
material substance, to the soul. But this principle could mean two
1) what is necessary for ensoulment is the presence of the actual organs,
sufficiently developed to support the operations proper to that species; or
2) what is necessary for ensoulment is the material organization sufficient
for the development of those organs, in other words, the epigenetic primordia
of the organs that support the operations proper to the species.
Aquinas was unaware that the embryo satisfies
P. 2) (has epigenetic primordia of organs) long before it has visibly
present organs. He thought that
the formative power in the ‘animal spirits’ remained, and acted on the
menstrual blood, then on the embryo, then on the fetus, up to the time that
the organs were actually present (though not yet operative, or able to operate
for some time). Pasnau thinks
Aquinas held P. 1), and that this interpretation of the metaphysical principle
is true. We have shown that Aquinas did not hold P. 1), though he did
apparently require the presence of visible organs. But more importantly, given
the embryological facts as we now known them,
Aquinas’s principles actually lead to P. 2), and to the conclusion
that the rational soul must be present at conception, that is, at
Why might one hold P. 1)
instead of P. 2)? Pasnau does not draw precisely this distinction, but he does
distinguish a capacity in hand from a
capacity to develop a capacity in hand (p. 115).
He also maintains that a human being exists only if there is a being
with the capacity in hand for conceptual thought; hence that the actual organs
must be present and developed sufficiently to support such thought.
To suppose otherwise, says Pasnau, ‘is to endorse, at least
implicitly, a highly Cartesian conception of the soul’ (p. 115). Indeed, he
claims the following:
thesis can seem plausible, in other words, only
if one endorses the following
The soul stands apart as an independent substance, housed within the
body but not united to the body.
Human beings just are their souls, housed within a body.(pp. 115-116 -
A few lines later he argues
that the moment-of-conception thesis has even further implications ‘that
would be an embarrassment to the pro-life movement:
For if there are no limits on the kind of body that can serve as a
subject of the human soul, then there is no reason to suppose that God waits
until conception to create such souls’ (p. 116). In other words, Pasnau
supposes that one must hold either a) that human ensoulment requires the
presence of organs developed sufficiently to support conceptual thought, or b)
that any matter at all could be
associated with the body, in which case one in effect abandons the position
that matter and form truly unite to form one substance, and so one adopts a
Platonist or Cartesian view. But
this is a straw man. To reject the requirement of a brain sufficiently
developed to support an immediately exercisable capacity for conceptual
thought (which would place human ensoulment long after birth), is quite
different from holding that ‘there are no limits’ on the organization of
the matter pre-requisite for the human soul.
Pasnau also argues that ‘At
a minimum, it would be pointless for God to infuse the human soul at an
earlier point’ (p. 113). This is because, on the Thomistic position, the
human mind naturally functions only upon images produced by the senses,
imagination and other internal sense powers, and these depend upon a fully
developed brain. This argument, however, ignores the fact that the development
of the human body is a specifically human
function,and therefore requires a human
soul as its cause. This is why Aquinas (and Aristotle) held that the semen is
only an instrumental cause, while the soul of the male parent is the principal
cause. Yet we now know that there
is no extrinsic virtus formativa
attached to, or residing in the embryo. So, the cause of this development must
be the embryo itself.
Accordingly, human ensoulment at the time at which the formation of a
specifically human body begins is not pointless but necessary.
The claim that human ensoulment does not occur until the brain
is sufficiently developed immediately to support conceptual thought cannot be
correct, for (at least) two reasons. First,
we now know with certainty that the brain is not sufficiently developed to
support conceptual thought until some months after birth.
So, on this position one would have to say that a six week-old infant
is not even a human being, and that is absurd.
Pasnau discusses this difficulty, and says that it must also have
occurred to Aquinas.
He admits that Aquinas did not explicitly discuss this issue; still, he
argues that, being aware of the limitations of his knowledge of developmental
neurology, Thomas took a conservative stance (p. 119). According to Pasnau:
‘His sense of respect for human life leads him to frame his account
as generously as possible, to count within the species even those who are
taking the first tiny steps toward full intellectual proficiency’ (p. 120).
This approach, says Pasnau, ‘has much to recommend it’; and, moreover, ‘Our
own sense of respect for human life should lead us to endorse something like
Aquinas’s account’ (p. 120).
But there is absolutely no
evidence that Aquinas located human ensoulment where he did out of caution or
a ‘sense of respect for human life’. Rather, he simply followed Aristotle
on this point, and Aristotle held to this position based on inadequate
observation: those were the dates
that the embryo seemed—to the naked eye, by necessity—to have organs. But neither Aristotle nor Aquinas could have thought that two
or three month old embryonic human beings were engaging in conceptual thought,
nor that they had immediately exercisable capacities to do so.
Moreover, and what is here more to the point, locating human ensoulment
at an early date ‘out of respect for human life’, or out of generosity,
does not remove the logical difficulty in this position. As noted, the view
Pasnau defends (that the human soul is not present until there is a capacity
at hand for conceptual thought) has the absurd implication that six week-old
infants are not even human organisms. One cannot evade this difficulty by
rejecting the implausible consequence simply ‘out of respect for human life’.
The second, and decisive, difficulty for the position Pasnau defends
arises from an issue introduced earlier. Aquinas held that the vital spirit in
the semen remains as a distinct agent throughout the entire process of
formation until the likeness of the generating parent is induced into the
material (or educed from the potentiality of the material). Evidently there
must be an adequate, ongoing cause
of this formative process. The male parent is no longer present. Therefore,
Aquinas held that the father acts
by means of the instrumental power in the
vital spirit of the semen. To
operate, this gaseous or airy material must be present throughout the process
(see note 14). Yet we now
know that there is nothing in the semen which
remains as a distinct agent in the process of the embryo’s
development. The result of the fertilisation
process is a distinct organism. After fertilisation neither the sperm nor the ovum remains.
What exists is a distinct organism which then apparently begins a process of
self‑development oriented to the stage of a mature
human adult. Nothing of
the semen - a fortiori no ‘vital spirit’ - remains attached to the
developing embryo. Constituents (chromosomes and cytoplasm) of the sperm and
the ovum enter into the make-up of this new organism, but they become its
parts or organs. So, if one holds that the embryo is only gradually formed to
the point that it becomes apt for the emergence of a sensitive soul and then
(the infusion) of a rational soul, one is faced with a complex, organized
process which occurs with regularity, but with no apparent cause.
If there is no extrinsic agent responsible for the regular, complex
development, then the obvious conclusion is that the cause of the process is
within, that it is the embryo itself. But
in that case the process is not an extrinsic formation, but is an instance of growth
or maturation, ie., the active
self-development of a whole, though immature organism which is already a
member of the species, the mature stage of which it is developing toward.
Pasnau holds that if we specify that men and women have equal parts in
generation, then ‘the virtus formativa
begins to look very much like DNA’ (p. 103). He compares both to a
blueprint for a house: ‘Just as DNA provides a complete blueprint for the
body’s development, so the virtus
formativa contains every feature of the developing body, but contains it
“virtually” or “potentially” rather than actually (SCG
II.89.1754)’ (p. 103). But DNA
is entirely different from what Aquinas had in mind by the ‘formative
power’. The latter is a power
in the animal spirits which remain throughout the whole formative process and
no longer. That is why it is plausible to view it as an instrumental cause.
But the structure of the embryo’s DNA is distinct from that of the mother or
of the father, and it remains in this organism throughout its whole life.
Hence the DNA is clearly not an instrument of either parent or of both.
Rather, the DNA genes are organs of the new organism. Pasnau might have been
misled by the analogy of DNA to a blueprint.
DNA is similar to a blueprint in one respect, in that it guides the
development of the organism. But
the obvious disanalogy is that the blueprint does not enter into the structure
of the house, whereas the genes which contain the DNA, and whose sequence
guides the self-development of the embryo, remain within as parts of the
embryo, fetus, infant, adolescent, and so on throughtout life.
Someone might propose that even though nothing of the semen or ovum
remains as a distinct agent, nevertheless a virtus
formativa persists, somewhat in the way one might conceive an impetus
being imparted to a projectile. Thomas himself did not hold the impetus theory
as an explanation of the motion of projectiles, though later Thomists proposed
The general idea of the impetus theory is
problematic; yet even if it could be applied in some situations, it could not
apply here. The plausibility of the theory depends on thinking of an extrinsic force remaining for a time within a body, moving it in a
direction contrary to that to which its intrinsic tendencies incline it.
But there is no reason in the case of the embryo to think that the DNA
is an extrinsic agent. Unlike the forces operative in a projectile body, the
factors responsible for the direction of the embryo’s growth are not
transitory, but remain in the developing organism until it dies.
So, can the reasons for Aquinas’s position that human ensoulment
occurs after conception (fertilisation) still have force today once they are
freed from erroneous embryological assumptions?
The reasons which led Aquinas to hold late human ensoulment are
basically four, three embryological points and one metaphysical. First, on his
Aristotelian view, the male is the sole active cause; second, the material
(the menstrual blood) upon which the semen (as instrument of the male) works
has only a very low degree of perfection or organization, not even possessing
vegetative life; third, as a consequence, the distance between the initial
point (menstrual blood) and the end point (a body sufficiently organized to
receive a human soul) is quite long. The
general metaphysical point is expressed by Aquinas as follows:
Now it belongs to the natural
order that a thing is gradually brought from potency to act. And therefore in
those things which are generated we find that at first each is imperfect and
afterwards is perfected.
We believe that the general metaphysical principle is demonstrably
true, and that the application of it in the second sentence is plausibly so.
All three of the embryological beliefs, however, are known to be false. Modern
embryology shows that the female provides a gamete (the ovum) which is already
a highly organized living cell, containing highly complex, specific
information, in the genetic structure of the nuclear chromosomes. This
information (together with that provided by the genetic structure in the
chromosomes of the male sperm) helps guide the development of the new living
organism formed by the fusion of the sperm and the ovum.
Hence the ovum is actually very close to readiness for rapid
embryological development; it only requires fusion with the sperm and the
activation that occurs with that fusion. To a certain extent the gradual
transition from the simple to the complex that Aquinas sought actually occurs
during gametogenesis (of which, of course, he was unaware).Thus, applying
Aquinas’s metaphysical principles to the embryological facts uncovered since
his time leads to the conclusion that the human being is present from
there is more that could be said about these complex issues, and scope for
further debate. The principal purpose of this essay, however, is not to
attempt fully to resolve matters, but to take issue with the way in which they
are represented in Robert Pasnau’s book: first, with regard to existing
philosophical and theological discussions of the issue raised by Aquinas’s
account of ensoulment; and second, with regard to the bearing of that account
on the substantive question of when human life begins. The morality of
abortion turns on two important sets of issues: the first metaphysical, concerning the beginnings of human life and the
specific status of the embryo; the second, ethical,
having to do with the nature and scope of value and associated moral
requirements. Thus far we have addressed Pasnau’s treatment of the former;
in ending we wish to say something, in brief, about his remarks concerning the
Pasnau claims that were the abortion debate redirected from the status
of the embryo to the issue of the value or ‘precious character’ of human
life, then we would be forced to address an urgent issue, namely how to
balance the value of human life against other things we value: ‘such as the
quality of that life, the lives of future generations, the lives of other
animals, the health of the environment’. Observing the increase in world
population and the depletion of natural resources he then continues:
[W]e now need to think hard
about exactly how to weigh the value of human life. John Paul II [Evangelium
Vitae] speaks of ‘the incomparable value of every human person’ and
‘the inestimable value of human life’, but we have reached the point where
this sort of rhetoric should be questioned. We can no longer afford not to
weigh the value of human life, and in making such estimates, we will be forced
into comparisons and trade offs. (p. 125)
As with his earlier remarks about the Catholic Church, this criticism
seems gratuitous in a work bearing the title ‘A Philosophical Study of Summa
Theologiae Ia 75-89’. In the epilogue, Pasnau again quotes the first of
John Paul’s phrases preparatory to seeking once more to deploy Aquinas in
opposition to Catholic teaching:
The present Catholic Pope
gives voice to an almost universal assumption, across religions and cultures,
when he speaks of ‘the incomparable value of every human person’
... this would have been quite
foreign to Thomas Aquinas. Far from placing human beings at the center of the
moral universe, Aquinas conceives of us as just one small part of creation,
excellent in our own way but dwarfed in the grand scheme of things. Far from
supposing that God created the universe for our sake, Aquinas believes that we
were created for God’s sake, as a manifestation of his goodness ...
[W]e serve a larger, more
significant purpose, the manifestation of God’s goodness, and in that larger
context we are simply the means to God’s end. Aquinas insists on this
clearly and repeatedly: ‘God wills his own goodness as an end, and wills everything else as the means to that end’ [Summa Contra Gentiles I. 86. 718]. (pp. 394 and 395).
It is hard to know what to make of all of this, but impossible to resist the observation that, in the context of Pasnau’s own remarks, the charge of rhetoric is somewhat ironic. It is also unjust. ‘Rhetoric’ nowadays bears two broad meanings: skill in the effective use of speech; and insincere or grandiloquent language. Evidently, he does not mean to criticise John Paul II for exhibiting the first of these. Nor do we suppose that he means to question the Pope’s sincerity. Certainly no-one who has read Evangelium Vitae or Veritatis Splendor or Fides et Ratio - the Pope’s three most philosophical encyclicals - could seriously doubt that John Paul II is genuine in what he says about the value of human life, or suppose that his expressions exaggerate his sincere beliefs. We take it, then, that Pasnau’s non-rhetorical objection is to their content, ie. that he is contesting the claim that human life in general is indeed of ‘inestimable value’ and that each human person really is of ‘incomparable value’. This is what is suggested by his own proposal about the need to weigh the value of human life against other things we value, and to make comparisons and trade-offs.
It is impossible here to provid a defence of ethical absolutism but we can at least show that Pasnau’s representation of the authors he discusses is again contentious, and indicates likely confusions in his own thinking. What John Paul II believes and teaches is represented by the following characteristic passages drawn first from Evangelium Vitae:
Man is called to a fullness of
life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it
consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural
vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in
its temporal phase. ... it is precisely this supernatural calling which
highlights the relative character of each individual's earthly life. After
all, life on earth is not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality;
even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a
sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of
ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.
then, from Veritatis Splendor:
[T]he moral life has an
essentially ‘teleological’ character,
since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme
good and ultimate end (telos) of
The primary and decisive
element of moral judgement is the object of the human act, which establishes
whether it is capable of being ordered
to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God. ...
Reason attests that there are
objects of the human act which are by their very nature ‘incapable of being
ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person
made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral
tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece
malum): they are such always and per
se, in other words on account of their very object, and quite apart from
the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances ... examples
of such acts [are] ‘Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of
homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever
violates the integrity of the human person ... whatever is offensive to human
dignity ... all these and the like ... are a negation of the honour due to the
In short, for John Paul II to say that human life is of incomparable
value is not to ‘place human beings at the center of the moral universe’.
On the contrary, it is to say that human beings have this special and
inestimable value inasmuch as they are created in the image
of God (imago dei) and in order to
come to participate supernaturally and eternally in the life of God. That
beings should be created with this nature and for this end is indeed a
manifestation of God’s goodness. It also explains why even on earth human
life is a ‘sacred reality entrusted to us’ and why intentionally to take
innocent human life is ‘a negation of the honour due to the Creator’. Far
from there being a difference between John Paul and Aquinas on this matter the
former frequently cites the latter and uses formulations drawn from the Summa
Theologiae, Prima Secundae -
such as that ‘all that man is, or has, or can be is ordered to God’ (q.
Moreover, Aquinas certainly did not hold that God created human beings
as means to His ends. In saying, as
in the text Pasnau quotes, that the purpose of creation is the manifestation
or communication of God’s goodness, Aquinas is making a twofold point: 1) it
is not that the goodness of creatures causes
God to love them (for this would mean that God was subject to the causality of
his creatures and hence not perfect); but also 2) they are not means toward attaining some good God lacks (for again this would
imply God’s dependence on his creatures and hence his imperfection ).
Rather, Aquinas’s position is that, in one and the same act God
(necessarily) wills his own goodness and (freely) wills, out of pure
generosity, to communicate his goodness to creatures. Creatures are directed
to God’s good for their perfection
or fulfillment, not for God’s perfection. God necessarily wills (or loves)
his own goodness as his end, and creatures as ‘ea
quae sunt ad finem’ (those which are toward the end). To call them mediae or means, would imply that creatures are means to an end God
does not yet possess, and that he is dependent on creatures for his perfection
or fulfillment. Rather, according to Aquinas, creatures are loved out of pure
generosity, precisely the opposite of the view Pasnau attributes to him,
namely, that they are willed as mere instruments.
In presenting Catholic ‘pro-life’ teaching the Pope also often
cites the same passage from Romans 3. 8 as does Aquinas. One such occurrence
in the writings of the latter was quoted earlier, namely that ‘Evils are not
to be done that goods may come from them, and therefore a man ought rather to
let the infant perish than that he himself do so by committing the crime of
homicide in killing the mother’(op.
cit.). In light of what we have argued above, we believe that had Aquinas
addressed the issue of intentional abortion for the sake of saving the mother
then his judgement on the matter would have been symmetrical, viz. that evils
are not to be done that goods may come from them, and therefore a man ought
rather to let the mother perish than that he himself do so by committing the
crime of homicide in killing the foetus. This may be a hard teaching, out of
keeping with the judgement of the world, presuming a supernatural destiny, and
evidently open to question on various grounds. But better to face it as
implied by the views of Aquinas than to suggest, quite implausibly, that he
may be enlisted as an ally in a campaign against Catholic teaching on
of St Andrews
University of Steubenville.
See Peter Geach ‘Form and Existence’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 55, 1954-5; ‘Good and
Evil’, Analysis, 17, 1956; Mental
Acts (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957); and ‘Aquinas’ in
G.E.M. Anscombe and P.T. Geach, Three
Philosophers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961).
Robert Pasnau, Thomas
Aquinas on Human Nature (Cambridge: CUP, 2001).
translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Washbourne
& Oates, 1920).
on the Sentences, IV, dist. 6, q. 1, ad 4. In the Summa he adds that if the child is still alive after the mother dies
then she should be opened in order to baptize it.
Readers may consult the following (restricted to
writings in English): Benedict Ashley, ‘A Critique of the Theory of
Delayed Hominisation’, in D. G. McCarthy and A.S. Moraczewski (eds) An
Ethical Evaluation of Fetal Experimentation (St Louis: Pope John XXIII
Center, 1976); B. Ashley, ‘Delayed Hominisation: A Catholic Theological
Perspective’, in R.E. Smith (ed) The
Interaction of Catholic Bioethics and Secular Society (Dallas:
Proceedings of the XIth Bishops’ Workshop, 1992); B. Ashley and Albert
Moraczewski, ‘Is the Biological Subject of Human Rights Present from
Conception?’ in P. Cataldo and A. Moraczewski (eds) The
Fetal Tissue Issue: Medical and Ethical Aspects (Braintree, MA.: Pope
John Center, 1994); B. Ashley, and Albert Moraczewski, ‘Cloning, Aquinas,
and the Embryonic Person’, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 1 (2001), 189-201; John
Connery, Abortion: The Development of
the Catholic Perspective (Chicago Loyola UP, 1977); Daniel Dombrowski
and Robert Delete, A Brief Liberal,
Catholic Defense of Abortion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
2000); Joseph Donceel, ‘Abortion: Mediate v. Immediate Animation’, Continuum, 5, 1967; J. Donceel, ‘Immediate Animation and Delayed
Hominisation’, Theological Studies,
31, 1970; J. Donceel, ‘A Liberal Catholic View’, in R. Hall (ed) Abotion
in a Changing World (New York: Columbia UP, 1970); reprinted in P. B.
Jung and T. A. Shannon (eds) Abortion
and Catholicism: The American Debate (New York: Crossroad, 1988); Henri
de Dorlodot, ‘A Vindication of the Mediate Animation Theory’, in E.C.
Messenger (ed) Theology and Evolution (London: Sands and Co. 1949); John Finnis, Aquinas:
Moral. Political and Legal Theory (Oxford: OUP, 1998); Anthony Fisher,
‘“When Did I Begin?” Revisited’, Linacre
Quarterly, 58, 1991; Norman Ford, When
Did I Begin? (Cambridge: CUP, 1988); Rudolph Gerber, ‘When is the
Human Soul Infused?’, Laval
Theologique et Philosophie, 22, 1966; Germain Grisez, Abortion:
the Myths, the Realities and the Arguments (New York: Corpus, 1966); G.
Grisez, ‘When do People Begin?’, Proceedings
of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 63, 1990; Stephen
Heaney, ‘Aquinas and the Presence of the Human Rational Soul’, The Thomist, 56, 1992 reprinted in S. Heaney ed., Abortion:
A New Generation of Catholic Responses (Braintree, MA.: Pope John
Center, 1992); Mark Johnson, ‘Reflections on Some Recent Catholic Claims
for Delayed Hominization’, Theological
Studies 56 (1995), E. H. Kluge, ‘St Thomas, Abortion and Euthanasia:
Another Look’, Philosophy Research Archives, 7, 1981; Patrick Lee, Abortion
and Unborn human Life (Washington, DC.: Catholic University of America
Press, 1996); Richard McCormick, ‘Who or What is the Pre-Embryo?’, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 1991; William E. May, ‘‘The
Moral Status of the Embryo’, Linacre
Quarterly, 59, 1992; John Noonan, ‘An Almost Absolute Value in History’,
in J. Noonan ed. The Morality of
Abortion (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard U P, 1970); Gabriel Pastrana, ‘Personhood
and the Beginning of Human Life’, Thomist
41 (1977); Jean Porter, ‘Individuality, Personal Identity, and the Moral
Status of the Preembryo: A Response to Mark Johnson’, Theological
Studies 56 (1995);
Thomas Shannon and Alan Wolter, ‘Reflections on the Status of the
Pre-Embryo’ Theological Studies,
51, 1990; C. Tauer, ‘The Tradition of Probabilism and the Moral Status of
the Early Embryo’, Theological
Studies, 45, 1984, reprinted in P. B. Jung and T. A. Shannon (eds) Abortion
and Catholicism: The American Debate (New York: Crossroad, 1988);
Francis Wade, ‘Potentiality in the Abortion Discussions’, Review
of Metaphysics, 29, 1975; William Wallace, ‘Nature and Human Nature as
the Norm in Medical Ethics’, in E. Pellegrino (ed) Catholic Perspectives on Medical Morals (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1989);
William Wallace OP, ‘Aquinas’s Legacy on Individuation, Cogitation and
Hominisation’, in D. Gallagher (ed) Thomas
Aquinas and His Legacy (Washington, DC.: Catholic University of America
Press, 1994); Thomas Wassmer, ‘Questions about Questions’, Commonweal, 86, 1967; Beverly Whelton, ‘Human Nature, Substantial
Change, and Modern Science: Rethinking When a New Human Life Begins’, in
M. Baur (ed) Texts and Their
Interpretation, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical
Association, 72, 1998; and Gordon Wilson, ‘Thomas Aquinas and Henry of
Ghent on the Succession of Substantial Forms and the Origin of Human Life’,
in L. Schrenk (ed) The Ethics of
Having Children, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical
Association, 63, 1990. Anyone interested in how widely Aquinas’s position
on ensoulment is referred to in semi-popular presentations by parties on
both sides of the abortion debate may conduct an internet search using some
such expression as ‘Aquinas on Abortion’.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration
on Procured Abortion (Vatican:
Holy See, 1974) II, 7.
Since Aquinas regards contraceptive and homosexual
acts as objectively gravely sinful, it may be supposed that these elements
of Catholic teaching are unlikely to be vulnerable to challenge by reference
to Aquinas. It should come as no surprise, however, that some writers have
tried to do just this. Interestingly, Pasnau does not make reference to
these attempts. One difference in the cases may lie in the fact that in
these instances Aquinas’s announced moral view is not tied to obviously
false empirical assumptions.
For accounts of these and related views see
Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the
Realities and the Arguments; Connery, Abortion:
The Development of the Catholic Perspective, and Dombrowski and Delete, A
Brief Liberal Catholic Defese of Abortion, op. cit.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum
Vitae (Vatican: Holy See, 1987) I, 1.
John Paul II, Evangelium
Vitae (Vatican: Holy See, 1995) III, 60.
Theologiae, Ia, q. 118, a. 1, ad 4.
‘Consequently there is no need for this active
force to have an actual organ; but it is based on the spirit in the semen
which is frothy, as is attested by its whiteness’, Summa
Theologiae, Ia, q. 118, a. 1, ad 3.
‘In which spirit [contained in the semen],
moreover, there is a certain heat derived from the power of the heavenly
bodies, by virtue of which the inferior bodies also act towards the
production of the species as stated above. And since in this
spirit the power of the soul is concurrent with the power of a
heavenly body, it has been said that “man and the sun generate man”’. Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 118, a. 1, ad 3.
Theologiae, Ia, q. 118, a. 1, ad 4.
Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles transl.
James F. Anderson (London: University
of Notre Dame Press, 1975), Bk. II, Ch. 89, 9; Disputed
Questions on the Power of God, transl. English Dominican Fathers
(Westminster, MD: Newman Press,
1952), q. 3, a. 11, ad 8.
Aristotle also held that the rational soul had to
come ‘from outside’. See On the
Generation of Animals, Bk. II, ch. 3,
736b25-30. For a
contemporary argument see J. Haldane, ‘Old Teleology’ and ‘The Prime
Thinker’ in J.J.C. Smart and J. J. Haldane, Atheism
and Theism, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003) 88-109, and 227-32
The ultimate disposition is provided by the soul
itself, but the matter it acts on must be disposed for this ultimate
on the Book of Sentences, Bk. III, dist. 3, q. 5, a. 2, Responsio.
On the Power
of God, q. 3, a. 9, ad 9. Cf.
Summa Contra Gentiles, II, Ch. 89, 11; Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 119, a. 2.
Pasnau writes that Aquinas held that the human
soul ‘is infused at that point when the fetus is sufficiently developed in
its brain and sensory systems, to support the soul’s intellectual
operations’. (p. 111)
Gentiles, II, ch. 89.
One might argue that the organs must be fully
present, though not yet capable of immediately operating. But this is not really an option, for to be fully present
just is to be capable of
immediately operating, though environmental conditions may not be suited to
the operation. For the standard
of completeness of an organ is its function.
Hence the only intelligible proposals are, either 1) the organs must
be developed sufficiently to operate immediately or 2) that the epigenetic
primordia of the organs must be present.
Citing recent works on the development of the
neurosystem of the fetus and newborn, Pasnau admits that there is evidence
that the brain is in fact not sufficiently developed to support conceptual
thought until at least three to six months after birth (p. 119). Pasnau
cites Colwyn Trevarthen, ‘Brain Development’, in R. Gregory, (ed) Oxford
Companion to the Mind (Oxford: OUP,
1987), 101-110, and Stuart Derbyshire, ‘Locating the Beginnings of Pain’,
Bioethics 13 (1999), 1-31.
See B. Ashley, ‘A Critique of the Theory of
Delayed Hominization’, op.
Theologiae, Ia q. 119, a. 2.
It has often been argued that monozygotic twinning
shows that the embryo in the first several days of its gestation is not a
human individual. The argument
is that it is not yet determined which one, perhaps of two, the zygote will
be identical with; and so what exists up to about day 13, after which
twinning does not seem possible, is a group of cells from which one or more
human beings will develop, but is not yet an individual organism, hence not
yet a human being. Pasnau adopts this position in a footnote: ‘There is a
further question of whether the fertilized egg has the requisite unity, from
the start, to be a substance. It
seems clear that it does not. At
its very early four-cell stage, for instance, each of the four cells, if
split from the others, could independently develop into a normal embryo. . .
. At the eight-cell stage,
however, specialization already sets in, and not just any cell could split
off and develop into an independent embryo.
Yet even here, fission and fusion remain possible and such processes
would seem to violate Aquinas’s criterion for substancehood’. (p. 422,
n. 25). It is true that if a cell or group of cells are detached from the whole at this
early stage then what is detached often becomes a distinct organism and has
the potential to develop to maturity as distinct from the embryo from which
it was detached (this is the meaning of “totipotent”). But this fails to show that before detachment the cells
within the embryo, constituted only an incidental mass. Just as the fact that dividing a flatworm results in two
whole flatworms does not show that prior to that division the flatworm was
not a unitary individual, just so with the human embryo. Parts of a flatworm have the potential to become a whole
flatworm when isolated from the present whole of which they are part.
Likewise, at the early stages of development of the human embryo the
degree of specialization by the cells has not progressed very far, therefore
the cells or groups of cells can become whole organisms if they are divided
and have an appropriate environment after the division. But that does not
indicate that prior to such an extrinsic division the embryo is a mere mass
of cells rather than a single, complex, actively developing human organism.
The clearest evidence that the embryo in the first two weeks is not a
mere mass of cells but is a unitary organism is this:
if the individual cells within
the embryo before twinning were each independent of the others, there would
be no reason why each would not regularly develop on its own. Instead, these
allegedly independent, non-communicating cells regularly function together
to develop into a single, more mature member of the human species.This
fact shows that interaction is taking place between the cells from the very
beginning (even within the zona pellucida, before implantation), restraining
them from individually developing as whole organisms and directing each of
them to function as a relevant part of a single, whole organism continuous
with the zygote. Thus, prior to an extrinsic division of the cells of the
embryo, these cells together do constitute a single organism. So, the fact
of twinning does not show that the embryo is a mere incidental mass of
cells. Rather the evidence clearly indicates that the human embryo, from the
zygote stage forward, is a unitary, human organism.
John Paul II, Evangelium
Vitae (Vatican: Holy See, 1995) Introduction, 2.
John Paul II, Veritatis
Splendor (Vatican: Holy See, 1993) Ch. Two, IV, 73, 79, 80.
Theologiae, Ia, q. 19, aa. 2-5.