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Ask the Register: Does life begin at conception?

Q. Some Catholics have told me science doesn’t prove that life begins at conception— that a new life begins at “implantation,” or even later in pregnancy, when the child acquires a soul. One even told me St. Thomas Aquinas believed this. If this is true, isn’t abortion in the early stages of pregnancy acceptable?

A. Be very careful of any Catholic who argues that there are acceptable circumstances in which abortions take place.  Abortion—the direct killing of an unborn child—is never morally acceptable, at any stage of any pregnancy. 

The person you mention is talking about the idea of “ensoulment”-that after a child is created, God gives him an eternal soul. St. Thomas Aquinas accepted an idea, borrowed from Aristotle, that unborn babies have fully human souls 40 or 80 days after their conception. This theological idea is far less commonly held today— modern genetics confirms the individuality of newly conceived children, and recent popes, including Pope St. John Paul II,  have spoken of the full and dignified humanity of each child from the moment of conception. There is some room for theological debate on this subject, because the Church does not officially denote the moment at which an eternal soul comes into existence, although Scripture, for example, Psalm 51:7, seems to support the idea that fully human and eternal souls exist from the moment of conception.

There is absolutely no room for debate on the profound immorality of abortion at every stage of life.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says, “In the course of history, the Fathers of the Church, her pastors, and her Doctors have taught the same doctrine—the various opinions on the infusion of the spiritual soul did not introduce any doubt about the illicitness of abortion… it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the first days, was objectively grave fault.”

Pope St. John Paul II wrote that, no matter what position one takes on the tricky theological question of ensoulment, “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.”

Any Catholic who makes a theological argument to justify abortion is being dishonest, and manipulating theology in order to advance a tragic social agenda.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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