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Ensoulment: Wikis

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In Christian theology, ensoulment is the creation of a soul within a human being or, to those who believe in pre-existence of the soul, the moment at which the soul is inserted into the body. The exact gestational age at which ensoulment is believed to happen is debatable.

Some theologians have believed that souls are newly created within a developing fetus, while others believe that souls were created before time and are added to the fetus as it develops.

Common views include ensoulment happening at the moment of conception, at the formation of the nervous system and brain, at the first brain activity, at the time of quickening, and when the fetus is able to survive independently of the uterus (viability).[1] Others place the time of ensoulment at the moment of birth, and others at the moment of first breath.[2]


Roman Catholic Church

Mediaeval declarations by Popes and theologians on ensoulment were based on the then prevailing scientific theory, which, as stated by Aristotle, held that individual human life began only after 40 days for males or 90 for females, the stage at which, it was held, movement is first felt within the womb.[3][4]

Aristotle's view of successive life principles ("souls") in a developing human embryo - first a vegetative and then a sensitive or animal soul, and finally an intellective or human soul, with the higher levels able to carry out the functions also of the lower levels[5] - was accepted by, for example, 13th-century Thomas Aquinas , who wrote:

"Therefore it must be said that the intellective soul is created by God at the completion of man's coming-into-being. This soul is at one and the same time both a sensitive and nutritive life-principle, the preceding forms having been dissolved"[6]

From this view followed a belief that causing the death of a yet unensouled embryo was not homicide. Aquinas himself distinguished in this context between an "animated" fetus, and one that was not yet animated : "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."[7] and in the same 13th century, Innocent III stated that abortion before quickening (when the mother first feels movement of the fetus) was not murder.

The 1312 Council of Vienne declared that the substance of the rational or intellectual soul is of itself and essentially the form of the human body,[8] It thus accepted the view of "delayed hominization", since the human embryo was not considered to have a rational or intellectual soul immediately.[9]

Although Pope Sixtus V issued in 1588 the Bull Effraenatam which subjected those that carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the punishment by civil authorities applied to murderers.[10] in 1591, Gregory XIV modified this law so that the penalty did not apply until the fetus became animated.[11 ]

Thus the abandonment by scientists of Aristotelian physics did not immediately bring about a similar abandoment in Church documents of the theory of delayed ensoulment. Later declarations are more severe with regard to early abortion of an embryo, though without explicitly equating early abortion with homicide.

In 1679, Pope Innocent XI publicly condemned sixty-five propositions as "at least scandalous and in practice dangerous", including:

34. It is lawful to procure abortion before ensoulment of the fetus lest a girl, detected as pregnant, be killed or defamed.

35. It seems probable that the fetus (as long as it is in the uterus) lacks a rational soul and begins to first have one when it is born; and consequently it must be said that no abortion is homicide.[12]

In the 1869 Bull Apostolicae Sedis, Pius IX rescinded Gregory XIV's not-yet-animated fetus exception and re-enacted the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.[11 ] Since then, canon law makes no distinction as regards excommunication between stages of pregnancy at which abortion is performed.

In spite of the difference in ecclesiastical penalties imposed during the period when the theory of delayed ensoulment was accepted as scientific truth, abortion at any stage has always been condemned by the Church.[13] and continues to do so.[14][15] However, in its official declarations, the Catholic Church avoids taking a position on the philosophical question of the moment when a human person begins to be:

This Congregation is aware of the current debates concerning the beginning of human life, concerning the individuality of the human being and concerning the identity of the human person. 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. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence ... modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the programme is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its great capacities requires time ... to find its place and to be in a position to act". 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 fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted. Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed and is unchangeable.[16]


Islam does not traditionally hold that ensoulment occurs at the point of conception. Two passages in the Qur'an describe the fetal development process:

...We created you from dust, then from a drop of fluid, then a clinging form, then a lump of flesh, both shaped and unshaped: We mean to make Our power clear to you. Whatever We choose We cause to remain in the womb for an appointed time, then We bring you forth as infants and then you grow and reach maturity. ... (22:5)
We created man from an essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place, then We made that drop into a clinging form, and We made that form into a lump of flesh, and We made that lump into bones, and We clothed those bones with flesh, and later We made him into other forms—glory be to God, the best of creators! (23:12-14)

Traditional scholarship places the point of ensoulment nearer to the end of this process, naming it as anywhere between 40 and 120 days after conception, making abortion permissible until that point, though increasingly disliked as time passed.

Contemporary scholarship, however, is more likely to more strongly restrict or even forbid abortion, on the grounds that modern technology has permitted us to perceive life in the womb earlier than was previously possible. All schools of thought, traditional and modern, make allowances for circumstances threatening the health or life of the mother.

Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari in a lecture stated that it was murder if done after three months and before that it was a crime, but not to the degree of murder.



  1. ^ "BBC - Religion & Ethics - When is the foetus 'alive'?: The stages of foetal development". Retrieved 2009-01-05.  
  2. ^
  3. ^ [ Aristotle, History of Animals, book VII, part III}
  4. ^ Norman M. Ford, When Did I Begin? Conception of the Human Individual in History, Philosophy and Science (Cambridge & New York, Cambridge University Press ISBN 9780521424288), p. 28
  5. ^ Aristotle on the Soul
  6. ^ Summa Theologica, I, q. 118, art. 2, ad 2. The translation given here is by M. J. Charlesworth in his The World Order, By Thomas Aquinas (Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521029236) 2006, p.155. A more literal translation is given at Question 118. The production of man from man as to the soul.
  7. ^ Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 84, art. 8, ad 2 (emphasis added)
  8. ^ Decrees of the Council of Vienne
  9. ^ summary of Catholics for a Free Choice publication The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church]
  10. ^ Papal bull of Pope Sixtus V against abortionists
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ Catholic Moral Tradition: "In Christ, a New Creation", David Bohr, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1999, ISBN 0879739312, p. 293
  13. ^ Theologians' brief submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research. This document cites many early Christian writers who condemn all forms of abortion, Some of the writers say that a human being begins at conception, thus excluding delayed ensoulment.
  14. ^ The 2008 declaration Dignitas Personae, which describes abortion as "the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth" (Dignitas personae, 23).
  15. ^ T.L. Frazier, The Early Church and Abortion
  16. ^ Instruction Donum vitae of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • The Interlinear Bible, ISBN 1-878442-82-1

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