Early Miscarriage Arguments against Immediate Hominization

One class of arguments which is sometimes seen from pro-choice advocates relies on the fact that a large number of embryos die very early in pregnancy. From this they extrapolate that inducing abortion is permissible. Henry Morgentaler, the well-known Canadian abortion practitioner, makes this argument (‘The Moral Argument for Abortion’, Free Inquiry 16, 3 (1996), p. 18):

If abortion is always viewed as “intentional murder,” why isn’t miscarriage viewed in similar terms? After all, almost half of all embryos are spontaneously shed in what is called “miscarriage” or “spontaneous abortion.” If spontaneous abortions are an “act of God,” to use the common religious expression, is it not strange that God has so little concern for fetal life that He allows so much of it to go to waste without intervening? Is it not possible to then conclude that God does not mind or object to spontaneous abortions? Why is it that the Catholic church has no ritual to mark the abortion of so much fetal life when it occurs spontaneously, yet becomes so vociferous and condemnatory when it is a conscious decision by a woman or couple?

A more recent example was made by Bill Nye in a BigThink video, which was panned in the National Review by two Catholic ethicists, Robert P. George and Patrick Lee. What is interesting about this is that arguments in the same class have been made by Catholic theologians in the past; not, of course, to show the permissibility of abortion, but to argue against immediate hominization. Karl Rahner, for example, wrote:

For a few centuries Catholic moral theology has been convinced that individual hominization occurs at the moment of the fusion of the gametes. Will the moral theologian still have today the courage to maintain this presupposition of many of his moral theological statements, when he is suddenly told that, from the start, 50% of the fecundated female ova never reach nidification [i.e., implantation] in the uterus? Will he be able to admit that 50% of the “human beings”—real human beings with an “immortal” soul and an eternal destiny—do not, from the very start, get beyond this first stage of a human existence? (Cited in Joseph F. Donceel, ‘Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization‘, pp. 99-100).

What is more, Anselm of Canterbury makes a similar-sounding argument:

Anselm wrote that it is inadmissible that the infant should receive a rational soul from the moment of conception. This would imply that every time an embryo perishes soon after conception, a human soul would be damned forever, since it cannot be reconciled with Christ, “quod est nimis absurdum.” (From p. 78 of Donceel, ‘Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization’. He sources the quote to “Liber de conceptu virginali et originali peccato 7 (PL 158, 440)”).

There is, however, a difference between the arguments made by the modern authors and the one made by Anselm. According to Rahner, for example, what is absurd is that God would allow so many people to die at the very first stage of existence. Anselm, meanwhile, argues that it is absurd that God would allow so many people to die without possibility of baptism. This I think highlights a flaw in the argument that many moderns miss, which is that for most of human history, infant mortality has also been extremely high, at times rivaling even the figure of 30%-50% of embryos which are said to die very early in pregnancy (even today, in certain countries the infant mortality ratio is 10%). It would of course be ridiculous for ancients to argue that since so many infants die, perhaps infants are not yet people. It would be even more absurd if they used this to argue for the permissibility of infanticide. But since Anselm’s position is about salvation more than it is about death, no such reductio objection is possible, as infants can be baptized, and so the high mortality of infants (with which Anselm was presumably aware) poses no problem for his argument.

While Latin theologians, following Aristotle, typically favored delayed hominization, Eastern theologians, including the Cappadocians and Maximus the Confessor, have typically favored immediate hominization upon conception. I’ve had to rely pretty heavily on secondary sources for what Catholic theologians have historically made of the high incidence of miscarriage, so what I can present is pretty limited. It would be interesting to see how much ‘air-time’ arguments in this class got among ancients or medievals outside of Anselm.


2 thoughts on “Early Miscarriage Arguments against Immediate Hominization

  1. Brandon Watson April 8, 2017 / 9:10 pm

    I seem to remember from somewhere that there is evidence that a significant portion of spontaneous abortions may be due to severe defects in the embryo, which, if true, would complicate the argument, although not eliminate it.

    Jasper Hopkins has a translation of the Anselm work here:


    Anselm is considering the question of how one can be ‘conceived in sin’ — sin requires will, will requires rational soul, and Donceel summarizes his problem with the last of these correctly, although I take it that the issue of baptism is especially salient because he is considering original sin in particular. I find Anselm’s phrasing interesting — he is bothered by the idea of condemnation before the embryo had attained human form (antequam perveniat ad humanam figuram).

    A caution we have to exercise in discussing these matters is that the meaning of conception is not particularly stable before the modern period — that is, it isn’t always itself conceived as something that happens all at once. This is, I think, one reason the Latin theologians end up going the way they do: their sources seem to suggest that conception is a cooking process. I don’t think Aquinas ever commits to it, but in the Commentary on the Sentences he says that Aristotle held that conception took forty or ninety days, and he more than once refers to a passage by Augustine in which Augustine appears to take Christ’s conception to last for forty-six days. Christ’s conception was often held to happen in an instant, but only miraculously; Aquinas discusses it in ST 3.33:



    • georgiosscholarios April 9, 2017 / 4:57 pm

      Many thanks for the links.

      Regarding your first point, I did find this: “In humans, it has been estimated that between 30% and 70% of conceptuses are lost before or at the time of implantation, without women being aware that they were pregnant. Of these losses, half are probably a consequence of genetic defects in the conceptus. The etiology of the remaining losses is unknown” (source: http://publish.uwo.ca/~kennedyt/t108.pdf). Other studies I skimmed had lower rates of total number of miscarriages (20%-35% rather than 30%-70%) but agreed with the remark that abnormal conceptuses comprise a considerable number of very early miscarriages. Yet they’re not very specific about the exact kinds of abnormality, which is frustrating because, for example, if many miscarried conceptuses are hydatidiform moles (which secrete hCG and thus would be detected by pregnancy tests), this would be important in evaluating the early miscarriage argument(s). I’ve read papers arguing that certain fertilized eggs (such as moles) should not be considered organisms because they have no tendency to organized growth (e.g., ‘Complete Moles and Parthenotes Are Not Organisms’ by Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco OP). If this is right, this would obviously complicate the argument, as you say.

      The question from the Summa is pretty interesting. Donceel seems to think, that since Aquinas says the conceptus must be developed to a certain extent before it can receive a rational soul, that the rational soul does not inform a fetus until it begins developing a brain/cortex. But Aquinas specifically says that the “Christ’s body, on account of the infinite power of the agent [the Holy Spirit], was perfectly disposed instantaneously,” so that at its very first instance of existence it could receive a rational soul. On Donceel’s account then, immediately upon conception Christ already had a brain! Funny enough, this problem actually comes up in art. 2, obj. 2, where the objection is made that, if Christ’s body was infused with a rational soul at its first instant of conception, then it would have to be smaller than the body of normal men when they were infused; otherwise we get the (unacceptable) result that Christ was either born very early or very large. Aquinas responds by accepting that Christ’s body was smaller than a normal body when it received a rational soul, but it was still large enough “to safeguard the nature of an animated body.” Given how long it takes to develop a cortex, this reply can’t be used by Donceel. However this problem might not arise if we instead hypothesize that the rational soul is normally infused only one or two weeks after development (following the “twinning argument”).


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