Natural Law and Abortion

In the current opposition to abortion on moral grounds, the “right to life” principle has attained an indisputable hegemony. But numerous exceptions to this principle are admitted, even by those who stand firmly by the general rule. Self-defense in the face of unjust aggression or threats to life is almost universally approved; just war theory, allowing killing of combatants, has time-honored acceptability; capital punishment is allowed by the Church, albeit with reservations; and many Catholic moral theologians consider threats to the life of a mother to provide an exception to the prohibition of abortion.
The difficulty of the application of the right-to-life principle in discussions of abortion is aggravated by some impossible questions: When is the fetus a human being? When is the soul infused? Many of us, perhaps most of us, would tend toward a “benefit of the doubt” approach — pointing to the moment of conception. If we accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, do we need to logically hold that every human conception is ensouled? In any case, no one, short of divine revelation, knows for sure, or even has the possibility of knowing, when the infusion takes place. This is an issue for which there will never be a clear answer.

But is the right-to-life principle the most relevant principle? Are persons considering the morality or immorality of abortion really asking themselves with praiseworthy academic impartiality, “Now, is this fetus really a human being with a prima facie right to life?” Or should other principles take priority? Are there not other natural-law directives that should have the ascendancy in such cases?
The natural law related to the life principle, according to St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa (Q. 94, 1a2ae), is the first specific precept of natural law, and relates to the tendency of all beings to remain in existence. As applied to humans, it is the “law of self-preservation” for each individual — the instinctive tendency we all have to nurture our existence and maintain it at all costs, unless some supervening rationale demotes this tendency to secondary importance. The corollary duty for us who observe this law operative in some other individual is to respect that tendency, and do nothing to impede it, as long as that individual does not forfeit his rights in some way (e.g., by unjust, lethal aggression).
Aquinas then goes on to enunciate the second specific precept of the natural law, common to humans as well as other animals — namely, to nurture and make provision for their offspring. As applied to humans, who require immensely longer care and education than other animals, the requirements are proportionally more stringent. This law is associated with the instinctive desire of persons to have offspring and their willingness to invest immense energy in children’s upbringing and well-being — even to the point of personal sacrifice, and even to sacrifice of life.
The main “empirical” proof that this is indeed a law of nature is in the emotions and inclinations — the powerful love most parents feel for their offspring, often maintained in spite of setbacks and unrequited love. Parents reflecting on these appetitive phenomena might suspect that they are being subjected to something like a computer program. Nevertheless, like all instincts, the impetus to care for offspring can be interdicted or redirected, depending on circumstances — including, for humans, not only external environmental circumstances, but also prevailing ideas, ideals, and ideologies.
While the law for the individual parent is to mobilize reason and resources to care for their progeny, the corresponding duty for those of us who witness this law operative in the parent is to respect their right to care for children, and do what is in our power to facilitate that objective — or, at least, not place obstacles in the way.
These two natural-law precepts relate differentially to the abortion issue. While the law of “respect for life” includes one’s offspring in a general way, the second law, related to having and caring for offspring, if it be acknowledged to prevail, is much more relevant to the case of abortion — since it is diametrically opposed to a woman’s extermination of her own child in utero. An intentional extermination would seem to belong preeminently to the category of sins deemed “contrary to nature.”
On the other hand, it should be recognized that application of the second precept may change our perspective on some of the common exceptions many are willing to allow regarding the prohibition of abortion. Those who apply the first precept often make an exception for situations threatening the life of the mother, since there is a conflict between two rights to life. But, in light of the second precept, a conflict of rights obtains also in the cases of rape and incest. For, if every woman has a right to conceive and procreate, and if this right implies that she has a right to make that choice voluntarily, no more obvious infractions of that right than rape and incest can be contemplated.
Indeed, the existence of any right implies voluntariness. The right of free speech would be infringed if the speech were made under duress; the right to choose a religion would be meaningless if it were conditioned by threats to life or well-being; the right to eat to preserve one’s life and health would be compromised for someone subjected to forced feeding. Thus, in cases of rape and incest, application of the second precept points out a conflict of rights. The right of the mother — to bear offspring voluntarily — comes into conflict with the presumed right of the human fetus to life. This infringement of the mother’s right certainly has an impact on any obligations the mother would normally have without such infringement. Especially in the case of incest of young children, the stringency of any presumed duties to offspring would seem to be obviously compromised and minimized.
Legislation by civil authorities, unlike morality and natural law, is not concerned per se with moral right and wrong but with preservation of public order, including the protection of legal rights and the emendation of illegal wrongs. And considerations of enforceability inevitably enter into viable lawmaking. The law may tolerate immoral actions that are in the private realm or cannot be effectively prohibited. America’s experience with Prohibition laws in the 1920s offers a classic example: At that time, many strong believers in the evils of alcohol prudently decided that enforcement would be impossible. In recent decades, the abrogation of erstwhile state laws against sodomy, the marital use of contraceptives, and the sale and use of pornography can be characterized as the removal of largely unenforceable legislation. The legalization of prostitution in some areas may fall into the same category.
But arguably, while a blanket legal prohibition of abortion in the present cultural climate may seem unenforceable, the prohibition of abortion may find broad support even among those with “pro-choice” leanings, provided that the three above-mentioned exceptions are allowed. Gallup polls each year from 2004 to 2009 have consistently indicated that slightly over 70 percent of Americans believe either that abortion should be prohibited completely, or allowed only under certain conditions. The extenuating circumstances often cited are cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother. In European laws, already much less permissive than in the United States, these three exceptions are frequent and basic.
It goes without saying, however, that Christian principles may supersede considerations of conflicts of right related to natural law. Deciding to bring a child into the world after a rape, for example, would be in the same category as gospel admonitions to “go the other mile,” “lend to others without hoping for repayment,” “turn the other cheek,” etc. In situations of problem pregnancies like ectopic gestation, a woman deciding to forfeit her own right to life and her right to nurture and raise her children to bring her child to term would be going even further in “other miles.” From the standpoint of natural law, such decisions would belong in the category of heroic virtue — sacrifices of personal rights that go beyond any normal call to maternal responsibility.

Howard Kainz


Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Stan Gwizdak

    The last paragraph is a virtual “Summa Theologica.” The Church and its faithful adherents are called to “go the other mile and often required to altruism of “heroic virtue.”

    We are in a time of dialogue seeking and compromise. However, the compromise is sought from the Church, not from the world. The Church was instituted by Christ and owes its bona fides from Him. It should not wish or expect adulation from the world for the world then holds promissary notes.

    The Church is a moral tour de force in and upon the world. Even the world is careful to seek “dialogue” and “accommodation with the Church. But, have no doubt, the world’s intention is to adorn infanticide with acceptable titles and acceptance period. Any compromise the Church or Catholics make in this regard just lends the world legitimacy and fuels the insatiable hunger for more compromise with this particular issue. Most Christian churches have compromised. The Catholic Church has not. May it ever be faithful.

    Jesus said, “In the world, you will have trouble, be not afraid, I have conquered the world.”

  • MarkL

    It seems that those so-called “conflicts of rights” are just red-herrings. The important question here is: who infringes on the right of the mother? Is it the fetus? Certainly not for the fetus cannot will himself into existence and it hence has to be the rapist.
    Now the most basic principle of justice is the following: the fact that A does an injustice (infringes on the rights) to B does not justify B in doing an injustice (right infringement) to C. Hence, while the fetus in no way infringes on the right of the mother since the pregnancy is a result of the wilfull act of the rapist and not of the fetus, by killing the fetus- admittedly to stop an injustice perpetrated by the rapist- the mother unmistakenly infringes on the rights of the fetus. This is a form of aggression and can in no be assimilated to self-defense. For B can initiate lethal force or imperil C only if C has initated an aggression or has infringed the rights of B, otherwise B is an aggressor.
    Now one may object by saying that the state through restrictive laws may be infringing on the right of mother by letting the injustice continue. However, as it has already been outlined above, it is the rapist(and neither the state nor the fetus) which inflicts the injustice on the woman and the state is perfectly justified in intervening to stop an injustice being done to the fetus.
    One does not need to be someone infused with christian charity to recognise such basic principles…even extreme libertatarians like Walter Block do…

  • georgie-ann

    there is, of course, nothing wrong with arguing from the point of view of civil concepts and legal principles,…apparently very necessary in our dehumanized, God-marginalized, secularized culture,…

    it’s just so sad to see how arrogant “man” has become to look at the source of the absolutely awesome Miracle of Life as some random genetic-thingy to gawk at, scientifically explainable, humanly manipulable, subject to the whims of the conditional situation and personal convenience(s) of mankind,…like playing with a Tinker Toy set,…

    we no longer know/recognize “who we are,”…or “who” anybody else is,…

    in denying God as the Creator, the Ultimate Source and Originator of All Life and Awesome Individualized Qualities and Characteristics, we reduce ourselves (all of us) to the status of the accidental robotic inter-combining characteristics of the elements of the Ashes we will soon become,…

    if the Newly Conceived “Fetus” has no Essential God-given Worth & Dignity, then neither do you or i,…

    if my son or daughter can be explained as “lucky” to be “MY personal choice” and therefore, in this instance, found “worthy” of human love and acceptance, this is not really “good news” or “good enough,”…that kind of love usually proves itself to be conditional,…once the parent(s) become(s) enraged at “whatever,” which will likely eventually happen, how worthy does this child now feel, having nothing else to “fall back on,”…

    he/she does NOT feel worthy under these circumstances,…they now have been psychologically/spiritually “rejected” by those who “so generously chose” them, and their “place in the universe” has been revealed to be conditional and tenuous at best,…(teen escapism, drug use and suicides anyone?),…

    without the Permanent Everlasting God as the Foundation of our “existence and place in the universe,” we have no security or permanent self-worth,…

    humans, wake-up!,…”your” love & privileged “choice” as an acceptance voucher for the “perceived value” of your offspring, is INSUFFICIENT to meet their life/identity needs,…

    they need to KNOW that they come straight from God–as a special and unique creation–and that you, parents, are respectful earthly co-laborers with God, simply endeavoring to help them reach their fullest potential,…

  • georgie-ann

    the root source of abortion is in the “thought” realm,…once the thoughts separate the baby from God, the “deed” is not far behind,…

    the Bible says “repent,” which literally means: “change your thinking,”…

    repent and return to God,…

  • George

    If we accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, do we need to logically hold that every human conception is ensouled? Yes! Otherwise, there is no Immaculate “Conception.” You’d have to say Mary was immaculately infused. For the rest of us, what is conceived in original sin? A vegetative embryo?

    And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.

    Mary became the “Mother” of God the moment she uttered her “fiat.” Her title Theotokos is defined doctrine, it means “God-bearer.” It refers literally to her “bearing” God in her womb, as much as it does her divine maternity forever. And, Elizabeth was in her sixth month when the “infant” in her womb “leaped for joy.”

    Perhaps the pope should define ex cathedra that “personhood begins at conception” rather than “life,” for no one denies that what is conceived is a living being, an individual, distinct from the parents.

  • Twice thinking

    I don’t know if you saw the TV piece on Chimerical people recently but in the case of a chimera, there are originally two separate fertilized eggs within the mom which within the first four days then fuse together and rather than producing twins as it had looked on day 1, they therefore produce one person by this fusing of the two eggs and their cell clusters. The piece was called “I am my own twin”. Now had ensoulement been immediate, then two souls would then be in the resultant one person which cannot be.
    In the case of identical twins, it seems that the fertilized egg has 14 days in which to divide into two people.
    Again had ensoulement of the one egg taken place at day one, it..the one soul… would later have had to split into two souls at day 14 and Aquinas noted that a soul cannot divide.
    It is data like this which prevents the papal statement you hope for and if you go to section 40 of Evangelium Vitae, you will see John Paul II state that the matter has not received the firm committment of the Magisterium.

    What the Church should think about is having a think tank in Rome where the best Catholic scientists etc could work on such problems full time so that we could have a science answer for those types of people in the world who require such. As it is Catholic intellectuals for the most part are in various Universities and parts of the world and if they write about such problems, it is good but if they choose to not explore such problems, it does not get done. If we had a think tank at Rome, a central authority could set the agenda.

  • georgie-ann

    …as if for awhile “it” might spend “a phase of its natural development” as something more akin to a disposable frog or tadpole “invading”/inhabiting the womb, until later, at some uncertain point, when it must finally manage to “evolve”/turn into a “human” in utero,…(???)

    oh, duh, yeah!,…now i get it!,…it is being insinuated that something akin to “evolution” might also be going on in the womb too?,…THOROUGHLY GROSS!,…and even so “unnatural” and unscientific a mis-construance of smoke and innuendo, that it is a wonder that people grasp these false predications as legitimate excuses for what they “eliminate,”…patently pathetic,…

    the modern scientized mind has become quite disconnected (from basic life realities) and very very bizarre,…

  • Jason Negri

    A very thoughtful article. None other than the redoubtable Professor Charles Rice taught me that, contrary to popular belief, the Church does not teach that life begins at conception, nor does she teach specifically about ensoullment. He referred to the “problem of twins” – a concept that “Twice thinking” explained well.

    There are some things that are outside the purview of Church authority, and declaring when life begins and when exactly ensoullment occurs seems to be two of those things, so I’m not sure a Vatican think tank would help, since any conclusions it might draw could not be dogmatic or matters of faith and morals, but rather of science.

    I think it would be more correct to state that we are obliged to defend human beings in utero as if life began at conception because it very well might.

    As for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception requiring us to believe that every conception is ensoulled – something that science seems to show exceptions for – I don’t buy it.

  • georgie-ann

    my last post was meant to follow George’s,…it seems so absurd to me that people have to have “clarification” as to whether a baby is a human person from conception,…what else could it possibly be?,…

    no aspersion on any commentators intended,…just the general human condition-at-large,…

    i would like a more detailed description of the “twins” issue, or a good reference,…but (admittedly commenting in virtual ignorance at this point), it would still seem to me that God’s sovereignty, economy & management of the physically “unobservable” apportionment of spiritual/soul qualities will have a commonsense functioning element and quality to it, that does not have to answer robotically to scientifically observable minute molecular patterns,…or, who knows?,…maybe it does!,…(needing more specific information!),…

    that’s all quite possibly not very clear, and i’m kind of sorry i got caught in the middle of these two things!,…(-:

  • George

    Twice thinking, I checked EV and could not find the affirmation you referred to, at least not in section 40. Can you double check this?

    In the case of the “chimera” people and twins, it could be that in the former, when there were two fertilized eggs, there were two souls. When the eggs united, one soul was taken to the next life. In the latter case, when the fertilized egg splits into two then another soul is created by God because now there is “another” life. That pre-born twin did not originate at conception, as you point out, but it was ensouled as soon as the division occurred.

    If life begins at conception, and the soul is the principle of life, then that soul is human. If it were not yet human, but vegetative, then its nature, as a form, is to “form” a complete plant.

    I realize that I am speaking in very simple terms. And I do understand your points, points which I had not heard before. Yes, we need a think-tank, but philosophers and theologians with Catholic minds as well.

  • Twice Thinking

    How did I change 60 to 40? It’s section 60 though and I just read it. You’ll find that he basically agrees with Jason on the concept of “as if”.
    Both you and Georgie-Ann can see two Catholics battle out such twinning issues in the 1970’s right after Humanae Vitae in the periodical Theological Studies here at this link which at that time had the chief conservative and liberal theologians debate these things…go here:

    and scroll down to particularly these two essays listed below….it gets way deep scientifically and who knows what has happened since then since Hilgers at that time said that chimeras were possible if a protective part of the one egg was damaged but then he goes on to say that he does not have proof that there are such people. Now in our day, I think they show it from the genetic combinations in the various organs. Good luck. I have to work on how I changed a 6 to a 4 in EV.

    Hilgers, Thomas W. Human Reproduction: Three Issues for the Moral Theologian


  • Rich

    Well said, my friend.

  • Richard

    The issue of when the soul enters the body of a fetus is not the issue in terms of abortion. In 1972 it may have been possible to argue that a fetus was not human(ridiculous, but perhaps arguable). Today, now, in the twenty-first century, advances in science have proven that the fetus is a seperate, living human being. The argument for abortion, if argued truthfully, is now an argument for infanticide. But, like our forebears in the Americas(the Mayans and other native peoples), we now accept human sacrifice as a matter of law. My guess is that eventually this leads us to the same place in history as them.

  • georgie-ann

    George, you said what i was trying to say about God’s trusted soul economy,…exactly my thoughts, but i couldn’t find the words,…

    and thank you, Twice, for the references,…i’ll have to “dig in” later,…now entering a “time warp!”,…

    and speaking from the point of view of someone who experienced something incredibly dramatic spiritually at the point/time of conception, i will have to say that i will ALWAYS AND FOREVER believe that the other God-given human is presented at conception,…

    thank you, and may God be with you!

  • Jason Negri

    How did I change 60 to 40? It’s section 60 though and I just read it. You’ll find that he basically agrees with Jason on the concept of “as if”.

    Now THAT was a trip. I don’t ever expect to see anyone again state that “the pope agrees with” me. LOL

  • Thomas S

    I may be very simple minded about this but I think, nevertheless, that doubts about the notion that human life begins at conception are, well, rather bizarre. Many years ago when I took elementary biology, I was told — with no qualifications or hedges — that human life began at conception. It seems that that principle had been accepted as fact since at least the mid 1800’s (when we first learned some things about eggs and sperm that we didn’t know before). Besides (if I am not mistaken) the word soul (psyche) means “principle of life”. Which means that the “soul” is the principle, formal cause if you will, that animates, guides, actualizes the conceptus, causing it to grow and develop as a self-inegrating biological “system”. Sure, somatic cells (e.g. skin cells) are alive but they don’t naturally grow or develop through time in the way that a conceptus does. It seems obvious to me that this simple truth about the beginning of human life has been obscured by a web of sophistry spun out by people with an ideological agenda (whether woman’s rights, population control and/or a gnostic view of the human person). As to the twinning issue, it seems to me to be irrelevant as to whether one of two lives are there at the beginning: the important thing is that a human life has been brought into being, whether one life or two. But so much for my simple minded view of the matter.

  • Twice Thinking

    Thomas S

    The link below is from the aforementioned “Theological Studies” free online as to the back issues and probably read by many Bishops during their career at one time or another.
    Here is a Catholic doctor on your topic…it will partly explain perhaps why John Paul II said in the aforementioned section 60 of E.V., that ensoulement itself is not solved…

  • Twice Thinking

    Scrolling to the bottom of page 311 will get you to the heart of the biology problem sooner…starting at “Totipotentiality (Pluripotentiality)”.

  • Mena

    America has spun into advanced stages of moral chaos, and it all boils down to the fact that the Left has been solidly on offense for decades to implement their destructive vision, and the Right has been weak or disenfranchised—or both.

    The Left has won in matters of government policy, media, entertainment, and education, and we must simply throw up our hands and give applause at their victory. Face it: they wanted badly, and they got it. They got the bizarro world they sought. The pro-death Left has control of the key institutions that form the consciences and minds of citizens (minus the Catholic Church).

    So, there’s nothing we can do but admit defeat and wait, once again, for the inevitable ugly collapse of society, as in times past. It’s deeply depressing to have to live at this time and watch the Leftists skillfully steer us and our children over the cliff.

    The lesson: Devout Christians *must* hold the leadership offices of any nation or that nation will invariably commit moral and economic suicide. There’s no other way.

  • Mike

    Last I looked I lived in America, a country whose founding documents include the statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Whether or not you believe the fetus is ensouled, and indeed whether or not you believe in God it is a scientific fact that the fetus is alive, and that the fetus is human. Were it not for the legal fiction that these rights only apply to “persons” and “persons” shall not include the unborn, we would apply the law equally to all human beings, and abortion would be illegal.

  • MarkL

    The so-called twinning problem has been demolished by Steven Oderberg and Dianne Irving as far as I am concerned. Such twinning arguments depend on a commitment to cartesian dualism. To those who adhere to classical hylomorphic dualism, such concerns have no cogency at all. The basic thing about twinning is to realise that a human being can come and go out of existence in more than one way. But all this is explained in greater depth by Steven Oderberg.

    And finally..who has told you that the question of when a human being comes into existence is a religious one and not one confined to science. Not only such an argument carries no cogency to atheists and agnostcs in the publio sphere ( Nat Hentoff famously said : “I respect life and not souls, for life is the only thing I have”) who are actually pro-life but it is absolutely false( As explained by C. Ward Kisher, Pr Emeritus in Anatomy).

  • Vikram

    I don’t know if you saw the TV piece on Chimerical people recently …The piece was called “I am my own twin”. Now had ensoulement been immediate, then two souls would then be in the resultant one person which cannot be.
    In the case of identical twins, it seems that the fertilized egg has 14 days in which to divide into two people.
    Again had ensoulement of the one egg taken place at day one, it..the one soul… would later have had to split into two souls at day 14 and Aquinas noted that a soul cannot divide.

    Aquinas is totally correct, but the inference you are making is wrong. Let me explain.

    You have described a couple of biological processes with which I have no problem at all. They are observable fact.

    But then you make an inference about a non-biological process -the moment when the soul enters the physical being – which cannot be observed.

    So this inference must involve a belief system of some kind.

    For the atheist, as there is no God, there is no immortal soul in the first place, so he doesn’t really care. For the secular theist or progressive Catholic who rationalizes abortion, there is a period of time (which seems to get longer all the time) between conception and when the soul enters the body. Lets call this the non-Catholic inference.

    For the believing Catholic the conceived human is always a soul with a body, however small, i.e. “ensoulment” as you call it, coincides with conception. Lets call this the Catholic inference.

    You seem to be arguing that the Catholic inference is somehow compromised by the biological processes you describe. I don’t see why that should be the case at all.

    Just as you (and everyone else) have no idea how God infuses the soul and the body in the usual case of a single fertilized egg that produces a single baby, so also you do not have any idea how God infuses soul and body in the unusual cases you describe. For some reason you seem to think that the unusual biological processes give you special insight.

    In the first case you assume that at conception God gives the chimera two souls. In the second, you assume he gives the twins-to-be one soul. How do you know this? You assume this. Do you know that God said that he thought about you (and everyone one of us humans) before the creation of the world, i.e. well before conception – obviously! If so, then He knows the chimera will be a single human and the single embryo will divide into two. Accordingly would He not give the former just one soul and the latter two?

    We do not know the mind of God. The scientists in the day when most of them had a Christian worldview, men like Pasteur and Newton, knew where science ended and God began. We seem to have forgotten. Accordingly our science is getting pretty bad, eg. the anthropogenic global warming scam, and our insight into the eternal is even worse.

  • Twice Thinking

    Vikram and Mark L

    You both should write to Professor Emeritus Charles Rice at the Nortre Dame Law School and inform him that the twinning problem is no problem at all. As Jason noted, Prof. Rice thinks it is and he is prominent in pro life matters. You should disabuse him of his mistake. wrote: “For the believing Catholic the conceived human is always a soul with a body, however small, i.e. “ensoulment” as you call it, coincides with conception. Lets call this the Catholic inference.”

    Let’s call it internet Catholicism overstating the infallible beliefs of Catholicism. Trent’s catechism argues against you in the third article/end of 9th paragraph: ” for according to the order of nature the rational soul is united to the body only after a certain lapse of time.”

    There is no infallible Church statement on ensoulement. Trent could be wrong and you could be wrong. The jury is still out as to any infallible statements on the matter (none have been made). John Paul says as much in section 60 of Evangelium Vitae.

    You have God putting two souls in the egg which He knows will be twins on day 14. Aquinas has God willing that many things are to happen contingently on secondary causes and without His intervention. I and many others see this area as one of those areas where God wills things to happen contingently and without the intervention of His foreknowledge.
    And on the chimera, you end up having a soulless egg involved which is against you but in line with Trent. Adieu.

  • True Blue

    Professor Kainz,

    You stand on the ramparts of the Natural Law and from that vantage point, especially when you choose to battle on the field of abortion, and abortion in peripheral circumstances in particular, Christianity is made to look unreasonable, quixotic, even fundamentalist.

    You rope in Aquinas, which looks to me like a clever move to give your argument more weight with your audience (Catholics). Aquinas was an apologist, and apologists need to find common ground to argue from, so of course Aquinas used Aristotle and Natural Law as these were well understood in his time. However Aquinas didn’t say much at all about abortion as it just wasn’t as much of an issue in the 13th century. So your argument doesn’t really have Aquinas’ seal of approval, it just appears that way.

    I dips me lid (as we say Down Under) though, to your frank admission that, “no one, short of divine revelation, knows for sure, or even has the possibility of knowing, when the infusion takes place…”

    This is crucial to the rest of your argument, because presumably if we did know for sure that infusion took place at conception, you could just stop right there.

    Natural Law is a good starting point for Christianity, which is why Aquinas used it. However Christianity, while agreeing with Natural Law in numerous respects, is on many points as different from the Natural Law as day is from night.

    Hence your last paragraph, where the sacrifice of the self required to be truly Christian, appears to someone at home with Natural Law as somewhat foreign, even alien.

    It is a mark of the (fallen) human condition that we are naturally selfish. So your argument (very well argued I might add!) of the exceptional circumstances where abortion might agree with the natural law relies on and invokes this natural law of selfishness, which is not Christian.

    Instead Christianity is truly unnatural in the sense that it is not natural to us. It is given to us from above, and we receive a new heart and a new spirit, to love in the same way Christ did – unselfishly. It is a transformation that makes formerly unbearable burdens light. Jesus said as much, “my yoke is easy, my burden is light.”

    For women in the unfortunate position of facing a pregnancy due to rape or incest, the choice is not between putting up with the anguish of bearing their attackers baby against their will, or not. It is a choice between experiencing Jesus Christ or not.

    Without Christ we could be either a victim or not a victim, but regardless of which of these two we are, death has the final claim on us. With Christ death has no claim on us anymore, either in this life or the next, so its immaterial if you’re a victim or not. Christ is the victim who has taken upon himself all the sins and the pain and anguish that those sins produce, in return for which he offers us eternal life. In Christ there are no losers or victims.

  • Rich

    Thanks for your time and scholarship here.

  • Christine

    We are arguing about a matter of days when a soul is imbued and abortion is legal, according to Roe vs. Wade, up until the baby is moments away from having its back slapped to aid in its first breath.

    Are most babies aborted in the first few days of their lives? Absolutely. Impregnation is a mysterious process and spontaneous abortions happen to women often. Abortificants, such as using the birth control pill and the IUD also cause abortions early in pregnancies.

    What I think matters most in this conversation is not only stopping abortions when they occur unnaturally, but also the abhorrent practice of killing a child in the womb that obviously is a life and has a soul. I doubt that anyone who would stare at an ultrasound of a 3 month old child in the womb would doubt that it is a person and has a soul.

    Let’s do what we can to stop what is truly wrong here – the abortion of so many viable children who obviously have souls. We can argue about the rest, but at this point in the game, I really don’t understand why.

    While ye are at it you may also want to argue, by using Cartesian dualism or some Anselm or Church Doctors to philosophize how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle. Most of us non-intellectuals will still have no idea what you are talking about, save fading memory of some introductory philosophy course we took in college 20 years ago.

    Remember, you are all talking about 14 days here and the menstrual cycle is 28 -30 days.

  • Christine

    Mr. Kainz, I loved your article and my comment is not focused on you, as I thought you provided a holistic approach to your argument in regards to natural law. Your ideas regarding personal responsibility are great

    I did get a bit scared at how granular the comments have become in this thread, however.

  • George

    Interesting thread to be sure. BTW (this is not specifically directed at Christine, but to anyone who wants to know) the question of how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle was a satirical invention of the ant-scholastic nominalist, William of Occham, to poke fun at the scholastics who, in their declining period (a century and more after Aquinas), had lost their grip on perennial philosophy.

  • Howard Kainz

    Mr. Kainz, I loved your article and my comment is not focused on you, as I thought you provided a holistic approach to your argument in regards to natural law. Your ideas regarding personal responsibility are great

    I did get a bit scared at how granular the comments have become in this thread, however.

    Some comments did tend to be “granular.” Some seem to think I was arguing that natural law justifies abortion. My main points were only that 1) the second “precept” of Thomistic natural law is more relevant than the first precept; and that 2) this would seem to have some implications for the alleged “3 exceptions.” I hope this is understood.

  • Cantor

    OK Prof Kainz, I’ll be as ungranular as possible –

    You don’t explicitly state that natural law makes abortion per se OK, however you do provide the sophistry by which the “3 exceptions” might fit within the parameters of natural law, thus making them OK (or having “implications” for them as you euphemistically put it).

    I can see why you prefer to make your stand on the 2nd principle rather than the 1st, because its very hard to argue self-defense or just war on an entity (the fetus) that is the third party to the two main protagonists and is not making war on or attacking anybody.

    In fact you don’t really use the 2nd principle i.e. the nurturing instinct inherent in all of nature including humans, but your own version of it.

    You suggest that this nurturing instinct is a “right” and as soon as it becomes a right we can choose whether we exercise it or not. An animal has no choice and will care for its young regardless of the circumstances leading up to their conception. This takes care of 2 of the 3 “exceptions”. The 3rd, danger to the mother’s life is also taken care of as an animal has no choice in this either, and the pregnancy will carry on to term regardless of whether it is ectopic or not.

    So the “3 exceptions” are exceptions only for us humans, and only because of your interpretation of the 2nd principle as a “right” rather than as a “law”. Nice bit of sophistry this, starting out with “Natural Law” and turning it into “rights”.

    This is actually a huge millstone for you, because once you make this argument, why should it stop at the unborn. If it is my right and not my duty to protect and nurture my children, what is to stop me neglecting them to the point of endangering their lives? Nothing in the Natural Law according to Kainz.

    Fortunately for us, we don’t have to rely on Natural Law or anyone’s interpretation of it, because Christ’s law, the law of life, is rock solid and I can build my house on it. It is a law that is encapsulated in the cross – a scandal for the natural lawyer because it is so unnatural. Love regardless of the consequences and you will live…as a grain of wheat produces nothing until it dies, so too for us.

  • MarkL

    Cantor: exactly my friend…and I must add that it is not the law which fleshes out a duty to help one’s children that is the crux of my argument but the law not to KILL someone (not to infringe on ones right to life). Why the unborn’s right not to be killed can be nullified in the case of rape, the good professor gives us no hint. And note that my argument does not depend on either of Pr Kainz principles.

    To Twice Twinning and others: Yes, I think that Pr Rice is mistaken and I gave my reasons for why I think this is so.The twinning problem has been shown to be a red-herring as Vikram has himself noted: a human body cannot exist without a soul for the soul is the form of the human being. The soul is the “life-principle” of the humanbeing. For those who holds true to the unity of the body and of the soul, like Vikram obviously does, then arguments from twiining makes no sense. A humanbeing (and hence a human soul) comes into existence at conception but can go out of existence at fission, whereby two other human beings( and two other souls) come into existence.It’s really as simple as that. It’s only if you have an apriori commitment to the idea that the body is “infused” with the soul some times after the body comes into existence that the twinning argument then becomes problematic.

  • MarkL

    …I will add that the duty not to kill is still held against the rape victim while the duty not to force one to bear a pregnancy cannot be held againt the fetus for the pregnancy is an act of the rapist and not of the fetus. Thus one is hard pressed to find a reason to nullify the rights of C held against B for an infringement by A on the rights of B.

    addendum: the right to life of the fetus does not causes the infringement of the mother’s right to choose to procreate. Indeed, if the fetus can be transferred from the mother’s womb without causing his death (by early delivery for example), then go ahead.

    Finally I will want to add that I think that the distinction between a duty not to harm or kill and a duty to provides for one’s children is a false one. For I submit that the only duty parents have towards their children is a duty not to harm. (See Edward Feser’s paper and Doris Gordon articles on the subject for details).

  • brendon

    There is no human body without a human soul, because a human soul is what causes a human body to be human. Medieval Scholastics could hold to delayed ensoulment because they relied upon erroneous biology.

    In this biology, a human body, a human being, did not come into existence at conception. Rather, only a vegetative body, a vegetative being, came into existence at conception. Later, this vegetative body turned into a sensitive body, a sensitive being. Finally, at a later stage, the sensitive body turned into a human, rational body, a human being.

    This biology is understandable based upon the available data at the time. One could only really observe the development of human life via things such as miscarriages. One did not have the instruments or precision to judge even these based upon anything but physical appearance and shape.

    But that has changed. A new individual being comes into existence at conception. This new individual being has a complete human genetic code. Science tells us this. Science tells us this being possesses a human body at the most basic level. And no being can possess a human body without a human soul.

    Twinning is not a problem. There is one human being before the twinning process, afterwards there are two. Either the first human being went out of existence and two new ones came into existence, or – more likely in my opinion – a second human being came into existence by splitting off from the first. This does not require the original human being to have had two souls any more than it requires a spermatozoa and an ovum to each have “half” of a soul. A new soul is created when a new human being comes into existence.

    Similarly, chimerism is not a problem. Nothing about it requires a person to have two souls. One human being went out of existence, i.e. died. The matter left behind was absorbed by the other and incorporated into its being. It is rare, and perhaps to some a bit unsettling, but it does not pose a philosophical problem. There is one, unified, living, human body. Thus there is one human soul.

    All this talk of “delayed ensoulment” is philosophically untenable. Delayed ensoulment is the result of applying good philosophy to bad biology, or bad philosophy to good biology. It cannot be defended when applying good philosophy to good biology.

  • Twice Thinking


    Go here for a “granular” biology of the zygote-morula-blastocyst that opposes your view:

    And he is suggesting implicitly that modern biology agrees with the “delay” in the delayed ensoulement of Aquinas,Jerome and Augustine and Trent’s catechism.
    Go here to the general page and check other authors like Hilge who disagree with him:

    But to say that modern science argues for one view or the other may be premature and a priori reasoning. We do that in some of our amateur defensive history like new advent’s account of the conquistadors in Peru as being an ambush with Pizarro as victim. Strange then that victim Spain spent the next 200 years “relocating” Peru’s gold to Castile (Niall Ferguson). Do not in history or science start with your conclusion; you will slant the results.

  • Howard Kainz

    So the “3 exceptions” are exceptions only for us humans, and only because of your interpretation of the 2nd principle as a “right” rather than as a “law”. Nice bit of sophistry this, starting out with “Natural Law” and turning it into “rights”.

    This is actually a huge millstone for you, because once you make this argument, why should it stop at the unborn. If it is my right and not my duty to protect and nurture my children, what is to stop me neglecting them to the point of endangering their lives? Nothing in the Natural Law according to Kainz.

    The three precepts of natural law that Thomas Aquinas mentions also have the special characteristic of including rights. 1) The law of self-preservation implies the right to preserve one’s life; 2) the law of procreation and nurturing offspring implies the right to do so voluntarily; 3) the law of acting rationally (pursuing the truth and working for rational societal structures) also implies the right to do so. With regard to the “three exceptions,” I was only bringing out the fact that there are rights involved in these cases that are not involved in other cases. For example, the child victimized by incest has had her right violated, while a woman voluntarily having intercourse is exercising a right. Thus there may be a certain logic for civil laws, even in certain countries where abortion is considered criminal, relaxing the laws in such cases. We have to keep in mind that what is legal often differs from what is moral, and what is moral may differ from religious maxims which go above and beyond morality.

  • JP

    Is there a basic confusion in the article between natural inclinations and the primary and secondary precepts of the natural law?

  • Christine

    The reason why I threw out the word granular, is this:

    1. A child is conceived at or around a woman’s ovulation, which occurs towards the middle of a 28-30 day menstrual cycle.

    2. A woman misses her period at the end of the 28-30 day cycle, so she thinks that she may be pregnant.

    3. The woman either continues with the pregnancy or has an abortion.

    The subject got around the ensoulment of chimeras and everything else except the fact that by the time the woman knows she is pregnant all of the exceptions listed above are null and void. There is a viable child within her womb.

    Philosophize all you want, guys, but the truth is the truth. Pregnancy is about as natural of a natural law as you could ever possibly have. In this case, natural law sets its framework within a 28-30 day period. If you want to argue smaller periods of time, that would be indeed, ooh shut my mouth, granular…

    All of the discussion of chimeras took away from the fact that the resolution of the ensoulment issue took place by the time the woman missed her period.

    BTW I also agree with Brendon. Hope that this doesn’t put you off, or gets you stuck on the granular bandwagon.

  • marire

    No comment. But something there in the sky in watching us.
    We should consider more before we make a choice. Thank you

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  • supersouth

    Thank you for writing this, the conflict of abortion and natural law has been somthing on my mind lately

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