Magazine article The Human Life Review

Embryology: Medieval and Modern

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Embryology: Medieval and Modern

Article excerpt

Over the last several decades many abortion advocates have attempted to spread confusion and doubt concerning the beginnings of human life.1 A particularly cynical strategy has been to invoke the authority of historical thinkers, especially those seminal teachers whom the Catholic Church has distinguished with the title of Doctors of the Church, to support the claim that (at a minimum) early abortion does not constitute homicide simply because the early embryo2 is not yet fully human. Anyone familiar with the historical context of these thinkers should realize that their specific judgments regarding abortion are now obsolete in virtue of their primitive scientific understanding of embryology. In what follows, I begin by summarizing the Aristotelian embryology that gives the necessary context for understanding why these historical thinkers held the views that they did. I then explore how we should best understand their broader ethical views in light of our vastly superior contemporary knowledge of human embryology. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that if we apply the empirical findings of contemporary embryology to the metaphysical and ethical principles of the medieval thinkers, we arrive at a pro-life conclusion.3

Historical Background

In addressing the historical question of how pre-modem thinkers like St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas considered abortion, it is vitally important to draw a clear distinction between the general moral principles they held and their application of those principles in specific judgments informed by what we might call their "scientific" (empirical) beliefs concerning embryogenesis. In general, the contemporary abortion advocates who appeal to these historical thinkers fail to make this distinction and simply parrot the historical conclusions without the context necessary to understand, much less evaluate, them. While it is certainly possible to find remarks from Doctors of the Church in conflict not only with the contemporary magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church but also with non-religious arguments from the Natural Law, those historical remarks mostly reflect their false empirical beliefs. Ultimately, those abortion advocates who embrace these historical judgments are in the rather curious position of embracing Aristotle's embryology over that of contemporary medicine.

To unpack the issue honestly, we need to separate the more general metaphysical and ethical principles of these historical thinkers from their application in light of specific empirical biological claims about the development of human beings from conception through birth. To do this, we will need to understand the historical embryology, which comes primarily from Aristotle.4 The Aristotelian view was explicitly adopted by Thomas; however, even a figure like Augustine, who might not have had access to Aristotle's Generation of Animals, would nonetheless have held the same basic empirical biological understanding, simply because the Aristotelian view seems to have been the conventional understanding at the time.5

The Aristotelian embryology is often referred to as a "delayed hominization" view, in which the embryo goes through a number of ontologically distinct stages in the course of its pre-birth development, only the last of which is fully human. In general, Aristotle breaks down all of animate nature into three separate, hierarchically-related categories that (broadly) correspond to plants, animals, and human beings.6 These categories are differentiated by the specific powers that essentially characterize each level. At the lowest level, plants and other simple creatures manifest the vegetative powers of nutrition (i.e., taking in nutrients from the environment and metabolizing them) and reproduction, as well as growth and self-repair. These powers are the minimum necessary for organic life. Each higher category includes the powers belonging to those below it, so the next-higher level (animals) includes all of these vegetative powers and adds to them the characteristic animal powers of locomotion and sensation. …

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