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“They took it out in pieces,” she told me.  

My friend was discussing a pregnancy that she had very much wanted as a married woman in her 20s. It had failed inside her and had to be removed, as she said, in pieces. Otherwise, she would have died of sepsis. She was devastated by this loss. Whether this is what led to the failure of her marriage a year or so later is anybody’s guess.

Women often feel guilty if their pregnancy miscarries. Religious women are often told that their bodies are the result of “Intelligent Design,” and the expectation is that their bodies are the perfect retorts for growing and continuing a pregnancy.  Even those who are not religious tend to think that our bodies, having evolved over millions of years, must be nearly perfectly adapted for the process of carrying a pregnancy and giving birth. 

Yes, our bodies did evolve. But evolution’s standard for the success of a system is not perfection, or even near-perfection. The standard for success in an evolved system is, “It doesn’t cause death before reproduction too often.” That’s a pretty low standard. It takes no account of human suffering, and it certainly takes no account of the occasional unsuccessful embryo. So long as enough people survive to reproduce, the species keeps going. Deaths or disfigurements in individual conceptuses don’t matter, so long as the population itself continues.

As a result, a human pregnancy is actually a pretty tenuous affair. One thing that would help women in general—and men as well—would be an understanding of just how tenuous a situation a human pregnancy actually is. 

 When does the soul enter the body?

We are not helped by the fact that anti-abortionists often claim that “life” begins at conception,  especially since what is formed at conception is a cell with a new combination of DNA. The life that allows that DNA molecule to replicate is the woman’s life.

However, when anti-abortionists talk about life “beginning” at conception, what they actually mean is that they believe a divine soul is actively placed into a fertilized egg at the exact moment that egg and sperm fuse. This imagined process of God turning it from meat into a human being by inserting a soul is called “ensoulment.”

The life that allows that DNA molecule to replicate is the woman’s life.

The issue of ensoulment is a matter that religious philosophers have discussed for many hundreds of years. 

In earlier eras, ensoulment was thought to happen at quickening, which was when movements inside the uterus were first experienced. Others have argued that ensoulment doesn’t take place until a baby, outside of the mother’s body, draws its first breath. 

Fertilization was only discovered after the invention of the microscope

What earlier thinkers did not think was that ensoulment took place at conception. Why didn’t they think that? Because prior to the advent of modern science, nobody knew what conception actually was. In Biblical times, nobody knew what happens at fertilization.

What actually happens at fertilization could only be discovered after the invention of the microscope. And following that invention, it still took a great deal of painstaking scientific research to figure out that sperm and egg have to meet and fuse for fertilization to take place. This painstaking research involved, among other things, putting pants on frogs. I am not kidding. 

How do you draw the line for the existence of something that doesn’t exist?

Since there is no evidence of a non-corporeal soul, and certainly no way of measuring its presence or absence, religious philosophers have always been at a loss for telling when a soul enters a body. Because a soul is immeasurable and indeed undetectable, once science discovered the fertilization of eggs, religious-philosophical cowards decided that the winking into existence of a human soul took place right at the moment of fertilization.

Why? Because they were unable to figure out where or how to draw a line. A fertilized egg changes into a born baby gradually through a continuous process. But the naïve religious concept of a binary “soul” insists that the soul either exists fully complete or does not exist at all. Further, it switches from one to the other in an instant—a serious mismatch with the reality of gestation and birth.

Faced with a difficult decision, many religious philosophers wimped out. They were actively unwilling to think about evidence of prenatal development.

They were also unwilling to make hard decisions. There is no evidence for a soul existing at the moment of conception or any other. However, the entire religious belief in a binary on-or-off soul depends on drawing a line someplace. So they decided to play it safe, drawing the line right at the moment of conception. It’s a lazy, cowardly person’s choice.

What does this have to do with miscarriages?

But we were talking about miscarriages, and about a divine soul being placed into a fertilized egg by God himself, at the moment of conception. Of these two ideas, only one is a fact. And the fact is that pregnancies miscarry at an alarming rate. Further, these two ideas—ensoulment and miscarriage—stand in direct contradiction to one another. 

The other term for miscarriage is “spontaneous abortion.”  Conservative religions go out of their way to ignore the fact that women’s bodies are hives of spontaneous abortions. These happen routinely in humans.

Conservative religions go out of their way to ignore the fact that women’s bodies are hives of spontaneous abortions.

Where human women are concerned, the bald fact is that over 31 percent of all fertilized eggs fail to result in living babies—a conservative estimate based on careful research.

I am not now talking about human-induced abortions but spontaneous miscarriages.

What’s more, according to careful research reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, about 25 percent of all fertilized eggs do not even manage to implant on the lining of the uterus, which is just the first step in a pregnancy after fertilization.

Twenty-five percent of all fertilized eggs live for only about ten days, then fail to implant. They die and pass out of the body along with menstrual fluid. This in turn means that every year many millions of fertilized eggs come into existence and then die about ten days later as undifferentiated clumps of cells. The remaining six percent of spontaneous abortions happen after implantation.

All this is supposedly God’s work. 

This means that for every 100 live births, there were at least 45 spontaneous abortions.

So we must ask ourselves: Why, if God creates these souls at conception, does he then destroy so many of them before they even have a chance to breathe? Before they ever experience life outside the womb? Before they can ever have the experience of being human? Before they can ever have an interaction with the world, which we are told, is necessary in order to find their way to God? 

These numbers show that the human female reproductive system is far from perfect. In fact, anyone who argues that the human body is the result of intelligent design has clearly never taken a close look at the female reproductive system, or for that matter the male one.  

In human females, gestation is frequently incomplete and often results in a naturally aborted fetus.

There were approximately 130 million babies born worldwide in 2018, which means approximately 58.5 million spontaneous, natural abortions in that year alone.

If God gives life to each embryo at the exact moment when egg meets sperm as conservative Christians claim, then God subsequently kills tens of millions of little unborn babies every year. Put another way, God performs tens of millions of abortions every year.

God, if he exists, is by far the world’s busiest abortionist.

Dr. Abby Hafer

Abby Hafer is a biologist, educator, and public speaker. She has a doctorate in zoology from Oxford University and teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College. Her written works include the books...