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Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life

Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life

Fabrizio Amerini
Translated by Mark Henninger
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life
    Book Description:

    Though often invoked by pro-life supporters, Thomas Aquinas in fact held that human life begins after conception, not at the moment of union. But in following the twists and turns of Aquinas' thinking about the beginning and end of human life, Fabrizio Amerini reaches a nuanced interpretation that will unsettle both sides in the abortion debate.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07344-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xxiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    As mentioned in the preface, the term “bioethics” refers to normative and applied ethical theories about actions concerning life, whether human or, more generally, that of animals and plants. A typical way of formulating a bioethical question is the following: Is the act of abortion morally licit? In general, bioethical questions involve decisions about the boundaries of human life, its beginning and end, or have to do with questions about the conditions for identifying it. Philosophically, these are questions about definition, since defining a thing amounts to providing the necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying a thing, distinguishing it from...

  6. CHAPTER ONE General Principles of the Embryology of Thomas Aquinas
    (pp. 9-33)

    Thomas aquinas tackles the question of the nature of the embryo at different times in his career and in various contexts. He does not always treat questions of bioethical interest when treating the embryogenetic process. At times one finds bioethical considerations in other contexts, especially theological, as, for example, where Thomas discusses whether certain acts, especially sacramental, that concern the mother affect the embryo, and also where he treats the sacrament of matrimony. Nevertheless, his treatment of embryogenesis and more generally of animal generation constitutes the metaphysical basis for the answers Thomas offers to questions that more directly concern the...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Nature of the Human Soul
    (pp. 34-51)

    In Chapter 1, we discussed certain theses concerning generation and substantial form that are particularly helpful for understanding the way in which Thomas develops Aristotelian embryology. Before passing on to a more detailed examination of his position concerning the status of the embryo, we must first clarify the nature of the human soul, especially the way in which Thomas interprets Aristotle’s general characterization of the soul in the second book of his De anima, namely, as “the form or act of an organic, physical body that has life potentially.” In this chapter, I will not offer a comprehensive reconstruction of...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Status of the Embryo
    (pp. 52-78)

    The theses about generation and substantial form, which we have introduced in the preceding chapters, place a series of constraints on the account of the embryological process. As a consequence, for Thomas a philosophical explanation of this process must take into account certain elements: first, that metaphysically human ensoulment can be portrayed as the substantial form of a physical body endowed with organs; second, that human ensoulment is what allows us to identify an organic body as a human body; third, that generation is attained only at the end of the process of formation of the primary vital organs; and...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Some Problems
    (pp. 79-101)

    The position of Thomas, which we have reconstructed in the previous chapters, is characterized by a certain originality. His views are different from those of other theologians of his time in that he holds both that Aristotle and his great Arab interpreters, especially Avicenna, were in favor not only of the delayed ensoulment of the embryo (a position that was, in the end, widely shared) but also of a “discontinuist” conception of human generation.¹ On the one hand, Thomas’s teaching appears quite logically rigorous, for he correctly draws all the consequences that follow from his assuming the theses concerning the...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The Identity of the Embryo
    (pp. 102-163)

    Before discussing some possible bioethical implications of this account of the process of human generation, we must clarify Thomas’s position on what is perhaps the most important philosophical issue involved in these discussions: the identity or continuity of the subject of the embryogenetic process. As we have seen, Thomas’s explanation of embryogenesis is reached partly by rejecting the idea that generation is a continuous process. such a stance becomes necessary once one affirms theses (F1)–(F3), which concern the nature of substantial form, and one affirms the difference between substantial generation on the one hand and quantitative and qualitative alteration...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Bioethical Implications
    (pp. 164-191)

    The conclusion of the last chapter was that Thomas Aquinas seems to accord to the embryo a transtemporal identity as subject of the process of generation, even if he has significant difficulties in stating precisely what type of identity holds between an embryo and a human being. Since the subject of the generative process is matter, understood as what is in potency to form, Thomas also accords to the embryo the status of matter with respect to the form of human being.¹ While the human being to be generated is the final end of the process, the embryo is the...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN The Beginning and End of Human Life
    (pp. 192-209)

    In contemporary terms, Thomas’s position concerning ensoulment of the embryo can be classified among those that maintain delayed hominization. As we have seen, the basic idea of Thomas is that until the fortieth day the embryo is not rationally ensouled, but possesses a form of animal ensoulment quite inchoate and imperfect. Until the fortieth day the embryo is only the biological material of a human being, and until that time the embryo cannot be considered a subject of theologically and ethically relevant acts. Perhaps the most interesting philosophical aspect of the thesis of the embryo’s delayed hominization is the idea...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT The Contemporary Debate over the Hominization of the Embryo
    (pp. 210-226)

    In the earlier chapters, we discussed Thomas’s arguments for maintaining the formal discontinuity of the process of generation and the transtemporal identity of the embryo. We reached the conclusion that for Thomas the embryo shows a certain ensoulment from the moment of conception, but it becomes a human being only between the first and third month of gestation (depending on whether the fetus is male or female). Interrupting pregnancy before that date is held by Thomas to be a morally grave act, but not juridically equivalent to homicide. In the last chapter, then, it was concluded that Thomas can be...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 227-240)

    As we have seen in this study, the embryological account of Thomas Aquinas balances certain theses that in our view appear to be in tension. Probably Thomas did not see things this way and had no difficulty in reconciling the identity of the embryo over time with the discontinuity of the generative process; philosophically, this point is not even particularly troublesome for him. But to emphasize one or another thesis can bring about quite different consequences for one’s bioethics. For example, if an interpreter wanted to include Thomas among those who oppose the practice of any form of abortion, she/he...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-252)
  16. Index
    (pp. 253-260)