The Medieval Heart and the Abortion Debate
Michele Bachmann recently proposed a bill called "The Heartbeat Informed Consent Act". It would require doctors to make the fetal heartbeat visible and audible to women before they can have an abortion, either via transvaginal ultrasound or a standard ultrasound. This is not the first effort to privilege the formation of the heart as a sign of life-to-be-defended. Ohio House Bill 125, known as the "heartbeat bill", proposed to allow abortion only when there is no detectable heartbeat. While Roe v. Wade protects the right to have an abortion until such time as the fetus is viable outside the womb, currently at about 24 weeks, a heartbeat can be detected as early as five weeks into a pregnancy.
I'm a mother myself and I vividly remember (after a bit of a scare early in the pregnancy) the intense impact of hearing that heartbeat for the first time. I also know women who heard that early heartbeat and went on to lose the pregnancy. There is no denying the emotional resonance of the sound of a heartbeat that is not your own issuing from your body. It's rushed and a bit frantic, but reassuringly persistent. It suggests tenacity, the will to hang on. It signifies, obviously, life.
But what sort of life? If we look at one of the numerous pregnancy web sites, take "What to Expect" for instance, we get the following explanation:
"Your Baby in Week 5 of Pregnancy: Your baby now resembles a teeny tadpole (complete with a tiny tail) and is about the size of an orange seed. The circulatory (or blood) system, along with the heart, is the first part of that tiny body to be functional; and as your baby's heart starts to form, you may even be able to see it beating on an early ultrasound. Another part of your little tadpole that is under construction: the neural tube, which will eventually become your baby's brain and spinal cord."
It's a tadpole with a heartbeat. It doesn't yet have a brain. It's still working on a neural tube. Is this, properly speaking, human life?
This is where I find it interesting to take a long view historically. In the medieval period, for instance, it was known that the heart was the first organ to form. Natural philosophers cited Aristotle on the point, and noted that observation of an egg will reveal the movement of the heart before all other things. For this reason, the heart had a unique status within the body as having to do with the beginning and end of life and as the seat of the soul. But I say "having to do with" the beginning and end of life, not "as" the beginning and end of life. When the heart stopped, the soul departed the body almost immediately. At the beginning of life, however, the process was a bit more complicated. The heart formed first, then all the other organs. When all the organs were fully formed and the brain was fully articulated, then, and only then, did God directly infuse the individual soul into the fetus. And only then could the fetus be considered human life. Yes, the heartbeat indicated a kind of life, but not human life. Human life depended on a divinely-inspired soul.
I'm certainly not proposing medieval answers to our current abortion debate. One accepted notion was that the soul would be infused at about 40 days for males and about 80 or 90 days for females. Clearly, these aren't helpful practical answers. But a look at earlier definitions of life may remind us to ask why. In Michele Bachmann's case, it's pretty obviously an attempt to make women feel something (guilt, responsibility, attachment?) toward the life within them. We no longer talk about the heart as the end of life any longer; the standard is brain death. But the heart still has emotional resonance that cannot be denied and can be a powerful tool. While we may understand our lives to be more determined by our brains than our hearts, the sound of a heartbeat has an impact that the presence or non-presence of a brain or a tail does not. In the case of the Ohio House Bill 125, that was meant to be presented in part through the testimony of a fetal heartbeat (though when the time came, the ultrasound didn't pick up a heartbeat), we must ask ourselves why the heartbeat is meant to mark the beginning of life that ought to be protected. Animals have beating hearts as well, but we don't protect most of them.
When Aquinas argues that embryos will not be resurrected at the Last Judgment because they are not human, he provides a systematic rationale for this statement that can be discussed and argued with. My concern in today's debates is that our various criteria for life remain largely unexamined in the public debate. Why the heart? Why the brain? Where is the soul in all of this? And really, what do we mean by human life?