My Musings


Ensoulment (in religion): The moment at which a human being gains a soul

I would like to start this blog with a warning: this is a blog which will explore religion, so it may not be to everyone’s liking. If you have lost a baby at any stage (particularly a so-called ‘early’ loss), this blog could potentially cause upset. I’m genuinely not sure what I’m about to discover, but I do know that it also has the potential to upset ME, so it’s only fair that I warn you, too.

Long story, short: When I was in hospital with Summer and we were recommended to Terminate the Pregnancy for Medical Reasons (TFMR), my mum and brother visited. At 19 weeks, it was impossible for Summer to survive, but I was being put at increasing medical risk. Contrary to my mum’s wishes, I was adamant that I would not TFMR, because of my own (admittedly, muddled) beliefs about heaven/hell and right/wrong.

My brother remarked that he had read somewhere that the soul does not enter the body until much later on in pregnancy. I asked him to send me the link to read about it, he never did. For the rest of that weekend, James and I googled different religions, contacted friends of differing faiths and spoke to the hospital Chaplain. Thankfully, as Summer arrived of her own accord and was born early on a Monday morning, we never had to reach a verdict on TFMR (I do however have the utmost compassion and respect for those who have had to make this selfless and heart-breaking decision – the Chaplain gave some beautiful advice, he said “you are important too, we are all important to God”).

I’ve mentioned previously that I am an Indian from a Hindu and Sikh background, married to a Christian. I am a theist, but I do not know what name to give my faith. I believe in the concept of a soul and lean towards believing in reincarnation. As such, I’m intrigued by the notion of ensoulment (some religions say that a soul is newly created within a developing child and others, especially in religions that believe in reincarnation, that the soul is pre-existing and added at a particular stage of development). So today, I want to briefly explore what different religions say about this.

If you think that any of this may offend you, please stop reading now – especially if you feel it may upset you to discover that some religions may be less inclined to acknowledge ‘early’ losses. This is something I am bracing myself for, having had two first-trimester losses and one second-trimester loss. Please also bear in mind that religious discussion can touch upon the topic of abortion, which may prove to be triggering. Finally, I am not a theologist, so for full disclosure, I will be using and posting passages from this entry on Wikipedia as the basis for all of the quotes and informative text which follows.

Catholicism:On 27 November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI stated  “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care.”

With regard to the embryo in the mother’s womb, science itself highlights its autonomy, its capacity for interaction with the mother, the coordination of biological processes, the continuity of development, the growing complexity of the organism. It is not an accumulation of biological material but rather of a new living being, dynamic and marvelously ordered, a new individual of the human species. This is what Jesus was in Mary’s womb; this is what we all were in our mother’s womb.

At the same time, the Catholic teaching has acknowledged that we do not know when the embryo, which is a human “being”, becomes a human “person” (called philosophically “ensoulment”). And probabilism may not be used where the life of a human person may be involved, and so the human being must be treated as a person from conception. In relation to elective abortion, Pope John Paul II wrote about ensoulment in his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae that: Throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine of condemning all direct abortions has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors. Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.”

Nothing new for me to comment on here, I have always known the Catholic pro-life stance on conception, so this suggests to me that ensoulment is believed to occur very early on.

Hinduism:Some Hindus believe that personhood begins with the reincarnation that happens at conception. But many scriptural references such as the Charaka Samhita, Ayurveda’s most authoritative treatise on perfect health and longevity, states the soul doesn’t become attached to the body until the 7th month “the occupant doesn’t move into the house until the house is finished”, certainly not in the first trimester. The physical body is a biological growth undergoing constant reflexive testing and trial runs as it grows into a physiology capable of housing human consciousness”

This is interesting and undecided: some believe the soul is embedded from conception, others believe it is at 7 months. Summer was born just before 5 months gestation.

For me, I don’t believe you can have sentient life, without a soul. I keep saying to James (even now) “what is life, really? Is it just a beating heart?” After she was born, Summer had a beating heart, because she had a blood supply from the placenta. But her lungs did not work, as they had not developed yet. Do you need to breathe, to ‘live’? That’s not the medical definition though.

Having ‘met’ Summer,  I would say that she had physical consciousness outside of the womb. At 19 weeks and 5 days gestation: her heart continued to beat for over an hour after she was born and she responded to the sound of our voices by squeaking on three separate occasions. Surely consciousness is in part, responsiveness? Perhaps not in spiritual terms, but I am inclined to think that it does matter.

After Summer died, an Aunt contacted me to share her beliefs. This may cause upset to others, but I did take some comfort in it, for I know that her intention was not to offend me. My baby died, that’s unequivocal, but Hindus believe that reincarnation isn’t supposed to occur forever, eventually the souls transcend and become one with ‘the maker’.

“I would urge you to kindly read through my following message and hopefully take some comfort from my own beliefs. Whilst I’m terribly sorry for your sad loss, I can’t but help rejoice a little knowing that you were both blessed with this beautiful soul albeit for a very short time. As per the Hindu scriptures and my most sincere belief, the reason why Baby R was taken away from us so quickly was only because it was the soul of a near Sage person who has now attained moksha. She has now been set free from the cycle of life and death forever. You should both take comfort in knowing that you both had been the chosen ones and the blessed ones to be parents to this beautiful soul. By being the chosen ones, you have both been instrumental in helping Summer to achieve mukti and for this soul to finally return home to amarlok”.

Islam: “Islam does not traditionally hold that ensoulment occurs at the point of conception. This passage in the Qur’an describe the fetal development process: We created man from an essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid (nutfah) in a safe place, then We made that drop into a clinging form (alaqah), and We made that form into a lump of flesh (mudghah), and We made that lump into bones (idhaam), and We clothed those bones with flesh (lahm), and later We made him into other forms—glory be to God, the best of creators!

Traditional scholarship places the point of ensoulment anywhere between 40 and 120 days after conception, based on a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammed narrated in Saheeh Muslim: When 42 nights have passed over the conceptus, God sends an angel to it, who shapes it (into human form) and makes its hearing, sight, muscles and bones. All schools of Sunni law have forbidden abortion before and after ensoulment.  Most schools of thought, traditional and modern, make allowances for circumstances threatening the health or life of the mother”.

I’ve just done the maths: Summer was (19 x 7) + 5 = 138 days since conception. By the Islamic interpretation, Summer had a soul.

Judaism: “Jewish views on ensoulment have varied. Rabbi David Feldman states that the Talmud discusses the time of ensoulment, but considers the question unanswerable. In recounting a purported conversation in which the rabbi Judah the Prince, who said the soul (neshama) comes into the body when the embryo is already formed, was convinced by Antoninus Pius that it must enter the body at conception, and considered the emperor’s view to be supported by Job 10:12, the tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud mentions two views on the question. In a variant, reading the rabbi’s first statement was that the soul entered the body only at birth.

Other passages in the Talmud, such as Yevamot 69a and Nidda 30b have been interpreted as implying that ensoulment may occur only after forty days of gestation. The Talmud passages, whether speaking of ensoulment at conception or only after forty days, place the views of the rabbis within Greco-Roman culture, whose ideas the rabbis then linked with texts of Scripture and endowed with theological significance.

The view of ensoulment at conception harmonizes with general lore among rabbis about conscious activity before birth. However, most of them did not apply the word nefesh, meaning soul or person, to a fetus still in the womb. The latter half of the Second Temple period saw increasing acceptance of the idea of the soul as joining the body at birth and leaving it again at death.

One Jewish view put ensoulment even later than birth, saying that it occurs when the child first answers “Amen”. The rabbis in fact formulated no fully developed theory of the timing or nature of ensoulment. It has been suggested that the reason why they were not more concerned about the exact moment of ensoulment is that Judaism does not believe in strict separation of soul and body.”

The text above has a few suggestions: the soul enters at conception, at 40 days gestation, at birth or when a child says “Amen”. Summer was born: she lived and then she died. Would she have had a soul, then? Or would she have had to be full-term? I don’t see why she would have to be full-term (which takes me back to the “what is life, really?” question) and why would it matter if a child passes from the womb? Perhaps something to do with ‘living independently’, but why should that matter also? Very confusing, but pleased to see that Summer ticked a lot of these boxes and there’s more of an argument for her having had a soul, than against.

Other Thoughts: “In the time of Aristotle, it was widely believed that the human soul entered the forming body at 40 days (male embryos) or 90 days (female embryos), and quickening (a person pregnant for the first time typically feels fetal movements at about 18–20 weeks) was an indication of the presence of a soul. Other religious views are that ensoulment happens at the moment of conception; or when the child takes the first breath after being born; at the formation of the nervous system and brain; at the first brain activity (e.g., heartbeat); or when the fetus is able to survive independently of the uterus (viability)”

Why am I thinking about all this? It’s because first and second trimester losses are so difficult. Society doesn’t acknowledge them, so we – the people who have to live with them – have no idea what to do with them. Some days, I try to convince myself that my losses weren’t real or viable, so I should/can get over this already. But then I picture Summer, while she was living, outside of the womb and I just know, that she was really here. Ultimately, this all comes down to what you choose to believe. And I choose to believe that she had a soul, that all of the babies did, from the time of conception. Life is precious. Not from the point in which we hold it in our arms, or see it with our own eyes, but from the point at which it is created.

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(2) Comments

  1. Claire says:

    I am sure you could probably guess (if you are not already certain of) my views on this but actually what you have explored here makes me think about why society is totally acopic when it comes to dealing with 1st and 2nd trimester losses. It’s probably because everyone’s views on what has been lost are so different. For some it will be the loss of potential life for others is it the loss of a life already lived but lost so early and for so so many it may be that they don’t quite know what they have lost but they know how they feel – the grief, the emptiness, the numbness. It is very hard for us to stand alongside each other when our views are all so different. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore it! We just need to try harder to have empathy with the person who is grieving on not get stuck with our own opinions.
    In light of what I have said, my opinion really doesn’t matter but I loved your babies so I want you as an individual to know for sure what I think. I believe your babies were babies (not just embryos – even as a doctor I hate that term so much), were conceived, had souls, were unique, and most of all were loved and are still loved so dearly.

  2. Melanie says:

    A very good walk through some differing religious beliefs. I have definitely learned something! More than anything I have learned that no religion appears to have a completely clear view on ensoulment. That tells me that it has to be one of the most complex questions for humanity. Frustratingly so! Since many people look to religion for answers, it seems odd that there has not been agreement or certainty on this. As Claire says, the common thread we can draw is that we should all respect the grief being experienced by parents who have experienced loss, at whatever stage, and not judge them and their feelings xx

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