Abortion: Islamic and Jewish views on when a soul enters the human body

I frequently write articles about the close connections between Judaism and Islam for Islamic web sites as well as for Jewish web sites. The following article appeared on the Islamicity web site yesterday.

All the continuing political disputes over abortion in the USA and other countries ignore the fundamental religious issue: when does the fetus in the womb of a woman’s body become a human fetus? At conception it is a living physical body, but when does this soul become a spiritual human being?

All mammals begin life as a fetus. What makes the fetus/embryo in the womb of a woman’s body into a human fetus/embryo from a religious point of view is the entrance into the fetus/embryo of a spiritual soul (ensoulment).

According to Muslim legal scholars (fuqaha), who are the only ones who have a fairly clear scriptural bases for their view, the soul (ruh) enters the fetus/embryo at around 120 days (4 months) after conception.

There is no clear statement of when ensoulment occurs in the Hebrew Bible, in the Gospels, or in the ancient scriptures of any of the Indian religions. Only the Qur’an offer’s an answer.

Muslim legal scholars based the time of ensoulment on a Qur’anic verse that states: “And verily We created mankind from a quintessence (of clay). Then We placed him in a place of rest (the womb), firmly fixed (into the uterine lining). Then We made the sperm/egg into a clot of congealed blood. Then of that clot We made a (embryo) lump. Then We made out of that embryo/lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh. Then (finally) We developed out of it another creature (by breathing a human soul into it). So blessed be Allah, the most marvelous Creator” (23:12-14).

There is also a Hadith that says: “Sayyiduna Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: “Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then Allah sends an angel who is ordered to write four things. He is ordered to write down his (each person’s) deeds, his livelihood, his (date of) death, and whether he will be blessed or wretched (in religion). Then the soul is breathed into him…” (Sahih al-Bukhari no: 3036).

The second part of the Hadith teaches us that what makes a human soul different from an animal soul is that: God keeps records of how humans behave; humans have very many ways to earn their livelihood, they know in advance that they will die although only God knows exactly when, and whether he or she will end up in the garden or the fire.

Thus, when the age of a fetus reaches about 120 days (4 months), it no longer remains a pre-human living object; rather, it becomes a living human being. At this point, all organ differentiation is almost completed and the child acquires the shape of a human body.

More importantly, now that the soul has entered the body, the fetus is truly human; and may not be killed unless it becomes a danger to the mother. In the case of premature births that survive; the soul enters just prior to birth.

The rabbis in the Talmud all agree that ensoulment does not begin at conception. The question of the fetus’s human vitality is addressed in two places in the Talmud: in Yevamot 69, 2 a fetus in the first forty days of pregnancy is likened to water, “עד ארבעים יום מיא בעלמא”; in Nida 8, 2 the fetus is recognized as a human soul from the second trimester. 13 weeks into the pregnancy.

The Torah (Exodus 21:22-23) states that if two men are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, and if no other harm is done, the person who caused the damage must pay compensatory damages.

The rabbinic interpretation is that if the only harm to the woman is the loss of her fetus, it is treated as a civil tort, and not a criminal case. So abortion is not a prohibited crime, but it is damaging and thus discouraged.

In the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians taught that ensoulment occurred about 2-3 months after conception, perhaps influenced by superior Muslim medical knowledge at that time during the Christian dark ages.

Because of the much higher rate of miscarriages in the past, one favorite sign of ensoulment was when the mother first detected ongoing movement from the embryo. Since that varies greatly from mother to mother, it is not a good standard for law making. The first trimester (13 weeks) seems to be a good bases for making legal decisions.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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