How Religious Belief in a Soul’s Potential Diminishes After Birth
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
And why it matters in the age of anti-abortion, nuclear threats, and civil rights
As long as I’ve been alive, my family’s told the same story about a single event that had to happen in order for me to be born. And it's not the night of my parents' engagement when they giddily threw caution to the wind and fooled around without contraceptives.
The event is Hiroshima.
My grandfather is the IRL pre-super-soldier-serum Captain America. He was barely 17 when he signed up to fight on the shores of Japan in 1945. Picture a skinny little guy, swimming in his fatigues, looking immensely out of place in a lineup of troops during a massive military parade meant to send the invading force off in eerily celebratory style. He was so out of place, in fact, that a visiting General paused and examined his baby face with a pained look in his eyes. He leaned down and whispered,
"I can get you out of this, kid."
Little Bobby could barely lift a rifle and would have been immensely outnumbered in Japan, but still, he refused to go home — either out of bravery, naiveté, or just a wish to look brave in front of the other soldiers. Probably all three. He remembers the General's look of disappointment when he was denied the opportunity to save the life of a child.
What they didn’t know at the time was that the US government never actually intended for my grandfather to fight. An atomic bomb, aptly named “Little Boy”, was dropped by a U.S. bomber just ahead of the invading force. It incinerated 80,000 people instantly and indiscriminately. Japanese soldiers, American war prisoners, and civilian families alike became ash where they stood. Thousands more had their clothes burned into their skin and limbs melted away. Everyone else in the vicinity was left homeless, orphaned, widowed.
Three days later, having had the chance to realize the horror they'd inflicted, they dropped another bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 75,000 people.
In the shadow of a mushroom cloud, my grandfather became part of an occupying force, not an invading one. He sailed to Tokyo and became a clerk, and then a military policeman. He fell in love with the Japanese people who, weeks before, had been obligated under imperial decree to take up arms against him. He had been expecting to fight for his life against these people. Now he was living amongst them as they mourned two entire cities full of their own. It was a strained relationship, but they were kind to him regardless. He discovered they were complex and human, like him. That they desired peace.
When he came home, little Bobby met my grandmother and had children. Those children had children. I’m alive today because of a heinous act of war that forever raised the stakes of human cruelty.
This has always been considered a “catalyzing event” in my family lore. Far more so than an egg being fertilized by a sperm. The bitterness of it was never lost on anyone in our family. My grandfather certainly never saw it as an act of God or a saving grace. He would forever weigh his own life against theirs, never sure whether he was living up to the toll that had been taken.
In high school, when I was learning about WWII and the atomic bombs, my 10th-grade class had a debate about whether the bombs should have been dropped. We were asked to split up into groups — “for” and “against”.
In a class of twenty-six students, I was the single voice for “against”.
I knew that the allied powers had already defeated the Nazis in Germany by the time the bombs had dropped. I knew that the citizens of Japan had nevertheless been ordered to fight the invading American soldiers to the death and that the fighting would have been horrendous. My grandfather wouldn't have survived. I’d also read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a heartwrenching biography about one of the hundreds of thousands of children who’d suffered a long and painful death due to radiation poisoning years after the initial bombs were dropped.
Sadako spent the last years of her life meticulously folding paper cranes in the hopes that her wish to live would be granted. She wanted so passionately to live. I couldn't understand why my right to be born, or my volunteer soldier grandfather's right to live, had taken precidance over this innocent little girl's life.
I argued that if I’d had the choice, as a conscious little soul without a body yet, I would have chosen not to murder entire cities of innocent civilians for the sake of being born. Yes, I know its complicated. Yes, I know the death toll would have been massive anyway. But not entire cities massive. Not Sadako massive. Not nuclear arms race, the line's been crossed, who's going to inevitably cross it next? — massive.
Now here's where this bleeds into my feelings about abortion. …Just as I feel that I would have chosen Sadako's life over my own unborn life, I believe that if my prospective mother hadn’t wanted me, for any reason, I would have chosen not to enter her life. In both instances, as far as I know, I was perfectly fine where I was. Is that not a Christian belief? That wherever baby souls reside is a nice place?
And if you’re thinking, “Conscious little souls don’t give a shit what happened in WWII and have no say whatsoever in what happens here on earth in order for them to be born or not”, you’re sooo close to getting the point.
And if you’re thinking, “It was God’s will that all those people should die so Americans could live”, I think you need to stop taking weekend trips to Disneyland and go visit literally any other part of the world. A majority of these countries, and not just allies, value human life enough to give people a month of paid time off every single year. Imagine that. Your American exceptionalism doesn’t make sense until you get a month of paid time off every single year. Looks to me like if God plays favorites, she clearly favors entire countries that get a month of paid time off every single year.
Not to mention the paid sick leave, paid maternity/paternity leave, free healthcare and mental health services, lack of food deserts, plenty of outdoor public space, new and safe infrastructure, conscious efforts to cut down on car pollution in cities, refusal to advertise prescription drugs on TV, free housing for the homeless, a lack of an inhumane prison industrial complex, and laws that insist on paying people in the service industry a living wage.
And if you’re thinking, “A mother being forced to have a child is not the same level of tragedy as a bomb being dropped, stop being dramatic”, I agree with you. But why was that bomb dropped? To protect our way of life, right? To protect our “freedom”?
I’ll make my personal beliefs about abortion extremely clear if I haven’t already. I cannot be convinced that a mass of cells or an embryo with no memories, no thoughts, and no experience of life has more of a right to be born than a woman or a girl has a right to choose whether to put her body, soul, mind, time, freedom, and bank account through nine months of pregnancy and a lifetime of motherhood — “pregnancy” and “motherhood” being annoyingly simple and subjective terms that can’t possibly do justice to the weightiness of their actual meaning and reality.
If a woman doesn’t feel it’s her destiny to be a mother, or to have her health put in danger by a pregnancy gone wrong, or to endure birthing a rapist’s or a stranger’s or a partner’s child, or to do literally anything with her body that she doesn’t want to do (and that includes abstaining from something as beautiful, personal, and natural as sex, or answering accusatory questions as to why her contraceptives failed) it is no one’s place to convince her, cajole her, or force her to act otherwise. That is my idea of American freedom. That is what my grandfather signed up to protect.
America murders innocent civilians in the name of “freedom" all the time. It always has. The most violent single act in the history of humanity is what secured America’s power and reputation in the world. That is our legacy, and I'm so sick of people forgetting that. We dropped bombs on innocent civilians; we “aborted” living, breathing people with memories, relationships, hopes, dreams, and established influence over the lives of their loved ones. Why? In order to make our own lives better/easier/free-er/safer. Those who conflate abortion with murder are the ones arguing that it's no different, not me.
My argument is that abortion isn’t murder. Murder is murder. Those same high school kids who called me an over-sensitive, unrealistic, bleeding-heart hippie now scream all over Facebook that an embryo has a right to be gestated and born, whether anybody wants it or not, whether it's doomed to a life of poverty, neglect, and hardship or not, because the union of an egg and a sperm — a scientific phenomenon unknown at the time the bible was written — has been arbitrarily agreed upon, by a minority of our population, to be the exact moment a soul enters a body.
Can we talk about souls, then?
Privilege vs. potential, spiritual vs. earthly.
The United States has been in a conversation for a while now about who is born with privilege and who isn’t; whether the Pursuit of Happiness is an equal-opportunity pursuit. But, for the sake of our conversation about abortion, we need to make a distinction between the terms “privilege” and “potential” because, while liberals such as myself are attempting to shift us away from a society in which a person’s earthly potential is far too dependent on the amount of privilege they were born with, the people who are currently in charge of making and changing abortion laws — orthodox, conservative, and evangelical politicians — see privilege as an earthly pursuit and potential as a divine one.
We’re talking about life, death, and worth here, so you'll notice I’ve taken you the scenic, zoomed-out route because protests signs and sound bites just aren’t cutting it. We can argue for eternity over who’s truly “pro-life”, or we can unpack what we mean. What I mean is that America has never valued actual life more than it values the potential of someone’s soul. The moment someone is born into circumstances that are seen to diminish their spiritual potential, their life can be snuffed out or extorted for the sake of those who were or could potentially be born with "potential".
In America, the people who are born with both privilege and potential tend to be white, Christian, god-fearing adherents to the patriarchy. When conservatives speak of “freedom”, this is what they mean: The freedom to live in a land where their values are the majority’s values and their faces are the majority’s faces, where the act of questioning their rules is made even more painful and dangerous than childbirth itself, where variance and difference of culture, belief, aesthetic, expression, and thought is a death sentence and a condemnation to Hell.
Within the intricate social systems they’ve built, potential — and therefore one’s value as a human being — is equated to the trajectory of your soul, not your life here on earth. Anyone not already born under the white, Christian, god-fearing, patriarchal umbrella better do everything they can to appease the gatekeepers or any success they achieve here on earth is considered illegitimate. It’s considered to have been won with sin and trickery.
Those who insist that they care more about an embryo than about a woman’s freedom, wishes, and bodily autonomy are only concerned about whether a woman will adhere to their values and beliefs. Because if she does, it means there’s the potential for her embryo to be gestated, born, and raised with those same beliefs.
Once that child is born, it’s the mother’s job to instill those beliefs into them so that they continue to have spiritual potential. If that child steps away from “God’s law” (which is really just a picking and choosing of certain archetypal concepts and values over others and varies church by church, community by community), that child’s soul no longer has value or potential and is no longer under the protection of the people who insisted on bringing them into this world. They are now considered a threat or a lost cause. They are treated with contempt, and it’s the mother who is considered to have failed.
It’s not “protection of human life”, it’s a test. It’s always been a test. And it’s a man-made one at that.
Certain religions have a long history of valuing tests and blaming women for failing them. It’s how they believe pregnancy became a thing only women have to endure in the first place. They believe the first pregnancy was a punishment for failing a test, yet they want us to simultaneously see it as a gift and a miracle when it’s forced upon us?
If you’re so sure I’ve got a Christian soul in my belly, there shouldn’t be a problem with that soul going right back to where you think it’s happiest so your god can send it on over to you. It’s a win-win. Perhaps if I myself was born into a world that I knew would treat my baby fairly and provide them with equal opportunity and treatment no matter their personal beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, or race, I might feel different.
Instead, I was born into a world where we thank God for mushroom clouds and we force life, only for the pleasure of righteously snatching it away.