At some point in our lives, we learn about “the birds and the bees.” The mechanics of human reproduction are taught to us. And many people in this world try to engage in the activity of reproduction without the intention of reproduction. To achieve this, they may engage in various forms of contraceptives. Despite this, a child may still be conceived.
When this happens, they look at the conception as an “accident.” But something that St. Thomas Aquinas makes incredibly clear about human conception:
No one is conceived by accident.
In all animals other than humans, procreation is caused by the sharing of the male and female sperm and egg. Once these have joined successfully as the cause, the effect is a conception.
However, this cannot be exactly the same in humans. The reason for this is that no effect can be greater than its cause.
All animals (including humans) are substances made of body and soul. But the nature of the human soul has all the traits of the animal soul (growth, motion, the senses), but we also have more. Our souls reflect God in our reason, free will, immortality, etc. This immortal, rational soul is greater than the mortal body.
The human soul cannot be created from the sexual act because for us, conception is not simply the creation of a new human body, but a human soul. The joining of sperm and egg does makes a body, but not a soul. St. Thomas writes, “Since, therefore, the rational soul cannot be produced by a change in matter, it cannot be produced, save immediately by God.” (Summa Theologiae I.I.90.3). In other words, since the human body cannot make the human soul, the sexual act cannot make the soul.
Only God can make the soul.
But that is not the end of the story. It would be a mistake to think that human beings engage in the sexual act and then the soul is added to it by God. On this view, the conception of a human life could be looked at as an accident. It would like the man and woman conceived the body and that God was then forced to infuse it with the soul.
This is completely backwards.
Instead, in the order of causation, God makes the human soul first. When this happens, the human body then incarnates the soul God has created. This may be a subtle distinction but it is incredibly important. On this view, God is the primary agent in procreation. That isn’t to say that the parents are not also truly the parents. Because of the unity of the body and soul, the parents as fully human beings, participate in the act with God. While God is the primary creator of the soul, he does it through the act of the parents.
Why is it important to say that the soul precedes the body?
Because in this way, no conception is an accident.
The conception of the body follows casually (though not necessarily in time) from the creation of the soul. In this way, God wills the conception of the person to come into being. And since God makes no mistakes, the conception cannot be a mistake.
This is not to say that the means to which the conception took place is always morally acceptable. When Joseph the Dreamer was sold into slavery by his brothers, God used that to eventually bring Joseph into Egypt so that he could save the nation of Israel. But even though the end was good, it does not mean that selling Joseph wasn’t sinful. In the same way, if a child is conceived through IVF, surrogacy, rape, incest, out of wedlock, or in any other way that is sinful, the child is willed by God. But that does not mean that the means of that conception was not sinful.
Having said this, if we remember that God wills the child into existence, then we will also remember that this child should be valued. No child should be thrown away or discarded through abortion. If any of us were the result of “unplanned” pregnancies, we can remember that God planned us. Sadly, there are millions of human beings who feel like they are accidents. But St. Thomas reminds us that this is wrong.
No one is conceived by accident.
Copyright 2023, WL Grayson