Does Life Begin at Creation?

“Life begins at conception” is a common phrase to encounter in discussions of abortion and related issues. Despite what those with short memories may genuinely believe, the issue of abortion and the view that it is murder have not been the views of most Evangelical Protestants for all that long (as we’ve been reminded recently in the posts on this topic by Fred Clark and Jonathan Dudley, among others).

It was turned into an issue in order to manipulate people to vote for one party rather than the other. There is nothing more effective as a means to dissuade people from voting for a party than calling them “baby killers.” Unless, of course, one is dealing with an intelligent and well-informed populace that can see through such claims and resist being manipulated.

In the Left Behind series, and other similar apocalyptic works, born again Christians can see through the rhetoric and manipulative tactics of the Antichrist. So why is it that those same conservative Christians prove to be so gullible in real life? (And of course, their falling for the claim that Left Behind is a legitimate interpretation of Revelation is just one more example of that same problem. And so perhaps it is that very belief that being a true Christian will ensure that you are never duped by those who would seek to hijack your faith for political ends or personal gain, which sets you up to be manipulated in precisely those ways).

But let’s return to the topic of abortion, and the question of “when life begins.” If we are indeed talking about “life,” and nothing more, then one obvious Christian position might be to say that life begins at creation. The cosmos itself may deserve to be considered a living thing. But even if it is not, it gives rise seamlessly to living things which become other living things which eventually become us. And when we reach human beings, it could be argued that we are just a continuation of life that began before us, each of our beating hearts being like a torch passed from parent to child, from generation to generation. All our cells are living things, and yet the loss or renewal of an individual cell does not constitute the end of life. And from that perspective, life is a characteristic of two human beings, and all their cells, and the cell each contributes which then becomes the start of a “new life.” But we clearly don’t view all the cells involved in the same way. And it is worth asking why not.

But what is typically meant by the phrase “life begins at conception” is that we are dealing with a human life, a person, from the moment of conception. And that is a problematic claim. A fertilized egg does not have a brain, and so does not have any of the thoughts, feelings, or other characteristics that we might appeal to in order to define personhood. Bringing the soul into the picture does not help. If a “soul” is present from conception, then do identical twins share a single soul? That seems to lead to conclusions that are bizarre.

What we need to realize is that a fertilized human ovum has the potential to become a person. That is not the same thing as already being a person. The reason many choose to make conception the cut-off point is because any other is plagued with ambiguity and uncertainty. And I understand that. And as someone who has some experience with miscarriages, I know that when one longs to have a child, and the pregnancy ends spontaneously, it is tragic and heartbreaking. Yet those of us who have had that experience will probably agree that it is not the same sort of tragedy that one feels when a fully developed human being who has been born then has their life cut short. In our sorrow and mourning, as in our abstract thinking, we are (at least sometimes) capable of recognizing where situations are genuinely different. (Indeed, as Fred Clark points out, in cases of miscarriage, we lament and grieve more the further along a pregnancy was, indicating our capacity to appreciate that there is a gradation of tragedy in such cases.)

Abortion is a serious issue, and for that reason it is one that deserves to be talked about seriously. One can take the view that abortion early in pregnancy is tragic, without pretending that it is the same as murder – and indeed, in doing so, one would arguably be closer to the view in what little the Bible has to say about that topic.

But the rhetoric of “baby killers” being applied to all forms of abortion, as though the Bible actually said that human personhood begins at conception, is not a stance that is helpful or accurate. It exists largely in order to manipulate Christians to vote a certain way. If we are to actually create legislation that can be called “pro-life” – concerned with the unborn, concerned with the born, concerned with mothers, concerned with all human life – then we need to get beyond the manipulative rhetoric – and the unhelpful platitudes that become monstrosities when applied to rape victims, as at least two candidates learned this election season.

There’s an ironic twist to this topic. If the conservative Evangelical Christians who use the rhetoric I’ve referred to in this post actually believed one of their other rhetorical ploys, it would undermine the entire logic of the use of the issue of abortion to win their votes. Evangelicals are known to make the claim that all sins are the same in God’s eyes (I refer here, as I have been throughout this post, to popular views – often such views would be disputed or nuanced differently by those with greater knowledge of the Bible and theology or other relevant information). If they actually believed this, given that the Bible talks a lot about mistreating the poor and failing to help the needy, it would mean that there is no more reason to vote for one party than the other. One does one thing right, the other another, and neither has an advantage when it comes to sin.

But in actual fact, the Bible doesn’t make all sin equal, and it devotes far more attention to how we treat the born than to what happens to the unborn. But at the end of the day, we live in a different time, with different knowledge and perspectives, and so it is not a problem to view things differently than the Bible’s authors did. And so, to the extent that one considers abortion more tragic or more sinful than other things, then it would seem that one could adopt whatever course of action was necessary - even accepting and promoting the use of contraceptives – in order to reduce abortions. If that really is so important, then it should be treated as such.

My point in this post is this: The issues related to embryology and abortion are complex and difficult. They are important, and there are good reasons why these topics provoke strong feelings. My hope is that we can get past the rhetorical ploys (on both sides) and have serious discussion that neither simply assumes that fertilization of an egg somehow instantaneously marks the transition to personhood, nor assumes that as long as birth has not yet occurred, termination of a pregnancy is OK irrespective of reason and stage in development. A helpful step in this direction, I think, is Hemant Mehta’s post asking someone of a pro-choice perspective to explain and defend their viewpoint in response to direct questions.

What do readers of this blog think about this topic? When would you consider the point to be reached that a developing fertilized ovum, or embryo, or fetus, or baby, becomes a full-fledged human being? How do you explain and justify your view to others who disagree with you? How, if at all, can we improve the nature of the discussion?

  • http://profiles.google.com/memorial.music Phil Smith

    Well done. This definition – when human life begins – is at the heart of the issue.

    If the position that “humans are human at conception” is absurd, it needs to be pointed out.

    Let’s not forget (as you have not forgotten) that some branches of Christianity think that each human has a separable (possibly eternal) non-material soul. Once you adopt this anthropology, abortion (not just late term abortion) does start to become a more complex and very serious moral issue.

    • TrevorN

      Yet if God authored Numbers 5, on a reasonable reading of that chapter he approved the priestly procurement of miscarriages.

      • http://profiles.google.com/memorial.music Phil Smith

        sorry. I’ll need you to elaborate on that.. I’m not sure (I might not be perceptive enough to see) how it contributes to my comment.

        • TrevorN

          It doesn’t have to contribute to your comment, it was a response to it.

          I read your comment as implicitly supporting the idea that fetuses are human from shortly after conception because of their erstwhile possession of a soul. You weren’t explicit about this and I may have misread you, in which case any failure of perception was mine.

          Notwithstanding this, my point is that a sensible reading of Numbers 5 sees the trial of jealousy as a ritual carried out by one of God’s priests at the request of a husband who believes his wife may be pregnant to another man; the outcome of the trial of jealousy is, in such a case, miscarriage. Perhaps we could argue that the potion administered by the priest would be an ineffectual abortificent, but fairly clearly that appears to be its purpose.

          Thus we cannot insist that God is implacably opposed to abortion in any and every circumstance.

  • Gary

    Exodus 21.22:
    “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.”

    So OT doesn’t help. Although the OT obviously does not judge a fetus as a human yet. But the last place I’d look for advice on anything is the OT.
    As a male, I would not touch this with a 10 foot pole. I would say all the women in the world should get together and decide what to do. Lacking that. the decision lies with the individual woman involved, and men should butt out.

  • Claude

    Excellent posts from McGrath and Mehta. Though a pro-choice liberal, like most people I’m ambivalent about abortion. I’m not competent to determine when a fertilized egg becomes human, and given the situational ethics that attend any given abortion, I’m not inclined to agonize over the precise moment when a person emerges in utero. I’m conservative, though, about abortions after the first term.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a great essay on the abortion issue. For Coates the decisive factor in the debate is that women die from childbirth. Every pregnancy is a health risk for the mother. Therefore, as Gary said, men should “butt out.” The government should have no authority to mandate that a woman carry a child against her will.

    I fully support measures like free contraception and sex education to reduce the abortion rate.

    • Claude

      “First term.” Lingering effects of the election. I meant “first trimester,” of course.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Beau-Quilter/100003469356571 Beau Quilter

      Thanks for mentioning essay by Coates. I was interested and looked it up. Here’s the URL:

      http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/02/on-labor/70976/

      • Claude

        Thank you for providing the link! I reread the essay and again found it moving and right.

  • Susan Burns

    The highest good is for women to have complete sovereignty over their body. For thousands of years the priestly class has been in charge of women’s reproductive rights. When the Virginia politician advocated a vaginal probe, he guaranteed women will forevermore have the right to chose. We are still pissed about that.
    It may well be that paleo women allocated her resources so that a chosen few of her offspring were nurtured. Those infants not “goodly” or born in lean times may have been exposed. This strategy ensured survival to adulthood for some of her progeny. Some types of cuker plants, such as gourds, do the same thing. They produce many buds but direct their limited resources to only an optimum few. These buds “swell forth” and produce fruit while other buds wither and die. The gourd plant may have been the symbolic vine growing on marriage chuppah.

    • http://profiles.google.com/memorial.music Phil Smith

      The highest good is for women to have complete sovereignty over their body.

      Perhaps yes.. But if an unborn also has a body (depending on when one chose to define “human”) then does a woman have the right sovereignty over another person’s body? IF, the unborn are to be considered persons, can one female (a mother) decide what to do with another female’s (the unborn girl) body?

      This is why I I think the abortion issue needs to be determined at the developmental stage.

      • Susan Burns

        I hesitate to use “personhood” because of the political ramifications. The highest good is for any person (male or female equally) to have supreme authority over their physical functionality. A fetus is parasitically attached to the host mother and does not have supreme authority. Any fetus viable outside of the womb (IMHO) should not be aborted.

        • Kaz

          “A fetus is parasitically attached to the host mother and does not have supreme authority.”

          If only Jesus’ mother had access to such lofty ideas and the various medical procedures for aborting such parasites, for we may then have been spared the the existence of blogs such as this one, where, after a hard day’s work, I found myself reading such sickening comments by someone who has the audacity to question the “core values” of another human being.

          • Susan Burns

            You obviously have a negative view of parasitism. It merely describes a relationship whereby one organism benefits at the expense of another. In this case, the organism benefiting is the fetus. Since you have never been pregnant, you are able to retain your lofty ideals of esoteric motherhood. In reality, pregnancy is exceedingly hard. Also, I did not question your core values, I was just wondering what they are. You seem to think this blog needs a resident devil’s advocate.

            • Susan Burns

              …also every single woman that has ever given birth knows that Mary did not travel to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey when she was 9 months pregnant.

        • andom

          ” Any fetus viable outside of the womb (IMHO) should not be aborted.”

          So, if the technology should be capable of creating a machine able to allow the survival of a fetus at any stage of development, the abortion would never be possible. Right?

  • rmwilliamsjr

    i think all anti abortionists should take a decent developmental biology course.

  • Paul D.

    “When would you consider the point to be reached that a developing fertilized ovum, or embryo, or fetus, or baby, becomes a full-fledged human being?”

    The only reasonable place I can think of to draw the line would be the point at which the baby’s brain is developed enough to distinguish pain from other sensations. A recent study puts that around the 35th week of gestation, I believe. Beyond such a point, I find it hard not to consider a baby an individual human being with the same rights as a newborn.

  • Kevorkian Fan

    Those who want to kill will always find an excuse to do so.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Another recent article on the evolution of Evangelical views on abortion – focused primarily on Southern Baptists: http://abpnews.com/culture/social-issues/item/7945-evangelicals-and-abortion-chicken-or-egg#.UJ70J2t5mSN

  • http://johnsuarez.net John Suarez

    I am neither a Bible expert nor a physician, but a Christ follower, I believe that all life is precious. As such I believe that an unborn child is alive. As for the child having a soul or spirit, it is still at best, debatable.

    I was born to practicing Catholic parents and was baptized as a baby. I sure am grateful that my parents brought me into this world.

    I was born again at the age of 8 while watching a 700 club broadcast and I invited Christ to be my lord and savior.

    I believe that “personal relationship” with Christ, our lord and savior, is God’s gift to us, topped only by free-will and salvation. I cherish my personal relationship with God and honor others’ free-will and personal relationship with God.

    I am unashamedly in favor of a woman’s right to choose on this issue. Though it is easy to look at a woman having an abortion as sinful and un-Christian, it is hypocritical as all of us “miss the mark” each (sin) and every day. It is even more presumptuous to know what is inside a woman’s heart when deciding to abort a pregnancy for whatever reason. The Bible tells us that only God knows what is in our hearts. I would even argue that a decision to have an abortion is so agonizing for a woman that she may have countless sleepless nights, hours upon hours of soul-searching to arrive at this decision. Having the procedure is not the same as going to a dentist and having an extraction.

    I have been called many names because of my stance on this, but “baby killer enabler” and “baby killer crutch” come to mind right away. It is easy to say that I am such, but I am just being pro-woman. Though I may not agree with terminating any pregnancy, I can’t, in good conscience, impose my morality on someone else, who is just like me, trying to live life as she knows best how to.

    I would love to be able to convince a woman contemplating an abortion to carry the child to term, and put it up for adoption when the child is born and if she still feels that she cannot raise the child. In the great United States, a mother unable to care for a baby can simply give the baby to any hospital without any consequences. However, there may be compelling reasons why a woman cannot do this, such as work, so, even if she does decide to terminate a pregnancy, I will neither think nor utter words of judgment on her. I will simply hold her hands and ask her if she would be okay that we say a prayer about it, and be empathetic.

    I will stand with a sister and let God sort it out, for God did not give us “blanket authority” to judge one another. He did command us to “Love one another as I have loved you.”

  • newenglandsun

    First off, you HAVE to improve the living conditions for pregnant women. Secondly, it should NEVER have to come down to making a decision about what a “true” human is or not. When we do this, we can safely override the Holocaust as a crime against humanity since the Jews weren’t really human. It’s an act of playing god that I’m not willing to take. Third, based on your diagram at the bottom, I would have to say, well, immediately since it’s carrying out the processes of life. I mean, is a baby not a human?

    Of course, what about if the mother might die and/or was raped. Personally, you’re a bit better than the abortion proponents since you aren’t using arguments of unexpected pregnancy. Which is why I would rather engage with your arguments.


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