For starters: When does life begin?

Forrest in North Carolina asks:   Why do so many Christians believe that human life begins at conception? Did the writers of the Bible even have an understanding of human fertilization? What is the origin of this precept?

A question that befits the Nativity season becomes the inaugural item on Religion Q and A.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court gives the mother the right  to decide about abortion, that obviously hasn’t ended debate. And new aspects keep emerging, such as the contraception funding battle pitting the Obama Administration against the Catholic Church and some Protestants, or the new American Academy of Pediatrics plea to give teens just-in-case prescriptions for the “morning-after pill.”

Seems to the Guy that Christians’ precepts are driven as much or more by modern science and technology than the ancient scriptures cited below. Biology shows that conception produces a genetically unique, living, human entity that grows on its own with nutrition from the mother. That science doesn’t settle the political/moral/religious problem, which is actually not about when life begins but whether it should be protected and under what circumstances, over against the mother’s wishes.

If protection is warranted, should it apply at conception due to the genetic uniqueness? Or rather at the winning line, or implantation, or when technology can detect a heartbeat, or brain function, or motion seen on an ultrasound unit or felt by the mother (“quickening”), or ability to live outside the womb (“viability”), or only at the moment of birth? Certain radicals even justify the killing of newborns following birth in extreme cases (“infanticide”). In yet another conundrum, doctors regularly treat unborn lives as patients receiving therapy.

And the Bible?  The ancients didn’t know those details of gestation. But Christian traditionalists say the New Testament’s Nativity account means all unborn life is sacred. When the pregnant Elizabeth met Mary, the unborn John the Baptist joyfully “leaped in her womb” and Elizabeth famously proclaimed that Jesus, the just-conceived “fruit of your womb,” was “blessed” (Luke 1:41-45).

The Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) teaches poetically that God creates and cherishes life in the womb. Check out Job 31:15, Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 44:2 and 49:5, and Jeremiah 1:4-5. However, those verses did not define what stages of fetal development were in mind. Then the Guy turns the tables and asks, what do you out there in cyberspace make of the thorny biblical laws in Exodus 21:22 and Numbers 5:11-28?

How will the gay marriage OK affect the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
How -- and why -- did John the Baptist baptize Jesus?
Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians?
What are America's biggest Christian groups?
About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X