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?

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.

  • Father William J S Martin

    Christians believe that the redemptive process begins with the conception of Jesus. The Holy Ghost unites with Mary to begin the process and journey of man’s return to God. Conception is the effect of Mary’s “yes” to God. Conception is the beginning of the spirit/matter confluence in man -as dependent as the two may be on each other and on the mother. Redemption does not begin with Jesus’ nativity; it begins at the beginning. There is no point to St. Luke’s mentioning the conception if that is not the starting point of the Holy Spirit’s work with Mary. His work begins at the beginning, in the womb. Otherwise, we are not saved. Salvation of the whole man, means taking on the whole condition of the creature from beginning to end, and from beginning to end, redeeming it. Otherwise we are Adoptionists.

  • Fr Mark Hodges

    Exodus 21 teaches the equality of the life of the preborn child with the life of all other human beings involved in any altercation.

    The passage (in the RSV) reads:
    “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman=s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

    This seems to rule only a fine for the death of a fetus, while killing someone outside the womb is punishable by “life for life.” Therefore, it is said, we can assume the one in the womb is less than a person. But even if this interpretation is correct, it says nothing about abortion, only accidental miscarriage. And it proves that Scripture punishes the destruction of the preborn, while distinguishing between accidental and intentional death. However, this interpretation is completely incorrect, as a cursory investigation into the Hebrew words used will prove.

    The word translated “child” here is yeled. It is never used of an unviable fetus (the Hebrew word for fetus is golem). Therefore, the “woman with child” was quite late in her pregnancy, for the child inside her was not a fetus. Secondly, the word rendered “miscarriage” is yatza, which literally means to “come out,” or to “go forth” (the R.S.V. has clearly interpreted, not translated, here). The Hebrew word for miscarriage is shakol, and in cases of the death of an unborn child, Scripture usually calls the child nefel, neither of which are used here. Yatza, the word used in this passage, is the Hebrew word for a normal, live birth. In other words, the woman who was struck gave birth to a healthy baby. The scripture says “yet no harm follows.” The passage is about an early live birth, not about abortion or miscarriage. Verse 23 (“If any harm follows…”) has no object; it is indefinite; “to her” is not added; it refers to the child, the mother, or both.

    Note then what the passage says. It is a powerful affirmation of the value of the preborn child. If two men are fighting and one accidentally hits a pregnant woman, causing a premature birth –though there be no harm to the child born– a fine is to be levied. But if there is any harm –to the mother or the child– the offender is to be punished “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” If the mother is unhurt but the preborn child born is harmed in any way, the man is to be equally punished, even with his own life. Far from a devaluation of life in the womb, this passage of scripture proclaims its value as equal to human life outside the womb. In fact, this passage teaches that life in the womb is of greater value, in the sense of being worthy of greater protection, because the punishment for accidental harm to a pregnant woman or her child is more strict than that for accidental death in general (Ex 21:13).


  • Fr Mark Hodges

    The Numbers passage has nothing to do with abortion, but with a husband’s suspicion of adultery. Oxford’s annotated calls it “A trial by ordeal, a common practice among ancient peoples.” Tyndale’s commentary says it was designed to “determine guilt or innocence… and to punish the guilty while leaving the innocent unscathed.” The NEB may misinterpret with “miscarriage” as an assumption that the woman is pregnant, as this is nowhere in the text itself. Commentator Ronald Allen (Expositor’s) notes that this law was a limitation on the suspicious husband, “a protection of the wife from his abusive hand… (Her) trial is in the precincts of the Tabernacle, under the jurisdiction of the priests, in concert with a solemn sacrifice –she places herself under the hand of the Lord.” As for the “curse” on the adulterous woman, the NIV margin has “causes you to have a miscarrying womb and barrenness.” The Mishna notes, “In the member she sinned with, she shall be punished.” The truly grievous punishment is that the adulterous woman becomes childless, like Abimelech’s wives became sterile (Gen 20), and like the incestuous become sterile (Lev 20). Allen concludes, “The bitterness was not in the taste, convulsions, or physical shock, but in the latent sense of the potential judgment on her body of childlessness.”

    However the passage is interpreted, it is not about abortion, nor does it deny that life begins at conception.