When does life begin?

Published by DonDavidson on

Within the last few days the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving the constitutionality of Mississippi’s ban on abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. Pro-life Christians hope that this case will result in overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that created a constitutional right to abortion until the fetus reaches “viability,” which is the time when the fetus is able to survive outside the mother’s womb. Roe held that until that point is reached—which is usually about six months after conception—states may not prohibit abortion.

The debate about abortion usually boils down to one question: when does life begin? That question can be approached from a scientific or philosophical viewpoint, but I will focus on the Bible, because that is the argument I hear most frequently from fellow Christians.

Many pro-life Christians argue that life begins at conception, and therefore all forms of abortion constitute murder. Thus, pro-life Christians frequently refer to the fetus as a “child,” and to any form of abortion as “baby-killing.”

But what does the Bible actually say about abortion?                     

The word “abortion” does not appear in the Bible. So God has not explicitly told us what He thinks about abortion. That is important to understand, because all biblical arguments for and against abortion are based on somebody’s interpretation of biblical passages.

The biblical pro-life argument centers around verses such as Psalm 139:13-16:

For You created my innermost parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, because I am awesomely and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully formed in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my formless substance;
And in Your book were written
All the days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.

The psalmist speaks about himself as a person while still in the womb—and thus, before birth. Galatians 1:15 is similar. There Paul, when talking about his apostolic calling, refers to God as “He who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb.” (See also Genesis 25:21-23, Judges 13:6-7, and Jeremiah 1:4-5, which speak of God fore-ordaining Jacob, Samson, and Jeremiah for their earthly roles before they were born.)

I believe these verses speak more to God’s omniscience and/or omnipotence than to the status of the fetus. However, even if we adopt the interpretation that a fetus becomes a “person” while still in the womb, these verses do not address when this transformation occurs.

Pro-life Christians cite Psalm 51:5 for the proposition that life begins at conception:

Behold, I was brought forth in guilt,
And in sin my mother conceived me.

Their argument is that if David shared mankind’s sinful nature from the moment of conception, then he must have been “human,” and therefore a living “person,” as soon as he was conceived.

A contrary interpretation attributes the “sin” in verse 5 to David’s mother rather than to David himself, so that the verse says nothing about when the fetus is considered “sinful,” and thus, human.

The context of Psalm 51 is King David’s prayer for forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. So another interpretation of verse 5 is that David was pleading for mercy from God by pointing out that all of mankind is sinful from birth (“I was brought forth in guilt”). David is saying: “I couldn’t help myself. It’s my nature, just as it was my mother’s nature.”

Under either of these two interpretations, the pro-life argument based on Psalm 51:5 falls apart.

I find the pro-life arguments less than conclusive, especially in light of biblical arguments on the other side.

To begin with, Leviticus 17:10-11 says: “And anyone from the house of Israel, or from the strangers who reside among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats the blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”

If “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” then the fetus would not be “alive” until—at a minimum—it has its own blood supply, separate from that of the mother. While this occurs relatively early in the pregnancy, it does not exist until at least several weeks after conception.

Other Old Testament verses equate “life” with “breath.” When God made Adam, Genesis 2:7 says that the man became “a living person [or soul]” when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Similarly, in Ezekiel 37:7-10, God assembles dry bones of dead warriors, and puts flesh on them, but they only come alive when “the breath entered them.” So these verses can be interpreted to support the argument that an infant doesn’t actually become “alive” until he or she begins to breathe—which occurs shortly after the baby is born.

The Old Testament also contains verses such as Isaiah 13:17-18, which says:

Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them,
Who will not value silver or take pleasure in gold.
And their bows will mow down the young men,
They will not even have compassion on the fruit of the womb,
Nor will their eye pity children.

If a fetus—“the fruit of the womb”—is a “child,” why does Isaiah include both of the last two lines? Couldn’t he have simply said that the Medes “will not even have compassion on the children”? Isaiah 13:18 implies that “children” are distinct from “the fruit of the womb,” and thus that a fetus would not be considered a “child.” (Similarly, see 2 Kings 8:12 and Hosea 13:16.)

Finally, we must consider Exodus 21:22-23: “Now if people struggle with each other and strike a pregnant woman so that she gives birth prematurely, but there is no injury, the guilty person shall certainly be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Pro-life Christians argue that the reference in verse 22 to “no injury” refers to both the woman and the fetus—that is, if the woman gives birth prematurely, but the child lives and there is no injury to the woman, then the guilty person is merely fined. But if the woman is injured and/or the fetus dies, then the guilty person is punished “life for life,” etc.

However, Jewish scholars have traditionally interpreted the “premature birth” in Exodus 21:22 as referring to a miscarriage, and therefore the “injury” necessarily refers only to the woman, not the fetus. Thus, if the woman miscarries but suffers no other injury, the guilty party is fined. But if the woman suffers injury in addition to the miscarriage, the guilty party is punished “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc.

The bottom line is that the Bible does not definitively tell us whether God considers abortion to be murder or not, nor does the Bible conclusively answer the question of when a fetus begins to “live” and therefore becomes a “person.”

Those who contend otherwise—on either side of the argument—are simply being arrogant, especially if they insist on imposing their own interpretation of scripture on others through force of law.

I believe a little humility and tolerance is called for.

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