Once again the debate over abortion and, to a lesser degree, stem cell research, is figuring in US political debate.
In the Right to Life movement
it is axiomatic that life begins at conception. This is the bedrock principle
used in every argument that I have heard in the debates about stem cell research
and abortion. The assumption appears to be that placing the beginning of life
at conception is biblically based and that it therefore has divine sanction.
those who argue for the reversal of Roe V Wade, for example, make the case that
the Supreme Court was in essence usurping the authority of God in allowing abortion
unconditionally during the first trimester, and conditionally during the second
trimester of a woman's pregnancy. In such cases, abortion amounts to murder as
it is a human life that is being terminated.
But where in the Bible is the belief
to be found that life begins at conception?
What I find
resoundingly communicated is the fundamental idea that God is the creator of life.
This is such an important principle that God appears to author life PRIOR to conception.
As the Lord is quoted as saying to the prophet Jeremiah: "Before I formed
you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed
you a prophet to the nations."
Not only does Jeremiahs
life begin prior to conception in the mind of God but Jeremiahs
destiny is formed then and there, as was Creation itself, in Gods mind and
by Gods command. Indeed, the very notion of "conception" in the
Bible does not refer to the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, rather conception
is what happens when God "conceives" of someone or something.
Biblical notion of conception
The Psalmist, in fact, paints
a vivid picture of the process: "Thou knowest me right well; my frame was
not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in
the depths of the earth. Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were
written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there
was none of them." (Psalm 139)
In this account, conception
does not even happen in the uterus; it happens in the "secret" place
of Gods own mind beyond this world of time and space. Again, the basic biblical
teaching about the beginning of life is that it happens at Gods initiative,
by Gods command, in Gods mind.
The Biblical writers
did not even have the notion of conception that we have arrived at only recently
through scientific investigation. They believed that the male sperm was the "seed"
of life and that this seed is "planted" in the womb where it grows like
any other seed. Clearly, in this, the biblical view, our notion of "conception"
has no place.
In the biblical view human life no more begins
at conception than the apple begins when an apple seed finds its way into the
The relatively modern idea that life begins at
conception is entirely unbiblical. Not only that, it is more in accord with a
purely humanistic perspective for it places the initiative for life in the hands
of the human parents. According to our entirely modern notion, life begins, not
in the mind of God, but in the womb of a woman following intercourse. That this
understanding of how life begins postdates the Bible entirely does not seem to
matter to those who rely upon it.
So familiar are we moderns
with the basic "facts of life," that we sometimes confuse "fact"
with "theology," and raise scientific knowledge to the level of revealed
In fact, the notion that life begins at conception,
substitutes a humanistic notion for a clear biblical teaching, and makes scientific
understanding do the work of biblical faith.
This may be a
good and valid substitution to make, given what we know about how life begins,
but its important that those who make such moves understand what it is they
are doing. Members of the Right to Life movement are doing precisely what they
accuse their liberal opponents of doing, namely, substituting modern scientific
theory for revealed truth.
When someone argues that life "begins"
at conception, and should be morally and legally protected from that point forward,
they have no stronger legs to stand on than those who argue that life begins at
birth. Both points of view are arbitrary, and one can claim no greater religious
or theological authority for the former than the later.
For the purpose of living together in a pluralistic
democracy, differences of opinion and belief in this matter will need to be worked
out through civil debate, not by recourse to what "the Bible teaches."
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.