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When Does Life Begin?

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.

Thus, 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 Jeremiah’s life begin prior to conception – in the mind of God – but Jeremiah’s destiny is formed then and there, as was Creation itself, in God’s mind and by God’s 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.

The 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 God’s own mind beyond this world of time and space. Again, the basic biblical teaching about the beginning of life is that it happens at God’s initiative, by God’s command, in God’s 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 ground.

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 truth.

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 it’s 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.

Bottom line:

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."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.