When does human life begin?

Lessons from barrenness on a controversial issue, part II/V
Published in Christian Renewal magazine, 17 Jan 2007

In the previous article in this series, I described my own experience with infertility and the consequent choices my wife and I had to face concerning in-vitro fertilization and embryo adoption. The key question we had to answer was, when does human life begin? We were already committed to the idea that human life is to be valued and preserved above all else, so if one of the options before us somehow jeopardized what we considered to be human beings, even those in the earliest and tiniest state, we could not do it.

However, the question of when human life begins is a very difficult one to answer. We had certain preconceived ideas on the subject that came, no doubt, from being raised in Christian homes—specifically, that human life begins at conception, and therefore anything that would unnecessarily jeopardize even the smallest embryo was wrong.

But what if our assumptions were wrong? What if embryos were not humans, but instead humanness is conferred upon that organism at some later stage of development? Were we acting reasonably and biblically, or were we needlessly splitting hairs when we should be joyfully proceeding with the incredible technological opportunities that God had opened to us?

We went to several of our most trusted and mature Christian friends and asked for some help in thinking through our dilemma. Despite the sympathy and good intentions of those we asked, the advice we received was contradictory and much of it was simplistic and unhelpful. We soon realized that the issues we were facing are rarely considered in Christian circles and that we were going to have to start at square one and think through these problems for ourselves.

It seemed clear enough that anything pre-fertilization was not a human being, and it seemed even more obvious that a newborn baby was certainly a human being. The beginning of a new human life had to fall somewhere between those two points.

Does human life begin at birth—that is, does a child take on humanness only once it has successfully completed the birthing process? Most legal definitions tend toward this view, in many ways thanks to the pro-abortion movement, but medical advances over that last forty years have made it a difficult position to defend. A full-term pregnancy is roughly 40 weeks, and any birth before 38 weeks is considered premature. However, the current “age of viability,” which is defined as the earliest age at an infant has at least a 50% chance of survival, is an incredible and ever-decreasing 24 weeks. Some infants born after as few as 22 weeks gestation—just over half of a full pregnancy!—weighing just over pound and fitting snugly into a teacup are now living normal lives.

In light of these facts, it seemed to me that the idea that human life begins at birth was too arbitrary. One child is born at 38 weeks, another at 30, and another at 43—does that mean that they each acquired humanness at different points? In fact, the gestational period itself is frequently altered by induction or caesarian birth, most often for health concerns for either the baby or the mother. And while the birthing process unquestionably changes an infant’s relationship to its surroundings, the infant itself has not fundamentally changed between the moment before it was born and the moment after. Birth is an entirely arbitrary point at which to ascribe humanness to a person and should therefore be rejected.

Does human life begin at some point between conception and birth? There are many stages of development to choose from: implantation (considered week 3 of the pregnancy); the first heartbeats (week 6, about the time a mother learns that she is pregnant); the development of a circulatory system separate from the mothers (week 7); the first brainwaves and the formation of lungs, fingers, and toes (week 8); the first limb movement and hair growth (week 9); the development of facial features and the ability to feel pain (week 10); the growth of tooth buds and a complete set of organs (weeks 11-14); the first sucking (weeks 15-18); the growth of fingernails and the first movements that can be felt by mom (week 20); and the development of unique fingerprints (week 24). In fact, everything that constitutes an adult human has developed in rudimentary form in an embryo by the end of week 8.

I thought through each of these stages of development and concluded that none of them can reasonably be considered to be the starting point for human life. Nothing changes in the embryo itself between the moment before implantation and the moment after—just as with birth, its relationship to its surroundings has changed, but the embryo itself has not. The same is true concerning the other stages of development listed above, with the possible exceptions of the heartbeat and brain waves. After all, are not the usual signs of the end of human life the cessation of the heartbeat and brain waves? If human life ceases with a loss of these things, perhaps human life does not begin until they are present.

This line of reasoning is deceptive, for death is not intrinsically connected to heartbeat and brain waves. The loss of heartbeat and brain waves is simply an indication that death has occurred; in fact, both of these biological functions can sometimes be sustained by medical technology past the point of death. Consequently, the presence or absence of life is not determined by the presence or absence of these or any other particular biological functions.

If human life does not begin at birth or at any point between conception and birth, it must begin at conception. Not only is this the only option left, but it is also the most reasonable. Conception is the point in the entire process at which the most radical change occurs: two cells, one from each parent, merge together into one new, radically different cell and form a new entity. This new entity has a new and distinct set of DNA, which will determine that person’s gender; his skin, hair, and eye color; and even to some degree his height, weight, build, and personality. All the things that physically constitute a human being are established at conception, and even in its earliest stage, that new person is entirely distinct from any other in history. It must be at conception that humanness is conferred, regardless of whether it is ever fully realized in the form of a fully grown adult.

It took my wife and me much troubled thought to reach that conclusion, but once we did, certain decisions before us were easily made. Subsequent articles in this series will more closely examine how these conclusions can be applied to some social, political, and ethical controversies, but first let us remind ourselves of what we as Christians are to think of these tiniest of human beings.

The Scriptures make very plain God’s view of man. After comparing man to the majestic heavenly bodies, David asks in Psalm 8, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Although this passage certainly points out the smallness of man compared to the moon and stars, the emphasis is on the fact that despite their seeming insignificance, God is indeed mindful of and cares for men: “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet . . .” (ESV). The psalm begins and ends by declaring the majesty of the Lord’s name because of the way he relates to man.

Why would the infinite, all-sufficient God care at all for such an insignificant thing as a human being? There is a sense in which we will be asking that question in awe and wonder for all eternity. However, the Scriptures have a great deal to teach us on this subject.

The climactic final act of the very first narrative in the Bible is the creation of man. Notice the distinctive way in which the text presents the creation of man: whereas the formula for every other act of creation is, “And God said,” the phrasing changes with the creation of man to, “Let us make.” Every created thing outside of man reveals God’s power: he speaks, and a universe is formed. But the creation of man reveals God’s person: God’s mindfulness of man and care for him is evident before he is even created.

The original Hebrew text of Genesis 1-2 also focuses especially on the creation of man. The Hebrew word translated “create” is bara’. It is used only 20 times in the Old Testament and is usually reserved for divine acts of creation. Men are usually said to “make” (`asah) things, but it is God who “creates” (bara’).

There is an unusual concentration of this word in Genesis 1-2. The first instance is 1:1, when God creates the heavens and the earth; the last is in 2:3, when God concludes creation by blessing the seventh day. By bracketing the text with bara’, the whole of creation is shown to be manifesting the creative power of God. But bara’ is used especially in relation to the creation of man as it occurs twice in 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV). In this way, the text is identifying man as the supreme act of divine creation, the bara’ within the bara’.

As Genesis 1:27 says, man is created in God’s own image. Perhaps this is why God extends such mindfulness and care toward men. God has breathed his spirit into man, given him a measure of the divine reason and a consciousness of his law, given him dominion over creation, and enabled him to have a personal relationship with God unlike any other creature. Most importantly, God entered into a covenant with man, eternally binding himself to them. In these ways God has ennobled and honored man above all else in creation—indeed, man is above all else but God himself.

Perhaps God shows so much care toward men because they reflect the unique nature of his Son: man’s constitution of both body and spirit is a reflection of Jesus’ divine and human natures. It is interesting to note that man was created body and spirit before the fall, thus reflecting the image of the future Savior before sin had even necessitated his becoming human.

Perhaps we will never fully understand why God has so favored man, for God delights in using mysterious and awe-inspiring means to achieve his ends. He has chosen what is foolish over what is wise; what is weak over what is strong; what is low and despised and nothing over the things that are. This is exactly what David marvels about in Psalm 8 when he thinks about the smallness of man and how he nonetheless receives the favor of the God of the universe.

The biblical view of man is plain: God cares for man more than anything else in the universe. No matter how foolish, weak, low, despised, or insignificant a person might appear by human standards, God is mindful of him and cares for him even more than he cares for all the rest of the created realm. And even in the case of a person who is so small that we cannot see him without a microscope, so should we.

Read more: the first, third, fourth, and fifth articles in this series.

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