Before I get started, I should offer my bias and position right up front. I am against abortion. I'm against the practice and I do not approve of the US government supporting or funding the practice. In addition, my wife and I tried to conceive a child for many years. The one time we did conceive resulted in a miscarriage, which greatly shaped the way I think about life and children prior to birth. We have since adopted two boys who I love very much. Although I do not have biological children and really can't know for sure, there is no way I could love children who share my DNA any differently then I do these two boys.
My wife's miscarriage was extremely hard on she and I, but the reality is that miscarriages have been around almost as long as pregnancies. Sadly, miscarriages were not a foreign concept in the Old Testament (see Job 3:10-11 or Exodus 22:26 for examples). I believe the miscarriage might be a part of the curse of sin that came with the fall of man in Genesis 3. In verse 16, God said to Eve, the woman, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children" (ESV). It is often thought that this in reference to the birth process itself, which it probably is, but it can also be all the other pain women feel for children, born or unborn. But what about the intentional termination of a viable pregnancy? (For the purposes of this post, I will use this as the definition of 'abortion.') It seems that this idea--although not appearing as a medical service preformed by people in scrubs and white lab coats--was not foreign either. In the book of Jeremiah, the author's lament seems to suggest that his life could have been intentionally ended in the womb. Jeremiah 20:14-18 reads,
 Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!  Cursed by the man who brought the news to my father, 'A son is born to you,' making him very glad.  Let that man be like the cities that the LORD overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,  because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great.  Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?In Exodus 20:22-25, the legal code made provision for the event of a pregnant woman getting hit in such a way that labor is induced or the baby is lost. The punishment for the loss of the unborn child's life would result in a penalty of death for the person who struck the woman. (It's interesting to note that verse 23 reads, "But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life," indicating that the unborn child was a life.) Now, in fairness, it could be argued that this passage assumes that the mother and father want the baby opposed to the idea that the mother desiring to terminate the pregnancy. In response, we should start not with the desires of the mother and father to have a child, but instead ask what is life and when does it begin?
What is life? This is a fairly large discussion, but I'll boil it down to some simple points. First, God is the source and creator of life. We can see this in the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2; but another example is found in 1 Samuel 2:6 that says, "The LORD kills and brings to life" (ESV), and Deuteronomy 32:39 in part says "I kill and make alive" (ESV). Job 1:21 quotes Job saying, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (ESV). Job, in 10:8 says to God, "Your hands fashioned me." Isaiah 68:8 says, "But now O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand" (ESV).
Second, we have a general understanding of what is alive and what is not. Plants--alive. Rocks--not alive. Dinosaur bones--once living tissue, but now, not alive. Of course we can draw a distinction between living tissue and 'life.' Skin is made of living tissue but we are more likely to see it as part of a system that requires other tissues. We can look at skin cells under a microscope and see that there's some kind of life activity there, but we don't tend to think of skin as a stand-alone life. However, there is a difference between a single skin cell and a single-cell organism. That single-cell organism is life. If we find it on Mars, we will declare that there is life on Mars; but if we find a skin cell we will say we've found evidence of life (and then declare there is life on Mars anyway). So life, it seems, is a living system, be it one cell, a plant, an animal, a human. Where this gets really interesting is when we think of a seed. It might be dry and appear dead, but in the right conditions it shifts from that dead-looking thing to life. If I crushed a seed nobody would say I killed it, but if it had a little white or green shoot growing from it and I failed to give it water or if I put it out in too much sun and it dried up and withered, you would say I killed it. To kill it, it must have had life.
In the debate on the legality of abortion, one issue of contention is the parents' right (specifically the woman's right) to terminate life, if indeed there is any agreement that an unborn child is life, that is, a thing in the womb that can be killed. I will deal with this more in a moment.
When does life begin? This is the other issue where a difficulty of the abortion debate resides. This, like the right to terminate life, is the other big question item where differences are found.
Luke, a first-century doctor and writer of one of the four gospel accounts, made a detailed investigation in order to write his Gospel. In the opening of the book, he records a fascinating event. When Elizabeth greeted Mary (both of whom were pregnant), the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaped. Elizabeth, being filled with the Spirit, understood this to be caused by the presence of the baby in Mary's womb and proclaimed,
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy." Luke 1:42-43, ESV.While we don't know exactly how far along either of these women were in their pregnancies, this passage suggests that it was more than just developing cells void of life in their wombs. The Greek word used for these babies in utereo is berphos, which we is translated 'child.' Twice Luke uses the same word for the baby Jesus (post birth) in chapter 2. I think in today's society, we would be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that life starts at the point of the doctor's spanking that gets the baby to cry. I can think of nobody that would say a baby that has been in the womb for 9 months and is making his or her way down the birth canal is not life. Anyone, myself included, that's seen and heard the heartbeat on the monitor is overwhelmed by the awe of life there in the womb. Where the challenge comes is in answering the question, when (maybe even before the heartbeat) does life begin?
If we back up to the point of a sperm cell and an egg, we see that we have cells that seem to be more a part of a system than a single-celled, stand-alone organism. After these to come together, an interesting thing starts to happen. The little glob of sperm and egg create a cell that can divide and multiply. Soon, there's an 8 celled organism, then 16, then 32, and so-on. Is this life? Maybe. Is this like the little plant shoot that I killed earlier in this discussion?
God had us in mind before the creation of the world (but do not confuse this with the idea that we were all created and stored in some "pre-existence" before the creation of the universe), but this doctrine does not give us a practical answer as to the moment life begins in the womb. Some argue at conception, some at the first heartbeat, and some even at viability outside the womb. The first two arguments bear weight, but the viability argument is greatly flawed. Here's why: What is viability? A full-term baby cannot survive, free of help and care, outside the womb for long on his or her birthday. If we start looking at 'viability' being earlier and earlier in the pregnancy we have to start looking at the technology that aids in keeping the baby alive. Therefore, our definition of the beginning of life under the viability definition seems dependent upon outside technology. This would mean that we define the start of life by our advancements in medicine.
The other two arguments, that is, at conception or at the first heartbeat seem compelling. No matter how much I think about it, I struggle with the idea of life beginning at the moment of conception. It seems a little like the seed. There's something there, but it doesn't seem like life. . . but I am willing to be wrong. And I'll admit, it is spectacular that something (or more rightly, someone) gets the heart pumping. That first beat seems like a magic moment for an organism that requires a heartbeat as a sign of life. The reality however, is that it could be at either of these moments or at some point in between. The Bible does not clearly identify at what moment life begins, so I argue it is probably better to lean on the side of caution, closer, much closer to conception.
So, what about the practice of abortion?
We have two issues in tension when it comes to abortion: when life begins and the right, as an individual, to terminate life. I would like to argue that in practice, the point when life begins is almost irrelevant with the exception of specific types of birth control such as the morning after pill. To the best of our ability, we should err on the side of caution. The real issue at hand is the attitude the leads one to have an abortion.
If we can agree that at some point, either at conception or at the heartbeat, life has begun, it seems that terminating that life is killing the life; it's murdering another human being. "But wait, what about capital punishment?" you might ask. There are two differences. The first is that capital punishment is administered by the state, not an individual. The second is that the life in the womb has not violated a law of the state. (If for some reason being conceived was against the law, this law would be unjust in that the violator, in his or her very creation, would have absolutely no ability to not violate the law. The violation and punishment should really fall upon the man and woman who conceive the child.)
When a woman learns that she is pregnant, time has already passed. We are now flirting with the very real reality that was is growing in the womb is life, more specifically, a human being. So to think that one has the ability and right to terminate this life, especially out of mere convenience, is a serious act of self-worship, placing oneself in the position of God. It says "my rights are more important that the rights and sanctity of the life I'm carrying." 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 reminds us (especially those who are in Christ) that we are not our own; our bodies are not ours because we were bought with a price. We, to include our bodies, belong to Christ. This runs into direct conflict with the argument that a pregnant woman has the right to terminate a life simply because she is not ready to care for an image barer of God.
The truth is we do not clearly know the exact moment life begins, so there is the very real potential that an abortion at any point after conception is killing a life. Abortion is wrong. The attitude that typically drives abortion is wrong. And to celebrate abortion as some kind of family planning tool is akin to spitting on the very face of God's creation.
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* Photo/drawing by Leonardo da Vinci is in the public domain.