Monday, November 7, 2011

Think life begins at conception? Well... maybe...

[Update: The bill mentioned below did not pass, which is very interesting for a variety of reasons.]

I am pro-life. I oppose both abortion-on-demand and the death penalty (and attempt to live as a pacifist) because I believe that human life is a sacred gift, given by God, and we don't have the right to take another human life. Only God has that authority. Unfortunately, just saying this is not enough to solve many serious ethical dilemmas, including the issue of abortion.

But, it seems to me that taking seriously the question "When does life begin?" is vital if we hope to get closer to a valuable understanding these ethical dilemmas. Of course, for some, there is no question. Poor thinking takes place on all sides, but here is one example:

The state of Mississippi is going to vote this week on Initiative 26, which has gained notoriety as the "personhood amendment." Essentially, the voters of the state will decide on how the beginning of a human life is defined. It seems likely that the decision will be that life begins at conception. The problem is, this view does not have much scientific evidence to support it, and, I will suggest, it does not have much biblical support either.

First, the scientific background. As this article (quoted below) points out, it is not clear precisely when life begins, but there are scientific reasons to doubt that it begins with fertilization of an egg.  The author says:

"What are the odds of a fertilized egg becoming a person?

This is what we know: During the period of embryonic development that begins with fertilization and ends with successful implantation, about 50 percent of human conceptions fail to survive. The main reason for this high failure rate is the inability of huge numbers of fertilized eggs to implant.

What science has found is that around half of all conceptions don't make it to implantation. Calling a fertilized egg a person flies in the face of this cruel biological reality. Half of all fertilized eggs cannot even become an embryo, much less a person.

Indeed, given the grim odds that face fertilized eggs, no one in science or medicine refers to a fertilized egg as an embryo unless it manages to implant. By talking about embryos and fertilized eggs as equivalent, supporters of Initiative 26 are not even using the correct scientific definition of an embryo.

There are a huge number of embryos that are not properly genetically programmed for life. Nearly all of these completely lack the biological ability to develop into anything resembling a viable baby. Legislation -- like that about to be voted on in Mississippi -- that declares fertilized eggs to be persons from the moment of conception simply ignores that the failure rate of human embryos is very high. A considerable number of embryos and fetuses never have any chance of producing a baby."

Now, it is standard for those in the pro-life camp to respond with anecdotal or (more authoritative for many) biblical evidence for the claim that life begins at conception. Most commonly cited is Psalm 139, wherein we read that God sees the person "in my mother's womb", "in secret", "in the depths of the earth", and when the person is still an "unformed substance." (quotes from NRSV) But, do any of these statements correlate properly to our notion of 'conception'? This seems dubious. Clearly no one believes that babies are formed in the depths of the earth. But if that is meant as a descriptive metaphor, on what basis do we say that life begins at conception?

Other commonly cited verses are Isaiah 49:1 and Jeremiah 1:5, where God tells the prophets that they were consecrated and 'known' by God even prior to their conception. Paul echoes this image in Galatians 1:15. However, the image in these passages is cryptic, to say the least. What does it mean to say that God knows persons prior to their birth, or even their conception? Does that mean that humans have pre-existing souls? That view has more in common with Platonism than Christianity.

Additionally, just because God knows something does not mean that thing has to exist. God presumably knows things that will happen in the future, but those things do not exist yet. So simply for God to say that persons are known prior to their conception does not tell us anything about whether or not life begins at conception.

Now it may be there are more explicit passages in the Bible that talk about life beginning at conception. I'm not aware of those off the top of my head. But, it seems that we are left with a situation where there is not as much support for the idea of life beginning at conception as some would lead us to believe. Rather, it seems that all we do know is that life begins either at conception or sometime after conception.  But this is not very helpful.  Obviously, everyone agrees that a human life begins at some point between conception and birth.  The question is: When?  Is it even possible to know?

This is a problem, I think, because it sets up a false guideline for pro-life thinking and acting.  For example, suppose that the decision was made to modify the definition such that life is said to begin when the embryo finally attaches and begins to form into a fetus. This would mean that all the efforts made by pro-lifers to oppose birth control and 'morning after' pills like RU-486 would be in vain, since by definition it would be agreed that a pill which prevents a potential embryo from attaching is not equal to the taking of a life. What effect would this have on the conversation about issues of life? How seriously are people taking this question? I wonder.

I suppose the response here from many would be that even if we don't know exactly when life starts, our responsibility is to avoid even the possibility of taking a life, whenever we can. This means assuming life begins at conception, so as to prevent as much taking of life as possible. OK. But here there is still a great deal of confusion. After all, a consistent view in this regard would be one that also keeps with the Catholic church's ban on contraception. How many pro-lifers support that view?

It would also mean opposition to the death penalty. Issues of innocence or guilt, which often come into play at this point, become moot. After all, the issue is not about whether the person has committed evil acts and is worthy of death, the issue is about avoiding even the possibility of taking an innocent life. From that angle, since it is certainly possible that killing a person on death row could be a mistake (after all, there are cases of innocent persons being put to death!), the right approach is to oppose the death penalty as stringently as one would oppose destroying an embryo, precisely because it's better to be safe than sorry (which is what the argument boils down to).

However, it would go even further: if the point really is to avoid as much death as possible, we are ethically bound to change all sorts of things about the ways we live our lives. If we know that certain purchases make it more likely that people will die, we must stop buying those items. If we are spending our time in leisure activities when we could be saving lives, we ought to stop enjoying those activities, and focus on protecting life.

It starts to look overwhelming rather quickly, which is probably why sooner or later the discussion turns into a question of pragmatism. Of course we cannot save every life, someone will say, but we can save some, and so let's focus on the lives that we CAN save. But the question then becomes: how do we decide which lives deserve priority? Could the case not be made that children living in poor conditions or persons being oppressed and persecuted are more important to protect than embryos that are not yet even fetuses?

So, we haven't really gotten very far, it seems. And we are still stuck with the question: when does life begin? I suspect that is a question to which no one, except God, will ever have an answer. And if that is really our situation - we simply do not know exactly when life begins - how does that affect the conversations people are having about these issues? I leave these questions for us all to ponder and discuss.

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