I actually don’t like arguing all that much, but I’m going to go ahead and make a really controversial post because I feel the arguments for life beginning at conception are usually lacking. They seem rather dogmatic to me, presented as something you either believe or you don’t. Anyway, I intend to remain courteous, and I would ask my readers to do the same. Baiting your traps with vinegar satisfies certain instincts, but you won’t catch many flies that way. What may surprise you is that I feel the strongest case for life at conception actually comes from science, not the Bible.
Of course, if I were to go off of nothing but the Bible, I would come to the same conclusion, but it’s not ineluctable if someone’s determined to be cantankerous. David writes in Psalm 139 how God superintended his development in the womb and had a plan for his entire life the whole time. He also says he had a moral nature (albeit a sinful one) at the time of conception in Psalm 51. A baby in the womb in Exodus 21 receives the same protection from the law of retaliation that an adult does (that is, any injury done to the baby who is caused to be born prematurely is to be done to the one who caused it). It certainly sounds to me like God cares what happens to a baby from conception onward.
Our specific question, however, of how early we can kill something in the womb before it’s murder is not explicitly addressed in Scripture. After all, it wasn’t the hot-button issue it is today. People generally wanted as many children (or sons, at least) as they could have in Biblical times. I’m pretty sure they knew of substances that would cause an abortion if ingested, but I don’t know of any censures of abortion as such in the Bible (other than the law protecting babies in the womb from assault). After all, if they were going to get rid of a baby, the Jews were more likely to incinerate it on an altar to Molech or the Greco-Romans to abandon it to die on a barren mountainside after it had left the womb.
Before looking at my scientific reasoning, I think we should be more precise about our terminology. The question isn’t really about when the baby is alive. I would that it were! We pro-lifers would win every time. A cell by definition is the basic unit of life, so a zygote is as alive in a scientific sense as the mother. Of course, you could say that about every other functioning cell in the woman’s body. It might be more helpful to think of the question as when the baby becomes a distinct life form. I think everyone agrees that until something in her is distinct, a woman can do with her bodily members whatever she wants.
Well, personally, I find the baby distinct from the moment of conception. Out of 30 trillion cells in her body (give or take), this one is different from all the rest. That’s 30 trillion copies of the same genetic information, and the zygote has different genetic combinations from each one of them. At 46 chromosomes per somatic cell, that’s 1.38 quadrillion chromosomes, and the zygote has 46 unique ones of its own. Half of its genetic code came from outside the woman’s body, and the half that came from within her was rearranged and recombined during meiosis such that even that isn’t an exact copy.
It behaves entirely different from the other normal cells of the woman’s body. The rest of them are team players, taking nutrients in and serving some function to sustain the woman’s life. This cell only takes; it will not give. It does not contribute to the mother’s survival or well-being. It acts like its own distinct, separate organism, not just another part of the team.
Really, the only reason we could have a debate about killing it is its total dependence on the woman it is inside. Location and dependence don’t really seem that relevant to me considering all the genetic differences. A newborn baby is fully dependent on someone, usually the mother, and it is outside the mother’s body, but with the exception of a few new cells, it is substantially the same being that existed just a little while before inside the mother. A minority of people are willing to allow the baby to be killed right before birth, but if location and dependence are the critical factors, I see no reason why that should stop anyone about to murder a full-term baby- or a newborn, for that matter.
What we’re left with under the current judicial system is a rather arbitrary set of state-by-state definitions about when the baby becomes distinct subject to the one-trimester floor set by Roe v. Wade. Does anyone really think a few days of development is going to make as big a difference in the baby’s life as the creation of an entirely unique genetic code? Which is more essential to life: a particular organ or two or the genetic code that underpins them all? DNA is one of the most fundamental aspects of life. You can’t have life without DNA. If we’re going to take the safest course, which I would recommend when human life and dignity are at issue, and find the boldest line of demarcation, I can’t think of anything bolder than conception.
Once the baby is recognized as a distinct individual, you’ll find that all utilitarian arguments for eliminating it have been tried before in other contexts and condemned. The baby will grow up unloved? The Greeks and Romans did not expose the babies that they wanted on mountainsides. The baby will become an impoverished burden on the economy or possibly a criminal? Reportedly, Vlad III of Wallachia practically eliminated beggary and crime in his province. Of course, to do so he had to burn all the beggars up in a banquet hall, impale and torture people for virtually any crime whatsoever, and leave his name for everlasting infamy (he is world-famous when called by his patronymic, Dracula). Besides, I’m not fully satisfied we have the prescience to prove a child’s future misery and/or criminality beyond a reasonable doubt before we execute it. Further, I’m not comfortable with passing a capital sentence on potential drug-users and thieves when we wouldn’t dream of executing actual ones. I think the solution to unwanted children is reworking the values we glorify as a culture so people don’t produce children before they’re ready for or want one, not condemning the innocent.
And while I’m addressing weaknesses in Pro-Life arguments, I should like to address the “holy triad” of exceptions to any proposed abortion ban. They are so common I’m sure every politician has them memorized, and I’m surer no abortion ban could be passed without them: “except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.” I don’t have a problem with the third one. It’s ghastly arithmetic to say you’d rather lose one life than two (especially when the one you’d be saving has people counting on her), but that’s sometimes sadly necessary in a fallen world. Sometimes life presents us with those hard choices, and we have to pick the least bad option.
I’m not entirely sure how Pro-Lifers get behind the other two, though. I can understand the desire to limit misery and emotional distress, but I don’t think murder is the answer. Murder it must be, since I fail to see how the means of conception alters the essential personhood of the baby. Is their genetic code somehow fundamentally different? To borrow from Shakespeare, “Prick them, do they not bleed?” Do they lack neurotransmitters to feel pain and pleasure? Rape and incest are horrible things, but I don’t think we rectify the situation by adding murder to them. We rightly feel sympathy for a woman forced to carry the memory of that tragedy, but why should we take it out on someone innocent? Having been wronged so grievously herself, will she then turn and grievously wrong someone who means her no ill?
I understand this is a very sensitive issue and that people are truly trying to be compassionate when they permit an abortion in this case. There was a time I agreed with them. Then I saw the other side of the equation. We were in class discussing abortion, and the question came up of whether we would permit an abortion in the case of a rape. I gave the standard answer of how the woman shouldn’t suffer because she didn’t make a choice in this case. Then one of my friends asked, “Well, what would you say if I told you that my mother was raped when she was engaged and became pregnant, everyone thought she was loose such that her fiancee broke up with her, and… she decided to have me anyway?” I felt ashamed. Here he was, as much a person as I, and I had just said it would have been okay to have killed him.
Killing a person because their father did something heinous is eerily similar to the supposed curse of Ham, which Southerners once used to justify slavery. In Genesis, Ham looked on his father Noah’s nakedness while Noah was passed out stripped and drunk (or, some posit, he did something even worse). When Noah sobered up, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, that he would be a servant. Misquoting the story to be a curse on Ham, and saying that Africans were descended from him, the Southerners claimed that God had decreed that Africans should be the slaves of those descended from Japheth, like themselves. We can debate what exactly is going on in the story of Ham and Noah, but I think the clear Biblical mandate in the case of a child of rape is, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children; neither shall the children be put to death for their fathers. Every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16, KJV). It’s not an easy answer at all, I grant, but sometimes the right answer in an imperfect world is really hard.
As far as incest goes, the Bible shows abundantly that God can work through that. Isaac was the son of half-siblings, Jacob and most of his sons were the offspring of cousins, Moses and Aaron were their father’s nephews, and Ruth was descended from a union of a father and daughter. If they had aborted those babies, they would have cut off the Levitical priesthood and the line of Christ! If God can work such things from such beginnings, I don’t see where we have the right to conclude that the situation is so hopeless it requires a human sacrifice.