Life is a mystery ...
... as the prophet Madonna once sang. Okay, maybe you don't think of her as exactly a prophet, but it's true anyway. Life's beginning is a deep mystery; life's ongoing existence is a mystery (some people have more colorful words for it than that, depending on how well they enjoy their lives at the moment); life's ending is a profound mystery; and what exists beyond this life — not even just "when it ends", but I mean what is transcendent to this life, outside it, right now, as well — is for many a mystery. Even if we didn't think of life as a mystery, it's still more than we can fathom, a mystery nonetheless.
Which is why, for me at least, the ongoing and sometimes violent conflict over abortion seems to carry its own sadness, on a different level than the very real griefs that can occur for both mother and child (I obviously don't mean even to suggest that "I feel grief deeper than" anyone who has grappled with that issue firsthand — I don't presume even to know anything about their experience at all; I only mean that it seems there is another sadness beyond, or apart from, all that), no matter the outcome: because, in the understandably heated and sharply agonizing emotions that can arise on either side, the one thing that you'd think would shush or at least temper some of the arguing is often missing — and that is what I will call a real reverence for the wonder of life. Both sides will, of course, insist that they're taking their positions precisely because of a reverence for life — but I mean enough of a reverence that it can slow down either side, and give them pause to realize that, no matter what other facts are at stake, we simply don't know enough about life to make curt, sweeping policies or doctrinal stances that it should be this way or that way.
A brief history of abortion, and related things you might also not want to know
Abortion, our spectacular contemporary debate about it aside, is nothing new (as you probably know anyway); it has been practiced worldwide, throughout history, its origins lost in the proverbial depths of time — it was mentioned in Chinese lore reaching back at least 5,000 years ago, and the first documented instance was in Egypt, about 1550 BCE. (Please see links at the end of the article for sources used here.) Long before modern surgical procedures were introduced, a variety of herbal preparations were (and in some cultures, sometimes even in contemporary America, still are) used as abortifacients (substances used to induce a miscarriage). (Their modern, chemical counterparts — used about 17% of the time, most often before 49 days into pregnancy — induce what is called a "medical" abortion, as opposed to a surgical one.)
Most cultures of which we have record were, historically, generally willing to allow abortions before about three to four months — which is the general time a woman can first feel stirring inside, and in Western culture has historically been called quickening (that is, a "coming to life" or "becoming alive"); however, abortions after that point were almost universally frowned on or condemned. (Some ancient Greek writers indicated, in a few places, that they considered life to have begun at conception, but those scant references were tentative, and that view was not even always consistent within a single author's works.) Because, as far as anyone could tell, quickening was the first sign of life in the womb, most cultures — including in Christianity — typically considered that this was when life actually began, even though of course a woman could tell, well before then, that she was pregnant.
That distinction really can't be overemphasized (although I'm also not aiming to make of it more than it is, but only to use it to hold broader views in perspective): for the most part even the Christian world, up till the early 1800s, didn't consider that fully human life — in the historic Christian sense of "body, soul, and spirit" — emerged in the womb until the "quickening", the first sign that what was in the womb was indeed "becoming alive", even though they knew pregnancy began months earlier. (For example, in medieval Europe, the church imposed far less severe sanctions if an abortion was performed before the fetus "has life", that is, before quickening.) It was only with developments of medical science in the 19th century, and deepening understanding of how life grows from conception to birth, that the Christian world began more seriously to rethink its understanding of when life begins. (In the United States, increasing prohibitions against abortion through the 19th century were driven largely by physicians in the American Medical Association, along with legislators.)
That isn't to say that even early Christianity had a simplistic or monolithic view on abortion: generally speaking, while of course abortion is not even indirectly hinted at in the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures (although of course life in the womb is referred to in a variety of ways, but never with any precision), early Christian writings condemned abortion — yet, as mentioned, the almost universal view was that human life actually began at "quickening", rather than at conception. Some writers in the early Christian centuries denounced abortion at any stage — yet the whole time, the general view was that, at worst, abortion was more or less equivalent to any moral lapse, but not actually equivalent to murder, at least, not till after quickening.
Views were somewhat mixed, though, and were influenced by social conditions. For example, by the time of Constantine in the 4th century, broader recognition of the plight of poor families — who were often unable to care for more than a few children at most — led Christian thinkers to be more considerate and tolerant toward them if they practiced abortion (or even exposure — a practice, common in the classical world, where unwanted newborns, or those the parents were unable to care for, or who were severely disabled, were simply left out in the wild to die or be killed by animals).
The general Christian view, all through that era, seems to add up to how the ancient world generally saw it: that abortion after about the third month amounted to the taking of a life, while it wasn't certain that a pregnancy before that point was a fully human life to begin with, and therefore wasn't equated with murder. Augustine, for example (late 4th - early 5th centuries) thought, as was the view at least as far back as Aristotle, that a soul did not enter until "quickening", and therefore that abortion before that point was not murder — yet nonetheless he denounced abortion at any stage. A view along these lines was eventually formalized in the church by 13th-century Thomas Aquinas, whose view remained standard in the Roman Catholic Church until the mid-1800s, when it was then generally taken, instead, that the soul appeared at conception.
(That isn't to say that the Christian world is anywhere near monolithic in its views on abortion today, either. Far from it: from the Orthodox churches through all the Protestant and evangelical sects, views are mixed from denouncing all abortion to being extremely pro-choice, although two general views emerge:  exceptions are generally allowed in the case of medical necessity, or in cases of rape or incest; and  there is often more tolerance for earlier abortion, similar to the historic "quickening" view. Meanwhile, official church positions do not, of course, necessarily indicate people's actual practice at all: for example, about two-thirds of all women who have abortions in the United States identify as Christian, and about 20% of all U.S. abortions are performed on women who identify as evangelical or born again; while worldwide, abortions in predominantly Catholic countries occur at a somewhat higher rate than in other countries. Likewise, some 97% of U.S. Catholic women have used contraception, even though official church stance has opposed that since the 1930s, and only a little over 20% of them agree with the church's stance that all abortion is immoral. And meanwhile, throughout the Western, "Christian" world, especially through the 20th century, civil laws allowing or restricting abortion have varied widely and changed frequently.)
It should be said again: For about 1800 years, the Christian world more or less had few problems with abortions occurring before three months into pregnancy, because they simply didn't consider that actual, fully human life, in the biblical sense, had emerged in the womb before the first sign of "quickening".
It should be noted here, by the way, that even today in this country, the great majority of abortions (about 90%) still take place within that same time window — before three months. In other words, if most Christians still considered that genuinely human life doesn't really appear until about three months in, our entire, protracted battle over abortion would probably be almost nonexistent (or anyway confined to exceptional cases, and to abortions happening after three months).
(Just as a partial note on some other religious traditions, Islam generally views abortion after four months as forbidden, although it is still discouraged before that point; while in Judaism — though views on abortion are divided, among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches — the Talmud states that legal personhood does not begin until birth. Hinduism's classical Vedic texts condemn abortion from conception on, though cultural practices [such as a preference for sons] often overrule this. Buddhist traditional views likewise reject abortion at any point, although views are also divided or changing with regard to medical circumstances, and the Dalai Lama has stated that "I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance"; in fact the Buddhist view is complicated by its traditional perception of life as a continuum, with no discernible starting or ending points.)
Of course, aside from medical or surgical abortions as mentioned, there is one other form: natural abortions, which are usually called miscarriages. Depending on various factors (mainly age), roughly 15% of all recognized pregnancies miscarry (and about 80% of those happen during the first trimester, that is, the first three months — before what historically would have been called quickening); and it's estimated that many other miscarriages (up to 40% of all pregnancies) occur so early that they may not be recognized, because the woman may not even be aware that she is pregnant. (Another occasion of new life not surviving till birth are instances of vanishing twins, in which a pregnancy begins as multiples — twins or more — but one or more of the fetuses does not survive, and its body is absorbed by the mother and/or the other fetus[es]. By some estimates, at least 12% of all multiple-fetus pregnancies lose a "vanishing twin", and there may be many more than that, for which no evidence is medically detectable.) Among other things, one implication of this, for those who maintain that fully human life begins at conception, is that (from a Christian perspective) God must be implicated in causing, or at the very least allowing, a stupendous number of abortions (miscarriages) globally, every year. The very agonizing fact of miscarriage is for that reason extremely difficult to reconcile with the strict pro-life position common today.
Side note: the Bible's little-known stance on miscarriage and "abortion on request"
Actually, it's not like there is any clear "position" on miscarriage in the Bible: it's mentioned a few times (with certian penalties, if it is caused accidentally during a fight among other people), but one of the most unusual passages regarding miscarriage is Numbers 5.11-31 (part of the books of the Law that are recorded as having been given through Moses, and which amounted to a combined religious and civil law for the community of Israel — in effect its "constitution", as some commentators have called it). The context is, like much of the rest of Scripture, in terms of a culture in which women had by far the subordinate role, and had not only more disproportionately limited rights, but bore a disproportionate burden under the law as well.
(Although, to be fair, the prescriptions in Mosaic law were a far step ahead of the rest of the ancient Near Eastern world, in terms of making advances in women's rights, as well as other civil rights — it's sometimes forgotten that civil rights have to advance in partial steps, giving the culture time to adapt and move forward, or the society as a whole is likely not to accept them at all. Consider, for example, the protracted, still-ongoing battles over various groups' rights and equal treatment in American society — from women, to ethnic minorities, GLBT people, workers, children, and more.So while Mosaic law is hugely unsatisfactory from the modern perspective of civil rights, still it gave a lot fairer shake to all parties than did most other civil codes of the era.)
The specific scenario detailed in Numbers 5 is in the case of a woman whose husband suspects her of having cheated on him with another man (whether she actually did or not); if he just can't calm his suspicions, he and his wife are to appear before the priest, who then performs a certain ritual. The priest gives the woman some "bitter water that brings a curse" to drink, and invokes this curse: "If you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband .... may the Lord [make] your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries." The "bitter water" is described only as having been normal water (or sometimes, ceremonial holy water) with dust from the temple floor put into it, plus the priest writes the words of the curse-invocation on a scroll, then washes off that ink into the water as well, before the woman drinks it; however, the wording implies that, more than being simply a mystical expectation of metaphorically "bitter", accursed water, there may possibly have been some other "bitter" ingredient added, such as one of the herbal preparations often used as abortifacients in ancient times. It isn't known, but that's one of the possibilities.
(Incidentally, as an example of advancing understanding of rights and justice: in the case of this particular ritual, in 70 CE it was abolished altogether by the ruling Jewish council, who by then recognized that men, of course, weren't above suspicion themselves; and especially because the ceremony had come to be seen as mostly a way to pressure women into a confession, whether they had been unfaithful or not.)
Whatever was in the water, this was the expected result: "If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, ... When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry .... If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children." I won't comment here on the heavy social and religious stigmas that were put on women in that culture (which is of course a very worthwhile topic for a deeper look at how cultures, and their view of civil rights, grow and change); but what I will point out is the central point in this whole ceremony: in the specific circumstance described, the people call on God himself to perform an abortion (that is, to cause a miscarriage) — with the expectation that God would do just that.
The lessons to take away from that admittedly remarkable passage can't be missed: (1) under certain circumstances, people in this biblical culture expected God to, in effect, perform an abortion; (2) meaning, they could not have had the sort of unilateral, "God hates abortion" view that pro-life groups today often claim is Scripture's stance; and (3) keeping in mind that this was written in the law that was said to have been given directly from God through Moses, then from that perspective, it was God himself who instructed people to call on him to perform an abortion under those circumstances, with effectively a guarantee that he would, in fact, do just that. This is a biblical passage that you don't often hear about from pro-life groups (who, for the most part, are made up of Christians), or from religious ministers who oppose abortion; actually, I'd hazard a guess that most Christians taking a pro-life position probably aren't aware the passage even exists.
But for anyone who is interested in taking a serious biblical stance on the issue (and of course, I know there are plenty of people for whom that's not a concern; here I'm speaking directly to Christians), the point is inescapable: Whatever God's full perspective on abortion may be, still, since God promised to perform abortion on request in some cases, then he certainly can't have a unilateral view that "abortion is wrong". I would hope only that more Christians would be struck by the implications of that passage to take a more thoughtful, reflective (and prayerful) view of how we should view abortion — as we move on from here to take a deeper view of how or when life begins in the womb, in the first place.
Another side note: some other things the Bible does and doesn't say about abortion
Before moving on, though, it would be a good idea to make a brief (not exhaustive by any means) review of some key biblical passages that are often cited in support of a pro-life view — as well as some other passages that pro-life groups don't often discuss.
Ps 139.13-16: "... you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." The lyrical poetry in this psalm paints a beautiful scene of God's intimate work in the creation and development of life, as well as of his intent and plans for individuals' lives. However, it doesn't address the critical question of when in the womb fully human life begins; what it does is acknowledge God as the Author, Architect, or Artist of life. The very imagery of "knit together ... woven together" indicates a work in progress, as for example (to apply one of those metaphors literally) when a craftsperson is weaving a carpet or tapestry, it's possible to observe the work and see the emerging design, and to recognize what it's intended to be — yet also to realize that, for all intents and purposes, it won't be considered "a tapestry" while the artwork is still in process. Likewise, with human life, from a Christian perspective we look for fully human life when a soul or spirit is present in the new body (and it's generally acknowledged among Christians that genuinely human life is present only at that point) — but the question at the center of the abortion debate is when that takes place. And this passage doesn't give any hint of that.
Isa 44.2: "This is what the Lord says — he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, Jacob [the original name of Israel, the eponymous patriarch of the people of Israel], my servant, Jeshurun ["upright one", another name for Israel], whom I have chosen ...." This, like other images of creation, is of course a picture of God's intimate involvement in the formation of life. However, in a Christian-related discussion of when life begins, what's at question isn't whether God's creative process is at work the whole way through, just as he is seen as at work through all of life (that much is taken for granted); the question at hand is when in that process fully human life emerges — and once again, this passage does not address that at all, it speaks only of God's creative care the whole way through and beyond.
Jer 1.4-5: "The word of the Lord came to me [Jeremiah], saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew [or, in the Hebrew, "chose"] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations'." This is often cited as an elegant, even intimate statement of God's closeness to those in the womb; however, it ought to be clear from the passage ("Before I formed you in the womb") that God is talking about his advance knowledge and plans for Jeremiah before he was even conceived, and isn't even referring necessarily to the months of development in the womb at all. Christian pro-life groups typically do not, of course, suggest that the human soul somehow has a preexistent state before conception.
Lk 1.41-44: "When Elizabeth [about six months pregnant with John the Baptist] heard Mary’s [the mother of Jesus] greeting, the baby leaped in her womb .... [and she exclaimed,] 'As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy'." If anything, this passage would seem to add support to the view that fully human life is present by the last trimester of pregnancy, since (as will be mentioned again further below) the neural signals ("brain waves") that we associate with conscious life or mind don't appear until about the 20th week — so the scene in Luke simply gives a picture of a time during pregnancy when most people would tend to agree that fully human life is present, anyway (keeping in mind that, in most cultures, it is after "quickening" at the third to fourth month that human life is thought really to be present). Most people are less in favor of abortions the later in term they take place, so again this passage is actually one that most people, on either side of the debate, could find agreement on — but of course it still doesn't touch on the question of when life begins.
Gen 2.7: "Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being [Hebrew nephesh, often rendered "soul" here or elsewhere in the Scriptures]." This passage of creation is sometimes cited by pro-life groups to illustrate the combination of soul and body that makes up a human life — but you'll notice that the presence of the "breath of life" doesn't appear until the very end of the creative formation process, and in any case, it's that combination of "breath" and body that are said to make a fully living being. So once again (no matter whether this scene of creation is viewed literally or figuratively), it speaks of the end result as a human, with no detail on where or how in that process human life (or soul) emerges.
So none of these passages, which are those most often cited by pro-life groups as showing that Scripture supports their position, even have anything to do with the question of when human life begins at all. On the other hand, here are some other passages, which pro-life groups typically don't bring up at all:
What the Bible says about abortion is [nothing]: This is actually a sort of non-pasage, since of course neither the Hebrew nor Christian texts say anything at all about abortion, even though (as mentioned above) it was an utterly common practice in the ancient world. In the Law, for example, extensive passages are devoted to cautioning Israel away from the practices of the cultures they were about to live among (as well as not to return to the practices of Egypt, where they had just left), and all those cultures (especially as documented in Egypt) practiced abortion. If that were such an abomination to God, it's very surprising that it wouldn't have been given specific attention (compared to, meanwhile, such "abominations" as wearing clothing of mixed fabric, or of planting more than one kind of crop in the same field). But with all the great pains that were taken to warn Israel away from practices of surrounding cultures, abortion finds not the slightest mention at all. Of course, pro-life groups will often point to ...
Ex 20.13: The sixth of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not kill [or "murder", as in some translations]." Actualy, of course, pro-life groups bring up this passage, all the time, as a universal command which would thus also apply to abortion. But because the Old Testament historical chronicles are replete with scenes of battle in which God is said to have commanded (or helped in) the destruction of enemies, many Christians (not just those who identify as pro-life) distinguish between murder and the killing that is often said to be justified as part of war. (Suffice it to say that views on killing scenes in Scripture vary wildly , from "That can't be from God at all" to "God was just working within the context of those cultures and times", and about everything in between.) However, when pro-life groups cite this commandment as a blanket provision that would also prohibit abortion (and meanwhile, also often emphasizing God's special love for children, both the unborn and young ones), they don't often take into consideration other passages in which children (including the unborn) suffer horribly, like ...
Gen 6.13; 7.23: "God said to Noah, 'I am going to put an end to all people ....' Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals ...." (God announcing what today would be called mass murder, if humans were to do it, which would have included not only living children but unborn children.)
Num 31.17: "Now kill all the boys ["every male among the little ones", in some translations]." (Moses giving instructions in a battle between Israel and an enemy people.)
Deut 3.6: "We completely destroyed them ... destroying every city — men, women and children." (Moses recounting how Israel had destroyed some of their enemies along the way to the promised land.)
Deut 20.16: "However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes." (Moses giving instructions to Israel, who are preparing to enter the promised land.)
Josh 6.21: "They ... destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old ..." (Account describing how Joshua's army destroyed Jericho.)
Josh 10.28-40: "He put the city ... to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors .... The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there .... The city and everyone in it he put to the sword .... [They] put it to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it .... [They] put it to the sword, together with ... everyone in it .... Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors ...." (Account of Joshua and his army destroying everyone alive, in half a dozen cities.)
1 Sam 15.3, 8: "'Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants' .... all his people he totally destroyed with the sword." (The prophet Samuel giving instructions from God to King Saul, on waging battle against some other enemies of Israel, which Saul proceeded to do.)
Isa 13.16, 18: "Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes .... they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children." (A prophetic warning against Babylon, of an attack by another nation that God says that he himself will stir up against them.)
Hos 13.16: "... their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open." (The northern nation of divided Israel, Samaria, being warned about destruction that would come upon them "because they have rebelled against their God".)
Even when pregnant women aren't specifically mentioned in those passages, obviously, in scenes where "every living thing" is described as destroyed, pregnant women and their unborn children would have perished along with everyone else. Some (usually more fundamentalist) Christians will point to these scenes as portraying destruction of those who opposed God or his people (and therefore claimed to be justifiable, in context of the times) — but apart from all other debates about rationales for those deaths, pro-life groups nevertheless cannot justify that killing, and at the same time maintain that God (or Scripture) is unilaterally opposed to the killing of unborn humans, especially since one of the most common pro-life appeals is that abortion is "the killing of innocent life". Even if all the people in those accounts (even young children? even infants?) could be supposed somehow to have been guilty of offenses deserving death, the pro-life position cannot at the same time insist that "abortion kills an innocent life" yet justify doing that very thing. They would have to acknowledge either that (1) the unborn children killed in these events were not innocent (but somehow shared in the guilt of the adults — as also even the infants and young children would have had to do); or that (2) if the unborn children were innocent, then for some other (unknown) reason, killing of innocent, unborn human life would still have to be accepted as sometimes justified, after all. In either case, the fundamental commandment "You shall not kill" cannot be held up as a universal, overruling commandment against abortion.
Of course, neither of those outrageous suggestions has to be accepted. A third alternative is that (again, setting aside all debates about whether those slaughters were justifiable) the issue of abortion is simply a different matter altogether, and "You shall not kill [or "murder"]" isn't an absolute prohibition against abortion. (Since there would have been plenty of arguably innocent lives who also perished in those scenes — infants and young children, at the very least — a main issue with those accounts isn't really abortion, but of innocent life perishing at any time.) As we saw from the view generally held throughout history (including by Christians), the real question about abortion is when genuinely human life begins — and, again, that question simply is not addressed nor answered by Scripture.
Which brings us back (finally) to looking more closely at the astonishing process of how life begins, to see if that helps us inderstand its mystery any better.
Fearfully and wonderfully made
"You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb .... I am fearfully [that is, "awe-inspiringly"] and wonderfully made" (Ps 139.13-14). No one would dispute the wonder and amazement of the growth of life in the womb (not only of humans, but of any living thing as a new life appears) — the more it's studied, the more astoundingly complex, multidimensional, and interactively dynamic the whole system appears. But the miraculous complexities in the womb aren't often recognized, in the public debate on abortion, for the complications they can dramatically force into the dialogue.
For example, let's suppose for the sake of the discussion that fully human life does indeed appear at conception. Oh wait, that should be, at the "moment" of conception, right? Well — not so fast. Conception doesn't at all happen in a moment, as it were in the twinkling of an eye. Conception is a process of many stages, from the point at which a sperm cell first contacts an ovum, through the process of its penetrating the protective layers around that cell, to the fusing of its outer membrane with that of the ovum, to the initial mixing of its genetic material with that of the egg, to the final combining of both gametes' chromosomes to form a zygote ("joined together" or "yoked together" organism), at which point it doesn't stop but keeps moving seamlessly into the increasingly complex process of beginning to divide and become multicellular. So, what "moment"? There is no moment; it's a complex process. When, during that process, then, is the human soul or spirit supposed to enter, emerge, or be created in the forming zygote? We want to put our finger neatly on some point as if to measure creation, and say, "Behold, here is the human soul," or "There it is" — but all we know is that, sooner or later, the soul God gives is indeed within us.
Well then, so maybe we can't exactly pinpoint when the soul, when fully human life, emerges along the process of conception. But after that's accomplished, surely the full human life, soul and all, is present in that tiny, new, incipient individual, right? Let's look at some of the things that happen next. Over the next few days, the zygote begins dividing into more cells, which arrange themselves into a hollow sphere (a blastocyst) with a lumpy mass on its inside wall. All of this is, of course, the fertilized ovum, the zygote, the newly conceived life, multiplying its tissues. So it must all be part of the newly growing human life, of what will become a new child, right?
Well, part of it is: the lumpy mass on the inside of the sphere develops into the embryo (then fetus, then child); the outer sphere becomes much of the placenta, the organ that attaches to the mother's uterine wall and enables the exchange of nutrients into, and wastes out from, the embryo. But this developed from that same fertilized egg cell! So shouldn't it be considered part of the new living human that is growing there? (As it happens, various cultures, spread as far afield as Nepal, Malaysia, Hawai'i, and Nigeria, have traditionally considered the placenta either a sibling to the new child, or actually a part of it, and in some cases will give it a reverent burial after the child is born.) If the tissues that become the placenta start from the same, single, fertilized egg — which, according to some people, must be when a human individual originates — is that actually part of the living baby that gets thrown away at birth (or, in modern times, used for various medical purposes)? If it isn't part of the living child, why not? Do we now have to develop some theory, or doctrine, to account for how the soul would be resident in only part of the tissues that grow from a fertilized egg, while other tissues grow around it?
And yet there may be a further complication. In some cases, two sperm manage to fertilize a single ovum, which develops as a hydatidiform mole, a form of pregnancy which almost always ends in miscarriage (and in certain cases can even turn cancerous). What would be going on there — would an incipient soul appear with some kind of reduplication on account of the father's dual genetic contribution? (I'm not even sure what kind of complication to speculate on, in that case.)
But wait again — in some other cases, a blastocyst never even develops the embryocyst (the lump of cells on its inside wall, that become the embryo). Yet this is the group of cells that developed from what seemed to be a perfectly successful conception, a fertilization of ovum by sperm. Did fully human life appear at conception, or didn't it? If it did, what is happening to this little piece of life, that never has a chance to grow and be born in the first place? (Medical science refers to the result of this as an "empty sac" miscarriage — the sac of the blastocyst that never develops an embryo, and is eventually discarded and flushed out of the body.)
One person, or two, or ...?
As if that isn't uncertain enough, even in more ordinary circumstances as the little blastocyst continues to develop, up until about two weeks after conception there's still a chance that it can actually split into two (or more) separate blastocysts, each of which may then go on to develop into an individual human being: we call these identical twins (or triplets, or other multiples). Now wait — I thought we were absolutely certain that a whole, individual human life was formed right at (the moment, or process, or whatever, of) conception. Is it or isn't it? Because if it is, then how in the world are we supposed to explain identical twins — are they really the same person, somehow bizarrely divided "just as if" they were really two individuals, and only "appearing" to have individual minds and personalities? (Try suggesting that to any twins you know, plus try figuring out how that would work out in cases of law, and never mind how to explain it to the twins' respective spouses and families.) Or when the blastocyst splits, are we to speculate that the soul or spirit somehow splits too — to produce two unique individuals (which, of course, is what even the most "identical" twins or other multiples are)? I'm not sure even the most hardcore, doctrinaire pro-life person has ever suggested either of those possibilities.
(Actually, one theological writer, from a major branch of Christianity, has in fact suggested that "the evidence would seem to indicate not that there is no individual at conception, but that there is at least one and possibly more," and that, "similar to processes found in other species, one twin could be the parent of the other asexually". Frankly, if you want my take on it, not only does this seem — ah, inconsistent [to put it politely] with medical definitions of conception, parenting, and offspring, but it would introduce more complications than it would solve, not least of which would be  determining which sibling was the "parent" of the other, especially  in cases of triplets or other multiples [would you have various parent-child-parent "generations" there?], and  it would throw all kinds of monkey wrenches into understanding family relationships, including  that whole "honor your father and mother" thing and  incest, plus  don't even ask about custody, insurance coverage, or other legal rights and responsibilities in such a sibling = parent relationship. Oh, and  cards for Fathers' or Mothers' Days? Run that one by your friendly Hallmark representative, if you really want to make their day! Or weird them out.)
Well okay, so maybe we'll have to allow that whenever the soul appears in a human life, it's probably some time after the blastocyst goes on to develop further into an individual (or individuals, if it splits to form identical multiples). Oh no — there are still more complications that can happen. In some cases where twins begin to develop, the embryos fuse or merge, so that what results are conjoined twins. Not a problem there, usually, as far as recognizing two individuals — even when (as in some rare cases) one twin is almost nothing but a head and part of an upper body, yet still with a unique mind and life.
But where it gets more perplexing is in cases where the head of one twin never develops, so that one is merely an organically alive body (or part body) hanging off a fully alive sibling; or when one twin's head is embedded actually inside the body of the other, the body kept alive by their shared circulatory system but otherwise with no chance of ever having reached individual life in the first place; or in some cases, where one person has two hearts (and usually various other extra organs or limbs, sometimes including dual reproductive systems); or even where one twin is embedded entirely within the body of the other (these and similar conditions are typically known as the development of a parasitic twin — which occurs from twin embryos never fully separating in the first place — and even when the "host" or autosite twin survives to birth, it's rare that the person survives beyond early adulthood). Were these genuine, fully human lives at some early stage, only to perish when they somehow never fully developed, or were partly consumed (as it were) by their sibling? Or had fully human life still not quite emerged in them, on account of their physical bodies (or at least, brains) not having the chance to develop enough?
(By the way, in describing these extreme medical anomalies, of course I'm in no way intending to be morbid, nor to indulge in any sort of 19th-century style, "freak show" voyeurism; I'm merely trying to look more closely at all of the very real circumstances that can throw into question our sometimes too-simple understanding of when human life begins.)
And perhaps the strangest path of all for twins to take is chimerism — cases in which two individuals begin to develop (not from a single zygote, but as fraternal twins do, from two egg cells fertilized by two sperm cells), but early on the blastocysts fuse so completely that only one individual is born, yet who has the genetic material, the DNA "fingerprint", of two individuals (this is one form of what is also known as a genetic mosaic). (Chimerism takes its name from the mythical Greek chimera or chimaera, a creature that was supposed to have been a hybrid or fusing of various other animals.) And the person so born may never even know that is the case, unless genetic testing happens to reveal it — although in some cases, chimerism may be indicated by external clues, such as variegated patches in hair color or skin complexion, or eyes of two different colors. (A few rare legal cases, for example in child custody and welfare, have had decisions overturned when a mother, who had been shown not to be genetically related to her children — whom the court was then about to take from her, on that cause --- proved with further testing to have two sets of DNA, resident in different bodily tissues, one of which did of course match that of her own children.) However, to mix the matter even more, if the two incipient embryos were of different genders, various intersex conditions can result, in which the single individual who is born has physical characteristics of both sexes. So the question then becomes, not only "Is this one individual or two?", but "Is this person one gender or two?" (The wide range of intersex conditions, which result from a whole suite of genetic or other phenomena, is a subject that deserves its own thoughtful treatment for another time — because that is a place where, the closer we look, we see that the boundaries God draws between "male and female" are not nearly so crisp and tidy as we suppose, or often as our laws and theologies declare that they must be.) In the case of chimerism, the question of "When does individual human life begin?" is given the added twist of "What's an individual, in the first place?" — since, if we maintain that human life begins fully at conception, then when two distinct conceptions fuse into one individual person: (1) has one individual been, as it were, "consumed" by the other, or (2) do we need to rethink our understanding of "individual", as well; plus (3) does fully human life emerge sometime further along in the gestation process, or (4) is some combination of all the above true?
So a person, again, is ... what?
And since we're exploring the limits of when life begins, and what an individual is, we might as well go all the way and ask what it is that makes up a conscious, sentient person in the first place. You knew I'd have to ask that, didn't you? Or maybe you hoped I wouldn't go there. Anyway, without diving headlong into another (worthwhile) discussion that is way out of the depth of this article, the short answer to "what makes for a conscious, sentient person?" is — we don't really know.
Obviously, in general terms we do know: duh, a person is any of these living human beings that are all around us, including ourselves. But once again, the closer we look at the details, the less certain it gets, whether we like it or not.
For example, setting aside all the medical anomalies described above, when — in normal brain development before birth — could the mind (or soul, sentience, consciousness, or other term you care to use) be said first to emerge? The answer, once again, is: we don't really know. As mentioned above (in the biblical passages section), the neural activity ("brain waves") commonly associated with consciousness, sentience, and intelligence hasn't been recorded before about the 20th week of pregnancy — but on the other hand, the neural connections that make actual cognitive and emotional response possible continue developing for months after birth itself, yet few today would suggest that a baby doesn't become a genuine person until several months into life. (Although some cultures have in fact reserved full "personhood" for some time after birth: for example, in biblical Israel, a census was ordered that counted only individuals a month old or older [and only males too, at that, although that was a different cultural artefact: see Num. 3.15]. Part of the reasons for that, however, had to do with higher rates of infant mortality.)
Not only that, but many of the movements (of head, limbs, hands, even crawling movements, and even smiling) that we associate with conscious life actually begin with activity in the brain stem, which is the first and most primitive brain structure to develop (and produces such movements long before the rest of the brain grows, and can do so even in anencephalic infants — children born with no other brain development beyond the brainstem).
But then, that would bring us full circle, right back to the question of quickening — the first movements that a mother can sense in her womb, although those are happening long before full brain development in the child. Remembering the age-old, historic view of many cultures and religions, that quickening is the first sign of fully human life — and comparing that to more modern views, that fuller, more sentient brain development is a requirement for fully human life — we're left with: what?
So when could we say that what we recognize as a fully human life (using such terms as you like: having mind, soul, spirit, sentience, consciousness, etc.) emerges or appears? Would it be right at conception (still, that's at whatever point along the process of conception we might point to) — or when the initial cells differentiate into what will become the embryo and other tissues (but then, that's thrown into question in cases of twins, conjoined parasitic twins, or chimerism) — or when quickening is sensed (although that happens when only the most primitive brain structures have developed) — or when higher neural activity ("brain waves") appear at around 20 weeks — or even when fully conscious sentience finally develops, several months after birth?
But what we do know is — at one point there is not a life, and then behold, now there is.
Life is a mystery ...
Well then, what do we do as far as forming some sort of consistent view about abortion? To tell you the truth, I honestly have no idea. And that wasn't my intent in writing this article, anyway. What I was hoping was that — on this understandably emotionally-charged topic, where strong feelings and beliefs can move us (as they often have me) to take a quick, decisive view of issues — people might instead take a little deeper breath, take more thought, take a more nuanced view, take all sides into consideration, and aim to "be quick to listen, slow to speak" (Jas 1.19) on the shoulds or shouldn'ts of abortion.
We really cannot point to any stage between conception and birth when fully human life, when a soul, appears; what we do see is that somehow, somewhere along the way, it emerges (for lack of a better word — and, just maybe, emerge will prove to be a closer description about its creation than the "instant" creation or appearance that many of us tend to suppose, when we think about that at all). We have, all through history, been at best troubled and ambivalent about abortion (or at least, troubled most when it occurs after three months' pregnancy or so — the "before three months" window is, all in all, the closest that human cultures have come to agreeing on when it might be at all acceptable); we also live in a world where, from a Christian standpoint, God causes or at the very least allows untold millions of natural abortions (miscarriages) every year. We think we know what makes up a human mind (or what shows the presence of a soul, of a fully human person); yet when we look at what really happens all through pregnancy, especially taking into consideration all the anomalies that can happen, we — well, we really come up blank. We see birth as a beautiful, successful completion of pregnancy (which, when God willing all is well with mother and child, it is) — and then we come to find that emergence of what we could call a fully human mind isn't even finished till sometime after that.
Life is a mystery. Life is precious and beautiful. Life does not happen as we define that it should, it happens in a far more astoundingly complex way than we ever supposed (or maybe, than we'd even care to know) that it could. Life is something to protect, treasure, and nurture — but it should be something that also humbles us, to some extent hushes us, that stills our turbulent thoughts and tempers our sometimes-heated words, and that leads us to more carefully or prayerfully consider how to approach it and its mysteries.
I'm not going even to venture to prescribe some sort of should or shouldn't about abortion; for one thing, I'm a man, and I see it as breathtakingly arrogant for any men to venture commentary on the should/shouldn't of abortion (unless women ask for their opinion). At least 75% of public opinion on abortion, currently, is offered by men — 100% of whom, of course, will never have to deal with the issue anywhere as closely as women do (and even when it is those men's wives or sweethearts who have dealt with it, still as close as the man is, he is worlds removed from any woman's personal experience); so for my part, I'd venture that 0% of men should have any say about abortion. The other reason I won't offer commentary about abortion (except, as here, describing statistics or medical facts about it) is that — life is a mystery. And I'll end there.
Postscript: the wonder of life
Life humbles me. Creation, no matter how that's described or defined, amazes me. The more we know about how we're made, the more awesome and wonderful that creation process looks, because the more we find out about life, the less we find that we really know about it.
I hope you'll find at least a few things useful in all that I've dumped on you here. I hope and trust God that people will have been given some food for thought, and I know that among you are those whose thoughtful insights, wiser than anything I could offer, may add to public dialogue — in such a way that it will help to influence public opinion, religious views, and eventually public policy, so that together we can find more just, merciful, compassionate, and realistic ways of approaching a subject that we have never quite found a satisfactory response to.
In fact, for anyone out there who may be the one eventually to craft a public policy that will, at last, provide the wisest and most merciful approach to this whole, emotional, often heartrending subject, I'd like to suggest a name for that bill, asking you to please keep it in consideration:
The "Life Is a Mystery" Act. And how about if the first words of that act began something like, "Let us bow in humility and reverence at the wonder of life ...."
[A note on the illustration: I selected da Vinci’s sketch of four fetuses because he was probably the first to dare to ask, imagine, and investigate things that no one in his time — maybe no one ever — had dared to ask. This image wasn’t chosen for some shock value, of course, but because we, too, need to dare to ask and explore questions that we haven’t dared look at before, and look at them in compassion and deep wonder.]
(Roger Smith is a featured blogger for The Christian Left; he also blogs, when he gets around to it, at Roger's Shrubbery.)
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We’re not about Dogma here. We’re just Christians who think the political and Christian right-wing have their priorities wrong.
Charles Toy is the founding member of The Christian Left. We're sure you will enjoy his passion as well as his wit. Guest bloggers featured often.