The Case for Life – Part I

WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?
What Are We Protecting?

First, let’s lay a ground rule. By “life” we refer to any individual organism which is a member of the human species—not individual cells, sperm or eggs, hair follicles, skin, etc. (though a seemingly-needless distinction, these comparisons actually come up in debate—the pro-life movement is sometimes characterized as some strange mission to prevent the destruction of mere organic matter, a straw man which is then “discredited” with challenges like “You kill life every time you get a haircut!”) The latter are merely parts of other organisms, not organisms themselves. Nor are embryonic & fetal humans sacred because they are “potential life;” we seek to prevent their destruction because their lives already exist.

Theologically Speaking, When Does Life Begin?

If you claim to believe in the Old Testament or Torah’s veracity as the Word of God and absolute Truth, then the answer is simple.
God told Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Before we have a physical form we have a soul, an identity which God can and does know.

The Bible has
many such references to children within the womb as human and spiritual, and the Catholic Church has recognized this for the majority of its history. Many of these references obviously apply to Judaism as well, but as a Christian I defer to Bonnie Chernin Rogoff, founder of Jews for Life:

Judaism does not believe in the Christian concept of ensoulment, that at the time of conception the soul enters the embryo making that new life equivalent with a born person. In the earliest stages of pregnancy, up to 40 days post-conception, the fetus is considered “mere fluid” (Mishnah Niddah 3:7). However, after 40 days the fetus is considered formed and a woman who miscarries or aborts has to undergo the ritual cleansing process (mikveh) just as she would if a living child were born (Mishnah Kritot 1:3-6). In the Talmud Arakin 7a-b, the passage indicates it is permissible to desecrate the Shabbat to save the life of an unborn child. Further, while a traditional Jew is forbidden from carrying a knife on the Shabbat, a Jewish surgeon may do so, and use it, to save an unborn child’s life […]

The view of Judaism is that abortion, while not considered murder, should be strongly discouraged. While the fetus is not accorded full human status, it is still considered a developing life with value, that must be protected and saved whenever possible, unless the life of the mother is in danger. In that case, it is permissible to abort the fetus. The Mishnah Oholoth 7:6 along with Rashi’s commentaries in Talmud Sanhedrin 72b make it very clear that the life (and not the ‘choice’ or ‘health’ of the mother) is the only permissible reason for abortion. Had abortion been performed in Rashi’s time for birth control, convenience, or economic reasons there would have been an outcry from rabbis and the religious community and the practice would have been condemned. Under no circumstances should abortion performed for frivolous reasons be given a stamp of approval by rabbis, under the pretext of “health.”

Life is a precious, priceless gift from our Creator. Believers have a moral duty to recognize life from the beginning and to stand in defense of lives that cannot defend themselves…but some on the Left would have us believe otherwise.

Even the Devil Can Quote Scripture

Abortion is sometimes defended from a theological standpoint, with claims such as:

Exodus 21: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” Violence against a pregnant woman causing premature birth is punished monetarily rather than with death; therefore, we are told, killing pre-birth is less grievous than killing post-birth. But what abortion defenders leave out is that the phrase “and yet no mischief follow” means, quite simply, “if the baby survives the attack.” The lines immediately following the passage make this clear: “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye…” In this regard, the fetus’s death is no different than an adult’s.

The
description of Adam’s creation in Genesis says “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This supposedly indicates that life does not begin until the first breath is taken. But there are two problems with this view. 1.) As the first humans, Adam & Eve could not have resulted from a pregnancy, so the process by which God created them would likely be different. It seems plausible to assume that He created their bodies and souls separately, then put them together, and once they were in place, our God-given system of sexual reproduction took care of the physical self and God created the spiritual self earlier in development for all of His subsequent children. Subsequent references to humans in the womb suggest this, especially verses 13-16 of Psalm 139. 2.) Like all bodily functions, breathing starts prior to birth. Pro-choicers who define life in this way have themselves inadvertently rendered many abortions unacceptable—near the end of the second trimester, the baby is, in fact, breathing.

Genesis 38 recounts the tale of Judah and his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar. Upon discovering her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Judah orders Tamar to be burnt to death—a punishment he cancels upon discovering that he is the father (he slept with her, mistaking her for a prostitute when she was disguised). Pro-choicers note that the sentence would also have killed Tamar’s unborn twins; therefore, the unborn must have less moral worth than a person. But this theory fails immediately: considering that Judah has “married outside the faith, raised [at least] two wicked sons, wrongfully accused his daughter-in-law of his sons’ deaths, lied to his daughter-in-law, refused to keep the law of levirate marriage and, of course, had sex with a prostitute;” he’s not exactly a moral compass! “But nobody other than Tamar prevented him from carrying it out, did they?” True, but that only means people deferred to his judgment & authority; it doesn’t say those people were right to do so. Since the primary message of the story concerns Judah’s wickedness and redemption, not babies, it can hardly be seen as a barometer to treatment of the unborn.

“Jesus never mentioned [abortion] even once.” Jesus never mentioned drive-by shootings, either. But (obviously) he did mention murder. Value systems such as Christianity don’t need to list off every conceivable method of doing wrong as long as there is a clear set of moral principles in place to determine whether or not particular actions constitute sin. Since “thou shalt not murder” is about as unequivocally Christian as possible, one need only show that the unborn have lives of their own to establish that Jesus would forbid their deliberate destruction.

When faced with contrary interpretations of Scripture, it is important to do two things: first, examine the context of the quotation in question, and second, weigh it against the entirety of the Biblical evidence. In the final analysis, Judeo-Christian teaching firmly sides with the sanctity of life.

Religious Convictions in Politics

“Even if God wants us to personally recognize life from conception onward, we can’t apply a personal religious belief to public policy.” Wrong again.

The
First Amendment guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson famously referred to this as a “wall of separation between Church & State.” Fashionable though it may be to “evolve” the Constitution’s meaning over time, here we’ll stick to a literal read of its actual text, as understood by the Founding Fathers.

The Founding Fathers understood “establishment of religion” to mean what it did under “the Church of England: a formal union of political and ecclesiastical authority in the hands of the state,” as Dr. Mark Levin writes in the excellent
Men in Black (hardcover, p. 36). In other words, the Amendment prevents a church from imposing enforced regulations or punishments upon people, such as ineligibility from public office, taxation of minority sects, and jailing or executing heretics; as well as the converse: preventing the state from suppressing the religious activities of churches and private citizens. Hence, it is a rather straightforward separation of two organizations.

Separating religious principles from politics is very different. There is nothing in the Constitution that dictates what values, ideas, or motivations are allowed to animate people. Indeed, such a restriction—regulating the intellectual or moral criteria by which American citizens are allowed to judge candidates & policies—would be un-American to the core.

Consider the 1786
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson, it is rightly hailed as a prime example of American enlightenment. But its actual text would surprise many who only hear it mentioned in passing as a victory for church-state separation. Jefferson wrote (emphasis added):

“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others…”

In Jefferson’s mind, freedom of thought was God’s will, and he had no qualms about positing that the country should follow such a Judeo-Christian value. The Constitution allows us to make such judgments; the only limitation is that in doing so, we cannot infringe upon the other rights outlined in the Constitution (“But I thought abortion was a constitutional right!” Patience; we won’t forget to address that one.).

(There is a lot of eye-opening reading on the Founding Father’s true religious intentions for America; William J. Federer’s
America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations is a great resource to start with.)

“I still think opposing abortion is a religious teaching, so we can’t legislate it.” Consider that prohibitions against murder, theft and lying in the
Ten Commandments are among the most explicit religious teachings of all, more so than those against abortion. Does that mean our laws against homicide, theft, slander, libel, or perjury are unconstitutional because they force people to abide by the Ten Commandments? While religious belief must not infringe upon our natural rights in public policy, there is nothing unconstitutional about accepting religious advice on how best to protect those rights. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democrat Sen. John Kerry cited his religious convictions as “why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice.” In other words, he wanted to “impose” his religious beliefs about poverty, nature, etc. upon the American people. Until Kerry’s stances infringe upon actual rights, he is entitled to persuade a majority of his fellow Americans of their merits. The same holds true for marriage activists (on both sides), for pro-lifers, and for the aforementioned “Christians for choice.”

Think of it this way: protecting innocent people is a goal that transcends belief, one that all believers and unbelievers ought to agree upon. Believers simply accept religious insight to help determine whether or not the unborn fit into the category of innocent people. Right or wrong, it’s a proposition that is fully appropriate for public discourse and the will of the people—not censorship or disqualification.

Scientifically Speaking, When Does Life Begin?

Of course, the religion-out-of-politics line is little more than a ploy to disqualify rather than debate pro-lifers, or to avoid taking a firm stand. In fact, if there is one truth that must be driven home, it is this: the question of life’s beginning is not by any means exclusive to religion. Science can answer it—and it has.

In his magnificent
The Party of Death, Ramesh Ponnuru writes:

We have developed ways of talking that enable us to pretend that the point can be blinked away. In the case of abortion and embryo research, the main technique is to suggest that there is some great mystery about “when life begins,” and that this alleged question is a religious or philosophical one. Yet science has since solved the mystery. From conception onward, what exists is a distinct organism of the human species. The philosophical question is what we make of that fact. To jumble these issues together—the essentially scientific question of categorizing an embryo as human and living, and the moral question of whether it follows from that categorization that it has a right to life—is a logical error. Justice Blackmun, of course, proceeded in just this erroneous fashion in Roe. And if we are not careful, talking in terms of “meaningful life,” or, as [author Ronald] Dworkin does, of “life in earnest,” can lead us into this error as well.

All of us who read this page were once human embryos. The history of our bodies began with the formation of an embryo. We were those embryos, just as we were once fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents. But we were never a sperm cell and an egg cell. (Those cells were genetically and functionally parts of other human beings.) The formation of the embryo marks the beginning of a new human life: a new and complete organism that belongs to the human species. Embryology textbooks say so, with no glimmer of uncertainty or ambiguity.

That new organism is alive rather than dead or inanimate. It is human rather than a member of some other species. It is an organism distinct from all others. It is not a functional part of a larger organism (the way a kidney is part of a larger organism). It maintains its own organic unity over time. It directs its own development, according to its genetic template, through the embryonic, fetal, and subsequent stages. Such terms as “blastocyst,” “newborn,” and “adolescent” denote different stages of development in a being of the same type, not different types of beings. At each of our earlier stages of life, we have been, as we are now, whole living members of the species Homo sapiens.
(hardcover, p. 77-78)

And medical textbooks do indeed say so:

Human Embryology, 3rd Edition by William Larsen, Lawrence Sherman, S. Steven Potter, & William Scott: “In this text, we begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual.” (p. 1)

The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th Edition by Keith Moore & TVN. Persaud: “Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” (p. 18)

Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd Edition by Ronan O’Rahilly & Fabiola Muller: “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a ‘moment’) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.” (p. 8)

Developmental Biology, 6th Edition by Scott Gilbert: “Fertilization is the process whereby two sex cells (gametes) fuse together to create a new individual with genetic potentials derived from both parents.” (p. 185)

Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia, 7th Edition by Douglas Considine: “At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the female and the union results in a fertilized ovum (zygote), a new life has begun.” (p. 943)

Langman’s Medical Embryology, 7th Edition by TW Sadler: “The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.” (p. 3)

Patten’s Foundations of Embryology, 6th Edition by Bruce Carlson: “Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)… The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.” (p. 3)

It doesn’t take much to see the common pro-choice line “clumps of cells” is empty, simplistic propaganda: Eye-opening information about fetal development is
no secret, we know that preborn children are capable of feeling pain (note: link is a PDF file) at approximately 20 weeks, and the latest ultrasound technology shows us these “clumps” are surprisingly familiar.

So where does all this leave us? The life of a human being does, in fact, begin at conception; so every abortion, every embryo discarding (either via stem-cell research or in-vitro fertilization), and some types of birth control destroy a human being. Yet when faced with this reality, pro-choicers have developed new criteria for human rights, which are designed to deny them protection based upon factors other than their biological humanity…factors which will be explored in Part II: The Value of Life.
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6 thoughts on “The Case for Life – Part I

  1. I agree with this part of the essay series, in part. At least, I agree that the Bible can be read in a way that condemns abortion – and is probably best read in such a way.Of course, I hardly need mention that it’s strange to think of a God with any foresight leaving such a big issue up to the exegesis of humans… but that’s another conversation.I also hardly need mention what I find to be a strong Biblical case that unborn fetuses and babies go to Hell – including those that die of natural causes.But I digress.The I’m writing this to respond to religion and politics issues. I wonder how you’d interpret the First Amendment’s language if the government started enacting policies in accordance with a religion that stated that Christians are of no value and should be executed. Do you suppose that you’d condemn that sort of policy?My problem with this essay begins when you disregard the ‘evolution’ of the Amendments in favor of how you think it was understood by the Founding Fathers. Our justice system works in such a way that individual case laws adjust how the Constitution is interpreted.As an obvious example, the second amendment is not read literally – nor has been for some time. It is a provisional law. We’re not allowed to carry rocket launchers.Similarly, case law has adjusted how we approach the First Amendment. Today, ‘Where the government transparently endorses a religious viewpoint… the Establishment Clause violation is readily apparent.’[http://writ.lp.findlaw.com/hamilton/20041021.html#continue]Any government support or favor shown to a particular religion (or religious viewpoint) is strictly forbidden in our current understanding of the Constitution.Of course, you’re right that “what values, ideas, or motivations are allowed to animate people” cannot legally be determined by the government. Nor can such values, ideas, or motivations be adopted by the government for the religious reasons of a particular group.I really fail to understand your analogy to the Ten Commandments. The fact that our laws against homicide, theft, slander, libel and perjury happen to be included in the Ten Commandments is just that – happenstance. There are a myriad of laws in our country with no relation to that set (copyright law and libel law, among others), and parts of those laws clearly missing from America’s rulebook (idol worship, honor thy father & mother).These laws are not explicitly religious. They are necessary and in keeping with a fully secular set of criteria for the sort of nation we live in. Enforcing those laws is not the same as enforcing religious laws.“While religious belief must not infringe upon our natural rights in public policy, there is nothing unconstitutional about accepting religious advice on how best to protect those rights.”_True. However, any correlation between a religion’s advice and the *right* thing to do is mere coincidence. Religions don’t seek to find the truth – they claim to have already found it.“Think of it this way: protecting innocent people is a goal that transcends belief, one that all believers and unbelievers ought to agree upon.”_Also true.Now, regarding science, you’ve definitely caught on to some good points.The only thing I’d point out is the quote that different terms refer to different stages of the same being. It’s interesting to remember that every seven-or-so-years the matter of our bodies has been completely replaced.“It doesn’t take much to see the common pro-choice line “clumps of cells” is empty, simplistic propaganda”_Yes it is. I blogged about this recently.“we know that preborn children are capable of feeling pain at approximately 20 weeks”_I’m glad you brought this up. It’s worth noting that, in America, just 0.014% of abortions take place after the 20th week. 54% take place at or before the 8th week. This has interesting ramifications in how I see the value side of the topic.I look forward to reading the next section. I have a few concluding thoughts:My justifications for abortion rights do not stem from regarding unborn children as somehow inhuman. I’ll try to go into more detail on the issues of which we should value more – life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness (if any), the issue of bodily integrity, a pre-existing ‘purpose’ to each life, and various other value issues. So far, I have just the few glaring issues I mentioned, but you seem to have done your homework very thoroughly. Thanks for a good read.

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  2. “policies in accordance with a religion that stated that Christians are of no value and should be executed. Do you suppose that you’d condemn that sort of policy?”That would be a clear-cut violation of the Constitution, as it would explicitly punish people for holding a certain faith.I understand that judicial philosophy; I just don’t accept it. It doesn’t make sense to me that the terms of a legal document should be viewed differently with the passage of time (I understand today’s populace isn’t the same one which ratified the Constitution, but that’s what the amendment process is for), or that its drafters’ intention shouldn’t be paramount in interpretation. And prohibiting certain technology such as rocket launchers keeps the intention of the 2nd Amendment fully intact and seems to me a far more modest judgment than the kinds of leaps we’ve seen in the area of religion.My point with the 10 Commandments is that the existence of overlap between theological values and secular laws is not alone sufficient ground to disqualify any given policy. To summarize my opinion on the constitutionality of religion-based policies, I don’t think the rationale has any bearing on the policy’s constitutionality. Regardless of whether or not somebody’s rationale is cause-&-effect, theological, or totally off-the-wall (i.e. Johnny Carson told me to do so in a dream), the only thing that ought to matter constitutionally is whether the policy itself conflicts with an actual right or provision within the Constitution. “It’s interesting to remember that every seven-or-so-years the matter of our bodies has been completely replaced.”It is, but is there a particular conclusion we can draw from that? Since we don’t become different people every 7 years, that observation actually seems to strengthen the idea that or worth is not contingent upon our material traits.“It’s worth noting that, in America, just 0.014% of abortions take place after the 20th week. 54% take place at or before the 8th week. This has interesting ramifications in how I see the value side of the topic.”And for reasons I lay out in Part II (a work-in-progress), I don’t think there’s a moral difference between killing someone who can feel and someone who can’t. A difference in cruelty, yes, but not in sanctity.Thanks for keeping me on my intellectual toes. I’ll do my best to keep working on this essay in between my offline responsibilities, so stay tuned.

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  3. I’m always glad to be met with a response of ideas, rather than being attacked for differing in opinion – thank you.You’re right about the example of an anti-Christian policy, of course… I suppose I brought it up to point out that the values and advice of any religion shouldn’t be accepted on the criteria of being religious values alone. We seem to agree on this.What do you find disagreeable about case law? It really holds the judicial system together – when a higher court makes a particular interpretation of a law, the lower courts are required to adopt that understanding when presented with a similar case. It’s not the passage of time that changes the meaning, though – it’s changes in the world that makes it necessary.Take, again, the right to bear arms. No Founding Fathers even dreamed that biological weapons could be developed in someone’s backyard. As times have changed, so must the law.Even the First Amendment, where the right to the freedom of speech is expressly granted, has been adjusted. Regardless of what the drafters wrote, newspapers are not allowed to incite the people to violence. You cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded area. It’s not just the passing of time that has demanded these adjustments… individual cases come along that demand a complex interpretation that changes how people view the law.I see that as absolutely essential, but you may have theorized more about law than I have.Thank you for clarifying your point about the Commandments. I completely agree that overlap between theological and secular values is, of itself, perfectly valid.When I respond to your second section, remind me to bring up the definition of a ‘right,’ if I forget to.

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  4. Re: judicial interpretation…I don’t object to changes in technology leading to reexamining the law’s implications. But your example of making distinctions between pistols vs. rockets & bioweapons is a case where, in doing so, an effort was made to keep the 2nd Amendment’s intention intact and discern how the Framers would have treated such 20th-century weapons.As for the incitement-to-violence/”fire” concept, I don’t think those are cases of the law changing; they’re cases in which the excercising of one right constitutes the violation of another right. I don’t think that concept is at all inconsistent with the founding ideas of the Constitution.

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  5. …But you do believe that laws prohibiting the government showing clear favoritism toward a particular religious institution IS inconsistent with the founding ideas of the Constitution?

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