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When does life begin?

1 May 2010 | by Gareth Williams

When does life begin?

I attend three funeral services. Each is traumatic. One is for a baby who died a few weeks after birth. One is for a stillborn baby. In the third instance the mother miscarried. Each service clearly requires great sensitivity on the part of those offering pastoral care for the bereaved.

Whilst hardly any of those present at the services would doubt that the baby was a person, some might doubt this in the case of stillbirth and perhaps more so for the miscarriage. The trend is general: the nearer we get to the point of conception the greater the doubt there is as to whether we are talking about a person.

The question about when a human life begins has a long history. And it will not go away. The mushrooming discussion about it for medical practice alone gives impetus to the need to find an answer universally acceptable. And, for believers, in particular, the question is hard to answer with clarity and precision as it requires the distillation of a host of complex issues and incomplete information.

There are three main reasons for this complexity:

1. The question often raises feelings of intense emotion
On the question of when life begins, people tend to have highly personal opinions, derived from deep-seated assumptions, presuppositions and prior commitments. When these are challenged, believers, who may well appreciate the need to communicate warm personal empathy to others struggling in some way with the question, can nevertheless find the challenges hard to come to terms with. The outcome is a struggle to engage openly and warmly in discussion about it.

Concerning the miscarriage of an embryo, or baby, Health Guidance says that ‘mothers may lose belief in their own capability to be mothers’. They often feel ‘inadequate’, and sometimes ‘failures’. If the bonding they experienced was deep, then the grief will be also. For many mothers – indeed couples – this loss is not simply ‘the loss of a hope or a dream but a child’. For these people, at least, human life is believed to have begun. And, central to the highly emotion-engendering debate about abortion is the problem that ‘what is aborted’ may be a person.

Similarly intense emotions can be experienced when people consider conception ‘going forwards’. Embarking upon the process of IVF, for example, according to Australia’s Women’s Mental Health, ‘not only demands couples consider and decide upon medical options, but also forces them to deal with many social and emotional issues’. It is ‘a very stressful process’, perhaps involving ‘fear’, ‘acute vulnerability’, ‘lack of control’, ‘disappointment’, ‘sadness’ and ‘depression’, some experiencing ‘chronic stress’ (cf. Harvard Medical School’s Women’s Mental Health). The idea that discarding embryos might mean the destruction of persons is itself fraught with stress: differing viewpoints on the matter simply add to the pressure. Future Medicine (November, 2006) depicts this amongst political leaders from a variety of developed nations who responded to the UK’s first license being given to create human embryonic stem cells (in 2004). The question of when life begins often raises feelings of intense emotion.

2. The question involves highly technical concepts and language
Believers, who may well appreciate the need for intellectual rigor and biblical consistency, nevertheless can find the terminology and concepts intellectually demanding. The labels, facts and ideas, can be hard to follow and to understand – this means that they can struggle to engage intellectually in discussion on the question.

For example, some, like the US Catholic Westchester Institute, believe that human life begins during fertilisation (or conception), the point at which something ‘humanly unique’ comes into existence. This position is favoured largely by the UK’s Christian Medical Fellowship[1] and is the one the church today generally adopts as the default safe position; despite the 30% natural wastage of fertilised human eggs and the complexities of personhood involved in the formation of identical twins and triplets. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute asked (May-June 2007) if the blastocyst was a person, where the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 continued to allow research on blastocysts, that is, on embryos prior to the development of the ‘primitive streak’ when the blastula undergoes gastrulation – about 14 days – and implantation generally takes place. For yet others, life is understood to begin when the heart begins to beat (21-24 days after conception) or the brain forms (25 days) or brain waves are produced (about 6 weeks). Some favour human life beginning at the age of ‘quickening’ (when the mother first feels the baby move: 18-24 weeks), others at the age of ‘viability’ (when the baby is considered capable of living outside the uterus). But viability varies both geographically (in the UK, for example, it is 24 weeks, in Jordan 28 weeks) and historically (in the UK prior to 1992, for example, it was 28 weeks, and momentum is gathering today for it to be lowered to 20 weeks). Viability is determined largely therefore by technological advancement. Each of birth, independent life, and even rationality also have its advocates. These kinds of terms scratch the surface of the medical language that can be used.

Theologians, too, add to this complexity. Two main traditional views on the ‘origin of the soul’ have existed: 1) the ‘creationist’ view: that God creates a soul (or spirit) for each person and gives it to that person at a point somewhere between conception and birth, and 2) the ‘traducianist’ view: that the soul (or spirit) is inherited with the body from the parents at the time of conception. Views recently have tended more towards an integration of body and soul: a body is ‘ensouled’; a soul ‘embodied’. For some, the ‘soul’ (or ‘soul-field’) emerges as the neurological interactions in the brain develop, and then transcends them. Some theological ethicists believe that ‘personhood’ develops principally in terms of relationship: ‘as there is an intensification of the relationship of the future mother with her child’ then correspondingly there should be ‘an increasing protectability of the embryo in the womb’. These theological considerations, as well as those relating to the incarnation of Christ in Mary’s womb, add to the technicality of the concepts and language used.

3. The question is subject to a variety of biblical interpretations
If the church is to offer pastoral support to people in related fields, it must do this in both personally-sensitive and biblically-sensitive ways, and if the support is to be truly, or effectively, pastoral, it must jointly extend biblical, or Christ-like, love together with biblical truth. The ways in which the church reads and applies or uses the Bible, then, has a significant bearing upon the actual quality of the pastoral care the church extends.

Believers who are less committed to biblical consistency may tend to use biblical texts out of context, and perhaps subsume textual ambiguities ‘loosely’ within larger biblical-theological structures. Those more committed to biblical consistency can be prone to over-investing meaning into the relatively few relevant texts. Either way, believers often struggle to engage meaningfully in discussion with one another on the subject.

We know that unborn children are human beings (Luke 1:44). We also know that God knew Jeremiah before he was formed and that God consecrated him before he was born (Jer. 1:5). The Psalmist, in one place, extols God: ‘You formed me in my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Ps. 139:13-14), and in another traces the beginning of his sinful nature back to his ‘earliest stages in the womb’, acknowledging some culpability for his sin, which only persons can do: ‘… in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Ps. 51:5). The ESV translates Luke 1:31 as ‘you will conceive in the womb’ whereas the NIV, though less specific: ‘you will be with child’, may reasonably be all that Luke intended (cf. the similar distinction in Luke 1:36). For Matthew 1:20 the ESV speaks of ‘that which is conceived’ but this could also more broadly be translated as ‘that which is begotten’.

In other words, the biblical information is limited. We may wish to see information which is simply not there. Answering the question of when life begins, then, is like doing a jigsaw where you don’t have all the pieces – so no assurance that the ones you have will easily fit together – and you don’t have ‘the picture on the box’, so you may not even know where to place them relative to one another! This can be disconcerting, frustrating, and de-stabilising.

We have little option, then, but to approach the subject with humility and to be open when weighing the views of others. Scripture says that God has revealed some things to us but not all things (Deut. 29:29). This prompts us to place our personal trust in Him, our merciful sovereign Creator (Ex. 34:6), for after all, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ (Gen. 18:25b).

In conclusion, this complex of emotional commitments, intellectual abilities and interpretive frameworks serve to make this subject difficult to discuss in an open and warm, informed and meaningful manner. It is easy for us to ‘get carried away emotionally’, to be ‘out of our depth intellectually’ and to ‘interpret Scriptures differently’. Yet, notwithstanding the considerable emotional, intellectual and interpretive demands placed upon us, God is most honoured when we defer to Him the ‘hard’ questions and continue to trust Him.

Gareth Williams is the minister of Bala Evangelical Church.

[1] Information obtained from Dr Andrew Fergusson, by personal correspondence.


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