Lesson 10: What is Life?

The present abortion debate taking place in our society revolves around the question, “When are we dealing with a life that should be protected by civil law?” Answering the question adequately involves some understanding of what comprises life.

We seldom talk about that because we assume everyone knows or at least senses what life is. Nonetheless, people find it very difficult to define exactly what we mean.

We can always acknowledge what science observes such as a physical body with lungs breathing, heart beating, brain functioning, and undergoing chemical changes that include metabolism. Traditionally, as Elizabeth pointed out in her paper, Judaism and Christianity believed life was marked by breathing. Both creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis speak of the physical body coming alive when filled with life-giving breath.

Yet few think of life confined to bodily functions. Many argue human life involves making conscious decisions beyond those about survival. Humans can utilize lessons from the past and plan for the future. However, this seems just a more sophisticated talent than that enjoyed by some animals.

At this point, if we could ask those who claim we do not abort because we respect all life, why that does not include refraining from eating animals.  Genesis reports God gave humans plants for food.  Only after the fall into sin does God compensate for their weakness by allowing eating the meat of fish and animals.

Jews and Christians maintain human life involves living in special relationships with other persons and God.  In the Genesis 1 story, human life is created in the image of God to work with God in managing  and caring for animals, fish, the land, and the rest of creation. In the Genesis 2 story, God breathes life into the body he has created suggesting life depends on  a relationship with the divine.  This is beautifully captured in the picture of God, Adam, and Eve conversing in the cool of the evening after work.

Modern technology makes it even harder to define life. What used to be regarded as a natural birth or a natural death has long become meaningless as modern medicine constantly intervenes. Chemistry will eventually create a human  being developed in an artificial womb and without the intercourse of a man and woman. In most cases, letting a person die without offering the benefits of medicine is regarded as crime. And as Paul rather humorously noted, his car has a name and makes decisions. We are just beginning to understand the life of a machine.

All of this leads me to think the problematic question is not when life begins, but how we should treat different kinds of life. That would mean we acknowledge there are different forms of life. It would also  enable us to come up with appropriate responses to a variety of situations. That is what the Lutheran social statement on abortion does when speaking of undeveloped life and unborn life.

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