Lesson 11: When Does Life Begin?

When Does Life BeginA few of you asked  about the official position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concerning when life begins. That was the question we were asking in the 1960s. When we were unable to  find consensus, we did the best we could with the compromise of Roe vs Wade.

Now, many conservatives are insisting if we cannot date a beginning, we must outlaw all abortions. Many liberals go to the other extreme claiming it means we cannot prohibit any.  A solution would seem to be finding some middle ground that enables us to respond compassionately to real needs.

I think we can do that by examining how modern science has changed our society. Previously, people brought their moral and religious values to establish a date.  In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas thought  life starts when the soul enterers the body (by which he meant 40 days into pregnancy for  men and 80 for women).  Modern Roman Catholic bishops say it all begins  at conception according to their theology of human sexuality. Most Jews in the 60s  believed life began at brith once a person had social relationships.

Back then, some of us thought we based the date on science when we maintained abortions were permissible before “quickening,” when the fetus could live outside the womb. But that didn’t help much with the advances of medical science constantly pushing back that date.

It helps to remember modern science offers a nuanced understanding of almost everything. It claims our knowledge of things is largely based on the tool we use to measure them. For instance, light can be a wave or a particle depending on how we measure it. Beyond that, science deals with theories  that are  always changing. In this context, a biologist friend says it is no longer accurate to speak of being strictly male or female because there are 11 genetic gradations.

That means science is not going to give us an absolute date. Elizabeth alludes to that when she expresses appreciation for  the ELCA social statement for also being honestly nuanced. It takes no official position on when life begins. Instead,  it deals with the subtle and complex distinctions of the issue enabling us to open up the possibility of fresh ways of thinking.

I suggested at the end of last week’s lesson that the problematic question is no longer when life begins, but how we should treat different kinds of life. The Lutheran social statement  speaks of  undeveloped life and unborn life, acknowledging the significant change taking place at birth.

I find myself beginning to describe the fetus as a “living being” deserving the deepest respect and reserving “person” for the child after birth. I think that allows me to take a strong stand on a woman’s choice and to respond with compassion to the woman carrying an unwanted child. I hope it also helps me remain open to what others think and the new ideas that are bound to appear in the future.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    After a great deal of study in both thanatology and theology, not to mention historical views of this question, “When does life begin,” I have concluded the biblical point of view. That is, I believe that life begins with the first breath and concludes with our last. This is a reflection of the first Adam, into whom God breathes life, and our Lord who upon the cross “breathed his last.”
    That is not to say, as you do, that we treat the developing zygote, embryo, or child within a womb any less carefully. We are our bodies, and stewards of them.


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