Sunday, October 5, 2008

Life Begins at Conception?

One of the most politically significant Evangelical beliefs in modern America is that life begins at conception, and therefore abortion and creating embryonic stem cells for research are forms of murder. Whether or not this is biblical is a question with which I will not be concerning myself.

In particular, I will be making the case that for at least several days, the embryos have no soul (assuming there is such a thing). This will not directly lead to any conclusion about abortion, but it will lead to very definite conclusions about stem cell research and contraceptives that work after conception.

For the first several days after conception, the embryo is a growing mass of stem cells. Nature performs for us the otherwise morally questionable experiments needed to establish its non-humanity.

First, identical twins provide a challenge for the Evangelical view. For the first several days at least, the mass of stem cells can split in two and eventually result in two identical twins. Spiritually speaking, what just happened? Did God create two souls at conception that both inhabited the same cell and later split apart? Did God create one soul to begin with, and then a second soul due to the geographic change of half the mass splitting off from the other half? Pro-lifers rightly argue that if a seven-month old fetus was outside the womb it would be a constitutionally protected person. In other word, God clearly doesn't just create a soul for a baby due to geographic changes. It is equally ridiculous to believe God creates a soul when half of the cells change their geographic location.

But the much more severe problem is human chimeras. Not only can a mass of stem cell split apart, two different masses can fuse. This can result in an apparently normal individual, known as a chimera. Some things about chimeras are a bit odd, like different body parts having DNA that doesn't match, or a mix of different blood types. But someone could be a chimera and not know it. If a soul is created at conception, and two different embryos merge, what happened to the extra soul?

This is a continuum v. discrete problem. The question “is it human?” is yes or no. But the change from sub-human sperm/egg to a fully human baby is gradual. No matter where you choose to draw the line, looking very closely at the line will leave one wondering why the line is here and not there. Even if you say life begins at conception, this problem is only swept under the rug through not thinking about it. Suppose you take a microscope and record the process of conception, and then look at a series of photographs separated by nanoseconds. Can you look at one and honestly say “it's not human here, but in the next one, you can see that God has created its soul?” Even if you could, then take 100 pictures between these two frames and try again. I'm not just being difficult – the way this question is answered determines which forms of birth control are acceptable and which forms are murder. To use a tired analogy, it's like lining up a million shades of gray spanning the spectrum between white and black, and being forced to put them in two categories. Drawing the line is above all of our pay grades.

Ironically, one objection many Christians have to evolution is the way it blurs the line between man and beast. This difficulty is far less severe than reconciling a concept of the soul with embryonic development.

The only reconciliation I found requires the concession that whatever “in the image of God” or “possessing a soul” means, it's not a property of our physical body. Thus, God draws the line, and perhaps at different places for different people. But this accidentally surrenders every single pro-life argument I have heard and more. If “human” is something we cannot determine through physical properties, then why argue “medical fact: life begins at conception?” Why argue that abortion stops a beating heart? Why insist that American Indians have souls based on the fact that they no different? Playing the we-can't-know card in one place is a slippery slope to playing it in other places – quoting Acts 17:26 merely begs the question who is part of a “nation.” The fact is, every position is standing on a slippery slope to horrible atrocities – the safer positions are the ones that realize this and hence step carefully.

This posed an even greater challenge for my faith when I stepped back and looked at what was going on. I was scrounging for the slightest possibility that both reality and my beliefs were true and upon finding one, I was clinging to it for dear life. Nowhere in this line of reasoning had my beliefs been useful for understanding or accurately describing the world, and all throughout they had held me back. I was beginning to believe not because of evidence, not in the absence of evidence, but in the very teeth of evidence to the contrary.

If the way to learn about reality is to look at it, then it's clear that whatever is going on later, there is no soul immediately after conception. In India, sacred cows roam at will while people starve rather than violate the religion over there. In America, medical advancements go undiscovered because experiments with sacred blobs of stem cells violate the religion over here.


  1. Life begins before conception because cells are alive. When does that life become a viable human? Good question.

    I believe the answer lies in the blood. It may sound like some cheesy answer from a Christian "THE BLOOD!" But scriptures in Leviticus many times over speak of the life being in the blood. Worldwide through cultures and times, people have valued blood as the sign of life, power, death, atonement, etc.

    I don't think it's so grey as you suggest. I think that there is a line. Scientists OFTEN find lines to determine one thing from another. (Even looking at how science has labelled zygote, embryo, fetus, etc.) Talk to ANY woman going through in vetro fertilization and she can explain each and every line!

    How and when is there or isn't there a soul? That's a deep and provacative question. I do find it interesting, as an anthropologist, that religion is part of humanity worldwide. There is human inherent need to recognize a power greater than us. This cannot be coincidental or cultural. It doesn't prove the existence of God, but it raises a question as to why we collectively have this instinctual need.

    Have you watched the new Battlestar Galactica shows? I think you would find it a fascination philosophy/theology to add to your process. :)

  2. Dawkins has a great explination for "Why do most civilizations have religion?"
    I do not think it proves that there is a God. Rather, I think that it proves that humanity still has a primordial fear of things that go bump in the night. And also that we humans respond to authoritarian demands for order. Both of these things have evolutionary benefits. Those benefits, plus the abundance of vastly different types of religion, rather prove that God does not exist...

  3. The problem with appealing to the Bible to support when human life begins is that so many different answers could be supported.

    Jacob was considered younger than Esau not because of when they were conceived, or when they first had a heartbeat, but because Esau came out first.

    Jeremiah cursed the day he was born in 20:14, not the day he became viable. (I think other prophets did the same, but he's the first that comes to mind.)

    David said he was sinful from conception.

    Hebrews 7 says Levi paid tithes before being born because he was still in Abraham's loins. This suggests that sperm is "alive" in a morally responsible way.

    Leviticus says life is in the blood.

    Even if I thought the Bible was inspired, I won't look to it to answer this question.

    >I don't think it's so grey as you suggest. I think that there is a line. Scientists OFTEN find lines to determine one thing from another.

    The line between red and blue can be defined only through arbitrary lines, but still, "red" and "blue" are extremely meaningful terms. The fundamental ambiguity does not justify running a red light. Similarly with "human" and "non-human."

    I suppose what you are getting at is that human life begins with the heartbeat. If so, I'm inclined to agree. But the likely difference is that I see it as pragmatic rule of thumb that can be objectively followed 99.9% of the time, rather than as a transcendent truth.

    >There is human inherent need to recognize a power greater than us.

    "Need" overstates it, but we do have an inherent desire. We also have an inherent desire to condemn all acts of genocide. Christianity does not allow me to do this.

    But that only counters with what I find to be a stronger desire, without actually answering your argument.

    This desire speaks about man much more clearly than it speaks about God. This desire to be part of a kingdom of God is indistinguishable from a desire to be part of a group or nation more powerful than oneself - that is, the desire to cooperate with other people. These are merely differing ways of satisfying the same desire. The existence of the desire to be a part of a whole makes sense without a God who is involved in the world.

    >Have you watched the new Battlestar Galactica shows?

    Not yet, but it's in my NetFlix queue!

  4. here's another good read:

    Atlas Shrugged Fifty Years Later
    Appreciation and Criticism
    By John Piper October 10, 2007

    Atlas Shrugged Book Cover

    Today, October 10, 2007, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. As I write this on October 9, 2007, the book is ranked 237 at Amazon. That is phenomenal for a 1,200-page novel that contains philosophical speeches, one of which stretches to 90 uninterrupted pages. The book has sold over six million copies. In one survey from 16 years ago, Atlas Shrugged was ranked second only to the Bible as the book that influenced people most.

    My Ayn Rand craze was in the late seventies when I was a professor of Biblical Studies at Bethel College. I read most of what she wrote both fiction and non-fiction. I was attracted and repulsed. I admired and cried. I was blown away with powerful statements of what I believed, and angered that she shut herself up in what Jonathan Edwards called the infinite provincialism of atheism. Her brand of hedonism was so close to my Christian Hedonism and yet so far—like a satellite that comes close to the gravitational pull of truth and then flings off into the darkness of outer space.
    Atlas Shrugged Book Cover

    She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, graduated with a degree in history from the University of Leningrad in 1924, and emigrated to the United States in 1926. “I am an American by choice and conviction,” she wrote, “I was born in Europe, but I came to America because this was the country based on my moral premises and the only country where I could be fully free to write.” She died on March 6, 1982.

    She abominated altruism. All self-sacrifice is evil because

    Sacrifice is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of non-value. Thus altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less ‘selfish’ than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.

    Sentences like these made me want to scream. No. No. No. Altruism (treating someone better than he deserves) does not have to involve “betraying your values” or “sacrificing a greater value to a lesser one.” In other words, I agreed with her that we should never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one. But I disagreed that mercy (returning good for evil) always involved doing that.

    Ayn Rand had no place for mercy, whereas Christianity has mercy at its heart. And the reason for the difference is that God was simply missing in Ayn Rand’s universe. Since there was no God from whom she had received everything undeserved, and since there was no God who promised to reward every act that showed his supreme worth, she could only conceive of sacrifice as the immoral suicide of one’s own values.

    What Ayn Rand meant by altruism is indeed ugly and can be seen best in the words of Lillian Rearden to her husband in Atlas Shrugged. Here is the essence of the evil of altruism, as Rand saw it:

    If you tell a beautiful woman that she is beautiful, what have you given her? It’s no more than a fact and it costs you nothing. But if you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty. To love a woman for her virtues is meaningless. She’s earned it, it’s a payment, not a gift. But to love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake—and that is a real tribute of love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem.

    Since Ayn Rand had no place for a sovereign, all-sufficient God who cannot be traded with, she did not reckon with any righteous form of mercy. It is indeed evil to love a person “for their vices.” But mercy in the Christian sense is not “because of” vices, but “in spite of” vices. It is not intended to reward evil, but to reveal the bounty of God who cannot be traded with, but only freely admired and enjoyed. It aims not to corrupt or compromise integrity, but to transform the values of the enemy into the values of Christ. While it may mean the sacrifice of some temporal pleasures, it is never the sacrifice of greater values to lesser ones. It is the sacrifice of lower values to higher ones.

    Therefore, Ayn Rand’s philosophy did not need to be entirely scrapped. Rather, it needed to take all of reality into account, including the infinite God. No detail of her philosophy would have been left untouched.

    I have written a much longer form of this critique which you may read at the Desiring God site. I sent her a copy of this longer essay in 1979 three years before she died. I don’t know if she received it. I tried to commend Christ to her as the final correction and consummation of her life’s work.

    This anniversary is not a time to celebrate her philosophy. That would be like celebrating a blind person’s exquisite ability to identify things by touch and then use the truth he finds to curse the idea of light. Instead, let the day be a reminder that there are pointers to Christ in every philosophy. And let us pray that we not be like the one-year-old who, when daddy points at the flower, looks at his daddy’s finger instead.

    © Desiring God

  5. I had written a blog about this same topic, but I decided not to delete it because I felt like my arguments weren't as strong as I had hoped they would be. Recently while cleaning up my computer, I deleted it. After reading your blog, I'm really regretting that.

    Anyway, one of the main points that I argued from was the fact that between 60-80% of all fertilized embryos are spontaneously aborted by the body. That means that if life really begins at conception, meaning that God gives a soul to the few cells, then over half of the "people" he has ever created died before they were even a week old. That just doesn't make sense. Maybe I'll try to re-write the blog. Maybe not. I just wanted to share that bit of information with you. I found it in the transcript of a government hearing on bioethics:

  6. Lot of DNA contains information for a certain function, there is some called junk DNA, which is currently used for human identification. At some special locations in the junk DNA, predictable inheritance patterns were found to be useful in determining biological relationships.DNA Test Immigration