One of the Challenges to Extreme Pro-Life Rhetoric

The Bible is not explicit about when exactly human life begins. Don’t misunderstand me – the Bible is clear that human life begins in the womb, prior to birth. However, the Bible does not explicitly say “life begins at the instant of fertilization.” Moreover, such a view encounters some problems. One of those problems is the case of identical twins and – in rare cases – identical triplets (see this cute example).

These identical siblings come from the same fertilized egg. Which of the triplets then began life at fertilization? And did the others begin life at all, since they only had a separate existence after fertilization? Or all of the triplets one person? The first question seems inscrutable, and the other questions seem to suggest that life does not have to begin at fertilization.

Of course, God knows the future and knows whether the egg will ultimately split and form two or more babies. So, God could give a single fertilized egg several souls at once. The problem with this ad hoc response is that if God can give multiple souls, then God also could give zero souls to a fertilized egg that he knows will not implant or will otherwise die. Neither of those ad hoc explanations is from the Bible.

I recognize that for “conservative” Roman Catholics, the view today is that life begins at the moment of fertilization (this differs from earlier views that life begins at a quickening time during the pregnancy). I don’t think that Roman Catholics, however, have a compelling response to the problem of identical twins/triplets.

None of the above necessarily implies a particular way of handling the abortion question. It does suggest that we might want to be cautious about being dogmatic about the very earliest stages of pregnancy, namely the time during which it is possible for a single egg to become multiple children.

Likewise, by the same token, it makes sense for us to cautiously over-protect unborn children – perhaps even attempting to legally protect fertilized human eggs prior to any division.  Since we are not sure when exactly God gives a human soul, it makes sense conservatively to protect from the fertilized egg onward.

One may object that the Bible speaks of “conception” and people possessing various qualities from the time they were “conceived” in the womb.  This itself does argue for a relatively early time of human life within the pregnancy.  Nevertheless, remember that we should not read back our understandings of human biology anachronistically onto the text.  Thus, we should not assume that “conception” in these texts refers to the moment of fertilization.

In any event, I post this not to throw cold water on the pro-life movement, nor to discourage people from protecting the unborn. Rather, I post this to encourage pro-lifers to be more cautious and circumspect in their rhetoric – focusing on what we know (that unborn children are human beings with souls) rather than on what we do not know (namely the precise moment of ensoulment).

11 Responses to “One of the Challenges to Extreme Pro-Life Rhetoric”

  1. Craig Says:

    I'm struggling with seeing why such instances pose a difficulty. In the case of identical triplets, one life began at fertilization. The individuation of the two upon division. All of the information necessary for life is contained within each sibling, and God is the one forming and shaping.

    It seems like you may be creating a difficulty where there is none, other than the sheer mystery of God's shaping of humans. We never seem to ask at what point Eve had a soul…after all, she started out as a rib, which doesn't normally spawn complete human beings apart from direct Divine intervention. Once this is acknowledged and universalized, we can overcome our tendency toward a “scientific soupification” view of human development.

    Life begins at fertilization, with remaining potential for more life.

  2. Turretinfan Says:

    The difficulty is that now your definition is “life begins at fertilization, except when it doesn't.” In the case of identical twins or identical triplets – which one is oldest? Which one gets to claim that his life began at fertilization? Who is the privileged owner of the fertilized egg?

    The bigger difficulty is that the Bible itself does not tell us that humans are ensouled at the moment of fertilization.

  3. Craig Says:

    The Bible doesn't speak of “ensoulment”, so I'm confused as to why you prefer using that as a criteria for life when you are so cautious about defining it at fertilization.

    Further, it's undeniable that biological life begins at fertilization, so using a non-biblical concept of “ensoulment” only creates a problem for Christians defending the unborn. If we rely on “ensoulment”, we lose any foothold for speaking to unbelievers on the issue of infanticide.

    It also devalues what God clearly places emphasis on – biological life (saying He knits us together in the womb). Building off of the devaluation of biological life, using “ensoulment” as a criteria introduces a theological problem as it smacks of manicheism.

    Again, I am failing to see how you have highlighted a reason for caution and think you are functioning from a faulty starting point.

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    Don't get hung up on the word “ensoulment.” It's just a term for the time when we have a united body and soul. The Scriptures do not tell us when that is.

    It's not “undeniable” that biological begins then. There is biological life in the egg and sperm before fertilization. It is undeniably that the fertilized egg is alive on cellular level. It's also undeniable that its genetic code is different from either of its ancestors. But then again, its genetic code may be identical to its siblings.

    By the same token, and in the same sense of cellular life as described by biology, human cells, tissues, and even entire organs can remain alive whilst separated from the person.

    God does not put emphasis on the moment of fertilization. Furthermore, expressions like “knit … in the womb” or actually weigh against the extreme rhetoric. They suggest that there is some process of building of which the end product is the person, not the intermediate product. That isn't the point of those expressions, of course, but their value in the discussion is decidedly against “full human status at fertilization.”

    What God does put emphasis on when it comes to life and its taking are the image of God and blood (Genesis 9:4-6; Deuteronomy 12:23). It's hard to see how a fertilized egg has either of those things.

    And, as well, the soul is itself sometimes associated with breath, which again is clearly not relevant to a fertilized egg.

    There's nothing remotely Manichaean about acknowledging that human body without a soul is not a human person.

    And this is exactly the sort of problematic statement I'm trying to help people avoid: “If we rely on “ensoulment”, we lose any foothold for speaking to unbelievers on the issue of infanticide.” That's just not true.

    On the contrary, the Scriptures do clearly teach that unborn children are humans with individual identity. Similarly, the mind or blood tests for human life clearly apply to unborn children from a very early stage. Indeed, the quickening test (first detected autonomous motion) itself allows arguable human identification as early as 6 weeks or so. The breath test is less clearly applicable to unborn children, to be sure, but there are reasons for not applying that particular test.

    And, as I said, we can be conservative legally and cautious morally, without needing to be dogmatic in our decisions. We can be personally persuaded that there is a person with the image of God at fertilization without being able to prove that conclusion. But since we cannot prove that conclusion, we should abstain from being dogmatic about it, or suggesting (as you did above) that the whole house is built on that flawed foundation.

  5. Lacie Says:

    And then there is the matter of cloning.

  6. Reformed Apologist Says:

    If God indexes a human soul (or souls) to a single physical property, then wouldn't the extermination of that physical property, with the intended purpose of preventing its existence no less, result in abortion?

  7. Craig Says:

    TF,
    Our notion of ensoulment is based on a belief in life after death. What makes our Christian belief in life after death unique is that we believe in the resurrection – so we acknowledge the possibility of dividing the two (soul/body), but that division is a product of the curse. I see no reason to assume a particular point of embodiment that is distinct from the generation of biological life.

    But let me grant the possibility that embodiment happens at some point after fertilization; it does not follow that our language about abortion needs tempering – as if the fruit of the womb is of less significance minus the soul (hopefully you can see how this form of dualism does militate against embodiment). It is not a carcass in the womb. It is not potential life – it is biological life. Human life.

    To put things in stark relief – if you are correct, then a woman popping an abortifacent pill immediately after conception commits a lesser evil than someone who takes the life of a little boy’s beloved three day old puppy. The primary difference between the two is that one was not wanted where the other clearly was…so “tempering” our language based on how you’ve couched the discussion fundamentally adopts the same starting point as the infanticide advocates. I could theoretically accept that embodiment occurs at some point distinct from fertilization, but I wouldn’t say we need to use more cautious language, rather, we need a more complete biblical view of sexuality and fruitfulness, otherwise we will never value human life as God would have us.

  8. Turretinfan Says:

    “Our notion of ensoulment is based on a belief in life after death. What makes our Christian belief in life after death unique is that we believe in the resurrection – so we acknowledge the possibility of dividing the two (soul/body), but that division is a product of the curse. I see no reason to assume a particular point of embodiment that is distinct from the generation of biological life.”

    Actually, it's also based on the Genesis account of Adam's special creation. Dust to which breath is added.

    “But let me grant the possibility that embodiment happens at some point after fertilization; it does not follow that our language about abortion needs tempering – as if the fruit of the womb is of less significance minus the soul (hopefully you can see how this form of dualism does militate against embodiment). It is not a carcass in the womb. It is not potential life – it is biological life. Human life.”

    But “biological life” is different from “the life of a human being.” If you take one of my skin cells and keep it alive in a culture, that is biological life, human life, but it is not the life of a human being. That skin cell has no soul, and if you kill it, you are not murdering or killing a human being.

    There is an important difference between a human skin cell and a human egg cell, in terms of what it may become. But if it is as much dust without soul as a body being kept biologically alive for organ harvesting after the departure of the soul of the person … then it is not yet a human being.

    There's nothing dualistic about this. The human body, minus a soul, is not a human person. The human person can exist as a soul only, but not as a body only.

    “To put things in stark relief – if you are correct, then a woman popping an abortifacent pill immediately after conception commits a lesser evil than someone who takes the life of a little boy’s beloved three day old puppy. The primary difference between the two is that one was not wanted where the other clearly was…so “tempering” our language based on how you’ve couched the discussion fundamentally adopts the same starting point as the infanticide advocates. I could theoretically accept that embodiment occurs at some point distinct from fertilization, but I wouldn’t say we need to use more cautious language, rather, we need a more complete biblical view of sexuality and fruitfulness, otherwise we will never value human life as God would have us.”

    First, I didn't dogmatically say that the ensoulment isn't at fertilization. It may be. I just don't think we can say that dogmatically, as it has not been revealed.

    Second, if ensoulment does not occur until some later time (such as on implantation, or upon the production of blood cells or brain cells) then a woman who prevents the egg from implanting does not do any more evil than a woman who renders the egg unfertilizable.

    -TurretinFan

  9. Turretinfan Says:

    “If God indexes a human soul (or souls) to a single physical property, then wouldn't the extermination of that physical property, with the intended purpose of preventing its existence no less, result in abortion? “

    I am left guessing what that sentence means. How can you exterminate a not-yet-existent physical property?

    Given that people can live without their biological heart and/or their biological lungs, the most obvious candidate for a physical characteristic that God ties ensoulment to is the brain. But God simply has not revealed when precisely the body and soul are joined in the case of the unborn.

  10. Reformed Apologist Says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Reformed Apologist Says:

    I am left guessing what that sentence means. How can you exterminate a not-yet-existent physical property?

    The physical property would exist. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. If the property were allowed to take new form (split) then there would be an increase only in what is empirically distinguishable. Nonetheless, the physical property of all three children would be present from the start. So, if three abortions can occur after the matter takes new form (splits), then why should we believe that multiple persons cannot be aborted before the matter splits?

    We do not have reason to believe that all eggs have uninstantiated essences indexed to them, but when the egg is fertilized and life has begun I think the burden of proof is upon hose who would index only one eternal soul to a mass that if left alone would clearly be three.

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