WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?

by the Rev. Canon Terry Gensemer      

 

We are all familiar with the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” A series of questions, growing in difficulty and value, are posed to a random (and hopefully knowledgeable) contestant. The closer he comes to the million dollar question, the more ominous the back-ground music seems to sound, the hotter the lights seem to grow … and the closer the audience watches his face. Watching to see what he will do, with thousands or hundreds or even a million dollars at stake, the emcee looks him hard in the eye and says, “Is that your final answer?”

I would love to sit in the place of that emcee some time and ask that mighty question. Only instead of a random contestant, I’d choose philosophers of history, rulers of antiquity, politicians and media pundits — the people whose thoughts and voices constantly shape the way we think. And my question wouldn’t be something like “In what battle did the Duke of Wellington end Napoleon’s rule?” If I were running the show the category would be “Life,” and the question in need of a final answer would be, “When does it begin?”

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a hard question, but it must be an important question, because its footprints can be tracked through the thoughts and writings of societies in almost any given era. Throughout history everyone has an opinion about when life begins, and from those opinions spring laws, beliefs, and controversies. But those are all just by-products. I want the answer to the equation, and there have been quite a few submitted.

Plato, for example, along with many others of his day, believed that a soul was bestowed upon the body at birth. On the other hand, Plato’s contemporary, Hippocrates, was convinced that a soul came into being at the moment of conception (1). That is why the Hippocratic Oath, still taken by [many new] doctors today, actually says, “…I will not give a woman a [tool] to cause an abortion. But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.” Now Hippocrates may have been the minority at the time, he may even have lacked the scientific data we have today, but he felt absolutely certain that conception started something completely new and irreversible in the human realm, and that act required protection, especially when practicing medicine.

Six hundred years later, an early Christian apologist named Tertullian would reach the same conclusion: “Prevention of birth is a premature murder, and it makes no difference whether it is a life already born that one snatches away or a life that is coming to birth … the future of man is a man already: the whole fruit is present in the seed” (2). And just as the agents of medicine continue to take Hippocrates’ Oath, for two thou-sand years the Church has held close to Tertullian’s words, believing creation to begin in the mind of God and human life at conception in the womb.

As a Christian (and avid thinker) I suspect this is to be our answer, measurable within the truth of God and compatible with the world of science and medicine. At the moment of fertilization something entirely new enters the world, a DNA code that we have never witnessed attached to cells that can’t become anything other than a human. Though that human is incredibly small, though she may be weak, unintelligent, and less than mobile, she is also unstoppable because, as long as she is given an environment, nurturing, and time, that child will undoubtedly grow stronger, more intelligent, and more mobile. It’s the same with a six-year-old, a twenty-year-old, even a man at the age of fifty. While we live we grow, and that growth begins at conception. And be-cause we do not have the ability to give it, we are not given the right to take it, only the responsibility to protect the life of a child. “That’s our final answer.” +

Footnotes:

1. Scott F. Gilbert, “When Does Human Life Begin?,” A Companion to Developmental Biology, (21 October 2009) <http://8e.devbio.com/article.php?ch=2&id=7&gt;

2. Bonner, G. 1985. Abortion and Early Christian Thought. In: Channer, J.H. (ed.) Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life. The Paternoster Press, Exeter, pp 93-122.

–Canon Gensemer is the Rector of The Church of the Reconciler, a parish of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, Fairfield, Alabama, and International Director of “ICCEC for Life,” his denomination’s Pro Life ministry. Sarah Howell served as co-editor of the article.

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