WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

                                A comprehensive examination

                                of the abortion issue: Part One 

        Vector human embryo development circle flat icon Vector human embryo development circle with female uterus icon. Human fetus growth through the stages of pregnancy from a cell to a baby. Medica concept poster, isolated illustration fetus stock illustrationsIn what was the Roe versus Wade case of January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a seven to two decision that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional.  In a majority opinion written by Justice Harry A Blackman, the Court held that a set of Texas statutes criminalizing abortion in most instances violated a woman’s constitutional right of privacy which it found to be implicit in the liberty guarantee of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which states that “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  This ruling led to the position that women have a Federal Constitutional right to abortion.  

       On June 24, 2022, The US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Constitution does not establish a right to have a planned abortion. I have used the term “planned abortion” to distinguish it from spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) that can occur after conception. In making their decision, the Court has left it up to the states to grapple with the issue of planned abortion. This has created a great deal of diversity of regulation in the various states as to what is allowed and not allowed relative to abortion.

       The issue of planned abortion is tied to the issue of when life begins. Most pro-life advocates believe that life begins at conception and to terminate such life at any time prior to birth through planned abortion is to commit murder. Pro-choice advocates argue that there is no consensus as to when life begins and even if it can be demonstrated that life begins at conception, it is not murder to terminate such life before birth. 

       I will begin this discussion by examining the issue of when life begins. Do the Biblical Scriptures establish when life begins? What does science say as to when life begins? Does life begin at conception or at some point between conception and birth? Does life begin at birth?

       After addressing the issue of when it is that life begins, I will address the question of whether it is murder to deliberately abort (terminate) the life of a preborn through a medical or pharmaceutical intervention. 

When does life begin?

       Does life begin at conception when a male sperm called a gamete fertilizes (unites with) a female egg (also called a gamete) to form a single cell called a zygote? Zygote means to join together or be yoked.  Is the single cell zygote the beginning of a new human life that should be seen as a person?  Is there a distinction between such life and personhood and does it matter? Does life begin with the introduction of the “breath of life” as some believe the Biblical Scriptures teach?   I will begin this discussion by discussing the perspective that life begins when the “breath of life” is given.

       In Genesis 2:7 we read that “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed (Hebrew: way·yip·painto his nostrils the breath (Hebrew: neshamah) of life (Hebrew: ay·yîm), and the man became a living (Hebrew: ay·yāh) being” (Hebrew: nehphesh).

       This passage says that subsequent to man being formed from the dust of the ground, God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being. The Hebrew rendered “breathed” is way·yip·pa. The Brown-Driver-Biggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB) shows way·yip·pa has the basic meaning of to breath or blow. This same Lexicon defines neshamah as breath and ay·yāh as “alive/living.”

       The implication in Genesis 2:7 is that the man was lifeless until being given the breath of life. It was breath that gave life to what was a lifeless entity.  Hebrew Lexicons show the basic meaning of nehphesh is “that which breathes or the breathing substance or being.” Some define nehphesh as that which enters the body at birth to make the body a living entity. Here are some other Scriptures that speak of the “breath of life.”

       Job 33:4: The Spirit (Hebrew: rū·a) of God has made me; the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty gives me life (Hebrew tə·ay·yê·nî).

       Job 27:3: As long as I have life (neshamah) within me, the breath (neshamah) of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, and my tongue will utter no deceit.

       Job 12:10: In his hand is the life (nehphesh) of every creature (Hebrew chay which means life) and the breath (rū·a) of all mankind.

       Job writes that the Spirit of God made him and the breath of God gave him life. The Hebrew word rendered “life” is tə·ay·yê·nî and has the basic meaning of to preserve/sustain life.  The word breath (neshamah) of the Almighty” is the same word for breath as in “breath (neshamah) of life” in Genesis 2:7.  The Hebrew word rendered “Spirit” in Job 33:4 and 12:19 is rū·a. BDB defines rū·a as breath of mouth or nostrils, wind, and spirit. In its various tenses, rū·a appears 377 times in the OT and is used to describe everything from breath of air and state of mind to the manifestation of the power of God.  Job appears to be using rū·a in 33:4 to signify that he was made by and through the power of God and in 12:10 to signify the breath of life as seen in Genesis 2:7.

       The Hebrew rū·a is often used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe breath of life in the same way as neshamah is used Genesis 2:7.  In Genesis 6:17 God is quoted as saying he would “bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life (Hebrew: bā·śār which means flesh) under the heavens, every creature that has the breath (rū·a) of life (ay·yāh) in it. Everything on earth will perish.”  

       In the flood account we read that “Every living thing that moved on the earth perished-birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath (neshamah) of life (ay·yîm) in its nostrils died” (Genesis 7:21-22, NIV).  The Hebrew reads “all in whose nostrils was the breath (neshamah) of the spirit (rū·a) of life, died" (See footnotes to NET translation).  Here both neshamah and rū·a are used to say that all life that depended on breath to live would die.      

       Jeremiah speaks of how those who make images that are worshiped are deceiving the people as such images have no rū·a in them.  Thus rū·a is identified as necessary to life. “His images are a fraud; they have no breath (rū·aḥ) in them” (Jeremiah 10:14 and 51:17). Habakkuk says the same thing. “Woe to him who says to wood, `Come to life!' Or to lifeless stone, `Wake up!' Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath (rū·aḥ) in it” (Habakkuk 2:19).  Here we see breath necessary for an entity to have life.

       These passages make it clear that the giving of breath is instrumental to making alive what is not alive. What gives life to the nehphesh is breath (neshamah/rū·a). Neshamah/rū·a is the breath of life.  Once breath (neshamah/rū·a) is removed, life (nehphesh) is terminated. 

       The English word “being” in Genesis 2:7 is translated from the Hebrew word nehphesh.  The Greek equivalent is pseucheNehphesh appears 754 times in the OT and in English translations is generally rendered as "soul" but is also rendered various times as "life," "creature," "being" and "person."  The Greek pseuche appears 105 times in the NT and is rendered as "soul" or "life.”  Here are some examples of how nehphesh is used in Scripture.

       Genesis 1:20:  And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures (nehphesh), and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." 

       Genesis 1:30: And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath (neshamah) of life (nehphesh) in it I give every green plant for food." 

       Genesis 2:19: Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature (nehphesh), that was its name.

       It is clear from Scripture that both animals and humans are nehphesh/pseuche and have breath (neshamah/rū·a) which is essential to being an alive nehphesh/pseuche. When the breath (neshamah/rū·a) of life leaves the body, the nehphesh dies.

       That the human nehphesh can be dead or alive is seen in the book of Numbers. We see in Numbers that the Israelite's were instructed to not go near a dead nehphesh when they had made a vow to the LORD. The context shows it is dead humans (nehphesh's) being referred to. Some are seen as not being able to keep the Passover because they had been in contact with a dead nehphesh.  In Leviticus, the High Priest is instructed to steer clear of a dead nehphesh, even if it should be his father or mother.

       Numbers 6:6-7: Throughout the period of his separation to the LORD he must not go near a dead body (nehphesh). Even if his own father or mother or brother or sister dies, he must not make himself ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of his separation to God is on his head.    

       Numbers 9:6: But some of them could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body (nehphesh). So they came to Moses and Aaron that same day.

       Leviticus 21:11: He must not enter a place where there is a dead body (nehphesh). He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother.

Is life in the Blood?

       The Scriptures reveal that life (nehphesh) is in the blood of man and beast. When the blood is shed, the life (nehphesh) dies. Jesus died by shedding His blood in order to achieve atonement for mankind.  In a prophecy that appears to be about Christ, the prophet Isaiah records that He would pour out His life (nehphesh) unto death (Isaiah 53:12). In John chapter 10, Jesus speaks of laying down His life (pseuche) for His sheep. Let's look at what God told the Israelite's.

       Leviticus 17:11-14: For the life (nehphesh) of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (nehphesh).  Therefore I say to the Israelites, "None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood."  "Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth,  because the life (nehphesh) of every creature (Hebrew: bā·śār) is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, "You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life (nehphesh) of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off."  

       Deuteronomy 12:23: But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life (nehphesh) and you must not eat the life (nehphesh) with the meat.

       After the flood God instructed that He was now giving to man not only plants for food but living creatures as well.  However, He ruled that man could not eat the blood of creatures because the life (nehphesh) is the blood.

       Genesis 9:4: But flesh with the life (nehphesh) thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat (KJV).

       Some have concluded that Leviticus 17:11-14, which speaks of life (nehphesh) being in the blood, pertains only to animals but not to mankind. The following passages confirm it applies to mankind as well.

       Deuteronomy 9:5-6:  And for your lifeblood (nehphesh blood) I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life (nehphesh) of his fellow man. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

       Genesis 4:9-10: Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"   "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"  The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.

       Since life (nehphesh) is said to be in the blood and breath is required to make nehphesh alive, it would appear that once breath leaves the nehphesh the life dies. Life of the nehphesh is dependent on breath.  It is instructive that when we breathe, we inhale oxygen which is carried by blood cells to all parts of the body and this is what maintains the life of the body.  When the body stops breathing, life giving oxygen is no longer available and the life of the body dies.      

       In reviewing the hundreds of Scriptures where the word nehphesh appears, it becomes evident that nehphesh is used to simply describe the combination of blood and breath that gives life to a physical organism.  A nehphesh is alive when this combination of breath and blood is present and a nehphesh is dead when this combination of breath and blood is removed. The Scriptures make it clear a nehphesh can be killed and such killing is virtually associated with the death of the blood.  To speak of a dead nehphesh is to speak of dead blood as we see in a passage from Joshua.

       Joshua 20:2-3: "Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person (nehphesh) accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood.

       This instruction to Israel clearly shows the association between nehphesh and blood. The writer speaks of killing a nehphesh.  To kill a nehphesh is to kill the blood as it is the blood that is seen as being avenged.

       It is instructive that blood transfusions are given to people to provide them with the necessary components to carry oxygen obtained from the breath of life to all tissues of the body to keep the body alive. In reality, a blood transfusion involves the transfer of components of life from one person to another. As long as the person is able to breathe (take in oxygen) and the heart continues to beat and circulate the oxygenated blood throughout the body, the body remains alive. When the heart stops beating the blood stops circulating and life ends.  However, a person can stop breathing and yet continue to live if oxygenated blood is mechanically circulated through the body. This occurs during a heart transplant. To have life in the blood is to have oxygen (breath of life) carried in the blood.

The breath of life and abortion:  

       It appears that the key to life is breath or more specifically the oxygen that breath brings to an organism. Some pro-choice advocates have used Genesis 2:7 to say life begins at birth when a baby takes their first breath of air.  It is pointed out that Adam wasn’t alive until receiving the breath of life so a fetus isn’t alive until it draws its first breath. Therefore abortion should be legal up to the birth of a fetus.  However, the conclusion that a baby isn’t alive until it draws its first breath is problematical.

       Adam was not conceived through union of a male sperm and a female ovum. Adam was not born in the usually sense of that word.  He was created as a fully developed human. Adam did not go through the developmental stages of becoming a newborn that is the case with all other humans. After being fully formed, God breathed into Adam the breath of life and the fully formed Adam became a living being. He had not been alive in any sense of the word before this happened. This is not the case with a human who goes through the process of embryonic/fetal development. As will be shown, a human who goes through normal embryonic/fetal development receives the breath of life from early on in such development and not at the moment of birth.  

       After fertilization with male sperm, the female ovum moves towards the uterus (womb) and by the time it reaches the uterus it has become a ball of cells called the blastocyst. This process occurs over several days after fertilization. The outer cells of the blastocyst reach out to form links with the mother's blood supply and in this manner deliver nutrients and oxygen to the developing organism. The blastocyst stays in the uterus for several days after which it implants in the inner lining of the uterine wall which is called the endometrium. The endometrium provides oxygen and nutrients to the blastocyst.  The blastocyst continues to make new cells, which separate into layers. About 10 to 12 days after fertilization, the blastocyst develops into an embryo.      

       During the embryonic stage the formation of most internal and external body parts begin to develop.  Most body organs begin to form about 3 weeks after fertilization. At this time, the embryo elongates and takes on human shape. The heart and major blood vessels begin to develop by about day 16. By day 20, the heart begins to pump fluid through blood vessels and red blood cells begin to appear.  The embryo is considered a fetus around the ninth week after fertilization.  

       The lungs of the developing embryo/fetus do not breathe air until birth. The zygote, blastocyst, embryo and fetus are totally dependent on the mother for oxygen until birth. After the first eleven weeks of pregnancy, nutrients and oxygen begin to be delivered from the mother’s blood to the placenta and from the placenta to the fetus via the umbilical cord which develops five weeks after conception. The placenta is an organ that develops and implants in the uterus shortly after a pregnancy occurs.  The placenta is the “house” the embryo/fetus lives in until birth. 

       An embryo generates its own blood cells and circulatory system starting around the third week after conception and it is three to four weeks after conception that a heart beat can be detected.  Much of the developing circulatory system is the development of blood vessels that extend from the fetus’s umbilicus (belly button) to the placenta which attaches to the mother’s uterus.

       After the placenta is formed and the umbilical cord has developed, all nutrition and oxygen used by the fetus is obtained from the mother’s blood delivered to the placenta and from the placenta via the umbilical cord to the fetus.  While some of the mother’s blood goes to the fetuses developing liver, most of it flows to a large vessel called the inferior vena cava and then into the right atrium of the fetuses heart from where it is pumped throughout the developing body. The placenta facilitates the exchange of oxygen and nutrients between the bloodstream of the mother and the bloodstream of the fetus without ever mixing them.

       An embryo begins to develop its own blood around the third week after conception. It begins to receive oxygen from the mother’s placenta around the twelfth week after conception. This is when the fetus begins to circulate its own oxygenated blood. Some feel this is when a fetus can be considered alive, when it begins to circulate its own oxygenated blood. However, the oxygen it is using is not its own. It is not being breathe in by the fetus as the fetus does not take in oxygen (breathe) on its own until birth. Until birth the fetus is using oxygen supplied be the mother from the air she breaths.

       Research has shown that oxygen is present in the male sperm, female ovum and the zygote that is formed from the union of a sperm and ovum. Various studies have shown this to be the case. In the publication Human Reproduction, Volume 25, Issue 11, November 2010, Pages 2762–2773, a study was published that measured the level of oxygen consumption of zygotes and early embryos of bovine animals and how metabolism was affected by such levels.  To quote from the study, “A peak of oxygen consumption was observed at the time of fertilization and a smaller rise and fall in oxygen consumption could be detected prior to the first cell cleavage.” Cell cleavage is when the single cell zygote starts developing into a multicellular organism.

       This study and other studies like it, shows a zygote utilizes oxygen for its internal metabolism from the time it is formed. This should tell us the breath of life is present at conception and if indeed the breath of life is the starting point for life (both animal and human) them life does indeed begin at conception.

       New Testament (NT) Scripture appears to confirm that life is dependent on the “breath of life” for existence.. There are two basic words rendered “life” in English translations of the Greek NT. The Greek zóé appears 135 times and is defined in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “life, the state of one who is possessed of vitality or is animate.”  As covered earlier in this series, the Greek word pseuche appears 105 times in the NT and is equivalent to the Hebrew word nehphesh which means “that which breathes.  Pseuche is defined in Thayer’s as the breath of life; the vital force” and is rendered into English as "soul" or "life.”  By referring to humans as pseuche, NT writers are implicitly confirming human life as dependent on the “breath of life” spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures.   

       Pro-choice advocates will acknowledge the need for oxygen to facilitate human life but some will argue that since the oxygen used by the fetus is the mother’s oxygen and the lungs of a fetus do not take in oxygen until birth, the fetus is not alive until birth when it can take in oxygen on its own. It is believed that when the fetus becomes independently alive at birth is when it can be said to be a living human. Therefore, it should not be considered a living person until birth.

       However, it must be noted that while the fetus can’t breathe in its own oxygen until birth, it is utilizing the oxygen the mother breaths in and using it to create and sustain life while in the uterus. Therefore, it is a living human from the time it obtains oxygen and it obtains oxygen from the time of fertilization going forward.

       It should also be pointed out that receiving oxygen from the mother is no different than a born baby receiving oxygen from the air.  It is not a matter of from where or how the oxygen is obtained but that it must be present for human life to occur.  Furthermore, the view that a fetus becomes independently alive at birth is a bogus argument. The newborn continues to be dependent on the care of the mother or some other outside source for some time after birth in order to continue being alive. 

Personhood and abortion:

       There are two basic viewpoints as to when a human is to be considered a person.  The first is that it is at fertilization when a new life (zygote) made up of a new genomic configuration occurs. This new life is seen as a new person distinct from all other persons. It is believed that personhood is inherent in a human from the time of conception and throughout all stages of its development.  Therefore, a human does not become a person at some stage of development following fertilization. It is a person from the start. As such it is believed the unborn should come under the same protections as the born. This view is sometimes said to be reinforced by the US Declaration of Independence which in part states that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights among them being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is noted that this declaration speaks of the creation of men. If indeed new human life is created at conception, human rights, as enumerated in such documents as the US Declaration of Independence, apply as much to the unborn as the born.  

       The second view is that the new human becomes a person at some point after fertilization.  At what point this may be is controversial and often arbitrarily established.  Advocates of this view often look at the development stages of a zygote, embryo and fetus and see these stages as steps toward becoming a person but not as yet being a person.  It is often concluded that personhood isn’t achieved until birth at which time the stages of development are complete enabling a fetus to live outside the womb. It is believed that it is at this time that a human comes under laws that protect the rights of humans such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is believed such rights don’t and can’t apply to a less than fully developed fetus. Human rights are seen as developed and mandated within the context of born individuals and therefore don’t apply to the unborn.

       If indeed it can be established that personhood begins at birth and it is at the time a fetus becomes a person that human rights are to be applied, then an argument could be made for seeing the planned termination of a prenatal life (abortion) as being outside the protection of civil law including laws against murder. However, since the definition of personhood is quite arbitrary and has not been firmly established, and since the view that it is at personhood that human rights are established is also arbitrary, so-called personhood should not be a factor in determining the legality or non-legality of planned abortion.  

Scientific views on life beginning at conception:

       As indicated above, most pro-life advocates believe life begins at conception. It is believed that science has shown that life begins at conception and such life develops within the womb of the mother until born and then continues to develop outside the womb.  There are those in the scientific community such as biologists, embryologists and geneticists who argue strongly that life does indeed begin at conception.

       These life scientists show that when conception occurs, a new and unique genome (genetic configuration) is made along with all the conditions necessary to generate and develop a new human being. It is argued that upon fertilization, the single zygote cell immediately begins to divide and create additional cells which months later culminate in the birth of the life that began at conception.  By being born, this life that began at conception is simply seen as changing environments. Where it had been going through various developmental stages that begins with the formation of the zygote, once it is born, it continues to go through developmental stages into adulthood.  The difference between a human in its zygote stage versus its adult stage is seen as a matter of different form and not different nature. The nature is and remains human from conception while the form of the newly conceived human continues to develop from one stage to the next and such development continues after birth.     

       While body cells in general divide and multiply and could be considered alive in and of themselves, such cells do not produce a new human life whereas the dividing zygote cell does.  The development of the zygote is the result of two germ cells, the female egg (also called ovum or oocyte) and male sperm, uniting to begin the process of creating a new living organism. No other body cell can do this.  Within minutes of fertilization, the zygote acts to prevent the merger of another sperm with itself and starts the process of self-replication. 

       What is interesting is that it is through a process known as gametogenesis that male and female germ cells are created and in their early development have 46 chromosomes like all other cells of the body.  However, by a process known as meiosis, the germ cells produced in the male and female are reduced to having only 23 chromosomes. This is necessary so that when a female egg and male sperm unite, there is formed a normal 46 chromosome cell called the zygote.  The zygote receives 23 chromosomes from the male and 23 chromosomes from the female. Of further interest is that the female germ cell is not reduced to 23 chromosomes until it is fertilized by a male sperm.  

       For a number of biologists, embryologists and geneticists, it is clear that from the time a sperm unites with an ovum to form a zygote; this one celled zygote contains the necessary components to facilitate the development of a new human life and therefore is a new human life.

Scientific views on life beginning after conception:

       Some life scientists believe life begins at the point of gastrulation. Gastrulation occurs when the cells of the embryo move from a one-dimensional layer of cells (the blastula) and become organized into a multilayered and multidimensional structure called the gastrula. The gastrula facilitates the beginning development of body parts. Gastrulation begins at around day 14 after conception. Others believe life begins at the point the embryo implants into the uterus.

       Still others identify life beginning when the fetus shows brain activity.  It is argued that since flat lining on an electroencephalogram (EEG) identifies the death of a person even through the heart may still be beating, identifying an active EEG is seen as identifying life.  Identifiable EEG patterns and changes in fetal brain activity can be seen 28 weeks after gestation.  If life is to be determined to begin at the identification of brain activity in a fetus, pro-choice advocates can easily argue that abortion is not the taking of a human life even up to seven months into a pregnancy.

       Some medical professionals argue that viability is when a fetus becomes a living person.  Viability is generally defined as the length of time after which a child is prematurely born that such child can still survive.  Generally this period is from 20 to 27 weeks (five to seven months) after conception. In the Roe v Wade 1973 Supreme Court decision, the court determined that the point at which there was capability of a fetus having meaningful or viable life outside the mother’s womb was the point at which abortion should be prohibited. This was seen as about 24 weeks after pregnancy.

Summary:

       In view of the foregoing discussion, it appears that the Scriptural view as to when life begins is that it begins when the breath of life is present in an individual capable of being a living organism. Science has determined it is the oxygen component of air that is necessary for life to exist in humans and other air breathing organisms. The Scriptures reveal that life is in the blood and science has determined that oxygen from the air we breathe is carried by red blood cells to all parts of the body to facilitate and sustain life. Therefore, science confirms that life is in the blood as the Scriptures show.

       Science has demonstrated that oxygen must be present in a zygote in order for that single cell to engage in the metabolic activity necessary for it to divide and begin the development of a new life. Since oxygen is necessary for the single cell zygote to replicate and grow into a new human life, it is evident that when oxygen obtained via the blood of the mother is combined with DNA and other components of the zygote that life begins. Therefore, even though there are different views in both religion and science as to when life begins, the preponderance of evidence points to life beginning at conception.

Part Two