When does human life begin?

Because human beings are God’s image bearers and bestowed with particular dignity, value, and worth, the question of when life begins is incredibly important. The importance of this question is amplified because of the widespread practice of abortion and the issue of whether it is in fact the taking of a human life and therefore murder.

Scientifically and medically, it is beyond debate that human life begins at conception. From the initial joining of sperm and egg, the tiny baby is alive, distinct from its mother, and living and growing as a human.1 While the ability to express humanity and personhood change throughout the life cycle, human essence and human personhood are innate to the living being. No matter how tiny or weak, humans deserve support and protection because they are God’s image bearers. Princeton professor and former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Robert P. George, rightly says:

Human embryos are not . . . some other type of animal organism, like a dog or cat. Neither are they a part of an organism, like a heart, a kidney, or a skin cell. Nor again are they a disorganized aggregate, a mere clump of cells awaiting some magical transformation. Rather, a human embryo is a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development. Unless severely damaged, or denied or deprived of a suitable environment, a human being in the embryonic stage will, by directing its own integral organic functioning, develop himself or herself to the next more mature developmental stage, i.e., the fetal stage. The embryonic, fetal, child, and adolescent stages are stages in the development of a determinate and enduring entity—a human being—who comes into existence as a single-celled organism (the zygote) and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood many years later. But does this mean that the human embryo is a human person worthy of full moral respect? Must the early embryo never be used as a mere means for the benefit of others simply because it is a human being? The answer . . . is “Yes.”2

Furthermore, there are many texts of Scripture that confirm human life does begin at conception and that an unborn baby is an image bearer of God. Psalm 51:5 reveals that we are not only human beings but sinners from conception: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” God called both Isaiah and Jeremiah for prophetic ministry from their mothers’ wombs.(3) Furthermore, Luke 1:15 says that John the Baptizer “will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”

Perhaps the most extensive section of Scripture on human life in the womb is Psalm 139:13–16, which says:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there was none of them.

Christians have always followed the teaching of the Old Testament Jews, that abortion of a preborn child and exposure of a born child are both murderous sins. In the Didache, which was an ancient manual for church instruction, we read, “You shall not commit murder. . . . You shall not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide.”(4)

Some will argue that there is a difference between a child in a mother’s womb and one outside of it, yet the early church saw both as equally living people and the taking of life in either state as equally murderous. Their convictions were based on Scripture, which uses the same word (brephos) for Elizabeth’s unborn child (John the Baptizer)(5) as that used for the unborn baby Jesus in Mary’s womb(6) and also for the children brought to Jesus.(7) Simply, in the divinely inspired pages of Scripture, God reveals to us that a child in the womb and a child singing and dancing around Jesus in worship are equally human beings who bear the image of God, and thankfully Mary did not abort the “tissue” in her womb, because he was God.

Additionally, the Bible assumes that an unborn baby is a human life and assigns the death penalty for anyone who takes an unborn life because it is murder. Exodus 21:22–25 says:

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out [yasa, a live birth—not shakal, the typical term for miscarriage], but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Indeed, not to extend legal protections to preborn children because of age, size, or phase of development is a grievous discrimination and injustice akin to racism, sexism, and ageism. If we truly care about dignity and equality for all people, then we must include the unborn who are the most vulnerable and without a voice or a vote.

How surprised are you that God would become an unborn baby and go through the same birth and growth process that we have?

1See Douglas Considine, ed., Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia, 5th ed. (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976), 943; Keith L. Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 2001), 2; Bruce M. Carlson, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), 3; Jan Langman, Medical Embryology, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1975), 3; Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996), 8, 29.

2Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 3–4. George is a professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Right-to-life arguments have typically been based explicitly on moral and religious grounds. In Embryo, the authors eschew religious arguments and make a purely scientific and philosophical case that the fetus, from the instant of conception, is a human being, with all the moral and political rights inherent in that status. The authors argue that there is no room for a “moral dualism” that regards being a “person” as merely a stage in a human life span. An embryo does not exist in a “prepersonal” stage that does not merit the inviolable rights otherwise ascribed to persons. Instead, the authors argue, the right not to be intentionally killed is inherent in the fact of being a human being, and that status begins at the moment of conception. Moreover, just as none should be excluded from moral and legal protections based on race, sex, religion, or ethnicity, none should be excluded on the basis of age, size, or stage of biological development.

3Isa. 49:1b; Jer. 1:5.
4Didache 2.2.
5Luke 1:41, 44.
6Luke 2:12.
7Luke 18:15. See Charles H. H. Scobie, Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 834.

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