“Essentialism” argues that the fetus is a person from conception, whatever its health or potential. It is an individual in the earliest stages of development, and deserves all the protections afforded to other persons by our society.
Our Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If an unborn child is considered a person, it possesses the “inalienable” right to life as well.
So, can we determine when life begins? Our answer depends on the definition of “life.” A “pro-choice” advocate recognizes that the fetus is alive in the sense that it is a biological entity. But so is every other part of a woman’s body. Some consider the fetus to be a “growth” and liken it to a tumor or other unwanted tissue. Biology alone is not enough to settle the issue.
What about capacity? Many ethicists define a “person” as someone able to respond to stimuli, interact with others, and make individual decisions. A fetus meets the first two standards from almost the moment of its conception, and clearly cannot fulfill the third only because it is enclosed in its mother’s body. Would a newborn baby fulfill these three conditions?
What about individuality? If we view a fetus as a “growth” within the mother’s body, it would be easier to sanction her choice to remove that growth if she wishes. But a fetus is distinct from its mother from the moment of its conception. It is alive–it reacts to stimuli, and can produce its own cells and develop them into a specific pattern of maturity.
It is human, completely distinguishable from all other living organisms, possessing all 46 human chromosomes, able to develop only into a human being. And it is complete–nothing new will be added except the growth and development of what exists from the moment of conception.
It is a scientific fact that every abortion performed in the United States is performed on a being so fully formed that its heart is beating and its brain activity can be measured on an EEG machine. At 12 weeks, the unborn baby is only about two inches long, yet every organ of the human body is clearly in place.
Theologian Karl Barth described the fetus well:
The embryo has its own autonomy, its own brain, its own nervous system, its own blood circulation. If its life is affected by that of the mother, it also affects hers. It can have its own illnesses in which the mother has no part. Conversely, it may be quite healthy even though the mother is seriously ill. It may die while the mother continues to live. It may also continue to live after its mother’s death, and be eventually saved by a timely operation on her dead body. In short, it is a human being in its own right.
And note that you did not come from a fetus–you were a fetus. A “fetus” is simply a human life in the womb. It becomes a “baby” outside the womb. But it is the same physical entity in either place.
For these reasons, “pro-life” advocates believe that the U. S. Supreme Court was wrong in deciding that a fetus is not a person entitled to the full protections of the law. Apart from spiritual or moral concerns, it is a simple fact of biology that the fetus possesses every attribute of human life we find in a newborn infant, with the exception of independent physical viability. Left unharmed, it will soon develop this capacity as well. If a life must be independently viable to be viewed as a person, a young child might well fail this standard, as would those of any age facing severe physical challenges.
The Bible and abortion
These statements are based on moral claims and legal arguments. They are intended to persuade society regardless of a person’s religious persuasion. But many in our culture also want to know what the Bible says on this crucial subject.
Silent on the issue?
“Abortion” appears nowhere in the Bible. No one in the Bible is ever described as having an abortion, encouraging one, or even dealing with one. The Bible says nothing which specifically addresses our subject, so many have concluded that the issue is not a biblical concern but a private matter. They say that we should be silent where the Bible is silent.
“Pro-life” advocates counter that by this logic we should be silent regarding the “Trinity,” since the word never appears in Scripture. Or “marijuana” and “cocaine,” since they are not in a biblical concordance. However, these issues came after the biblical era, while abortion was common in the ancient world. So this argument doesn’t seem relevant.
If abortion is a biblical issue, why doesn’t the Bible address it specifically? The answer is simple: the Jewish people and first Christians needed no such guidance. It was an undeniable fact of their faith and culture that abortion was wrong. How do we know?
Consider early statements on the subject. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides are a book of Jewish wisdom written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50. They state that “a woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.”
The Sibylline Oracles are an ancient work of Jewish theology. They include among the wicked two groups: women who “produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away” and sorcerers who dispense materials which cause abortions (2:339-42).
The Mishnah (“instruction”) was the written record of Jewish oral teachings transmitted since the time of Moses. These teachings were committed to writing around 200 B.C. In the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin we read: “We infer the death penalty for killing an embryo from the text, He who sheds the blood of a man within a man, his blood shall be shed; what is ‘a man within a man’? An embryo” (Sanhedrin 57b, quoting Genesis 9:6).