It seems that Adam did not become a “living being” until he could breathe. And so some believe that a fetus is not a “living being” until it can breathe outside the mother’s womb. Until this time it is not yet a person. President Bill Clinton explained his pro-choice position as based significantly on this logic. He said that his pastor, W. O. Vaught, former pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, told him that this was the literal meaning of the text.
There are three problems with this argument. First, Adam was an inanimate object until God breathed into him “the breath of life,” but we know conclusively that a fetus is animate from the moment of conception. Second, the fetus breathes in the womb, exchanging amniotic fluid for air after birth. Third, Adam in Genesis 2:7 was a potential life even before he became a human being. By any definition, a fetus is at the very least a potential human being. We’ll say more about this fact in a moment.
One of David’s best-loved psalms contains this affirmation:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
Wonderful are your works; that I know 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 beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed (Psalm 139:13-16).
David clearly believed that God created him in his mother’s womb and “beheld my unformed substance” before he was born. “Pro-life” theologians point to this declaration as proof that life is created by God and begins at conception.
Of course, those who do not accept the authority of Scripture will not be persuaded by this argument. And some who do believe that David’s statement is poetic symbolism rather than scientific description. He is simply stating that he is God’s creation, without speaking specifically to the status of a fetus.
As part of God’s call to the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord issued this declaration: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). God clearly formed Jeremiah in the womb and “knew” him even before that time. He “consecrated” or called him to special service even before he was born. God’s plan for Jeremiah began before his conception and his birth.
It’s hard for me to see how those who accept biblical authority could make a “pro-choice” response to this statement. I suppose they could claim that the verse is symbolic and spiritual, not scientific, that it is a metaphorical description of God’s eternal plan for Jeremiah. But the text seems to be specifically related to Jeremiah’s conception and gestation.
Luke’s gospel records the visit of the pregnant Mary to the pregnant Elizabeth:
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45).
When Elizabeth said that “the child in my womb leaped for joy” (v. 44), she made clear the fact that her “fetus” was a fully-responding being. She used the word brephos, the Greek term for baby, embryo, fetus, newborn child, young child, or nursing child. It is the same word used to describe Jesus in the manger, where the shepherds “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16).
Paul used the word in reminding Timothy “how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Bible makes no linguistic distinction between the personhood of a human being, whether before or after its birth.
The rights of the innocent
The Bible consistently defends the rights of those who are innocent and undeserving of punishment or death. For instance:
•”Do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty” (Exodus 23:7).
•”There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family” (Proverbs 6:16-19).
•The Babylonians attacked Jerusalem “for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon” (2 Kings 24:3-4).
It is clear that God cares for the innocent and defenseless of the world. Children, whether before their birth or after, would be among his most valued creations.
The witness of Christian history
How has the Church viewed the issue of abortion across its history? Are “pro-choice” religious leaders in step with traditional Christian thinking on this subject? Or has the Church even spoken with a unified voice when addressing the question?
Early church fathers were clear in their opposition to abortion. Athenagoras (ca. AD 150), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), Tertullian (ca. 155-225), St. Hippolytus (ca. 170-236), St. Basil the Great (ca. 330-79), St. Ambrose (ca. 339-97), St. John Chrysostom (ca. 340-407), and St. Jerome (ca. 342-420) all issued strong condemnations of this practice.