So When DOES Life Begin?
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was honestly puzzled.
Mississippi’s solicitor general, Scott Stewart, had insisted that his state be allowed to ban abortions on the ground that, overall, the right to an abortion is not written explicitly in the Constitution and should therefore not be considered a constitutional right. But Sotomayor asked him, pointedly, “How is your interest anything but a religious view? The issue of when life begins has been hotly debated by philosophers since the beginning of time. It’s still debated in religions.”
Justice Sotomayor’s point is valid. The issue is still debated in religions, and that issue, as she said, is when does life begin?
The baby has yet to be born, who, upon emerging, unfurls a bright red flag emblazoned, “Hello, World! My life began at such and such date at precisely such and such time.” Failing to have a definitive statement of when that marvelous and breath-taking thing called life commences, the task of setting the criteria falls to religion, has always fallen to religion, and will continue to fall to religion for the conceivable future—despite politics and despite science.
Putting aside that other issue—what business does the state have meddling in religious matters? —t he termination of a birth—yes or no, when, why and under what circumstances—is emotional, is at once simple and complex and excites passions on both sides—like many religious questions.
In order to shed more clarity and hopefully more understanding, what follows are a very elementary—emphasis on very—thumbnail answers to that question—when does life begin? —a ccording to a sampling of major religions.
A note: just because the ecumenical leaders of a faith assert one thing, that doesn’t mean that followers of that faith will observe it.
Another note: just because a religion hedges or is ambivalent or refuses outright to answer the question—when does life begin? —d oes not imply any less reverence for life and its preservation.
Another note: such matters as the instant of conception, heartbeat, blood flow and brain activity were impossible to measure or detect until a very few decades ago. Hence, the church’s criterion for centuries as to the presence of life was “quickening”—the palpable feeling the mother has of movement in her womb.
Such things as heartbeat and brain activity have only recently made their front and center appearance in the discussion of life’s beginning, not because of religion but because of science.
End of disclaimers. Let us begin with the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism
Judaism: Life begins, specifically and definitively with the first breath. The reasoning lies in the second sentence of the Old Testament which describes breath-without-life hovering over the endless waters of the unborn, un-alive universe. Then in Genesis 2:7 Adam, formed from the dust of the earth, achieves life only once God breathes that life into his nostrils. Hence an individual in the Jewish faith achieves personhood and human rights only once having emerged from the womb and taken its first breath.
Christianity: The most populous religion on earth also has arguably the most denominations, sects, and sects-within-sects, many at odds with one another on the point of life’s beginning.
Catholicism’s position, as indicated by Vatican Instruction, among other authority, is conception.
Presbyterians aren’t so sure. According to its 217th General Assembly in 2006, “Life is a gift from God. We may not know exactly when human life begins, and have but an imperfect understanding of God as the giver of life and of our own human existence, yet we recognize that life is precious to God, and we should preserve and protect it.”
The United Methodist Church votes for conception.
Protestant denominations, including Southern Baptist and Evangelical have shifted their views over the decades. In 1968, a symposium on procreation and birth resulted in a definitive statement “representing the conservative or evangelical position within Protestantism.” That position was that though all stages of fetal development were valuable, “From the moment of birth the infant is a human being with all the rights which Scripture accords to all human beings.”
The Southern Baptist Convention of 1971 agreed with the 1968 symposium (and with the Jewish position) that the first breath is when one achieves personhood.
But then, thanks to shifts in the political climate, the emergence of the Moral Majority and some modern re-translations of certain key verses in scripture, a sea change occurred. In 1980 Jerry Falwell proclaimed, “The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception,” and that therefore abortion “is murder according to the Word of God.” By now, two generations later, that belief has been fully embraced with a passion by Evangelical Protestants.
Islam: Tradition, as taught by the Hadith—sayings of the prophet Muhammad, second only to the Quran as the source of moral guidance—is that a human being comes into existence 120 days after conception. This is the point when the soul enters the fetus, and human life, which has a moral and spiritual claim above all other life forms, truly begins.
Sikhism: Based on this passage from the Guru Granth Sahib, its central holy scripture, “In the first watch of the night, O my merchant friend, you were cast into the womb, by the Lord’s Command,” the Sikhs believe life begins with conception.
Next the two major Eastern Religions, Hinduism and Buddhism:
Hinduism: The Bhagavad Gita holds that the soul is neither born nor does it die, but is eternal, entering the fetus at conception. One would assume that for Hindus that settles the matter: life begins at conception. However, some Hindu theologians teach that personhood is a developing thing, beginning at three months and reaching full flower at five months.
Buddhism: The consensus among scholars is that the Buddha taught that once consciousness manifests itself in the growing fetus, life has begun. One knows that consciousness is there by the embryo-fetus’ sensitivity to pleasure and pain and by the manifestation of will—such as by purposely shrinking away from pain.
There are other traditions, other beliefs but the above will do for now. While different faiths believe in different beginnings for life, all agree that life is sacred, something to be revered.
Possibly, those beliefs—those often wildly different and opposing beliefs—should be universally revered as well.
Possibly, too, the appearance of life should be something that can be made so simple in the explaining that even a toddler could understand it.And possibly, a toddler—who after all, is closer to the beginning of life than a politician or priest or Supreme Court justice—might just unknot this problem better than any of the rest of us grown-ups.