Ethics and the Beginning of Human Life

Greg Strand – December 19, 2012 10 Comments

Megan Best, medical doctor and bioethicist, has authored a new book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: Ethics and the beginning of human life (Kingsford NSW, Australia: Matthias Media, 2012), on the biblical teaching of the beginning of human life and the moral and ethical issues surrounding this teaching. Best “is passionate about the value of human life and has been involved at both state and federal government levels in the development of Australian legislation regulating the treatment of unborn humans.”

This is an important issue that all of us face or will face in one way or another. Often good resources for Christians from a Christian perspective are limited or not available. This is one of those invaluable resources.

In The Preface, Best explains the reason for and goal of writing this book (pp. 9-10).

I have written this book in response to many requests from Christians who are struggling to find the information they need to think clearly about the morality of reproductive technology. I write from the perspective of believing that human life begins at fertilization and deserves protection from that time. . . . The book will be particularly relevant to those who hold the Christian Bible as authoritative, and want to see how it can be applied to modern reproductive dilemmas.

D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament at TEDS, writes the following commendation of the book:

At last – a single volume examining beginning-of-life issues that is equally competent in biology, theology, philosophy and pastoral care. Scarcely less important, Dr. Best’s book is admirably clear, simple without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overly complicated. This is now the ‘must read’ book in the field, a necessary resource not only for pastors, ethicists, and laypersons who share her Christian convictions, but also for anyone who wants to participate knowledgeably in current bioethical debates.

John F. Kilner, Director of Bioethics Programs, Franklin and Dorothy Forman Chair of Christian Ethics and Theology, Professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture at TEDS, who also served as the first president and CEO of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity from 1994-2005, writes this of the book:

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Dr. Megan Best, is a well-researched book that is easy for a broad public to read–an unusual combination! Compassionate toward people who need medical treatments for illness or “reproductive assistance” for infertility, she offers wise counsel for pursuing these endeavors in life-affirming and God-honoring ways. This is one of the very best books on this topic.

It is encouraging to know, as stated by Best in the Acknowledgements, of the influence of Trinity International University, our EFCA school, and one of its ministries, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity* and their influence in the writing of this book (p. 7): “The book was greatly enhanced by the generosity of a grant from The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, USA, through their Global Bioethics Education Initiative.”

This material can be purchased through Matthias Media in the following ways:

*For those who may not know of this wonderful ministry, here is an explanation from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity website:

The Center is a bioethics research center at Trinity International University and is one aspect of the University’s Bioethics [at Trinity] initiative.  Our mission, “exploring the nexus of biomedicine, biotechnology, and our common humanity,” designates our commitment to anticipate, interpret, and engage the pressing bioethical issues of our day. As a center of rigorous research, theological and conceptual analysis, charitable critique, and thoughtful engagement, we seek to bring clarity to the complex issues of our day.

 

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

10 responses to Ethics and the Beginning of Human Life

  1. I have not read the book by Dr. Best, so I’m not sure how relevant my question is to what was discussed in the book.

    I am sure the following question has been raised and answered before, but I don’t know the Biblical response to it.

    In Lev 17:14, “For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; …”

    Since a baby’s heart typically starts to beat at week 5 or 6, at which time blood starts flowing, could that mean the baby is not ‘alive’ in God’s eyes until the heart starts beating?

    What is the Biblical response to this question?

    • Thank you for commenting, Arthur. Welcome to the blog after a number of exchanges through email. In essence, life begins at conception, not some point at which certain functions mark the beginning of life. The problem with a functional definition of life is twofold: 1) there is no definitive determination of what function qualifies as the beginning of life; 2) that has a profound implication on what we conclude about those infants who have not yet reached the stage of life and what we can do with them.

      Here are some biblical texts: Psalm 139:13-16; Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:1, 5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:31.

      And I encourage you to buy and read Best’s book.

      • When a person’s beating heart ceases to beat, it is determined definitively that life for that person has ended.

        Why then when a person’s heart starts to beat does it not qualify as definitive in determining that life for that person has begun?

      • Stephen Schwarz points out that there is no morally significant difference between the embryo that you once were and the adult that you are today. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in this discussion/debate (The Moral Question of Abortion [Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990] p. 18).

        From this one notes that level of development is not a determiner of when life begins or the importance of life. Though it is true that embryos and fetuses are less developed than the adults they will become, but all that they are and will become is there from the beginning, from conception, not at some point post-conception. This is what makes the notion of the beginning of the life or the importance of life some point after conception based upon some developmental stage misguided and wrong. (This notion is taken from Scott Klusendorf’s defense of the sanctity of life defended by the acronym SLED: size, level of development, environment and degree of dependency as non-essential differences.)

  2. My previous post regarding life beginning with a heartbeat, should be taken in the context of Lev 17:14

    • Hello Greg,

      The mainstream pro-life arguments that the life of the whole human person begins at conception, is becoming clearer to me.

      I’ve read what Scott Klusendorf, Maureen Condic, Diane Irving, and others have written on the subject. They are forthright in stating that their arguments are based on scientific and philosophical grounds, and do not include Biblical/religious/theologically based arguments.

      Consequently, they are only looking for evidence of life in the ‘body’ of the person in the womb; i.e. the physical, biological portion of the human person. And since the person’s ‘soul’ is outside the domain of science, it is not allowed to be considered in the discussion.

      And it is precisely the ‘soul’ that God refers to in Lev. 17:11,14, that enlivens the flesh/body, and makes the human person whole.

      So, it is true that the life of the body of the human person begins at conception. But it is not true that the whole person’s life begins at conception. Indeed, the soul, which is the very essence of what makes a human person human, that differentiates us from animals, is not present at conception, but only later when the heart starts to beat.

      As I mentioned in an email to you earlier, if such a Biblical position were adopted by society, it could save up to 1 million fully alive human persons from abortion; i.e. those abortions that occur after the fourth week, when the heart starts to beat. But insistence on the incorrect understanding that the whole life of a human person begins at conception lessens any possibility of such a position ever being taken seriously.

      Regards,
      Art

      • Arthur, Evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and who also affirm the significance and importance of imago Dei and the sanctity of human life, believe that from conception the person is a person created in the image of God, which includes the soul. Though what you state has been an argument of some, viz. that the the fertilized egg does not become a person until some later date, e.g. the beating of the heart, as you previously wrote, or when the fertilized egg is “en-souled,” this is all there in the human person from conception.

  3. As you say, Evangelicals “believe that from conception the person is a person created in the image of God, which includes the soul”.

    And as an Evangelical myself, as defined by you, I have also always believed that human life began at conception. But I also believe, as Klusendorf stated, ‘If we care about truth, we will courageously follow the facts wherever they lead’.

    Paul states in 1 Thess. 5:23, ‘Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, … ‘ From this Scripture the fully formed human person consists of a body, a soul, and a spirit.

    And Lev.17:11,14 is the only place in the Bible where it is clearly stated that the ‘soul’ is only present in the body when the blood is present. And the definition of the ‘soul’ in Lev 17:11,14 can be understood to include the ‘spirit’.

    As I have stated before, it could rationally be understood from many other verses, that the person in the womb is only fully and completely ‘created in the image of God’ after the blood is present, at which time the ‘soul/spirit’ is imparted by God. And prior to the presence of blood only the ‘body’ of the person is present.

    So my question is: “How do Evangelicals understand Lev. 17:11,14 and conclude and argue that the ‘soul/spirit’ is present at conception?

    If you are unsure, then please refer me to one (or more) of the aforementioned Evangelicals whose writings include a discussion of Lev. 17:11,14 in substantiation of their belief that ‘from conception the person is a person created in the image of God, which includes the soul’.

    • In Leviticus 16, Moses includes instructions from God for the Israelites regarding the Day of Atonement, i.e. how the people of God can live before God with sin committed against God. God provided forgiveness through the sacrifice of animals and the shedding of blood.

      In Leviticus 17, Moses delineates the place of sacrifice, and then includes the words you reference in verses 11-14. The context of this reference to blood is not primarily a statement about biology, but theology. Additionally, it refers to the meaning and significance of animal blood, not human blood. This text addresses blood sacrifice, and the statement refers to the fact that when blood is shed there is no longer life. That is to say the life is in the blood. When the blood is shed, there is no longer life.

      This foreshadows the blood shed by Christ, our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), who gave His life in death on the cross, shed his blood (Heb. 9:14, 26; 10:19-25), without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22), and through belief in Christ those of us who are dead spiritually receive life.

  4. The question posed was: “How do Evangelicals understand Lev. 17:11,14 and conclude and argue that the ‘soul/spirit’ is present at conception?”

    Lev. 17:14 “For as for the life [soul/spirit] of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life [soul/spirit].”

    These verses can reasonably be understood to indicate that the soul/spirit of a human person is imparted by God into the human persons’ body when the heart starts to beat and blood starts to flow.

    These verses refer to ‘all’ flesh, including human flesh, as indicated by Heb. 10:4, ‘For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’, and Heb. 9:14 ‘how much more will the blood of Christ, …, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God ?.

    And it is more a statement about the whole life of a human person, which includes the soul/spirit in addition to the body, and not so much a theological, academic statement.

    I have read all of the relevant portions of Dr. Best’s book new book ‘Fearfully and Wonderfully Made’, as well as Stephen Schwarz’s book ‘The Moral Question of Abortion’.

    Neither book addresses the question posed regarding Lev. 17:11,14, even though Dr. Best’s book seemed to me to be a comprehensive overview of all sides of the abortion debate including the Biblical, Christian perspective.

    In any case, if your response to the question is the clearest response we have to the meaning and significance of Lev. 17:11,14 as it applies to abortion, then we have yet to seriously address the question posed above, or so it seems to me.

    Likewise, if we do not take more seriously the implications of Lev 17:11,14 when it comes to abortion, then I’m not so sure how seriously we are taking Klusendorf’s statement, ‘If we care about truth, we will courageously follow the facts wherever they lead’.

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