When Does Human Life Begin?

Time to read: 4 mins

Should we experiment on human embryos? Is abortion wrong? At what stage of development should the law protect human life? The answers to these questions all hang on the answer to a more fundamental question – when does life begin? With October 2017 marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in the UK, and the World Health Organisation reporting that 56 million abortions take place each year worldwide [Note 1], it is important to know what the Bible teaches about these questions.

Human life is special

‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.’ (Genesis 1:27) This is our starting point – mankind was created by God and in the image of God. At creation man was made righteous in God’s sight and enjoyed a unique communion with him. Before the creation of man we read five times that God looked at what he had made, ‘and God saw that it was good’. Then on the sixth day comes a change, God created man and set him over the rest of creation, and in Genesis 1:31 we then read that ‘God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.’ Human life was the crowning glory of God’s creation, something special and different.

Contrast this with the almost universally accepted evolutionary worldview. This teaches that we are simply products of time and chance, with no special place or greater purpose in the universe than any other creature. Is it any surprise that our society takes a much lower view of human life than the Christian does? If we are no more than a random collection of atoms and molecules, which have come together by chance, then what is wrong with euthanasia, abortion, human embryo destruction or other forms of violence? These things should not surprise us when coming from a culture which does not hold human life to be special.

When does human life begin?

‘Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations’, (Jeremiah 1:5) makes it clear that God knew Jeremiah and had chosen him as a prophet even before he was conceived in the womb. We also read of John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb of Elisabeth when Mary came to visit with the baby Jesus developing inside her – here is clear evidence of spiritual life in the unborn child (Luke 1:39-45) [Note 2]. David speaks further of God watching over him as he was growing in his mother’s womb (see Psalm 139:13-16). These, and many other scriptures make it clear that life begins before birth. However, is it possible to say exactly when? This is something regularly asked and debated.

The Bible doesn’t give an absolute answer, but the passages we have looked at clearly point to life beginning at conception. Jesus, who came to earth as a real man, did not appear as a new-born baby, but was conceived of the Holy Ghost, in Mary, and from this point grew in her womb the same as all human embryos, further pointing to conception as the starting point of life.

We can also think about this biologically, the fertilised egg (zygote) which is formed at conception is genetically complete. The DNA from the sperm and egg have come together to form a genetically complete and unique entity. All that is required for it to develop into a foetus, an unborn baby and then a new-born child is nutrition and protection from harm; exactly the same needs as a newborn baby has if it is to grow into a teenager, and a teenager into middle age and so on. From the time of conception through to a natural death there is no logical place to draw a line and say that life begins now – we must therefore conclude that life begins at conception.

God – giver, sustainer, taker

God is the giver of life (1 Timothy 6:13), he sustains life (Acts 17:28) and he takes life (1 Samuel 2:6). For us to bring about an unnatural death at any point from conception onwards is to seek to take God’s authority upon ourselves and to place ourselves on his throne as Lord over all things. The sixth commandment – ‘thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13) – could not be any clearer and this applies to all human life from conception to the time of a natural death.  All human life is precious in God’s sight and as stewards of his creation we must seek to preserve life, not to destroy it.

So the questions we started with can be answered. Human life is to be preserved from conception through to a natural death (whenever God decrees that to be) and anything which goes against this principle should to be avoided and rejected.

Note 1: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2017/unsafe-abortions-worldwide/en/

Note 2: The question of when life begins is distinct from asking at what point a human being receives a soul. One is a biological question, the other is more of a theological one. On the subject of when the soul is received Christians have held many different views. However, the arguments put forward in this article about when human life begins hold true whatever your beliefs on when the soul is received.

[A00051 – 21/10/2017

2 Comments on When Does Human Life Begin?

  1. I accept when life begins and when the soul is given are different, the first biological and second theological. However surely the join is important.
    Isn’t it the soul that makes the human life sacred? if not why do we not place animal life as the same as humans? If it is what makes human life sacred then when the soul does pop into the bundles of cells does become important in regards the abortion debate.

    • The key point in the article is that from the very moment an egg is fertilized, that single cell has all the genetic information required for it to develop. If it is nurtured and protected it will grow into an embryo and onwards to adulthood. At some point (maybe at conception, maybe later – Christians have different views) it will receive a soul.

      You are quite right that a fundamental distinction between animals and humans is the human soul. However, regardless of when a human embryo, foetus or baby receives the soul, what is certain is that it will at some point if protected and nurtured. This ‘potential’ is what is important, because it means that even before ensoulment (if there is such a time!) that collection of human cells is special and distinct from other living creatures. This is what makes abortion so wrong at any stage of pregnancy.

      Even if we accept the premise of your comment – that before receiving a soul a human embryo is not ‘fully human’ – given the theological uncertainty on when a soul is received, the only option that does not leave us at risk of a murder charge in God’s court is that we should never abort a human pregnancy at any stage.

      A final point to reflect on is that we can get too focused on the rights and wrongs of abortion itself, and forget that it is really a symptom of the wider godlessness in society. There are some very hard cases thrown up by the abortion topic – whilst writings strongly against it I would try not to be judgemental – however in general selfishness and / or hedonism are the root cause.

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