I am confused about conception. Not about the physical process. I have two children who are now in their 50’s. I think I understand the physical process of procreation fairly well. My confusion is about the significance of the moment when the sperm meets the egg. Many people believe that a PERSON is created at that instant. And it follows that destruction of that fertilized egg is equivalent to murder.
A fertilized human egg, called a zygote, certainly has the potential to become a human being, but most of them don’t make it. Most of them never attach to the wall of the uterus, so they die and are excreted with other waste materials.
Zygotes that succeed in attaching to the wall often undergo a spontaneous abortion called miscarriage. Sometimes a pregnancy occurs outside the womb, usually in the fallopian tube. This is called a “tubal” or ectopic pregnancy. The fetus never survives.
Even if these terminations of human life are not murder, for the people who view conception as the creation of a human individual, they represent the death of that individual. For those of us who emerge from the womb and are born, death usually results in some sort of death ritual…funeral, memorial service, cremation or burial, etc. But I have never heard of a death ritual for a fetus…or a zygote.
Let me digress for a moment. For religious people, God is the Creator of life. But if they believe that the sperm and egg are inanimate objects before conception, and immediately become a human person at that instant, then the man and woman who supply them are the creators of human life. In Genesis 1:28, God said “Be fruitful and multiply,” so I suppose he was delegating the creation of human life to us. But he also delegated the procreation of other species, so he wasn’t giving humans a unique capability. He gave exactly the same powers to all the other animals, and even to plants, although some of those poor unfortunates are condemned to perform asexual reproduction. (What did they do to deserve that?) So it doesn’t appear that humans were given any special creative power. Religions generally view human life as “sacred,” different from other life, and that is fortunate. Otherwise, raising and slaughtering livestock or killing a deer or even a duck on a hunt…even harvesting grain…would be tantamount to murder.
But back to the subject: When is a fetus a person? And shouldn’t we be holding services and wakes for all those zygotes that never attach, or attach in the wrong place, or get rejected by their host for whatever reason? We never even know about most of them, but should that ignorance be an excuse for not caring about them and mourning their passing? If we are going to take a moral position about the human status of a fertilized egg, then shouldn’t we be consistent in our treatment of all of them? If not, then we are just making meaningless gestures, and when we insist that others do the same, we are operating on very thin moral ice.
Now let’s talk about abortion, which is defined as the termination of a pregnancy and the destruction of the fetus. This is different from ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages, or zygotes that don’t attach. In this case, the zygote succeeds in attaching to the uterus wall and is in the process of mitosis…cell division. If left undisturbed, this will result in a growing fetus, and eventually, birth of a human baby if all goes well. Sometimes, all does not go well. Mutations, or an unfortunate result from the draw poker that determines the genetic makeup of the zygote, will cause birth defects that affect the survivability of the fetus. The result can be a stillborn baby, or one that is so badly malformed that it survives only briefly…and miserably.
Sometimes, the genetic mix might result in a person who would have been better left unborn…Hitler, Eichmann, Stalin, Vlad the Impaler or even Hannibal Lecter, the infamous serial killer. Are such monsters the result of the genetic poker hand they were dealt, or did experiences in their early life trigger such evil? Here’s a scarier thought: Do we all have, buried in our genetic code, latent evil, just waiting to be activated? Maybe those monsters were just ordinary people who happened by chance to get the wrong buttons pushed at some point in their life.
Of course, we have no way of knowing how any individual will turn out when they are conceived, or while the fetus is growing, or even when they are born, and for quite some time thereafter. The process is completely random, with most zygotes failing to make it all the way to birth. Each of those that fails is as unique as the occasional one that survives…just as every rock on the beach is different from every other one. When you pick one up and give it a toss, it doesn’t make it special.
Now let’s talk about the “sacredness” of a fetus. The Bible…in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers…makes some references to unborn fetuses. Here is an example:
“If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life. “– Exodus 21:22-23
This is a little vague, but as I interpret it, the killing of the fetus is bad, but certainly not murder. More like the accidental killing of livestock or a pet, and the perpetrator has to pay damages. That is distinguished from “mischief,” which sounds like murder, and then it is “life for life.”
When is a fetus…or even a baby…a person?
“Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. And Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD.” — Numbers 3:15-16
In Biblical times, a baby became a person at the age of one month…if it is a male. What about females? Are they counted at all?
Nowhere in the Bible can I find any reference to abortion or the prohibition of it, but I am sure that women of those times had access to “potions” made of herbs and roots that they used to terminate pregnancies. Some of them were probably poisonous or harmful to their health, but they were willing to endure that to end an unwanted pregnancy. Compared to those times, current medical practice seems much more humane, and certainly safer for the woman.
If the Bible doesn’t prohibit abortion, then where did the idea originate that abortion is bad? Organized religions have historically opposed abortion because every birth within the church is another potential follower…and contributor…to the church. This is how the power and wealth of the church were built. Abortion could only hinder that process. To this day, the Catholic Church opposes not only abortion, but any kind of contraceptive device or drug. In a world struggling with overpopulation, with millions of people starving, such policies seem misguided at best.
In the end, it comes down to each person’s opinion: Is abortion okay or not? The Scriptures are silent. When is a PERSON created? Maybe not until a month after birth, according to the Bible, and then, only if it is a male! Organized religions attempt to enforce their opinion, but religions differ on many issues, and our nation is based on the idea of religious tolerance.
Tolerance. If only we could just let each person decide such personal matters for him/herself. The Bible is ambiguous on this subject, but it is not the moral arbiter for many people. Those who follow its teachings, or the teachings of any other religion, have every right to do so. What they do NOT have the right to do is to impose their beliefs on others. But that is exactly what they are trying to do…in violation of our Constitution. Self righteousness is the antithesis of tolerance, and the parent of religious oppression.
Bringing children into the world is an intensely private matter…and so it should remain.