Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Concepts of Conception

Human sperm and egg uniting to form a zygote, the single-cell first stepp in the process of human development.
As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on abortion ethics as they do (and do not) relate to the Bible. I’ll be publishing posts as I get to them, which means they probably won’t be punctual or regular. Regardless, I welcome your comments and discussion!
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Perhaps the most significant question in the abortion ethics debate has to do with when life begins. This may not be the best phrasing of the question, since in some sense life is continuous—every step of the process of reproduction involves living cells, from the parents’ gametes to the newborn baby, with no break or period where the tissue in question is not alive.

The question, rather, is when a new person begins, and within that are several other questions. Is the beginning of a new person’s life determined by natural laws or determined by societies and cultures? Does full personhood appear in an instant, or does it accumulate gradually? Does personhood bring with it all of the rights of a full, adult member of society? How do the rights of this new full or in-process person stack up against other people’s rights (particularly those of the person who is pregnant?

Those who hold strong anti-abortion beliefs often answer that “life begins at conception.” In other words, personhood is attained at the earliest possible moment, and with it the unmitigated right to life.

Yet even within this formulation there is uncertainty. The American College of Pediatricians (an unabashedly conservative and anti-abortion organization that should not be confused with the mainstream American Academy of Pediatrics) admits that conception is a process that takes nearly 24 hours and that there is disagreement about when in the process life begins: when the sperm enters the egg, when genetic recombination is complete, or when the first DNA replication leading to cell division occurs. Others have tried to push “conception” even further forward in time, making it synonymous with an embryo’s implantation in the uterine lining.

These debates are interesting, but they are difficult to square with the idea that the Bible (or any biblical text) affirms the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. None of the fine biological distinctions or the logic that underlies them would have meant anything to anyone living in, around, or for at least 1500 years after the times when biblical texts were being written. Ancient medical practitioners were keen observers and knew a good deal about the process of reproduction, but there is only so much they could learn without access to ultrasounds, microscopes, and arthroscopic cameras. The uterus was something of a black box, and the earliest phases of gestation were the most unknowable. Presumably some information about later stages of fetal development could be gained from miscarriages and still births, but there was little concrete knowledge about early pregnancy.

I’ll get into some evidence about what various ancient writers did know or theorize about reproduction in the next post, but for now I just want to underscore the vast chasm that separates our own understanding of conception from the one(s) held by the composers of biblical texts and their peers. Honestly, I think that “conceive” may be an unintentionally misleading translation in modern Bibles, because those of us educated in the medicalized modern world reflexively link the word itself to precise and imperceptible biological events and processes. I usually opt for the translation “be/get pregnant” instead, because it feels more vague and informal and focuses more on the change in the woman than on the product of conception.

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Recognizing this difference in views of conception raises several questions: How could a crucial ethical distinction be based on an event no one knew was happening? How could a text (divinely inspired or not) communicate that distinction to an audience who had no context for it? 

To be clear, these questions don’t inform the ethics of abortion directly (I’ll get to that in later posts). They do, however, present problems for those who seek to base their opposition to abortion directly in the Bible (and especially in an inerrantist or other originalist reading of the Bible), and I don’t see these problems addressed or even acknowledged often enough. 

That’s it for today! Stay tuned for next time: ancient writing on sex and pregnancy!

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