I have written an e-book, Does the Bible Really Say That?, which is free to anyone. To download that book, in several formats, go here.
Creative Commons License
The posts in this blog are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. In other words, you can copy and use this material, as long as you aren't making money from it, and as long as you give me credit.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

When Did I Begin: Response to Comment

Bonnie wrote a comment to a post of mine, some time ago. Here's what she said (I added the emphasis):

Wow. Very interesting, Martin, thanks for posting this.

It seems that Ford's whole argument is based on differentiation, or lack thereof.

I've never considered the fact that the precursors of both the embryo and placental material are present in the zygote to be relevant to the question of when a human life begins, nor have I considered the ontology of the twinning process to be relevant either. I still see the differentiation process as irrelevant to when life begins.

Before embryonic/placental differentiation has occurred, the cells that will become the baby are still there. Even if the differentiation that will reveal twins doesn't occur before a certain number of days has passed, the cells that will so differentiate (euphemistically referred to as "potential") are still there. They are still part of the developmental continuum. I wouldn't think that they change ontologically any more than any future differentiation changes the ontology of the developing human individual.

Unless I'm missing something?

She probably didn't miss a lot. However, I shall respond.

The real question, of course, is when life begins, or, really, when an individual human life begins. To Ford, (see previous post) a biologist, such life begins when, as he says, there is "a distinct living ontological individual with a truly human nature that retains the same ontological identity throughout successive stages of development." Since the earliest human embryos can become more than one adult, through twinning, and since the cells of the very earliest embryos are not yet part of a coherent individual, dependent on each other, or, probably, even all necessary for normal further development, the earliest human embryos don't meet his criteria.

He also points out that, in very early mouse embryos, embryos may fuse, so that what was originally as many as three embryos becomes a single individual. (We don't know if this is true with humans, and Ford, nor I, am suggesting that we try the experiment.)

Other thinkers might argue that it makes no sense to suppose that an early embryo has a soul, until it has a nervous system sufficent to "hold" one, and that a human life really begins when that occurs. (As I understand it, however, no one really knows what a soul is, or how a soul interacts with the nervous system, or even, for certain, if it does.) Historically, there were some apparently pretty orthodox believers who thought that the soul, and the beginning of human life, happened at quickening, when the fetus could be felt by the mother.

The question of when an individual human life begins is one that God knows, of course. However, humans should want to determine God's answer, using all the evidence available. As a human question, it is not strictly biological, although biology, including neurobiology and embryology, may help to answer it. It is a theological, philosophical, legal and political question. I am personally unclear about when individual human lives begin. Bonnie, and many others, have a clear position. For them, the answer is that individual human life begins at conception. She holds consistently to that position regardless of what is going on with the cells involved, and she may be right to do so. (I don't believe that everyone who holds that position has considered arguments like Ford's, and some of them may not have even considered that identical twins come from a single fertilized egg.) I don't think that there is clear scriptural evidence for this position. Therefore, I believe that it is possible to be a Christian, and disagree, for biological, and even scriptural, reasons, or at least to question begins-at-conception belief. Ford, apparently a practicing Roman Catholic who agrees with his church's position on abortion, is one such Christian. I believe that scripture, itself, leaves some room for doubt on the matter. I also believe that it is possible to oppose most or all abortions without agreeing with the begins-at-conception argument.

It is unfortunate, but true, that, in many cases, people come to the Bible looking for support for a position they have already taken. I guess I'm glad I don't know how many times I have done it myself, God forgive me. We also do the same thing with science (consider some of the claims made for embryonic, or adult, stem cells, for example). I am not accusing Bonnie of this, and I am confident that she hasn't done it, but would cite one unfortunate example. "Choose life" is the motto of many organizations that oppose abortion. That's scriptural, indeed. But it comes from Deuteronomy 30:19, which says "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; (ASV)." That verse is about choosing to follow God fully, in all aspects of life. The passage says nothing directly about pregnancy, abortion, or any such thing. I believe that believers should be very careful not to attribute things to scripture that it doesn't say, and this strikes me as one such example. It seems to be the result of looking for support for a pre-existing position. See here for another example. (In this example, I refer to the results of a Google search a couple of years ago. Such a search today gives significantly different results.)

Christians can, and, I think, should, oppose most or all abortions. I don't believe that you can find a rock-solid case against slavery in scripture (I have found only one verse in the NT that clearly opposes it, and there are some passages that seem to allow it), but Christians years ago were 100% correct in opposing slavery, and working for its abolition. I'm glad to say that my own denomination was involved in that opposition, when it mattered. In a similar way, I don't believe that you have to be convinced that scripture teaches that individual human life begins at conception to oppose abortions.

In summary, to quote myself, quoting Ford: ". . . the Catholic Church's well-known opposition to abortion, at any stage of development, is on ethical grounds, not on the grounds that a zygote or very early embryo is philosophically equal to a baby or adult."

Ford, or I, may, of course, be wrong, either about when individual human life begins, or, in Ford's case, about whether the Catholic Church believes that a zygote is the philosophical equal of a baby.

Thanks, Bonnie, for the comment!

No comments: