At the heart of the abortion debate: when does life begin?

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THE QUESTION:

When does life begin?

RELIGION GUY’S RESPONSE:

These four words are regularly asked in the current abortion debate, so let’s sweep the boundaries of pregnancy that have been drawn.

The pre-scientific cultures spoke of acceleration, usually between 16 and 18 weeks, when the mother first feels the unborn baby moving in her womb. A famous example involves the unborn child John the Baptist in the Bible Luke 1:41. Some ancient Jewish authorities of the Talmud, as well as Roman and Greek philosophers, assumed that the unborn child had “formed” earlier, in 40 days.

Then there is “viabilityWhen a fetus can live outside the womb on its own, usually reaches around 23 or 24 weeks, or a little earlier or later in individual cases. The United States Supreme Court legalized abortion before this point in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, and after viability when there are risks to the health of the mother, in the broad sense.

On December 1, the High Court hears a case from Mississippi, which challenged the Roe deer decision and prohibits abortions after 15 weeks. A Missouri law, also challenged in court, prohibits eight weeks when “whatever is present in an adult human is now present in your baby,” according to the American Pregnancy Association. The court temporarily left a ban in Texas (similarly in 13 other states) after six weeks, when the heartbeats can be diagnosed at what eventually becomes the fully formed heart.

Many modern Christians believe that life begins to design (the sperm meets the egg first) or implantation (the fertilized egg attaches to the mother’s womb) while some put the line a little later on twinning (after which multiple pregnancies do not occur).

Note the brief filed last month in the Mississippi case by pro-choice religions, including “mainstream” Protestant churches, non-Orthodox Judaism, Unitarian Universalists, and others. He says that “many religious traditions postulate that life begins at some point during pregnancy or even after the birth of a child. This perhaps refers to the judgment of some Jewish authorities that the baby does not become a “person” until birth, although this is different from when “life” begins.

Supreme Court pro-choice briefs argue that when “life begins” is a matter of religious “belief” and therefore is not for the government to determine. This claim is contested by conservatives such as Catholic author George Weigel, writing for First things magazine. “When human life begins, it is not a question of faith; it’s a question of science made, “he writes. People believe in the design line just as they” believe “that” the Earth is spherical, not flat; that Venus is the second planet in the solar system; that a water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom… “

Christians like Weigel are right if biological science determines the issue. It is indisputable that at conception, or immediately after implantation or twinning, a genetically unique entity in the human species exists which will automatically generate continued growth unless abortion or natural miscarriage occurs.

If so, then the question is not really “when does life begin”, which is firmly established by science. Rather, the problem that religions, judges, politicians and citizens face is when protectable life begins. Does this small living organism have an inherent value and a right to exist, counterbalanced by the mother’s right to abort? Why or why not, at what stage of pregnancy, under what circumstances, and who decides? This takes us beyond biology to moral decision making.

In this regard, the Catholic Church teaches that direct abortion is illegal even if it is performed to save the life of the mother. This is defined in the 1974 “Declaration on Induced Abortion” of the Vatican Doctrinal Office, ratified by Pope Paul VI. Even “a serious matter of health, sometimes life or death, for the mother” can never “confer the right to dispose of the life of another, even when this life has only just begun”. Pope John Paul II affirmed this in his encyclical letter of 1995 Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”).

The 2001 American Bishops’ Medical Directive notes that the Church does not prohibit treatments to cure “proportionately serious pathological conditions of a pregnant woman” which cannot be postponed at birth, “even if they result in death. death of the unborn child ”as a side effect.

Among Protestants, however, even conservatives and evangelicals allow abortion to save the mother’s life. The same goes for all branches of Judaism. Consider the 2019 New York State Viability Line policy statement issued by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis. He states that “there is no sanction for allowing abortion of a healthy fetus”, but if the mother’s life is in danger, then abortion is allowed, “even at a late stage”. The adjective “healthy” indicates that some Orthodox scholars allow abortion of “compromised fetuses” under “extenuating circumstances,” and some Protestant denominations agree.

The mother’s life exception has its roots thousands of years ago in biblical law (Exodus 21: 22-25). This passage concerns a pregnant passerby who is accidentally killed during a fight between two men. If she dies, the punishment for the killer is execution, but if only her unborn child dies, a fine is paid. On this basis, the Mishnah of Judaism insists that the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus in rare cases of conflict.

What does Judaism say about other reasons for abortion? The late bioethics scholar David Feldman compiled numerous rabbinical decisions with varying positions over the centuries in “Birth Control and Jewish Law” (1968). A 2019 article by Rabbi Rachel Mikva of Chicago Theological Seminary summed up much the same about the story behind today’s Jewish debate between “strict opinions” and “lenient interpretations” which expand “justifications based on the well-being of a woman”.

As Mikva observes, with the exception of the Orthodox, contemporary Jews are reluctant to “legislate on moral issues for everyone when there is plenty of room for debate,” and they take this position in the memories. current Supreme Court.

[Disclosure: The Religion Guy co-authored “Aborting America,” the autobiography of gynecologist Bernard Nathanson, an atheist at the time, who ran the nation’s largest abortion clinic but then turned pro-life.]


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