Human baby at 6 weeks in the womb
When Does Life Begin?
By Dr. Chris Richards — Elder of All Saints Presbyterian Church; Consultant Pediatrician and Director of Tyneside Pregnancy Advice Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Reprinted from: The Banner of Truth Magazine, June 2020
One of the glorious works of God is the creation of new human life (Isaiah 42:5 and Zechariah 12:1). The creation of an eternal spiritual being, made in the image of God, is an event worthy of our highest praise and most serious attention. With the advent of a new life, neither the world nor eternity is ever the same again. The event is largely hidden from us in the darkness of the womb and much mystery surrounds it. Yet it is important, if possible, to define when this momentous event takes place because this knowledge has profound spiritual and practical implications. Timing the start of life determines when we ascribe all the protection and privileges of life to the small and vulnerable embryo and has ethical implications for the use of some contraceptives, the practice of in vitro fertilization, and our understanding of miscarriage.
Evidence for life in the womb
The technology of ultrasound has opened our eyes to events that were previously hidden in the mother’s womb (Psalm 139:15). We see the steady development of “an intricate unity” (Job 10:8). Four weeks after conception parents can see the heartbeat which is no more than a poppy seed in size. Six weeks later, they can see their child gulping amniotic fluid and kicking, though without ultrasound the mother would be completely unaware of such movements for a further five to eight weeks. After seeing such images, most parents attending our pregnancy centre need no more convincing that a new life has been entrusted to them which needs their love and protection.
The Bible asserts what scientific revelation, in the form of ultrasound, suggests: that human life starts in the womb.
Conception is a gift from God. Leah discovered she was pregnant with Zebulun and proclaimed, “God has endowed me with a good endowment” (Genesis 30:20). The unborn child is made by God in the womb (Job 31:15) as the work of a master craftsman with great skill (Psalm 139:15). The Bible describes the continuity of life that runs from creation in the womb through to adult life: “Your eyes saw my substance being yet unformed. And in your book they all were written…” (Psalm 139:16). The Bible recognizes both the physical and spiritual activity of womb life. Jacob and Esau struggled in the womb (Genesis 25:22), John lept for joy at recognition of Jesus in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:44) and from the womb Paul was called for a life of godly service (Galatians 1:15).
(See Chapter 3 of Abortion: Open Your Mouth for the Dumb, by Peter Barnes, published by the Banner of Truth Trust, for further biblical references to life in the womb).
Just how early?
We can conclude from science subordinately and the Bible supremely that life begins in the womb. But can we be more precise in timing? Over the centuries implantation, quickening and independent viability have all been proposed as marking the beginning of life.
Yet many scientific facts support the presence of life from fertilisation. The unique genetic sequence present in all the cells of the human body has its origin in the single cell formed at fertilisation from the fusion of sperm and egg. One cell division after another enables a continuous process of growth and development from embryo to fetus to newborn to child to adult. In such a way the genetic sequences that determines many of an individual’s unique qualities and characteristics permeates the entire body. We should note how powerful and tenacious this process of development usually is; any deliberate attempt to halt pregnancy, even early on, requires a destructive intervention through medication or surgery.
Despite these observations, the presence of life from fertilsation is hotly disputed. We must be careful not to expect too much from science which may have some capacity to describe signs of life and the process of development, but which will not be able to prove the moment when God forms “the spirit within him” (Zechariah 12:1).
For this we need to turn to the Bible. As with the creation of the heavens and earth, and of Adam, God has not left us in ignorance.
Several verses refer to very early life in the womb. David writes in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” The Hebrew literally means “…my mother became hot with me”; by inference this is taken to mean conception. Because David must have been alive in order to sin, we can conclude that he was alive from conception. However, the verse does not inform us whether conception is identical with the forming and uniting of body and spirit.
Evidence from the incarnation
The extraordinary events of the incarnation give us more precision. The Spirit overshadowed Mary, at which moment Jesus was conceived. The second person of the Trinity now had come to earth from heaven in the form of man. The Spirit mediated the creative power of the Godhead that enabled the Virgin Mary to be with child (though the Spirit is not to be misunderstood as the father of Jesus in place of an earthly father).
At what stage of embryonic / fetal development was Jesus conceived? It was certainly very early. Soon after Mary’s conception, the glorious presence of Jesus was recognized by her cousin Elizabeth and son John, who was himself of six months’ gestation (Luke 1:41-45).
But we can go further. We can be as bold as to maintain that the conception of Jesus, that is the start of hypostatic union (the union of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one person), coincided with the appearance and uniting of Jesus’ human body and spirit. Consider the alternatives:
That a human entity was present in Mary before hypostatic union. What would have been its origin? Since there was no earthly father, the human entity could only have been formed at the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, at which moment Jesus must have existed in his divine nature as well.
That the human entity developed in Mary for some time separate from but alongside the divine nature of Jesus. This would constitute delayed hypostatic union. But it is an historical heresy to consider Jesus’s divine and human natures separated even for a time. According to the Athanasian Creed the incarnation took place by “the taking up of humanity into God; utterly on, not by confusion of human and divine being but by unity of Christ’s one Person.”
We must surely conclude with Bavinck: “the human nature formed in and out of Mary did not for a moment exist by or of itself — but from the earliest moment of conception was united with, and taken up into, the person of the Son.” (Herman Bavinck, Dogmatics 3:291)
What does this tell us about our beginnings? Jesus was qualified to redeem us because “in all things he had to be made like his brethren” (Hebrews 2:17), being “of one substance with us as regards his humanity” (Council of Chalcedon, Act V). Though the means of the incarnation was unique, He was “like us” from the first moment of His physical appearance. If life began for Jesus then, so it did for each of us.
God brings honour to the embryo
God has been “mindful of man” (Psalm 8:4) by coming to earth in human form (Philippians 2:7). This included the small, vulnerable and dependent embryo. Through the incarnation God has “crowned” even the tiny embryo with “glory and honour” (Psalm 8:5). As God has so honoured the embryo from the very earliest stage of development, so must we in all our attitudes and actions towards him.
God redeems from our earliest moments
Jesus came to redeem life, and this includes the life of the unborn child. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “What was not assumed (taken on in form) was not healed (redeemed)” (Letters 101.5). The unborn child has a sinful nature and therefore, needs redemption from the earliest moments in the womb (Psalm 51:5). Such an act of redemption is only possible because Christ was conceived in his mother’s womb. Redemption is not only possible for the greatest of sinners but also for the earliest of sinners.
The conclusion that life begins at conception clarifies our position on abortion. All interventions that end or have the potential to threaten the unborn child from conception are proscribed. This obviously includes millions of medical and surgical abortions performed each year around the world. These stand as a horrific witness to the tendency of sinful man to trivialise or brutalise the small and vulnerable. In contrast, God exhorts us to respond to “the poor and needy” (Psalm 82:4) with special care and attention. This must stir us to come to the rescue of those who cannot defend and speak out for themselves.
After over fifty years of oral contraception, it has become clear that the use of artificial sex hormones to separate procreation from sexual union is difficult to do effectively and precisely. The so-called “morning-after pill”, taken to prevent the progress of pregnancy after unprotected intercourse, works in a number of ways including the prevention of implantation, and, therefore, the killing of the early embryo. Some contraceptives including the progesterone-only pill and the intra-uterine device (IUD) may sometimes work in the same way.
Assessing the impact of other hormonal contraceptives is difficult. The “bottom line” is that any contraceptive that sometimes permits “break-through” pregnancies (by use or forgetful misuse) is failing consistently to prevent ovulation, and therefore fertilisation, and so runs the risk of also killing a viable embryo by preventing implantation. Those hormone preparations that are more powerful at suppressing ovulation (e.g. the so-called high-dose oestrogen pill) are also more likely to give rise to unwelcome long-term side effects. (For a detailed discussion see the Christian Institute’s Contraception: a Pro-Life Guide, by Dr. O. E. O. Hotonu, especially Appendix 1, “Can the pill cause the loss of an embryo?”)
Despite the biblical and scientific arguments set out above, some may remain doubtful about the timing of the start of life. We may also be in doubt about how a particular contraceptive acts. In such circumstances we must surely follow the biblical principle of avoiding any potential threat to life (see, for example, rules about building a safe parapet in Deuteronomy 22:8).
The practice of IVF necessarily involves the laboratory handling of the early embryo after fertilisation. Inevitably this exposes the embryo to dangers that are quite different from those of a natural conception. Parents (and laboratory staff) must be at peace about this moral responsibility. The risk becomes greater if, as is often done, more than one embryo is produced either for immediate implantation or, with even greater risk, for long-term storage. Many contemporary Christian ethicists advocate minimising risk by limiting the use of IVF to married couples where only one (or perhaps two embryos) are created and implanted at each attempt.
The reality of life in the womb from conception has a profound influence on how we understand miscarriage, even at a very early stage of pregnancy. Very little is known about the natural survival rates of the early embryo on the journey from the site of fertilisation in the fallopian tubes to implantation in the womb. This is a time of “radio silence” when the mother has no symptoms of pregnancy and laboratory tests cannot detect the embryo. The moment that implantation occurs, a hormone is released from the early placental tissue. This gives rise to the first symptoms of pregnancy such as nausea and a missed period, as well as a positive pregnancy test. No doubt some embryos die before implantation without the mother knowing about it. God is gracious in hiding from us some of our losses.
Yet once a woman is aware of being pregnant and then goes on to miscarry, we can expect a grieving process. This is the experience of many, and in itself is a testimony to the reality of life in the womb. Such grieving is not simply for the disappointment of dashed hopes of raising a child nor an emotional response to a changing hormone environment, although both may contribute. Because life starts at conception, there has been an actual loss of a life. Such knowledge helps to make sense of the strong emotions of grief that many miscarrying parents feel. It also helps those supporting them to take their loss seriously and share lovingly in their grief.
In the wide range of contemporary moral debate the abortion question occupies a central place. To the majority of people today the termination of an unwanted pregnancy is regarded as a woman’s unquestionable right. But can this right ever take precedence over the unborn’s right to life? In this booklet Peter Barnes argues for the biblical teaching that the unborn baby is in God’s image and so protected by the sixth commandment. He exhorts us to open our mouth for the dumb (Prov. 31:8).