Extracts from 'When Does Human Life Begin? -
Christian Thinking and Contemporary Opposition'.
When does human life begin? This is arguably the most significant
question in the whole of bioethics. It is also the most frequently
asked. The answer you give will shape your thinking on practically
every bioethical issue, including abortion, assisted reproductive
technologies, human embryo experimentation, infanticide, stem cell
research, prenatal screening, cloning, contraception, euthanasia, and
so on. But, in particular, it will reveal your understanding of the nature
and status of the human embryo.
When does human life begin? It is certainly a big question. It
therefore demands a careful answer. Yet people are often dreadfully
confused about the beginning of human life – how strange it is that we
can be so unsure about when and how we began.
Some regard birth, or twenty-eight weeks, or viability, or fourteen
days, or implantation, as the decisive time at which human life begins.
The very range of these possibilities demonstrates just how arbitrary
each of them really is. They cannot all be correct. Indeed, each has
Suppose, for example, fourteen days is your answer. What then
is present a day before that? Is it non-human life? What about an
hour, or a minute, before? Is it then human non-life? Can you see the
philosophical, let alone the practical, predicaments produced by these
various options? The truth is that none is sufficient to count as the
defining moment before which there was something of no consequence,
but after which there is valuable human life. Can anyone say, without
intellectually blushing, “Before this or that developmental event, I was
not, but after it, I was”?
These, and a host of other ingenious beginning-of-life markers,
are bioethical smoke screens. They are used to avoid the sometimes
unpalatable, sometimes inconvenient fact that human life begins at the
earliest time point, namely, conception. Conception and fertilisation
are synonyms for what happens on day one. This is when a man’s
sperm fertilises a woman’s ovum. As a result of this irreversible event,
a new, genetically unique, single-celled entity, technically known as a
zygote, is created. This is the beginning of human life.
Why is it so necessary to answer this great question? Because
when you hear the news, read newspapers and discuss bioethical
issues, you are confronted with zygotes and blastocysts and embryos
and fetuses. You need to know what is being talked about. Are they
mere biological materials, or are they ‘one of us’? Are we dealing
with human life or something else? If so, what is it? We need to
establish and grasp the truth.
But how can we be sure, beyond any doubt, that conception is the
correct answer? Although there is much supporting evidence from
the biological and medical sciences and from other sources, such as
philosophy and history, the Christian will, above all, be interested in
what the Bible has to say. The primary purpose of this booklet is to
explain just that.
There is no school of thought, no religion, no book, no worldview
that expounds the nature and status of all human life from womb to
tomb like Christianity and its Bible – providing a cohesive, robust
and entirely reasonable set of answers. Biblical truths are reinforced
by evidence from science, though philosophies often misuse science
to contradict the Bible. That should surprise nobody – truth often has
this uncomfortable habit of clashing with the thoughts and ways of
If all human life is made in the image of God and therefore special
and intrinsically valuable from conception, then there is much in our
society that Christians must challenge. All deliberate destruction of
human life is wrong, whether by abortion, embryo experimentation,
contraception, euthanasia, or any other means.
Yet what do we find in our society today? Over 200,000 abortions
are performed each year in Britain.46 Unknown thousands of human
embryos are frozen, stored and destroyed by assisted reproductive
technologies. In addition, human embryos are either specifically
created, or obtained as excess ‘spares’ from IVF procedures, for use
in destructive experimentation. Embryonic stem cell technology
also means that human embryos are routinely destroyed in order to
harvest such cells. More and more sophisticated prenatal screening
techniques, including preimplantation genetic diagnosis, have been
developed to implement a eugenic ‘search and destroy’ mission against
the unborn who are suspected of being disabled. Non-reproductive
human cloning, including the creation of animal-human hybrids, is
now lawful as long as all such embryos are killed before 14 days. The
State promotes and supplies morning-after pills to schoolgirls under
the pretext of ‘emergency contraception’ yet knowing that one of its
modes of action is abortifacient. There is a vociferous, well-funded
campaign to change the law and permit acts of euthanasia. This is a
sad, sad list. Some have called our society ‘a culture of death’.47 It is
an apt title.
This ‘culture of death’ demands an informed and caring Christian
response – a response of principled compassion. Principled compassion
is that combination of credenda and agenda, of thinking and acting,
that is deeply rooted within the ethical framework of the Bible. And it
is the Bible that calls us to pray to God for His mercy, and wisdom and
the courage to act accordingly.
These pages began with the one great question: “When does human
life begin?” and the challenge to answer it carefully and satisfactorily.
You may now agree with this booklet’s basic proposition that there
is only one truthful answer, namely, conception. But this seemingly-
simple one-word answer has far-reaching consequences. Consider
just three. First, there is our obligation to be in awe at how we, and
all human beings, are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in His image
(Psalm 139:14; Genesis 1:27). Second, there is the need for us to be
transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we will know how
God wants us to live for Him (Romans 12:2). Third, there is the call for
us to practise principled compassion – to protect, defend and cherish
all human life. May it be so!