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Give Me Five (Weeks of Pregnancy)!

Five or so weeks after conception: This is when Christians should view a new human life as a “person,” according the Kyle Fedler, Chair of the Religion Department at Ashland University in Ohio.

Fedler made his case on January 17 in the second of what will be nine presentations on “The Moral Status of the Human Fetus,” at Loma Linda University. This is the 2008 Jack W. Provonsha Lectures Series. It is organized by LLU’s Center for Christian Bioethics. Mark Carr is the director and Dawn Gordon is the manager.

His proposal was an endeavor in Christian bioethics. It said nothing about what the law should allow. That is another issue.

Fedler reviewed a number of passages that Christians use in support of the full personhood of the fetus. Some of these speak against shedding human blood (Gen. 9) and on the desirability of having many children (Gen. 13, 15). Other passages depict God interacting with prenatal human life (Isa. 49, Jer. 1; Ps. 139; and Job 10). Still other verses use brephos, a Greek word for “child,” when they declare that John the Baptist jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she heard the greeting of Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1).

Fedler also referred to two passages that seem to accord less than full personhood to the fetus. In one of these (Num. 5), the priests are instructed to give women who are suspected of being unfaithful to their husbands a potion that will cause them to abort if they are guilty. The second passage (Gen. 2) states that at creation God breathed “into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Some infer from this passage that the new life should not be viewed as a person until he or she can independently breathe, Fedler reported.

He spent the most time on the most controversial of all the passages:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exod. 21:22–24 NRSV)

In the New Revised Standard Version, the lighter penalty of a fine is appropriate if the woman miscarries but experiences no further harm. If she, the woman, is harmed above and beyond this, the more severe penalty is required.

In the New International Version the woman does not miscarry; she prematurely gives birth to a living infant. If this is all that happens, the fine applies. But if the outcome is worse, then the greater punishment is required.

In the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew, the distinction is between an “unformed” and “formed” fetus when the woman miscarries. In the first case, the fine is the penalty. In the second, it is the more drastic “life for life, eye for eye.”

Felder followed Richard Hayes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) in seeking guidance from seemingly unrelated passages that may actually be more helpful. One of these is the story Jesus told about “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25–37). Another is the sacrifice of Christ in the incarnation (Phil. 1:5–7).

To be a “person” in the biblical sense of the term, Fedler contended, is to be an individual who either has the ability to be in relationships or this potential. He held that this begins to be possible at four or five weeks of gestational age because this is when it is clear that the central nervous system is beginning to form. He emphasized that there is no “definitive moment” before which nothing matters and after which everything does.

Although I respect and appreciate the care with which Fedler examined the various interpretations of Exodus 21, I find it unnecessary to do so because this passage is embedded in material that tells us how the ancient Israelites were supposed to act, not what we should do. The very verses in question portray the woman as the property of her husband who deserves to be compensated if she is harmed. This suggests to me that no one should appeal to them either way. These verses are valuable as history but not as ethics.

But why choose the first month or so? It seems to me that implantation is the most dramatic change in an otherwise relatively smooth process. Once it has successfully implanted, the new life has the potential, meaning the inherent power, to become a human person and that as gestation normally progresses it increasingly moves toward this outcome.

I think it helpful to distinguish more sharply than Fedler did between possible persons (sperm, ova or un-implanted embryos), potential persons (implanted embryos) and actual persons (fetuses or infants that can live independently of their mothers with full medical support).

We can see from words like omnipotent, impotent, and potentate that the word potentiality refers to inherent power. Potentiality is much more than possibility.

This suggests that those of us who are Christians should be much more hesitant about terminating an established pregnancy than discarding or using in research or therapy embryos that have not implanted. Although this provides much opportunity for studying and using stem cells, it amounts to a strong ethical presumption against abortion and this presumption intensifies as the pregnancy normally progresses.

Presumptions are not absolutes. We can override them. But the burden of moral justification in any specific case rests upon those who would do so. A Christian woman who is considering an abortion is the one to make this case and she should do so to her own conscience. She is the one who has the final say.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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