Friday, November 12, 2010

When does personhood begin? A biblical perspective

I recently saw a video in which a local pro-life pastor, in discussing the issue of abortion, broaches the question of when "personhood" (not life) begins -- whether it is at conception, or quickening, or a certain stage of brain development, etc. What's troubling is that it appears he's not really sure of the right answer, although he then offers a strong argument for why abortion is wrong regardless (along the same lines as my thoughts here), and earlier he offers powerful theological reflections on why abortion is wrong.

But does his uncertainty about personhood make sense? First we need to determine what he means by that term. He could mean "personhood" in the sense of an acquired moral status -- e.g., you and I come into existence at one point, but only become "persons" with value later on -- but that seems unlikely, since it should be clear according to the pastor's own biblical perspective that we have dignity by virtue of the kind of thing we are (creatures made in the image of God), not because of characteristics we may gain or lose, and thus we have that dignity at all stages of our lives. It follows on that biblical view that all human beings are persons, including the unborn from conception.

More likely, he means "personhood" as a nature or identity. So the pastor is uncertain about when I (what I am, a God-created soul) came to be: at quickening, or brain waves, or whatever. That's fair enough. But it seems clear to me that the Bible teaches a continuity of personal identity throughout the life of a human organism, which we know -- from the science of embryology -- begins at conception.

Consider Psalm 51:5: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." Consider also Luke 1:41-44, Psalm 22:10, Job 31:15 and many other passages. Writers in both the Old and New Testaments use the same word to refer to unborn and already-born children, indicating that they share the same nature.

So, the Bible affirms a continuity of personal identity throughout the life of a human being, and also teaches that we are valuable (such that it is prima facie wrong to kill us) by virtue of what we are. It follows that I was once an embryo and a fetus, and that I had the same basic moral status then that I have now.