Having defined what a human person is, when does a human person begin? It is equally important to have a well-reasoned answer to this question in order to determine the morality of abortion.
For the thoughtful Christian, there are two ways to approach this question: biblically and philosophically. There are good reasons to believe the Bible is God’s inspired word (I’ll post articles on this next, as it is assumed here and not yet defended). Therefore it is reasonable to consult the text of Scripture to begin forming an answer to this question. Knowing the biblical teaching is also most helpful when discussing this issue with others who share the conviction that the Bible reveals God’s mind on the matters it addresses.
It is also important to reflect philosophically on this question. We can learn a great deal via “general revelation.” Roughly, this is what we can discover as we observe the world around us and think through the implications of these observations. The book of Proverbs is replete with such observations (for instance, Proverbs 6:6 instructs us to “consider the ant” and draw inferences concerning the value of hard work). Approaching issues such as this via general revelation is especially helpful when in discussions with those who do not agree the Bible contains God’s revelation.
In this article, I’ll explore what can be known about when a human person begins from both sources of knowledge. The answer that emerges from both is the same: it is most reasonable to understand human persons as beginning while in the womb, and most reasonably at the moment of conception.
The Data from Special Revelation
Scripture is quite clear concerning when human persons begin to exit. Consider Jeremiah 1:5:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.
God says he knew Jeremiah from the moment he formed him in his mother’s womb. God began forming Jeremiah at the moment of conception. Therefore Jeremiah began to exist as a person (and known to God as such) at that moment.
Isaiah proclaims he existed and was called by God, from the time he was in his mother’s womb:
Listen to me, O islands, And pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb; From the body of my mother He named me.”
Isaiah assumes he was a person while in utero, which was necessary for him to be known and called and named at that early point in his life.
The Psalmist is clear that God was active from the very earliest moments of his life, “weaving him together” in his mother’s womb:
For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. (Psalm 139:13-16)
Job laments the night when he was conceived:
Let the day perish on which I was to be born, And the night which said, “A boy is conceived.” (Job 3:3)
Here the day he was born and the night of his conception are both referred to as important moments in his life, which he wished had never occurred. Furthermore, it is a boy who is conceived, not an embryo that will at some later point become a boy.
The biblical data seems clear that a person begins at conception. The burden of proof is on the one who interprets these passages otherwise.
The Data from General Revelation
Insights from both biology and philosophy also indicate life begins at conception. Biologically from the moment of conception the “zygote,” “blastocyst,” “embryo,” and then “fetus” (or better and more simply, the very young, very small human person) begins on a developmental journey that, if allowed to continue, will result in a birth and continued maturation to adulthood.
This maturation process is an unbroken chain of developmental changes from the moment of conception. To arbitrarily break the chain into “pre-human” development and “post-human” development is biologically unjustified. Therefore it is most reasonable to conclude the person begins at conception.
Philosophically, there are good reasons to believe we are a soul-body unity (known as substance dualism—for a discussion and defense of this view see my previous article here). Furthermore, in week two of this series, we saw that a person is an individuated human nature—a human soul. Therefore, when the soul is present, the person is present. Though some believe a body can exist before a soul is present, it seems more plausible that the soul and body exist together as a deep unity (known as Thomistic Dualism—see my series linked above for more on this).
If this is the case, it is the soul that gives form to the body. Technically, though the two come to be at the same point in time, the soul is ontologically prior to the body and causes its existence (the soul’s existence, or being—“ontos” in Greek—causes the bodies’ existence).
An example may help understand how two things can come to be at the same time, but one can be ontologically “prior” to the other. In philosophy, this is known as a “thought experiment”—a sometimes silly example that allows us to wrap our minds around a complex issue. Consider God choosing to create a couch with a bowling ball on it—poof! At that moment three things come to be: a couch, a bowling ball, and a depression on the couch cushion. Notice the bowling ball is causing the depression in the couch cushion. Therefore, though the bowling ball and the depression come to be at the same moment in time, the bowling ball is ontologically prior to the depression—the depression exists because of the bowling ball.
This thought experiment illustrates that it is logically possible for two things to come to be at the same moment, yet one to be ontologically prior to the other. Therefore it is logically possible that the soul and body come to be at the same moment in time, yet the soul is ontologically prior to the body. So since, as I’ve argued in the series linked above, Thomistic dualism is the best way to explain the relation of our soul and body, it is also the best way to understand the soul and body in utero.
In this case, the soul constructs a body to reach specific “ends.” Recall from post two in this series that the soul has a range of capacities it seeks to “actualize” ( to fully realize or to fully get “in play”). One set of capacities are physical capacities (abilities to interact with the physical world to obtain certain ends which require a body). Therefore the soul goes to work immediately to construct the body that will accomplish this end.
The Nature of DNA
The discovery of DNA provides further support for this view. Consider the DNA double helix. On first blush, it may seem to be a physical thing. But “look” again. To thoroughly analyze what the DNA double helix is requires some philosophical spadework. First, recall the nature of identity (Leibniz' Law of the Indiscernability of Identicals, discussed here). For two things to be identical (for instance, for DNA to be identical to any given physical construction of nucleotides), they must share all properties in common. Yet they do not. The physical DNA strand can lose parts and gain parts—nucleotides can and are replaced over time. Yet it remains the same DNA. So we find that DNA does not change, but the specific physical constitution of any given double helix does change. Therefore they necessarily are not identical (again, given Leibniz' Law). DNA is not the same thing as any given particular strand of DNA. (This is the same reasoning that applies to our sameness as persons throughout the changes to our bodies discussed here.)
So what is DNA? It turns out to be a set of relations. Relations are metaphysical entities that “connect” (in a non-physical way) two relata (the two things that are related). The relata may be material, such as the glass and the table, which are physical things, in which case the glass stands in the “on top of” relation to the table. The relata may also be immaterial, such as the numbers two and three (not the numerals, which are written somewhere, but the immaterial numbers (universals)—see here for this distinction), in which the number three stands in the “greater than” relation to the number two.
DNA is a case of the relata relating physical entities, viz. the nucleotides standing in a specific relationship in the DNA double helix. Therefore, taken as a whole, DNA turns out to be a set of relations, which structures nucleotides in certain ways. However, relations, by definition, are not physical things, even though sometimes their relata are physical. Therefore, the essence of DNA (its being—what it ultimately is) is a set of immaterial relations among nucleotides. DNA is ultimately immaterial.
This tells us that the immaterial soul constructs DNA by instantiating immaterial relations between material components (nucleotides) to construct the DNA molecule to obtain its end of forming a body to reach specific ends that are true of the human soul-type (specifically interacting with the physical world in specific ways).
In sum, there is good philosophical support for the view that we are a soul-body combination that co-exists temporally—the soul and body come to be at the same time. Therefore, when there is a body (even at its earliest stage—at conception), there is a soul (an individuated human nature—a person) present. Furthermore, the soul’s presence is necessary for the body to even develop, from the very first moment, via the construction of DNA. Therefore, a person comes to be at the moment of conception.
There seems to be solid data from special revelation, as well as general revelation (biology and philosophy) that a human person begins at conception. Next week I’ll consider some objections raised against this conclusion. Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae. For a deeper analysis of the ontology of DNA see Richard J. Connell’s Substance and Modern Science.