The Question of When Life Begins

When does life begin? This is the question Pastor Rick Warren put to both Senator McCain and Senator Obama. Obama cited the complexity of the question and said the answer was above his paygrade. McCain quickly answered, “at conception.”

Obama then said that those of us who believe life begins at conception have a fundamental difference of opinion than he does and that we would never agree. He went on to suggest that we could find things we have in common and work together to reduce the number of abortions.

Today I’ve been musing specifically about when life begins. Is it really so complex a question?

My high school biology teacher taught me the fundamentals of an area of science known, coincidentally, as Life Science. The cells of living things are constantly replicating themselves in a process called mitosis.  In layman’s terms, mitosis has the following steps:

  1. Interphase is the term used to describe the time when the cell is preparing to divide.  During this phase, the cell copies its genetic material and organelles.
  2. Prophase is when the chromatin (basically, unorganized chromosomes) becomes organized into chromosomes.  The nuclear envelope of the cell begins to break down and spindles begin to form at opposite ends of the cell.  Think of spindles as long strings that can grab chromosomes.
  3. Metaphase is when the chromosomes get lined up in pairs with the help of the spindles.  Remember, in interphase each chromosome was copied.  The identical pairs line up together, like twins.
  4. Anaphase is when the twins are split up.  The spindles pull the chromosome pairs apart to opposite  ends of the cell.
  5. Telophase is when the jelly in the cell divides into two cells called daughter cells.  The two sets of chromosomes huddle up into a nucleus, one in each new cell.  Voila!  The cell has now reproduced

But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s a video of a cell dividing, courtesy of YouTube:

Why the biology lesson?  Aside from all moral implications and legal maneuverings, we can see that the definition of life as we know it is whether or not cell division is occurring.  If cells are dividing and growing, then the organism is alive.  When a person dies, his or her cells stop dividing.

Why, then, was the question so difficult for Senator Obama to answer?  Why do he and others genuinely believe that the question is too complex?

Would he be able to agree with us on the timeline of when life begins for a plant cell?  When does life begin for a cow?  Biologically speaking, when the cells of an organism grow, multiply, and specialize, then it is, by a scientific definition, alive.

The question of when does life begin did not even appear on the horizon until people learned how to terminate a pregnancy without harm to the mother.  Of course society frowned on the practice when dirty coat hangers or sticks were used and the woman ended up, more likely than not, either dying from the procedure or else so scarred that she became infertile.  But when abortion became safe and legal, when the spotlight shone on the woman’s right to do with her body — and her baby — as she chose, people immediately went on the defensive and called into question whether a fetus is really a life until it is born.  It’s very easy to rationalize our behavior that others find immoral, isn’t it?

When I was a college student, there were activities I was involved in that clearly were not in line with God’s teaching about right and wrong.  I rationalized those activities because I wanted to be in charge of my own life.  I told myself that the Bible was written a long time ago and that there were parts of it that were not applicable to life in today’s world.  But deep down, I knew better.  He who protests the loudest is often the most guilty.  In an effort to legitimize my own sin, I turned my back on what I knew to be truth.

In the same way, Senator Obama and others like him who skirt around the issue of whether life begins at conception turn their backs not only on moral truth, but also on scientific truth.

The litmus test for life should be:

Is cell division occurring?

If so, then the organism is alive.

And if the organism is alive, under what grounds is it morally and ethically okay to terminate it?  Our country  (not to mention the Bible) has laws that specify when it is okay to kill another human being.  In some states, for example, it is legally permissible to kill a person in self defense.  We also have laws that prohibit killing wild animals except during certain seasons, like deer season, and prohibit killing other endangered species.  But there are no laws prohibiting us from using pesticides to get wipe out disease-carrying mosquitoes or that keep us from squashing a spider in the bathtub.  There are also no laws that prohibit us from squashing a human fetus before it is 20 weeks old.  An eleven week old group of dividing human cells — a fetus — has developed these perfect little feet:

Do these feet belong to something that has life?

William Wilberforce was a politician in Britain who stood up for truth in the midst of incredible criticism back in the days when black people were slaves and were not even treated as humans.  He led the charge to oulaw the Slave Trade and eventually slavery altogether.  It took nearly his entire life, but he persevered.

With all my heart, I wish that one of our candidates for the presidency could stand up and say about abortion, as Wilberforce wrote about the Slave Trade,

In every small question of politics, there appears to me room to consider the times and seasons.  But where a real moral evil is in question, a man who fears God is not at liberty.  Even if I thought that the immediate Abolition of the Slave Trade (abortion) would cause an insurrection in our islands, I should not for an instant stop my endeavors.  Be persuaded, then, if I would not stop because of insurrection, I shall even less sacrifice this grand cause to motives of political convenience or personal feeling.”

The blinding of so many about the truth standing in front of us is the work of powers and principalities, and our fight is not against Senator Obama and others who support abortion rights.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
-Ephesians 6:12-13

When the day of evil came for Britain, William Wiberforce took his stand.  There has been much said about the religious right and its single issue focus on abortion and abolishing Roe v. Wade.  I encourage those of us who know that life is a sacred gift not to be terminated for reasons of convenience to fight first with prayer and then with scientific knowledge.  But let us not vilify Obama and others who aren’t yet convinced.  God isn’t finished with me yet, and He sure isn’t finished with us as a country.  He can sway hearts and minds much better than we can.

Are cells dividing?   Is growth occurring?  Are cells specializing?

Then yes, this 20 week old group of multiplying cells is most definitely alive.

2 thoughts on “The Question of When Life Begins

  1. Excellent viewpoint. However Obama knows exactly when life begins. He also while in the Illinois senate refused to vote for legislation outlawing infanticide.

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