There are very few people in the United States today that do not recognize the names Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Connor. Reports indicate that Connor was killed while still in his mother's womb - and his father has been charged with double homicide. This is a horror that is almost beyond imagination.
As the police arrested Scott Peterson, Connor's father, and charged him with the murder, not only of his wife, but also, of unborn Connor some pro-abortion groups cried out in protest. They said that it was "dangerous" to charge someone in the death of a "fetus" that has yet to be born. The danger they referred to was not danger to the children but danger to legalized abortion in our country. Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood said, "If they are able to make fetuses people in law with the same standing as women and men, then Roe will be moot."1
It was amazing to watch the press ignore the term "fetus" and refer to Connor both by name and as Laci's baby. There seemed to be an evolution of thought that this was more than just something inside of Laci's body, but was actually a human life that had been ended.
This tragedy once again has raised questions as to when does life begin and when does a baby in the womb have legal protection under the law? Newsweek magazine in the June 9, 2003 issue raises the question on the cover -"Should A Fetus Have Rights?" In the on-line edition Newsweek has a poll asking for views on fetal rights. 67% say that the fetus should have "the same rights accorded children and adults"; 21% say they should have "the same rights, but only after they are viable outside the womb"; and only 12% say "none until they're born." While the website states that this is not a "scientific" poll, it does give the views of over 43,000 people (at the time of this writing).
Christians have long believed that life begins at conception. When the sperm and egg are united and a unique life is begun. They have quoted such beautiful descriptions of in utero life as Psalm 139:13-16:
13 For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother's womb.
14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
16 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.2
One of the reasons for this changing view as to the rights of the unborn child is the emerging medical technology that is able to look into the womb and get a clearer picture as to what is taking place there. According to Newsweek reporter Claudia Kalb, "Twenty-five years ago scientists knew little about the molecular and genetic journey from embryo to full-term fetus. Today, thanks to the biomedical revolution, they are gaining vast new insights into development . . ."3 One of the leading fetal surgeons, Dr. Joseph Bruner of Vanderbilt University, says, because of new medical technology, "instead of some mysterious thing inside her belly, a mother and her family can now identify a little human being."4
Bioethicist Hadley Arkes, of Princeton University, was interviewed for the Newsweek discussion on this important issue. When asked, "What rights does a fetus have?" he replied, "On what grounds would one consider a child in the womb as anything less than a human being?. . . so the right not to be killed for a casual reason or an insubstantial reason would not depend on the height or the weight of the baby - or its degrees of articulateness or even consciousness."5 Later in the interview Arkes is asked, "So when does life begin?" - his answer may surprise some - "The leading textbooks on embryology say it's when the union of two gametes, a male gamete or spermatozoon and a female gamete or mature ovum . . . on the medical side there is no dissent on this matter."6 He goes on to say that in the current debate over both abortion and fetal rights, "people are not arguing over the science, they're arguing over the social definition of a human being."7
Another important article in the "life debate" was published in the May, 2003 issue of First Things. The article, "Life: Defining the Beginning by the End", was written by Maureen L. Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology & Anatomy at the University of Utah. Dr. Condic's basic question is "What defines the beginning of human life?" The debate on this question has intensified over the past years and usually hinges on religious or secular presuppositions. Dr. Condic argues that perhaps we would do well to have the same standard for the beginning of life as we do for the ending of life. She says that when it comes to death, this is "something that most people readily recognize when they see it . . . there is very little debate and argument about the difference between a living person and a corpse."8
The key to understanding death, according to Dr. Condic, is that the cells of the brain "cease to work together in a coordinated manner to function as a brain should . . . death occurs when the body ceases to act in a coordinated manner to support the continued health function of all bodily organs."9 There are still cells that are individually alive, but they are unable to work in a "coordinated manner." That is, they cease to be a living organism.
What does the nature of death tell us about the beginning of life? According to Dr. Condic, from the "earliest stages of development, human embryos clearly function as organisms."10 Some try and say that from the early days of fertilization the embryo is simply a clump of cells. Dr. Condic says that this is clearly not the case. She says, "Embryos are not merely collections of human cells . . . embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury . . . mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances."11
Dr. Condic makes a compelling argument that "embryos are genetically unique human organisms, fully possessing the integrated biologic function that defines human life at all stages of development, continuing through adulthood until death." She goes on to state that "the ability to act as an integrated whole is the only function that departs from our bodies in the moment of death, and is therefore the defining characteristic of 'human life'."12
It is amazing that the longer we live, and the more research that is done, the closer science seems to "catch up" to the Scriptures. It appears that David's description of the beginning of life is not refuted, but rather is affirmed as medical technology allows us to look further into the womb to observe the beginning of that miracle of developing life. When David expresses that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" he is describing the process that begins with conception and culminates in the birth of the child.
Today it is not only the malicious criminal acts, such as in the Peterson case, that end precious little human beings in the womb. There are more sterile methods that take perfectly viable babies and end their lives brutally as in the procedure known as Partial-Birth Abortion. While it is true that we in the Pro-Life camp believe that all abortion is taking a human life, Partial Birth Abortion is a particularly heinous act.
We must continue to seek to be faithful to God's purpose for life and we must be ever vigilant to speak the "truth in love."13 As the U.S. House of Representatives debates the partial-birth abortion ban, which the Senate has already passed, let your Representative know that you support the ban of a procedure that brutally ends a life. President Bush has already stated that he will sign this into law as soon as it reaches his desk. In the fight for life this may not be all that we desire to see, but it is certainly a good first step.
Senior Policy Analyst for Cultural & Worldview Studies
American Center for Law & Justice
1 Newsweek, "The War Over Fetal Rights", by Debra Rosenberg, June 9, 2003, p. 43
2 Quotes from New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.
3 Newsweek, "Treating the Tiniest Patients", by Claudia Kalb, June 9, 2003, p. 48
4 ibid, p. 49
5 Newsweek, "The Capacity is There", June 9, 2003, p. 46
8 First Things, "Life: Defining the Beginning by the End", May 2003, p. 50
9 ibid. p. 51
10 ibid. p. 52
11 ibid. p. 52
12 ibid. p. 54
13 Ephesians 4:15 - "but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,"