Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fertile Biblical Debate

The hinge for many arguments about stem cell research is the same as for the abortion debate. When does personhood begin? Since, I recently made a post referring to abortion, I thought I would follow it up with a position statement on that topic.

I think the least-read entry on my blog so far is one from last month concerning the theological concept of concordism. I want to come back to that term now in conjunction with a presentation of one Christian perspective that is consistent with the moral use of human embryonic stem cells in research and to an extent does not rule out a pro-choice political perspective.

What follows is a lengthy post by someone without theological training, but who is committed to the struggle of reconciling his personal religious, political and scientific world-views. My intent is not to draw you to anger, but to understand a perspective on abortion that you might have yet to consider.

First, some reminders about concordism:
  • Concordism is the view that the biblical accounts, when properly understood, will be in agreement with scientific accounts of the natural world.
  • The extent that individuals attempt to reconcile conflicting biblical statements with each other and with what scientific study has demonstrated depends on whether that individual pursues a verse that supports his or her opinion or tries to assemble a comprehensive concordist explanation.
  • Concordism occurs in both the literalist approach to interpreting the Bible and in the position that the text concerns the relationship between God and his creation rather than a scientific account written in a pre-scientific era.
I have identified several verses from the Bible that are commonly cited as support for personhood occurring at fertilization. Quotations are from the New International Version, available free here.

These include:

Psalm 139: 13-16
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Job 31:15
Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?
Jeremiah 1:5
5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."

Each of these point to God's knowledge and creative activity before birth. This could refer to omniscience or activity even before fertilization. No specific comment on fertilization occurs here. In fact, Jeremiah 1:5 emphasizes God's relationship with Jeremiah even prior to his conception. It is a relationship verse rather than an explanation verse, but some strict concordists might disagree.

Other frequently cited sections in the abortion dialogue are:

Job 3:3
3 "May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, 'A boy is born!'
Isaiah 49:1
1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name.
Psalm 51:5
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Luke 1:41-44
41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
Luke 1:15
15He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.
Galatians 1:15
15God set me apart from birth (OR from my mother's womb, depending on translation) and called me by his grace.

None of these say anything precise about the origin of personhood. One of them even makes a nice prescription against pregnant mothers drinking alcohol.

The major references to personhood are:

Exodus 21:22-25
22 "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Numbers 5:11-31
(A long passage about what is to be done if a woman is suspected of unfaithfulness to her husband that treats the husband and wife as the only persons involved in a cleansing ritual. The swelling of the abdomen is fully part of the woman. An irreverent interpretation may be found here.)

These last two actually suggest that personhood is not immediately present at fertilization. In order for one to draw a conclusion about fertilization, a concept from modern science must be retroactively applied to the ancient words. For example, some folks like to think of the unformed body in Psalm 139:16 as the morula or blastocyst (stages of development that occur days after fertilization), but it could just as easily be a 'twinkle in your father's eye' or cosmic dust.

Why are these verses so often cited as supporting a pro-life political perspective? My guess is that people try to apply science and what we know about life today to text from the Bible written long ago. I think that it is wrong to apply new meaning to old words, particularly if you consider them sacred, holy, or (separate from religious significance) just an important account of a moral code.

It is within their right for fellow Christians to offer perspectives that differ with mine regarding this issue. I begin to take offense when people uncritically accept others' uses of words from the Bible - what I consider a catalyst for God's relationship with humans - to support political perspectives that are at the periphery of what it means to be a Christian, and then tell me that my reading is wrong.

So if there are any atheists out there who use the refrain that moderate Christians are complicit with fundamentalists by not speaking out, here is one voice saying, "Wait a minute!"

Thanks to an article by Robert Boomsma for helping identify these verses.

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