Is a fetus a "person"?
How to respond biblically, reasonably, and scientifically
Yes, this question matters
Our culture is often confused regarding the personhood of unborn babies. At least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, including Massachusetts (where I pastor), but abortions don’t count as breaking those fetal homicide laws. Some years ago, the mother of an 8-1/2 month unborn baby was struck by a vehicle and the unborn baby died of internal injuries. The driver of the vehicle was charged with vehicular homicide because of the unborn baby’s death. The vehicular homicide statute in Massachusetts says that if you are driving drunk or under the influence of drugs and you recklessly operate a motor vehicle so that you endanger people and then cause "the death of another person," you are "guilty of homicide by a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating substance" and you"ll be imprisoned and fined. So, the crucial legal question in this case was whether the 8-1/2 month unborn baby was a "person." If so, the driver would be convicted under the vehicular homicide statute. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that “a viable fetus is within the ambit of the term ‘person’ in the vehicular homicide statute.” So, for the purposes of this Massachusetts law, a viable unborn baby is legally a “person.” “Viable” means they can survive outside the womb. 50 to 70 percent of babies born at 24 to 25 weeks can survive outside the womb.
Here’s the terrible inconsistency and confusion. If you kill a viable fetus at 24 weeks gestation by drunk driving, you have killed a person according to Massachusetts’ case law. If you abort a viable fetus at 24 weeks gestation, it’s perfectly legal. The mother gets to choose whether the 24 week-old baby inside her is a living human being (a "person") or a cluster of tissue that can be destroyed. If the mother wants the baby, the baby is a "person." If she doesn’t, the baby isn’t. This gives the mother a sovereign right to decide whether the baby is a human being or not. But that is not her right. It is God’s right. Our culture has removed God from the equation and therefore we are very confused.
What is the relationship between personhood and development?
Much of the conversation around the rights of an unborn baby comes down to whether it is considered a human “person” or not. It may be objected that, even if God forms and loves unborn babies, it’s not wrong to abort them. God forms and loves flowers, but it’s not wrong to pick a flower (even though doing so guarantees it will die). If unborn babies are not living persons, abortion is justified.
In thinking through this, we need to consider the biblical perspective but also learn to interact with the prevailing philosophies (and science) of our day. How do these various sources speak to this issue and can a rational argument be made to defend the personhood of a fetus?
Biblically, personhood precedes consciousness
The Bible provides numerous indications that God does consider unborn babies to be living human beings. It’s worth noting two in particular.
First, the Bible uses the same words for an unborn child as it does for one who has been born. The normal Hebrew word for a born "child" (yeled) is also used of unborn children in Exodus 21.22 ("When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm..."). The Greek word brephos refers both to infants (Acts 7.19: the babies killed Pharaoh’s command; Luke 2.12: the baby Jesus) and to John the Baptist while he was in his mother’s womb (Luke 1.41, 44).
Second, the biblical writers assume a fundamental continuity between a pre-born child and a child who has been born. In Psalm 139.13-16, David, while speaking about himself as a pre-born baby, uses first person pronouns. He says "...you knitted me together in my mother’s womb." The pre-born baby was David.
In the Bible, personhood precedes consciousness. As theologian and ethicist John Jefferson Davis has written, “Personhood denotes not merely conscious, postnatal human, but all members of the human species, those who are genetically distinct human entities with their own unique life trajectory and developmental futures” (See John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics). In refusing to draw a stark line between the personhood of a born child and a pre-born child, the Bible is true both to our common sense and to our experience.
Do developmental differences affect personhood?
One helpful way to think about the question of whether an unborn baby is a living person is to consider four basic differences between a preborn baby and a newborn baby, and ask whether these differences are sufficient to make one of them a human being and the other not. Author Scott Klusendorf uses the acronym SLED in laying out these four basic differences: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency (See Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life). Let’s briefly consider each in turn.
Pre-born babies tend to be smaller than newborn babies. Does that make them less human? Is size a factor in considering whether someone is a human being? Of course not. Short people are not less fully human than tall people. No one believes that if you go on a diet and lose weight, you’re less human than you were before. Size isn’t a relevant factor in determining humanity.
Level of development
Anytime we speak of the development of a pre-born baby, we should be moved to worship. Babies inside the womb develop incredibly rapidly. By just 45 days after conception, the unborn child has all the internal organs of an adult (in varying stages of development), a mouth with lips, and buds for twenty milk teeth. By eight weeks, the hands and feet are formed. By nine weeks, a child will suck his thumb and bend his fingers around an object placed in his palm. He can do a somersault and a backflip. By ten weeks, a child squints, swallows, frowns. By eleven weeks, he urinates. Even though this development is remarkable, pre-born babies, particularly in those earliest weeks, are less developed than newborns. Does that make them less human? Is level of development a relevant factor in whether or not someone is a human being? Of course not. A ten-year-old is much more physically and mentally developed than a one-year-old, but that doesn't make the ten-year-old more fully human. Level of development does not determine humanity.
A pre-born baby is inside his mother, while a newborn baby is outside his mother.
Does that make the pre-born less human? The question here is: does where you are (your environment) make you more or less human? Clearly not. An astronaut on the moon, or a diver at the bottom of the sea, is still fully human. Where you are doesn’t change who you are.
Some may argue, however, that a pre-born baby is not just inside her mother; she is actually part of her mother’s body, and therefore the mother should be allowed to abort her. This assertion doesn’t hold up. Unlike the mother’s liver, or lungs, or legs, a pre-born baby has a genetic code that is distinct from his mother’s; often his blood type is different, and his gender is different (if he’s a boy). In fact, in order not to be rejected as a foreign body, the pre-born needs to produce a special enzyme beginning on the sixth day after conception; otherwise, he can’t attach to the mother’s womb and be nourished. Reason and common sense make this clear. In the year 2000, the US House of Representatives voted 417 to 0 to "delay capital punishment of a pregnant woman until after delivery." Why did everyone vote that way? Because it’s plain that a pre-born baby is not part of his mother’s body. He has distinct rights, independent of those of his mother. Randy Alcorn notes that: "No stay of execution was sought or legislated for the sake of the mother’s tonsils, heart or kidneys." And Alcorn goes on to point out the terrible irony that, "Under the law, the only absolutely protected unborn child in America is one whose mother is on death row" (See Randy Alcorn, Why Pro-Life?). The fact that the pre-born baby has not yet taken the journey of eight inches down the birth canal does not make the pre-born baby less human than the newborn.
Degree of dependency
A pre-born baby is more dependent on her mother than is a newborn. Does level of dependency make a pre-born baby less human? No, it doesn’t. Someone with a mental illness or a physical disability is no less human than a healthy person. A one-year-old is more dependent on his parents than a ten-year-old, but is not for that reason less human. Degree of dependency does not determine humanity.
We must conclude that size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not determining factors in whether or not someone is human. From the moment of conception, a pre-born baby is a distinct, living, and whole member of the human species. An embryo has a unique chromosomal structure. An embryo is alive: he or she reacts to stimuli, converts food to energy, and grows. An embryo is a member of the human species: she comes from human parents and has the genetic composition of a human being. A pre-born baby is fully human. As Garrett Kell once said, “If we found on Mars what we find in the womb, there would be no doubt life was discovered.”
This means that abortion is the taking of a human life. It is a sinful act that dishonors God,
assaults his good work, and attacks human beings made in his image.
A testimony of scientific regret
A 2018 article in The Atlantic quoted a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University who discussed the strange reality in modern medicine that some medical centers will “perform surgeries on genetically abnormal fetuses while they’re still in the womb,” and “many are the same age as the...fetuses aborted in the second or third trimester of a mother’s pregnancy.” This neonatologist said, “The more I advanced in my field of neonatology, the more it just became the logical choice to recognize the developing fetus for what it is: a fetus, instead of some sort of sub-human form.” “It just became so obvious that these were...developing humans.”
In May 2008, abortionist Lisa Harris wrote a stunning article in which she described two experiences from her work. First, Harris described aborting a baby at eighteen weeks gestation. At the time, Harris herself was pregnant and her baby was also at eighteen weeks. As Harris was dismembering the other baby during the abortion procedure, she felt her own baby kick inside her, one of the first movements she had felt. She describes her reaction. “Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes – without me – meaning my conscious brain – even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling – a brutally visceral response – heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics. It was one of the more raw moments in my life.”
In the same article, Harris described performing an abortion on a patient who was 23 weeks pregnant. After she finished the abortion, she had to go on overnight call for the labor and delivery unit of the hospital. The first patient that night prematurely delivered at 23-24 weeks. The neonatal intensive care unit resuscitated the newborn baby and connected the baby to a ventilator. Lisa Harris stood watching the baby along with the parents and thought about how bizarre it was that earlier that day she had legally aborted a fetus of the same age, but that it
would be illegal and “unspeakable” (her words) to kill the baby she was now watching. Harris
continues to believe abortion is justifiable, but her own testimony strongly argues for the opposite conclusion.
God loves unborn babies and considers them fully human. Therefore, abortion grieves and
angers him. We sin against God himself when we abort babies. Proverbs 14.31 says, "Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him." Abortion is an insult to the God who creates babies in the womb. Conversely, working to protect and defend the unborn honors God himself.
The debate is about more than “personhood”
Those considering an abortion often don’t contemplate the decision in purely rational, logical terms. For them, it’s likely not just about a philosophical or biblical argument regarding when life begins. The implications of this reality are very important: even if an expecting mother is persuaded that the baby inside her is a living person, she may still go ahead and have an abortion.
One abortion clinic founder and director said that 15% of the patients at her clinic think abortion is wrong but decide to get one anyway. A study was done some years ago of pro-choice women, and it found that the humanity of the baby was often not the determining factor in whether a woman would have an abortion. In a 2013 Salon article entitled “So what if abortion ends life?” the author strongly endorses abortion on demand even though she believes that life begins with conception. Her main point in the article is that it’s okay to abort even though abortion is ending a human life, and she thinks the pro-choice camp (of which she’s a part) has wrongly felt the need to argue that the baby isn’t actually a full-fledged human being.
This means it’s necessary but not sufficient for Christians to make the case (from the Bible or
philosophy or science or logic) that unborn babies are fully human.
When women feel like they have no “choice”
Many women consider an unplanned pregnancy to be so life-altering and future-upturning that it would be a “death of self.” If a young woman has a view of herself that doesn’t include being a mother (but rather focuses on e.g. getting an education, a good job, getting married) and an unplanned pregnancy intervenes, it feels to her as though that pregnancy will destroy everything she has planned and therefore her very self. A young woman in this position may consider the moral rights and wrongs of abortion, may even feel guilty about having one, but her desire for self-preservation may still be great enough to override her rational, ethical, spiritual concerns. One author who helped women receive abortions reported that, “For many low-income women, getting an abortion can feel like the only option.” She says, “A doula tells me a story about a woman who wanted to continue the pregnancy but had lost her job, run through all her savings, and was living in a homeless shelter. "I can deal with this, but I’d never do it to a baby," she said. Patients talk about how impossible it is to find jobs, childcare, a safe place to live, health care.” It doesn’t feel to that woman as though she has a choice in the matter.
If an expecting mother feels that she doesn’t have a choice, the ethical question doesn’t necessarily go away, but it may become less important to her. One abortion advocate says she’s seen patients praying on the table and some who think abortion is wrong but get one anyway. One 16-year-old girl who had an abortion was dating an abusive man. She didn’t tell her parents or boyfriend about her pregnancy, and after the abortion, she said, "I’m so glad it’s all over. I can’t, I don’t...I don’t know what I would have done." Motherhood is seen by these women as a greater evil than abortion.
Adoption is perceived by some as an even greater evil than motherhood or abortion. Why? Because the woman feels guilty about giving away her own child, and worried about what might happen to the child. Might he or she be abused? Neglected? Poor and disadvantaged? Adoption leaves emotions and hopes and fears unresolved. A woman may feel as though abortion will at least bring resolution and closure and allow her to move on emotionally and practically (of course, sadly, that often proves not to be the case).
Abortion is seen by many expecting mothers as the "least worst" option between adoption, motherhood, and abortion. So, the very women who lean toward having an abortion may well agree that abortion is killing another person and that it is evil. But because of these other factors, they still choose it for themselves.
Creating a “culture of life”
This is why it’s so important for Christians to promote a culture of life by working to help expecting mothers see that there are ways they and their babies can make it in the world. Ministries that provide a stable home for mothers and their babies are vital. Pregnancy centers often provide pre-natal counseling to equip expecting mothers and give them confidence in the face of much uncertainty. Churches and individual Christians can make a huge impact by listening to the concerns of expecting mothers and helping them consider alternatives to abortion.
In order to face the overwhelming hopelessness that many pregnant women feel, we must do more than argue for the personhood of their pre-born child. We must hold out the hope that is available in Christ. They are not alone. There are people who will care for them, support them, love them, and help them. By looking to Jesus, any despairing mother can find the strength and the help she so needs. God is never shocked when the pregnancy test comes back positive. And he is strong enough to hold the weak and broken, to bind up their wounds, and show them a better way. No matter how dark the days ahead may feel, there is always hope. And that hope is found in a Savior who laid down his own life so that ours might be saved. This is the hope that fuels a church culture dedicated to nurturing, protecting, and cherishing life.