By Dr. Peter Saunders
Editor’s note. This appeared over the weekend on Dr. Saunders’s wonderful blog. To be clear this is a Christian understanding of what the Bible—Old and New Testaments–says about the sanctity of human life. This essay is particularly well written and very much worth reading.
Dr. Saunders is a former general surgeon and is CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organization with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members.
The Bible does not support the view that some human lives are worth less than others. All are made in the image of God and all are equally precious.
Devaluing or discriminating against any group of human beings is therefore inconsistent with God’s justice. He does not show partiality.
The heart of Christian ethical teaching is that we must love as Christ himself loved (John 13:34), that the strong should make sacrifices for the weak and if necessary lay down their lives for the weak (Philippians 2:5-8, Romans 5:6-8).
So to suggest that the weak might be sacrificed in the interests of the strong is simply not biblical morality.
But what about human life before birth? Do these principles apply here too?
It is striking just how many references there are in Scripture to human life in the womb.
Perhaps the most famous of these is Psalm 139. The Psalmist, looking back to the beginning of his life declares:
‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful…
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place…your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’ (Psalms 139:13-16)
John Stott has argued that this passage affirms three important things about the human life before birth.
First, it affirms that the preborn baby is God’s creation. It is God who knitted him together. The Hebrew word used by the Psalmist for ‘knit’ (other versions translate it as ‘weaved’) is raqam, a comparatively rare word in the Old Testament, which is used almost exclusively in texts that describe the curtains and veils of Israel’s wilderness tabernacle and the garments of the high priest.
To say that an unborn child is ‘roqem’ is therefore to say something about the cunning skill of the weaver and about the beauty of his fabric. The tabernacle was the place where the presence of God dwelt. The high priest acted as the mediator between God and man and was the only one able to enter the Holy Place. He also pointed forward to Christ, the true mediator and great High Priest to come who would deal with our sins once and for all (Hebrews 7:26-28).
With its allusions to the ‘roqem work’ of the tabernacle, the Psalm implies not only that God has made the infant in the womb, but also that the infant is being woven into a dwelling for God himself.
Next, God is in communion with the preborn baby. At this stage the baby in the womb can ‘know’ nothing and is in fact not even aware of its own existence. But this is not important. The key point is that God knows it. It is God’s love for the psalmist during his time in utero that gives him significance. We see echoes of John’s first epistle here, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). God’s relationship with the baby is a relationship of grace to which the baby itself contributes nothing. It is not its own attributes that give it value. It is the fact that God knows and loves it.
Finally, the Psalmist affirms the continuity between life before and after birth. The baby in the womb is the Psalmist, the same person, not a different person and not a non-person.
These three themes of creation, communion and continuity are seen in many other Old and New Testament Scriptures.
God calls the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah before birth (Isaiah 49:1, Jeremiah 1:5) and before they are capable even of hearing or understanding his call. He forms Job ‘in the womb’ as well as bringing him out of it (Job 10:8-9, 18-19).
The Isaiah reference is particularly noteworthy because it comes from one of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’ and therefore speaks prophetically of Christ himself. Jesus was also called from the womb.
Many other references to life before birth in the Bible reinforce these principles (e.g. Genesis 25:22-23, Psalm 22:9,10, 51:5, 71:6, 119:73, Ecclesiastes 11:5, Isaiah 44:2,24, 49:5, Hosea 12:3, Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:15, 41-44).
The Psalm 22 and the Genesis 25 references also look forward prophetically to Christ. Jesus’ suffering is clearly foretold in the Psalm and he actually quotes its words from the cross to emphasise that his death was to fulfil its prophecy. The Genesis passage reminds us that Jesus is the new Israel.
In addition there are over 60 references which mention the event of conception explicitly underlining its importance.
One of these is Matthew 1:20 in which an angel tells Joseph, referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, that ‘what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’.
Particularly striking are the verses describing Jesus conception and inter-uterine development in Luke 1. Here we see Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, prophesying over Christ in his first month of gestation, and the baby John ‘leaping’ in her womb.
The timing is given in some detail. It was in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that the angel visited Mary (Luke 1:26). She then went to visit Elizabeth who gave the prophecy accompanied by her baby leaping (Luke 1:41). As we have already noted, a baby’s movement cannot be felt until about 18 weeks but ‘in the sixth month’ means at very least 22 weeks gestation.
The Scriptures record that, ‘Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home’ (Luke 1:51), and that Elizabeth gave birth after that (Luke 1:57). Given that pregnancy lasts nine months we can deduce from this that Mary must have left to see Elizabeth almost immediately after the angel’s visit and that Jesus must have therefore been in the very first few weeks, if not days, of pregnancy at the time of the prophecy.
Why is this relevant? It is important because Jesus’ humanity tells us something about our own humanity. We know that in order to act as our substitute on the cross, Jesus had to be ‘made like his brothers in every way’ (Hebrews 2:17). He had to be like us in his humanity so that he could take our place. So it follows that if Jesus was alive in the womb in the first month of pregnancy then so were we.
To deny the humanity of the human embryo is therefore to undermine not only the doctrine of creation, but also the doctrine of the atonement, Christ’s taking the punishment for sin on our behalf.
Although it does not state it explicitly, the Bible points very strongly to the conclusion that human life begins at conception, a process that we know from science begins with fertilisation, the point at which a new individual human life comes into being.
At very least then, should we not be giving the human embryo the benefit of any doubt?
The strong biblical testimony about life before birth points to the conclusion that human life, from the time of conception is, like other human life, made in the image of God and worthy of the utmost respect, wonder, protection and empathy.
Showing this degree of love respect to human beings before birth may in some circumstances be very costly for us personally. This brings us back again to the foot of the cross, and the willingness to walk in the steps of the master who gave himself fully for us and who calls us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34,35).