Friday, September 12, 2008

Mormons and Roe v. Wade - When Does Life Begin?

The fourteenth amendment guarantees the protection of life, liberties, and persons within the state. The big question in relation to abortion then is whether or not the unborne fetus is a living person because if the fetus is determined to be a living person, then that person would have the protection of life, rights, and liberties guaranteed by the constitution.

There are four main views of when the fetus becomes a living person:
1. At conception.
2. “Quickening” - when the fetus is felt moving (as early as 14 weeks).
3. Viability – when the fetus is able to survive outside of the womb (as early as 10 weeks).
4. Birth.

For most pro-life advocates, the argument is made that life begins at conception. For some this means the moment when the egg becomes fertilized; for others it is when the new embryo attaches itself to the uterus and the mother becomes biologically pregnant.

While “quickening” was once historically used as evidence of life, it has largely become abandoned because new ultrasound technology has shown that muscular movements occur from the beginning of their very development and whether or not the mother can sense this movement is rather arbitrary.

Viability was upheld in Roe v. Wade as a reliable measure of determining when the fetus is a person and provides individual states with the right to ban abortions after this point (except for those done to protect the life or health of the mother).

Birth is pretty much a given though the issue of partial-birth abortion complicates this. I will have another post devoted to this difficult procedure later.

Because 'quickening' has become obsolete and Roe v. Wade acknowledges viability as an adequate determiner of life, then whether or not life begins at conception is the primary question related to when life begins for those who wish to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The problem with basing abortion laws on the belief that life begins at conception is because that belief is a religious belief and our first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” To base a law on a religious belief is to establish a particular religious belief over another and is the very establishment of religion. This is the core of the matter. Our constitution (which in Mormonism was divinely inspired) specifically states that we cannot use our religious beliefs to construct laws which infringe on the rights of others. And that is what the belief that life begins at conception is – a religious belief.

Scientifically and philosophically, the idea that a clump of cells formed from a newly fertilized egg is a living person is difficult, if not impossible to make. For the first stages of development is not much different from a chunk of flesh ripped off my knee in a mountain biking accident. We would hardly consider that piece of flesh hanging by a layer of skin to be a living person. In later stages when the fetus has begun to develop organs and have a beating heart, we may emotionally and spiritually want to call it a living person, but that fetus is no different than that of a brain-dead car accident victim whose beating heart, lungs, and other organs are kept artificially 'alive' for donation by means of a life-support system. (So-called 'potential life' is a similar, but different issue which I'll discuss in another post.) Without scientific justification, the argument is left to religious beliefs which cannot be used to create laws – especially when those beliefs infringe on the rights of others.

This is complicated more when religious beliefs vary on when life begins. The common Christian view that life begins at conception was largely developed by Augustine in the 4th century whose views were largely based on the Aristotelian belief that human life was contained in the sperm of the father and that the mother was only fertile soil for planting that human life. Augustine took this further and argued that the whole of human society was seminally contained in Adam and that each male has the entirety of his progeny contained within him. This was the means by which original sin was continued and the reason why masturbation and birth control was prohibited. Any 'wasted' seed was in fact killing human life. Because the sperm itself was a human life, it growing in the newly impregnated mother was also a human life. While the beliefs underlying this argument for life at conception have somewhat faded, the conclusion remains the same for much of Christianity.

In Islam various interpreters have argued that life begins either at 'quickening' or something akin to viability. Several Jewish arguments go to the Genesis account where Adam is not a living person until he takes his first breath and God breathes spirit (breath) into him. From this they argue that life does not begin until the newborn takes its first breath.

And of course many are non-religious and don't have a religious argument for when a fetus is a living person.

For us Mormons, the 'official' Church has been explicit that there is no doctrine of when life begins. Brigham Young somewhat famously argued for 'quickening' though other church leaders and presidents have put forward everything from conception to the first breath.

With various religious and non-religious beliefs about when the fetus actually becomes a living person, it should be easily understood why that belief cannot be used to base a law.

Well if the belief that life begins at conception 'encompasses' all of the other beliefs, why not just use that? While this may seem to be the easy remedy, it still does not avoid the problem that such a law is telling another what they can or cannot do because of someone else's religious belief that they do not share. It would be no different than a law prohibiting the eating of pork because of Jewish and Islamic beliefs, contraception because of Catholic beliefs, or coffee based on our LDS beliefs. In matters of life and death we wouldn't want blood-transfusions and organ donations banned because of Jehovah's Witness beliefs, or even pacifist policies based on Quaker or Mennonite beliefs (no matter how much I would like that).

I have a religious belief that human-sacrifice is wrong and we are able to ban that. That human-sacrifice is wrong is not simply a religious belief. In our 'enlightened' society we have a pretty strong consensus that human sacrifice is wrong and should be outlawed. Furthermore, we are in complete agreement (besides crazies) that the person sacrificed in a human sacrifice is, in fact, a person. We need no religious beliefs to make the case that the victim is a human life that is guaranteed protection by the state.


  1. I like this topic. My wife informed me of BY's quickening and that obviously has been scratched. I have also used the few cells at conception is no different than a few cells off your body analogy. As a biologist I think that the spirit doesn't enter the body until sometime from third trimester to at delivery. I lean more towards the delivery idea. I think there are many examples ones could give of what I see as non-spirit forms of life. The most basic example is as you said, cells of your own body. You could remove a single cell and it could stay alive on its own. It obviously doesn't have a spirit. You could move up the cellular ladder towards sperm. I can't think that those millions of sperm I give voluntarily and the ones that don't get shot, but die and pass out with urine all had spirits and in heaven there will be millions of sperm, made for over 26 thousand days of an average sperm baring life, for billions of people...

    Similar to this topic, I don't think that if your baby dies during the third trimester, right before delivery or maybe even during delivery that you will be raising it "during the millenium" or in the next life. I think G-d will just put that spirit into another body. So many babies have died that way and I don't think there were that many spirits that didn't need to get the experiences that this life provides.

    Sorry for the long comment, but this is a very interesting subject.

  2. Great post.

    Viability was upheld in Roe v. Wade as a reliable measure of determining when the fetus is a person and provides individual states with the right to ban abortions after this point (except for those done to protect the life or health of the mother).

    Actually, even though the Supreme Court pegged viability as the point at which the State may lawfully step in and restrict access to abortions, it did not do so on the basis of the unborn fetus's Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court did not attempt to answer the question of when life begins. As Justice Blackmun wrote in Roe v. Wade, "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

    Instead of weighing the mother's rights against those of the unborn fetus, the Court weighed the mother's rights against the State's "important and legitimate interest in potential life." Somewhat arbitrarily, the Court held that at the point of viability, "the State in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."

    To date, the Court has not recognized constitutional rights for unborn fetuses. Even after viability, fetuses are not considered "persons" for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment. And I don't think that even the conservative justices--Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito (all of whom would overturn Roe in a heartbeat)--would ever try to overturn the decision on those grounds. They would simply say that the Constitution doesn't cover a right to abortion, and that the States should be allowed to deal with the issue on their own.

    Therefore, from a constitutional perspective, the argument that life begins at conception really isn't conservatives' best bet for overturning Roe.

  3. carson,

    Similar to this topic, I don't think that if your baby dies during the third trimester, right before delivery or maybe even during delivery that you will be raising it "during the millenium" or in the next life. I think G-d will just put that spirit into another body. So many babies have died that way and I don't think there were that many spirits that didn't need to get the experiences that this life provides.

    A few LDS general authorities are in agreement with you for the very same reason.


    thanks for the correction. it is my understanding that the court's use of 'potentiality for life' meant that after viability the state, if they choose could argue that the unborn fetus was a human life in need of protection - that 'potentiality' was not a chronological description (it may become a life), but was rather an interpretive description (it is possible for the state to consider it a life).

  4. As we talked about yesterday, I had always interpreted the state's interest in "potential life" to be a chronological rather than interpretive description, but I'm by no means the end-all authority on the subject.

  5. I did a paper in grad school using a global perspective to look at the cultural/religious aspects of the morality of the decision making process for women considering abortion. I also did some research on women and their experience with miscarriage, but I admit my sample messed up the reliability of my data. I continue to see our minds searching for answers to similar questions; however, I also continue to see my sociological perspective contending with your theological/philosophical approach. So... I once again need to point out that you are categorizing most Mormons into a specific political/theological viewpoint that they may not collectively believe. I've known evangelicals who are far more conservative with the abortion issue than some Mormons. The range of conservatism within the Church may very well be as varied as the range of conservatism among republicans outside of the Church. One note: I'm sure you are aware that Christ spoke to a prophet (don't feel like looking it up - it's late) and said that he would be coming to earth "on the morrow". One of my brothers (different brother than the Church doctrine brother) spent hours one night talking about when the spirit enters the body and it took us on a fascinating journey of insights. Having experienced 5 pregnancies plus a miscarriage (Abby had a twin)I can honestly say that the issue of when life begins is extraordinarily sensitive to most women regardless of their stance on abortion rights. Of course, I love thought-provoking questions, and I think that is where your questions take you - on a journey of discovery. Could say more but my stuff is always waaaaay too long. so sorry. How's california?

  6. P.S. Forgot to mention that my brother, at the time of our discussion, was practicing family law. Not that it particularly matters to you, but I point it out because it added something unique to our conversation. You need to come to my next Fuller family reunion! Talk about opinionated Mormons...whew.

  7. katy,

    i had no idea abby had a twin. i realize that this post takes a very dispassionate approach to the question of when life begins. my analysis will probably seem pretty cold to many. but it was done intentionally because i think the passionate aspects need to be understood as what they are in a pluralistic society that we are in. i was planning on writing a post about the role that emotions and faith ought to play in the abortion discussion, because i think that they ought to be considered on both ends as i think that too often pro-life advocates tend to take a cold approach when discussing the decision making process of those considering an abortion. i'll write more about that later.

    i wrote my response to the criticism that i am categorizing mormons as predominantly pro-life in the first post to prevent the discussion from being derailed.

  8. I've really struggled with the abortion issue, but ultimately as with war and the death penalty I believe we should err on the side of life. The question of when life begins is obviously difficult and complex, but maybe as society we should create an arbitrary but necessary threshold. For me, I saw and heard my baby's heart beat at six weeks. It was a life-changing experience. I see what that tiny heartbeat has become (a beautiful little girl) and its hard for me to justify killing it, even at that early stage.

    What I've struggled with is whether mine and my wife's choice of never having an abortion should be everyone else's. Again, it just seems to me there should be some consensus that a living thing is indeed developing and growing and if that's the case, how do we justify killing it. I don't see that as a religious argument. If it's viable at ten weeks, I've just never understood how its not considered living. And unlike the car accident example, most fetuses have a high likelihood of living.

    As far as its political implications, I mostly feel that the answer isn't overturning Roe v Wade but educating people and making birth control accessible. I also believe the mother should have the choice in cases of rape, incest, and serious health concerns. I also don't have a problem with the day after pill, and am not a hard-liner on life beginning at conception. But man, I just saw so many ultrasounds of my baby developing, I have to err on the side of life.

  9. I just read over my last paragraph and realized it might not be clear. My point is that whether Roe V Wade is overturned or not, people are still going to have abortions (likely in more horrific ways). So regardless of what laws are in place, those who want to reduce abortions should care about birth control and education most, so that young women especially aren't put in such a difficult position in the first place.

    Still, all that being said, in principle, since I believe life begins at least around the 6-10 week period, I believe they should have the right to life.

  10. i was having a discussion that went: ¨living the commandments of god are done in various levels.¨ For example, living the word of wisdom is done by being strict to the words but also by not doing drugs (although it is not stated). or even by eating healthy, or not being annorexic etc.

    the same applies to not taking life. going further than just not killing, you would try to foster new life because new life is just as important as not ending existing ones.

    then the question of when does life begin takes on a different context. (that is why i can understand why people would be against birthcontrol in the first place.)

    if we are concerned with fostering new healthy lives then we should be VERY concerned with the existing ones that will bring in the new lives. we would be more concerned with health care, with mental health, with dental health, with gyno health, and on and on and on. And yet, so many of us are not...for ourselves or others.

    whether or not one agrees on when life begins, we know that development is taking place. And whatever happens during any stage of that development can have serious consequences ever after (Fetal alchol syndrome for example). our life is literally being prepared for us in the womb whether or not the spirit is in it.

    i care nothing for the arguments of when life begins, pro or anti-choice. no church doctrine of exactly when life begins, just our own personal thoughts and feelings. so using it as an argument among LDS members is pointless, in my opinion. but we do have as a consensus among us the pivotal role that agency, our right and ability to choose, plays in our religion and our life here and in the eternities.

    we must ask ourselves how far are we willing to allow people to choose.

  11. One thing to think about is the possible ramifications of treating fetuses as "persons" under the Constitution. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, the constitutional debate is currently about balancing the mother's rights against State interests--not the mother's rights against the fetus's rights. Classifying fetuses as "persons" would be a bold and unprecedented maneuver, and would likely have far-reaching ramifications.

    Personally, I have no idea when personhood begins. It is a complex question to which there are no easy (or objective) answers. For this reason alone, judges and lawmakers should be hesitant to peg a point at which "life" (i.e., personhood) begins. In my opinion, it makes sense to defer to the mother, whose fundamental rights (in life, privacy, and reproductive autonomy) are at stake.

    Of course, judges don't really need to concern themselves with the issue of when life begins. The most likely route to overturning Roe v. Wade would be to argue that there simply is not a right to abortion under the federal Constitution. The result of such a ruling would be that the states would then have discretion to handle the issue of abortion through normal democratic procedures, or to protect the right to abortion under state constitutions.


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