When does life begin?


The Christian notion of quickening

Icon of the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council

Icon of the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council

When does life begin? This one question has caused more turmoil than almost any other over the past several decades. Some would say that life begins at conception. Others would say that life begins at birth. People fight passionately about this issue. It is hard to strike any sort of a compromise. The belief systems of the two opposing sides have no common ground even to discuss the issue, let alone to formulate some sort of middle-way position.

There is nothing in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures that deals with the issue of when life begins. The science of conception was simply unknown to the ancients. Generally, if a man planted his seed in a woman normally nothing would happen. But on occasion, a baby would be born some nine moons later. What went on inside a woman’s womb was indeed a mystery, or perhaps even magical.

The Nicene Creed gives us insight into early Christian tradition. If only Christians could absorb the insight contained in this ancient creed and thereby find, not a compromise, but rather a common language and point of reference to discuss when life begins.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, Christianity was instantly transformed from a church of martyrdom and persecution into the established religion of the Roman Empire. Before this time there had not an opportunity for the church to come together and to formulate its common doctrine. In the early centuries the church was a persecuted, underground movement. Because of the martyrdom and persecution without, as well as chaos and confusion within, it had no time to stop and codify its message.

Now with the help and blessing of the Emperor, the Christian Church came together in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to begin its life together as the established religion of the Roman Empire. One of the treasures of this First Ecumenical Council was the Nicene Creed.

Contained within this broadly ecumenical creed is one small morsel that provides an early Christian perspective on when life begins. And that phrase is,

 And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. (emphasis mine)

The reference to “the quick” refers to those babies that have become perceptively animated within their mother’s wombs. When a mother feels the first kick, the life force of the baby is asserting itself as a life form. Now, for the first time, the mother knows that she is carrying a child, as opposed to just some excess weight. The baby is now developed enough to make its presence known.

First there is an embryo developing into a fetus. The quickening marks the point of transition to a child in utero. With the quickening the child is now a full human being.

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:41)

There is an analogy to this point of transition contained both in Roman Catholic doctrine and English common law that says that a child under the age of seven is incapable of committing a sin or a crime. Before age seven the child is simply not aware of the moral implications of his or her action. For the child, attaining the age of seven marks a transition point. The child is now considered to be morally responsible for his or her own actions.

One could argue that the point of quickening, just like the age of seven, is an arbitrary boundary in a process of continuous development. And I believe that we would all have to agree to that assertion. However, as difficult as it is to set boundaries between one stage of development and another, we can all agree on at least the concept of boundaries. A nursing infant is surely innocent. With a six-and-one-half-year-old boy, or a seven-and-one-half-year-old child, we may well argue about his or her ability to know right from wrong.

The notion of the quickening at least gives us a framework and a common language to talk about when life begins. It may not be the most perfect border between fetus and child, but at least it gives us a starting point.

Quickening in the human child begins somewhere from the 16th to the 22nd week of gestation. This is four to five months, or nearly one-half of the way through the gestation period. This is literally a “middle ground” for our discussion of when life begins.

The Nature of miscarriages

There are approximately 4.4 million confirmed pregnancies in the United States in any given year. Of these confirmed pregnancies, approximately 900,000 will end in a miscarriage, or one in five. Another 26,000 babies will be stillborn. As many pregnancies go unconfirmed, and lead to unknown miscarriages, it is hard to estimate the actual percentage of miscarriages to live births. But estimates range from one in four to even one in three. (For statistics on miscarriages see hopexchange.com).

Miscarriages happen for many reasons such as the failure of the egg to implant, or implanting in the fallopian tubes. If the egg implants in the fallopian tubes this will cause an ectopic pregnancy that if left untreated will be fatal for both the mother and fetus. Other reasons for miscarriages include a lack of proper development of the embryo/fetus, and the health of the mother, including malnourishment.

When the religious right insists that full personhood begins at conception it does not seem to square either with Christian tradition or the science of conception. If full personhood begins at conception, then we should expect that all fertilized eggs develop successfully and emerge as live births. But this is not at all what happens in nature.

I believe it is more logical to consider a fertilized egg as an attempt at birth, an attempt with perhaps a 75% chance of success.

Quickening signals the beginning of viability in the fetus. It is a time when the fetus declares himself/herself to the world. It marks a transition from a lump of tissue to a developing person. A fertilized egg is little more than a genetic blueprint. It is merely an attempt to create new life. The developmental process is an arduous journey with many risks and unknowns.

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