Fifty? Forty? All right, no one really believes that. ‘Life begins at fifty’ is just a corny bromide said to make people feel better about aging. But in choosing a word to complete the above title, I have eliminated ‘conception’ as a contender.
There are many people who strongly believe that life begins at conception, but they believe it without backing from scripture. A fine-tooth-comb examination of scripture will not reveal personhood status for a fetus. There is a passage in the Old Testament that prescribes what to do when someone causes a woman to miscarry. The consequence for that is financial compensation to… get ready for it… the woman’s husband. Sad to say it does not take the position, as I do, that a fetus is part of the woman’s body. Sorry, ladies (and gentlemen), I’m on your side on this issue, but the bible does not have our backs. So solely using scripture as our guide, a fetus is not a sovereign person in and of himself or herself, nor is it part of its host’s body. Rather, a fetus is a man’s property.
I might, just might, be willing to regard the ‘Life begins at conception’ position as somewhat less ludicrous than I currently do if our institutions did so. But none do. Not one. Lives of people are measured from when they were born, not when they were conceived, when the sperm cell fertilized the egg cell and became a zygote. Maybe that’s because pinpointing that moment is just too damn hard. And really, who wants to think about it? Who wants to think of our parents having sex? Yuck! Or that split second in the Petri dish at the fertility clinic? All our milestones are dated from our date of birth. (In some cultures, the day our age advances one year is the start of a new year regardless of the actual date of birth.) All sorts of adult privileges and responsibilities are bestowed to a person on his or her eighteenth birthday. Legal drinking age is attained on one’s 21st birthday. There is no consideration of when you were conceived. It matters not at all whether your gestation was longer or shorter than average, whether you emerged from the womb before or after the due date. The date from which we measure to determine your age is the day you draw your first breath.
Late term abortions are controversial for a reason, and I agree that they should be rare. That is, I do not think it’s a good idea to rule them out if the life of the mother is threatened, or if the soon-to-be-born baby’s life would be painful and brief due to a lethal prenatal condition, but there are profound legal and moral implications if the pregnancy is otherwise normal. Then we get into the nebulous concept of ‘viability.’ I could be mistaken, but I don’t think that there is a consensus view of precisely when viability occurs. There is a definition, of course. It’s when an emergent baby is able to breathe on its own. But I don’t think doctors and technicians can determine that just from a sonogram or other diagnostic tool. So when does a fetus become viable short of its actual birth? Maybe……now! How ‘bout now? NOW?!!
Anyway, with the issue of viability in the picture, there is some credibility to the idea that life begins sometime before birth despite using dates of birth for official purposes.
But conception? As I stated above, there is not one institution that recognizes life beginning at conception. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nyet. Nein. So before I start to campaign for equal rights for Fetal Americans, the notion of personhood for fetuses has to make a lick of sense. So far it has not approached that threshold.
I offer as anecdotal evidence examples from my own experience. Between the live births of our son and daughter, my wife suffered a miscarriage, or as they call it in medical circles, a spontaneous abortion. I didn’t make that up; that’s what they call it. And I will tell you truly that it was a sad time for us. We had begun to dare to ponder and dream about our pending child and plan for her or his future. And then the dream died. A sonogram revealed that the fetus was not growing. It was, in fact, dead. My wife then endured a procedure called a D & C (which the medical people jokingly called ‘dust ‘n’ clean,’ which didn’t really bring levity to the ordeal), which happens to also be a common procedure for surgical abortions. (Side note: Absent elective abortions, D & C procedures clearly have a legitimate medical purpose, so doctors are going to be trained to perform them, anyway.)
Around that same time, one of my sisters suffered a stillbirth. Needless to say, I would think, the grief she and her husband experienced was profound. The outpouring of sympathy directed at my sister and brother-in-law far, far outweighed the sympathy directed at my wife and me over the miscarriage. And rightly so. Our losses were not equal. Far from it. A miscarriage, while a sad event, is not nearly the same thing as the death of an actual person.
I don’t want to minimize the impact of miscarriages. I realize that there are couples that desperately want to have a baby but endure serial, multiple miscarriages. I cannot deny the trauma and tragedy of that. Those are sad, sad cases and my heart goes out to them. But overall, miscarriages are very common. Spontaneous abortions way, way outnumber the surgical kind. Many happen without the host mother even being aware that conception occurred in the first place. By that measurement, you could say that God is the biggest abortionist of all! Or, if you are a non-believer, nature would be that abortionist.
So let’s compare how our institutions regard fetuses. In the medical field, certificates of live birth are issued for babies. With stillbirths, there is a death certificate, just as they issue for people who actually did draw breath at some point. With a miscarriage, not so much. No certificate of any kind. The woman who endures the miscarriage is the only patient. For society, the stillborn has an obituary in the newspaper, complete with its name (even if that name is ‘Baby Smith’ or ‘Infant Jones’: My stillborn nephew did have a given name.) and a list of surviving relatives. With a miscarriage, not so much. In the church, stillborns have funerals. For miscarriages, not so much.
So for those of you scoring at home, here are the stats:
Death certificate — Stillborn – yes, miscarriage – no.
Obituary — Stillborn – yes, miscarriage – no.
Funeral — Stillborn – yes, miscarriage – no.
Medical community, society, and church regard a stillborn as a person, but there is no such distinction for a miscarried fetus. So there is a case to be made that life begins sometime before birth, but conception is definitely not that point.
Life begins at…. Until further notice, I’m going with ‘birth.’ Don’t hold your breath for further notice.