Recent attempts to pass “personhood” legislation once again reveal our passion concerning the nagging question: when, exactly, does Life begin? It’s an important question since we place value on human life, some sort of spirit or soul is at stake amidst the argument, we cannot be flippant about an answer.
Certainly to claim that a simple cell qualifies as a living being is pushing the limit in various ways. Most obviously, attaching personhood to the simple cell of conception ignores the fact that a million and one things can go wrong between conception and actual Life. Ask any woman who has experienced a miscarriage. Or a stillbirth; I know a girl whose fetus was born on her due date, after a seemingly healthy pregnancy, yet it did not take one single breath. From the moment of conception through the perilous journey of birth, one cannot at any moment assume that a viable Life will emerge. There are simply too many factors that are out of our control, and to which Life must conform.
If conception can be logically ruled out as the beginning of Life, then when does it begin? Thanks to scientific research we know that a group of cells that will become the heart begin to contract or ’beat’ at just a few weeks of gestation and many pro-Lifers refer to this earmark as proof of Life. They use this fact to claim that abortion is really ‘murder’ since it stops a beating heart. Even our courts use this information – when a pregnant woman is murdered, the suspect is often charged with two murders rather than one; the logic being that two heartbeats have been stopped.
While the ‘heartbeat’ approach to the beginning of Life provides a bit of a framework for us to work with, it is limited to the biological component of Life and has its drawbacks for the same reasons listed above – Life can be capricious. It seems then that there must be something more to the pronouncement of Life. What we’re really after is the soul or spirit, our real human worth.
I had an idea, sprung from my bible reading days, and spent some time studying a series of words and their history. I came to the conclusion that it is possible to assert that Life begins when we take our first breath.
It caught my attention long ago that the Greek word pneuma was used to describe the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2, and its actual meaning is ‘wind, spirit, or breath.’ The Hebrew word was ruwach, a feminine noun meaning ‘breath or spirit’ as well. The Latin Vulgate translates the Greek word pneuma to spiritus ‘of breathing, of the spirit.’ The Old French word espirit is derived from the Latin and denotes the ideas of ‘soul, courage, vigor, breath’. Our ancestors used the word breather in the 17th century to denote ‘a living creature, one who breathes.’
Breathe, Life, Spirit. There is a very clear, logistical relationship in our language between having breath (Life) and having a Spirit. To breathe is to have spirit. We can claim therefore, that Life begins when we take our first breath.
This bold claim actually plays out if we consider a few more details. Bringing back the pregnant mother scenario, we see that the only reason the fetus survives is because the mother does all the breathing for it. Its heart, brain, and even bowel functions are made possible solely because the mother’s act of breathing makes it possible. The one thing that the fetus is required to do upon birth, the one thing that separates it from its mother, is to breathe for itself (or according to our word study, to be of the spirit).
Consider the amazing tools we’ve invented to allow us the ability to breathe, stay alive, and keep our spirit in various environments: the astronaut’s suit and S.C.U.B.A. gear for example. More to the point, consider what a respirator does for a person…it breathes for them. What are the agonizing consequences when we contemplate ‘pulling the plug’ on a loved one? We know that we are really speaking of stopping their breathing, and when the breath goes, we know that the spirit or soul departs as well. Life begins, and ends, with our breath.
Creating a new perspective for a charged question is an onerous task. We must give ourselves permission to change. We must talk about it, hash it out and decide how to best use new information. Perhaps a new perspective will allow us to finally move on from wasting our time and money on fruitless, illogical arguments such as ‘abortion is murder.’ Abortion, whether voluntary or involuntary, cannot be considered murder if there is no Life value at stake, there is no soul or spirit being destroyed. Certainly there is Life potential, but to claim that a fetus or group of cells has the same value as a living, breathing, spirit-inhabited individual is a very far reach indeed.
We place too much value upon Life to be flippant in our perceptions about when it begins. And if we really value and respect Life, we must accept that the decision not to bring a Life into the world should be as free as the decision to bring a Life into the world. Thankfully, the very history of our words provides us a new perception to reasonably make those kinds of decisions.