Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The beginning of life, implantation, and politics

So, in my first post about the Manhattan Declaration, I said this:
In the sanctity of human life section, I fully agree that life is sacred. Here's the thing - they never deal with the crux of the issue in my mind, which is "when does life begin?" They condemn stem cell research, and yet if you believe (as many Christians do) that life begins at implantation, then stem cell research in no way messes with sacred life. Are we drawing conclusions before we have fully investigated our own presuppositions?
And you all asked:
"Do they condemn all stem cell research? Not just embryonic? I don't really know much about this, but I believe the Catholic stance is that adult stem cell research is fine - go for it."
"I've never heard anyone, much less "many Christians", suggest that life begins at implantation. Could you point me to sources for this, or were you basing it on personal experience?"

Well, the declaration decries a government that is pro-abortion and also decries embryo stem-cell research. So yes, adult stem cell research is fine. The focus here is on the beginning of life and embryonic stem-cell research.

Here is what we people of faith agree on. Life is sacred and we are pro-life.
What we do not all agree on is where life and personhood begin.

If life begins at conception, then hormonal birth control is a very, very questionable process at best. This, unfortunately, is not much talked about in the Protestant world, mostly because I think it's inconvenient. However, if we are willing to picket abortion clinics and work so hard against abortion, we must consider this issue if we are going to be consistent.

PresterJosh asked who believes life (or, more particularly, personhood) begins after implantation. I think most people haven't heard it actually defined as such, and (to Troy's comment) actually implantation is not what you described, because it is not at the beginning of the third trimester. Implantation is when a fertilized egg implants in the womb. This is about 7-10 days after fertilization. If a fertilized egg does not implant, it is naturally flushed out of the system and pregnancy doesn't happen. This natural failure happens with about 50% of naturally fertilized eggs (read about the process here).

Why do I think this is a commonly held idea? Well, it was taught as a viable option in a Developmental Psychology class that I took in college (a conservative Christian college at which I was not allowed to go to theaters or dance - so this was no liberal agenda!). The professor never revealed his opinion on what is true, but taught several different views about the beginning of life and the problems and natural conclusions you come to with each one. I came out of the class convinced that implantation made the most sense, which I'll detail in a minute. I came back to question this view when I was debating whether or not I could with good conscience vote for Obama in the elections - abortion was the primary moral question I had to deal with. Conception as the beginning of life is held so strongly by so many that I had to go back and reexamine my views. I have not come to any conclusion, nothing seems like it is clear and firm to me. I have talked to pastors, teachers, doctors, and professors.

I also know this view is held by others, not just my college professor. In fact, today as I was writing I came on a new post on the Jesus Creed blog addressing stem cell research that seems to take the view that personhood begins at implantation, for some of the same reasons it was presented to me. I'd encourage you to go there and take a look.

Here are some of the arguments against conception or for implantation, as they have been taught to me:

Twinning: If, at conception, you have a complete, individual human life, then what do you do when this life.... suddenly becomes two lives? Identical twinning happens after conception - which would seem to me to say that it is not yet an INDIVIDUAL. As RJS says on the Jesus Creed blog: "In the morula stage each cell contains the potential to become not only an individual, but more than one individual. I don't think that this potential constitutes a person."

Natural "Abortion":
If at conception you have a human life, then over 50% of people die within the first week of life. I can say that God is sovereign over this process, then it could be that He just wants it that way. It seems like a bit of a moral issue, though, if we consider that pregnancy is sacred and meant to lead to life... that the majority of the time it leads to death? With implantation, this is not a problem. For this point, let me quote this article from Reason Magazine:
John Opitz, a professor of pediatrics, human genetics, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, testified before the President's Council on Bioethics that between 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in women's normal menstrual flows unnoticed... In fact, according to Opitz, embryologists estimate that the rate of natural loss for embryos that have developed for seven days or more is 60 percent. The total rate of natural loss of human embryos increases to at least 80 percent if one counts from the moment of conception. About half of the embryos lost are abnormal, but half are not, and had they implanted they would probably have developed into healthy babies.
So millions of viable human embryos each year produced via normal conception fail to implant and never develop further. Does this mean America is suffering a veritable holocaust of innocent human life annihilated?...Does that mean that if we could detect such unimplanted embryos as they leave the womb, we would have a duty to rescue them and try to implant them anyway?
Genetic Code does not mean Life:
The primary biological argument behind conception being the beginning of life is that conception is when the complete genetic code (DNA) is formed through the joining of the sperm and egg. I question whether this is consistent. Genetic code is present long after death, yet we still consider the person and their life to be gone. The question is not when the genetic code is present but when a PERSON is present with the genetic code.

Up until now I have mostly mentioned some problems with conception, but differentiation is one of the primary solid points for implantation. Differentiation refers to the process in which cells actually begin to becomes specialized. At first, in the pre-implantation stage, the fertilized egg begins to multiply and divide cells, but these cells make up a blastula - a goo of nonspecialized cells that can essentially become anything - hence the stem-cell debate because the cells are so flexible. At differentiation the blob starts to become SOMETHING in particular, a human person, rather than having the potential to be mostly anything. Now you have cells becoming the head, the brain, the skin...
At a very early stage of human development, all cells of the embryo are identical, but unlike adult cells are very flexible and carry within them the potential to become any tissue type, whether it be muscle, skin, liver or brain.
This cell differentiation process begins at about the time that the embryo settles into the uterus. In terms of the inner workings of the cell, this involves two main control mechanisms. On the one hand, the genes that keep the embryo in their fully potent state are turned off, and at the same time, tissue-specific genes are turned on. By activating a certain set of genes, the embryo can make muscle cells. By turning on a different set, these same immature cells can become liver. Other gene sets are responsible for additional tissues. - (from Science Daily)

B0001451 Newly fertilised human egg

The Necessity of Implantation:
Scientists and doctors can "create" a conception in a petrie dish by joining an egg and sperm. Implantation, though, they cannot recreate. No amount of medical and scientific expertise can re-create the atmosphere of a woman's womb and allow a baby to grow. In order for pregnancy to occur, the fertilized egg needs the perfectly formed atmosphere of the uterus.It is only after this point that pregnancy tests work. It's only at this point that the body revs up chemically to change the woman's body for pregnancy.

So - there are some of the arguments. They make sense to me. However, they aren't an "Oh yeah, that's clearly the truth, nothing else is possible" type of argument. It's just a ... "that makes the most sense to me". And... considering the sacredness of life, do I want to base my choices on what MIGHT be true, or do I want to play it safe and go with contraception/stem-cell research/abortion policies that are for SURE not going to end sacred human life? I know, for you Catholics this is rather clear cut and, in my opinion, your arguments are perhaps the most consistent. Why mess with the whole process at all?

And... therein lies my current dilemma. I don't know, but I'd like to play it safe. Can I ask a country to play it safe with me when the whole thing seems convoluted? Truthfully, I'd rather wish the national government wouldn't rule anything on it, and that they'd stick to their main jobs - our economy and our defense. This should be a state government issue.

*** Since I wrote this post, I've had a number of discussions with people who argue that the pill is safe and does not cause abortions. I have been stating that IF you believe that life begins at conception, the pill is sometimes an abortificant and should not be used. For a well-researched and updated argument on this, pastor and author Randy Alcorn recently put an book online for all to access.


Jaimie said...

As a Libertarian, I agree it should be a state issue.

To respond to the issue itself, I think life begins in the womb, but I think it's pretty far down the line. In fact, I think life DEVELOPS rather than begins at a set point. Or perhaps I could say life begins at different points for different people, just as people die at different points. Our bodies are very similar and yet very different, behaving unpredictably sometimes. Therefore, I don't think most "babies" who are aborted are souls that go straight to heaven. If this were true, there would be more people in heaven that haven't lived than that have. Like 100 to 1 or something. Obviously there's more to life than what happens in someone's stomach.

(I also believe that the human soul is not a ghost in the machine but one with the machine. Our souls ARE our bodies, in a sense. Not tacked on. This informs the abortion issue because I'm not afraid of killing a ghost in a blob, thinking that the ghost is the most important thing.)

People just like playing God with this sort of thing, making a call which can't be made. I empathize with their concerns, for what it's worth. But I disagree that there is a mass killing going down that we can and should prevent.

I could be sticking my head in the sand though. Sometimes I wonder if I am. But I just don't understand most arguments. So, what else is left for me?

Anyway, you've given me more to think about. There is a great romance to the idea that the baby in the belly is an actual person, I will admit.

Amy B. said...

I have never heard an argument for life beginning at implantation, so this is a new idea to me. I have to say, those are some great arguments!

As a former Catholic, I was troubled when I moved into Protestant circles where everyone was a-ok with birth control. My conscience has never been able to get on board with birth control, I do think it is inconsistent IF life begins at conception.

Despite your great arguments for impantation, I still have some qualms. Firstly, from a philosophical point of view, I wonder about the ontology of the embryo and of a human person. What IS a human person exactly? How do we define it? My philosophy professor in college was surprisingly pro-life (and I say surprisingly because I did not go to a conservative Christian university) because he said that in a seamless development from conception to fully mature adult, you cannot point to a time when it becomes a new KIND of thing. His argument was that the embryo is simply at the earliest stage of development of one kind of thing - a human being. I don't know if that is an airtight argument, but it has always stuck with me.

Secondly, as you allude to, we admittedly don't know when there is a human spirit present. Like Jaime, I am hesitent to separate the soul and the body too much. And yet we know that in death the soul carries on while the body lies in the sleep of death. until they are reunited at the Resurrection. So the soul is something distinct from the body. And since we don't know when the soul is present, when the PERSON is really there, erring on the side of caution seems the only acceptable option to me.

Nevertheless, you have given me something to ponder...thanks!

PresterJosh said...

Wow! Quite a comprehensive post, Kacie.

Just one quick correction. I was actually asking about when life begins, not personhood, since that was the word you used in a previous post. However, since it appears you actually meant personhood, it's not a big deal. :-)

However, even if one grants that an unimplanted embryo isn't yet a person, it doesn't follow that we're thereby allowed to do whatever we want to it. At least from my perspective, this is where the Catholic tradition is quite rich in actually describing a way to approach fertility and sexual ethics beyond the "Is it killing a person?" question.

Kacie said...

Amy, your questions are great. In a theology seminary course I audited my questions about the whole thing were really exacerbated by the discussion of how we define death, and how that relates to the question of what IS a human person? As you say, the spirit and body are tied together... and yet we don't consider dead bodies sacred? When do we think a body is just the body, without a spirit? It isn't when brain waves stop, it is generally when the heart stops, and yet we can restart hearts.

That's where what Jaimie says makes sense - it seems to be a God-driven process of a human developing and then a human dying. There isn't necessarily a POINT or a line when personhood or life (also a tricky distinction) ends or begins.

And that is where, PresterJosh, I really appreciate the wholistic approach of the Catholic tradition. It treats the process as sacred. You are right, I have immense respect for the theology of the body ethics, despite the ribbing you get from many Protestants!

Togenberg said...

ack, ja I see what you'mean, Kacie. My comment "But I would agree that implantation seems arbitrary (as is beginning of 3rd trimester, or 'when the brain develops)." should have read something like 'Implantation is a rather arbitrary demarcation just as is the beginning of the 3rd trimester, or when the brain is thought to exist, or when certain brain waves are in evidence, etc."

Kacie said...

ah yes, I see what you meant. I do agree somewhat. I see some arguements in favor of implantation specifically, but the best arguements above are simply questioning conception.

Rae said...

I spent about two hours reading your sources and writing a comment, but forgot that Firefox doesn't work for commenting with blogspot. So here's the short, disconnected version of a comment.

1. Good thoughts.

2. The twinning argument was what originally made me question the idea of life beginning at conception. I ultimately concluded that life begins at conception, pregnancy at implantation, and personhood... well that depends upon how you define personhood.

3. It always struck me as odd to believe that it was fine to kill sperm prior to the moment of conception, but gravely wrong to kill one once it began to fertilize an egg. In the same way it strikes me as peculiar to believe that it is fine to kill embryos up until the moment of implantation, but somehow wrong once they begin to attach to the uterine wall (would it also be wrong to deliberately harm an ectopic pregnancy, or is it only the uterus that counts for implantation?)

4. We now laugh at the idea of ensoulment happening at quickening. If it is problematic to imagine that a child is a child because its mother happens to feel it one day, it is also problematic to imagine that a person is a person because its mother's body has finally noticed its presence through implantation and has a hormonal response. I am inclined to think that our scientific "knowledge" is still far too incomplete to solve these questions scientifically.

5. An otherwise healthy 35 year old woman will have ~25% chance of losing a pregnancy after implantation. Is that a moral issue? I think that you may be right about the "moral issue" but only in the sense that all death and suffering is a moral issue.

6. I don't think that most of the signers find this as convoluted as you do. For the Catholics it is quite clear (though they don't fight as much about the "settled" issues such as contraception as they do over the ones that still seem debatable) and many of the Protestants are willing to deal with the logical implications of their position http://www.focusonlinecommunities.com/thread/14832

7. The way the US deals with these things has had bad results
http://www.amazon.com/Abortion-Divorce-Western-Mary-Glendon/dp/0674001613 but it seems unfair to pull the anti-fed card on people who honestly believe that they are dealing with a moral issue of the life-or-death nature. But then again, maybe I am just too pro-fed when it comes to moral issues as I really wish they'd stop states like TX from going crazy with the death penalty.

Kacie said...

Rae - great thoughts. Hmm.. I use firefox at home and comment on blogspot all the time, so I don't think they are fully incompatible. Not sure what's up with that. Sometimes I have to click "submit" twice, but it usually goes through.

I do agree that Catholics don't find it as convoluted as I do - you all are quite clear on your thinking! However, most Protestants that I know have never heard of these arguements. In fact, most young Protestants that I meet say that they believe that life begins at conception, use hormonal birth control, and have not really heard or understood that this might be a conflict of interest.

You know, I've never met anyone like your husband and you that so clearly differentiates between life, pregnancy, and personhood. I really appreciate that delineation. You have me thinking.

Rae said...

Oh, I'm sure it firefox can't have a problem with blogspot as a whole or firefox would have to fix it asap, but there is definitely an issue with my instillation. And I don't really know why I haven't uninstalled it and reinstalled the newest version other than the fact that I am trying to get used to chrome.

Rachel S. said...

Super interesting, Kacie. I think about this a lot and you are right in that this issue is hardly addressed in Protestant circles, and that really bothers me.

The question your post logically raises for Christians is IF we are unsure where life begins, why risk the unintentional abortion of that life? Is our convenience worth it? I understand that there will probably always be debate on this issue, but if we cannot come to a clear conviction on where life begins, how can we condone hormonal birth control? For this reason, my husband and I do not feel comfortable using hormonal methods. What bothers me is that although I feel strongly about this myself (because I am not positive where life begins), I am afraid to share my opinions too strongly with those around me. Even here at Moody, I am scared of stepping on too many toes with this sensitive issue.

Anyway, I guess I'm just saying thanks for the excellent reminder to continue to dialogue about this with those around me. Your post has given me a lot to think about.

Kacie said...

Thanks Rach. I was so glad we talked about it in Dev. Pscyh, but most of my married friends at Moody have never looked into this and just automatically go to hormonal birth control. I wish we talked about it more, even if we have to do so gently. It should at least be a conversation!

Anonymous said...
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Micaela said...

If you simply go to the library-the bio section clearly states....the beginning of human life is at the moment of conception. There is no arguing when human life begins. It is a scientific fact that at the moment the sperm joins the egg, a new human life that has never been before and never will be again is created. This person is at its earliest stage in life, and to rob his/her life is murder.

I dont how clearly this fact can get. Its such a simple thing, yet many people try to blur this in order to excuse unwanted pregnancies.
Human life is sacred and each human life should be given all proper rights and should be protected from its earliest stage.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic piece! You've clarified my own thoughts on this subject. Befoer I always believed that the soul's energy entered the body at the 'big bang' of conception. Now I wonder if life begins at implantation as it's almost a 'confirmation' of the soul's incarnation on the physical plane. Prior to that things are being put together and checked out. If the soul and God is happy with the physical body rudimentarily put together then implantation occurs to continue the development process. If not they crumple it up and start again! Personally I'm pro choice re the abortion issue. I don't think I could abort a baby myself but I would never take away another woman's right to choose for herself. I also believe that we have a certain degree of control over our lives and hte lessons we are here to learn. We live in conjunction with higher power. I also believe in reincarnation. Those are just my personal beliefs and in their context life beginning at implantation makes alot of sense.
Thanks for a wonderful thought provoking piece of writing!
Blessings xxx

Anonymous said...

Micaela this is the problem you see. At conception is it a new 'person' being created or simply a new body? A unique physical combination of DNA, granted, but is the soul yet present? It's really not as clear as one might imagine...