Opinion | Why Christians — and Republicans — Should Reconsider the Premise that ‘Life Begins at Conception’

“The belief that abortion is murder is founded on the premise that life begins at conception. That premise drove my evangelical politics as a zealous young convert, and it continues to motivate millions of Americans when they go to vote in local, state and national elections. It is also the foundation of the recent ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court that classifies frozen embryos created during IVF as human persons.
Chief Justice Tom Parker’s opinion in the case, which draws on the Bible, Christian manifestos, theologians such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and the Reformer John Calvin, is an openly theological document. Parker argues that since life starts at conception, humans, especially lawmakers and judges, are called to implement policies and make decisions that will protect the sanctity of human life, whether in utero or outside it.

So it’s easy to think that the premise that life begins at conception is a timeless theological component of Christian belief. But it’s not.

The idea that life begins at conception is neither a unanimous belief in the history of Christianity, nor a classic American Protestant doctrine. When Parker writes about protecting the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, he is not carrying on a longstanding Protestant theological tradition by basing his decision on stalwarts of American evangelicalism like Cotton Mather or John Wesley or Jonathan Edwards. Those Protestant forefathers were more likely to believe that abortion, while inadvisable, was not murder until the “quickening” of the child — when the mother feels it move — somewhere near 18 weeks of the pregnancy.

Instead, Parker is repeating a political mantra concocted by Republican operatives in the late 20th century in a successful effort to create a conservative Catholic-Protestant voting bloc capable of taking over the GOP — and implementing their religious-political vision throughout the country.

In fact, within the lifetimes of many of today’s evangelical Christian believers, their churches either supported abortion rights or were neutral on it. In the 1960s and 1970s, Southern Baptists and other historically conservative Protestant denominations held that abortion was not only permissible, but also should be left to individual choice. In 1968, a group of evangelical leaders from a variety of denominations wrote in a document titled “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction” that they could not agree whether or not abortion is sinful outright, but they could agree “about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances.” They even argued that “the preservation of fetal life … may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life.””

“The famed evangelical theologian Norman Geisler put it in the clearest terms in the 1971 and 1975 versions of his work Christian Ethics: “The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.”

It’s not Protestants, but Catholics in the United States who, as a religious community, have opposed abortion forcefully going back to the 19th century, and it is in Catholicism that we find the view that life begins at conception. Starting with an 1869 document called Apostolicae Sedis, Pope Pius IX declared the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.

Yet, prior to 1869, there were varying approaches to abortion and the understanding of when life begins even within the Catholic Church. (And to this day there are many Catholics who, in disagreement with their Church, advocate for reproductive choice.) There are certainly church documents and early church theologians who argued that abortion is infanticide because life begins when the embryo is conceived. However, there were also forceful and influential voices that argued fetuses did not become persons until they were “ensouled,” or when God gave the developing fetus its soul, and therefore its life. This was the view of St. Augustine, the most important theological source in early and medieval Western Christendom. In his commentary on Exodus, Augustine argues that “abortion of an unformed fetus is not murder, because the fetus is not yet ensouled, that is, not yet a human being, and that abortion of an unformed fetus is therefore a less serious offense than abortion of a formed and ensouled fetus.”

More examples abound. There are Irish “saints” who performed abortions in circumstances of rape and fornication, and who considered it, in some cases, a less serious offense than oral sex. And then there is Thomas Aquinas, the most influential Catholic voice of the medieval period, a thinker whose work continues to shape Catholic theology today. According to scholar David Albert Jones, Aquinas believed that “the body was formed gradually through the power transmitted by the male seed but the spiritual soul was directly created by God when the body was ready to receive it. Thus the embryo was believed to live at first the life of a plant, then the life of a simple animal, and only after all its organs, including the brain, had been formed, was it given, by the direct and creative act of God, an immortal spiritual soul.”

Conservative Catholic and Protestant theologians will argue either that contrary to these passages, other works by Augustine and Aquinas reveal a belief that life begins at conception, or that these theological giants were simply wrong on this issue. But this is the point exactly: There is a widespread and nuanced theological debate about the beginning of life in the history of Christianity. The idea that life begins at conception is far from a universally agreed upon matter of historical Christian doctrine. When viewed in the long history of the Christian tradition, it is actually a minority opinion.”