3.22.2012

Wolferinus and the defining of the beginning and end of life

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I have a further concern with something we have been assuming in the recent discussions about abortifacient birth control. That is, the definition of a point in time at which "contraception" becomes "abortion" - the specific scientific moment in time when new life begins.

I would contend that we only do this because of the acceptance of birth control. Because almost everyone had already declared birth control to be morally acceptable, the nature of the abortion debate caused us to have to make a distinction of when an act of despising God's blessing of children is "contraception" and when such an act is "abortion." The pro-life side of the abortion debate chose "fertilization" as the moment a person is "conceived." I'm not saying I disagree when forced to choose sides, but I've never been very comfortable with defining things in that way. Contraception is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Why do we need to make such a distinction between the two unless it is to ease someone's conscience or decide what type of criminal penalty (or penance) should be applied?

Do we truly know when a new soul's existence begins? Is this not a supernatural divine event that is unobservable? If so, for what reason do we point to the scientifically observable event of "fertilization" as the moment a soul is implicated in the flesh? As far as I know, Scripture does not answer the question of what scientifically observable event signals the exact moment life begins. If any of you believe Scripture does answer this question, I'm all ears. We have an equally difficult time defining the end of life.

I have briefly voiced this concern of mine before in various discussions and writings, but I believe I may have found a very helpful way of looking at this. I would argue that choosing the exact moments or events in time when life begins and ends is no less problematic than choosing the exact moments or events in time when the presence of Christ's body and blood in the bread and wine begin and end in the celebration of the Sacrament.

Please review the following excerpt from Luther's second letter to Simon Wolferinus, July 20, 1543, with which I'm sure most of you are already familiar:

...such a definition of the action would bring about infinite scruples of conscience and endless questions, such as are disputed among the papists, as, for example, whether the Body and Bood of Christ are present at the first, middle, or last syllables. Therefore, one must look not only upon this movement of instant or present action, but also on the time, not in terms of mathematical but of physical breadth, that is, one must give this action a certain period of time, and a period of appropriate breadth of time, as they say, “in breadth.”

Therefore, we shall define the time or the sacramental action in this way: that it starts with the beginning of the Our Father and lasts until all have communicated, have emptied the chalice, have consumed the Hosts, until the people have been dismissed and [the Priest] has left the altar. In this way we shall be safe and free from the scruples and scandals of such endless questions. Dr. Philip defines the sacramental action in relation to what is outside it, that is, against reservation of and processions with the Sacrament; he does not split it up within [the action] itself, nor does he define it in a way that it contradicts itself. ...

You can see where I am going with this, but let me substitute a few words in this text to make my point crystal clear regarding the problems of declaring that life begins at the union of egg and sperm:

...such a definition of the beginning of life would bring about infinite scruples of conscience and endless questions, such as are disputed among those who approve of contraception but oppose abortion, as, for example, whether soul becomes present at fertilization, implantation, or at the moment when the heart begins to beat, or when the brain cells begin showing activity, etc., etc. Therefore, one must look not only upon a movement of instant or present action, but also on the time, not in terms of mathematical but of physical breadth, that is, one must give this action a certain period of time, and a period of appropriate breadth of time, as they say, “in breadth.”

Therefore, we shall define the time of God's action of creating and sustaining life in this way: that it starts with the conjugal union of husband and wife, and lasts through the entire life of the person created through that act, until the person's heart stops beating, all efforts to resuscitate have failed, and until the loved ones have been dismissed from the deathbed. In this way we shall be safe and free from the scruples and scandals of such endless questions. We must define the creation of life in relation to what is outside it, that is, against the separation of any of the purposes of the conjugal union, because Scripture does not split it up these purposes in a way that it contradicts the nature of the whole. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

This is another reason why I believe the question of what is or is not abortifacient birth control is a much more complicated subject than it ever needed to be. What made me start thinking about this is having written a warning to readers of the list of abortifacient birth control that new drugs are always being invented. Fertilization itself is more a chain of events than a single, isolated phenomenon. What happens when a new drug is invented that doesn't prevent a sperm from uniting with an egg (fertilization), but rather inhibits one of the many subsequent cytological events of zygote formation, such as one of the many observable processes before, during or after nuclear fusion?  How would we decide whether that is an abortifacient drug?

We don't have to answer such questions if we understand that it is not our business to be messing with any of it.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

Much more could be said on the subject, but I'll leave that for the comments.
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7 comments:

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Here is another point that I think illustrates how much of a mystery the creation of an individual human being (body and soul) really is. Implantation occurs at about day 6, but the developing baby can split into separate individual twins up to day 9. Does the soul split in half, does God create another soul? Do both souls come into existence at this time, or perhaps later? Not only can we not answer any of these questions, we shouldn't be asking them. It is a mystery beyond comprehension! God's creative hand is at work as early as the joining together of husband and wife in the procreative act. Do what married folk do, and leave the mystery of the conception of life up to God.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I'd also be interested in anyone has studied the Greek word "sullambano" and/or the Hebrew "yacham" as used in Scripture - the latter especially in the context of Psalm 51-5. It would seem that "yacham" may refer to at least as early as the act of copulation itself as the point at which "conceiving" occurs.

Rev. Dr. Gifford A. Grobien said...

I agree with what you've said. We cannot observe when the soul is created/given. And I think you're right to see that, biblically, conception isn't separated from the act of intercourse. In this way your comparison to Luther's description of the sacramental action is apt.

The only problem I think that you would get from opponents is that, biologically, it does appear that we can observe that life begins at fertilization. This is the article I referred in the District Resolution I drafted: Maureen Condic, “A Biological Definition of the Human Embryo,” chapter 11 in Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed. Stephan Napier (Springer Science+Business Media, 2011). She argues that, with fertilization, you have the new, unique organic structure/components which develop as human life. Even with fertilization itself being a process, it is still at the beginning of such fertilizing process that normal development can only be human life.

Of course, even as I write that, your argument pushes back and says, the act of intercourse is such that, under the normal course, has its aim as the development of human life. I guess maybe the biologist would argue that when there is the unique organic structure that develops as human life, then you have life.

Again, I agree with you. I'm just pointing out that you're going to get a lot of resistance from the biological perspective. Theologically, we cannot pinpoint the beginning of life. Biologically, have reasonable observations to say that we can.

Gregory K. Laughlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gregory K. Laughlin said...

I understand that this issue matters to those who believe contraception is licit but abortion is not. However, the pro-abortionists clearly believe the "personhood" is something that comes into being long after conception and implantation. Peter Singer and other argue that it is not even present at birth, so that infanticide (which they now euphemistically call "after-birth abortion") is morally licit. And this debate is largely academic as well to those of us who adhere to the historic Christian teaching that contraception is illicit. Therefore, this debate really only matters to those who take a lukewarm position on the sanctity of life, who are neither hot nor cold. While it certainly would be preferable for such people to at least come to support the concept that life begins at conception and that we have no basis to permit its termination at anytime after it comes into existence, it would be far better to convince these lukewarm pro-lifers that their position in untenable and that being truly pro-life means being open to procreation in our marital lives.

Anonymous said...

Fertilization itself is a process, "a complex sequence of coordinated molecular events,"* which resists being specified to a particular point in time. It begins when the spermatazoon makes initial contact with the oocyte and ends with fusing of the pronuclei, which will form the zygote.

An argument can be made that, while incomplete, "human life" is already present via the spermatazoon and the oocyte, the latter of which was already present in the mother's embyronic body.

Robert C. Baker

Moore, Persaud, and Torchia. The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 9th ed. (Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2013), 30.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

http://www.ryancmacpherson.com/publication-list/23-devotional-writings/33-gods-life-giving-gospel-is-active-at-conception.html