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Life Lessons: Who Determines the Definition of Life?

By Dr. Lisa Dunne

The internet is swirling with an angry vortex of posts devoted to the topic of the life and death of the next generation. As a parent and college president who is very invested in the health and well-being of the next generation, I wanted to share some sobering research from a talk I gave at a local Christian school on the stats, clients, and benefactors of this topic.

A few short years ago, the Governor of New York signed into law a bill that legalized abortion up to the time of birth (and in some cases after birth). The bill, called the Reproductive Health Act, allows not only for late-term abortion but also for non-doctors to perform the abortions for any reason, including “age, economic, social, and emotional factors,” according to the New York Right to Life association. Who defines and regulates the definition of life? Who is affected by this definition? This regulation? And what is the role of the church in this cultural conversation?

In 2016, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill conducted a powerful study on the rate of death by abortion by ethnicity titled, “Induced Abortion, Mortality, and the Conduct of Science.” Three important findings emerged. First, abortion disproportionally destroys the lives of Black and Hispanic babies in the US. Second, and the focal point of the study, abortion is not listed as a “cause of death,” nor are the aborted recognized with a certificate of death. More on this in a moment. And third, coupled with data from the World Health Organization, the findings show that abortion is the leading cause of death over all other conditions, with 40 - 56 million abortions worldwide PER YEAR according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute (2018 Fact Sheet). To put this in perspective, WHO says heart disease kills about 9 million worldwide per year, strokes kill 6 million, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 3 million, lung cancer 1.7 and diabetes 1.6. Let’s compare those numbers once again to abortion: 56 million abortions per year.

In the UNC study, the authors point out that there is “no credible scientific opposition to the fact that a genetically distinct human life begins at conception and that an induced abortion is a death. Yet abortion is not reported as a cause of death in the US vital statistics system.” These mortality patterns, the authors go on to say, have “profound implications for public policy.”

The scathing UNC report shows that if death by abortion by ethnicity were reported as a cause of death in US vital statistics, these would be categorized as follows:

64% of Hispanics die from abortion in America

61% of Blacks die from abortion in America

16% of Whites die from abortion in America

As the authors note, “As a cause of death, we found abortion to be highly consequential, with large racial and ethnic disparities.” And, I would ask, as Americans, how can we truly say we desire racial equality if we willingly turn a blind eye and a callused heart to the ethnic inequality represented in these statistics? 

Abortion is not reported as a cause of death, the report says, because the mainstream medical community does not define “personhood” until birth and this, the UNC report summarizes, is a lie of omission: “The science community is not appropriately engaged in this crucial public health problem…the logical and most cost-effective way to achieve that goal is to formally consider abortion as a reportable death…The exclusion of abortion as a cause of death, in spite of conclusive science to the contrary…may be the ultimate example of science denial.”

Bishop EW Jackson told CNS News that he is deeply disturbed by the CDC data on abortions and that in any other arena of life, that type of disparity “would be considered as proof of racism.”

Again, this idea that abortion is a “cause of death” has been vehemently disputed in the mainstream media, but it’s important to note that the dispute has absolutely nothing to do with the accuracy of the numbers. Instead, it has to do with the fuzzy line of semantics.

Heather Boonstra, the director of public policy for the Guttmacher Institute, says it this way: “Abortion is a legal, constitutionally protected medical procedure in the United States. It’s not considered a cause of death by CDC, WHO, and other leading authorities.” LA journalist Bethania Palma sums it up like this: “Stating that abortion is the leading cause of death worldwide (as opposed to a medical procedure) is a problematic pronouncement, because that stance takes a political position, one which is at odds with the scientific/medical world. The medical community does not confer personhood upon fetuses that are not viable outside the womb.”

So, between 40 and 56 million abortions do occur worldwide every year, but the lives being taken are not considered human. Hmmm.

The American College of Pediatricians says this, in contrast: “The ACP concurs with the body of scientific evidence that corroborates that a unique human life starts when the sperm and egg bind to each other in a process of fusion of their respective membranes and a single hybrid cell called a zygote, on one-celled embryo, is created. As physicians dedicated both scientific truth and to the Hippocratic tradition, the College values all human lives equally from the moment of conception (fertilization) until natural death. Consistent with its mission to enable all children to reach their optimal physical and emotional health and well being the College, therefore, opposes active measures that would prematurely end the life of any child at any stage of development from conception to natural death.”

Scientifically, the basis for distinguishing the differences in cell types has two criteria: cell composition and cell behavior. These are “universally agreed upon definitions,” says Dr. Maureen Condic in the journal Human Life International. “Human embryos from the zygote stage forward,” she says, “show uniquely integrated, organismal behavior that is unlike the behavior or mere human cells…the cells do not ‘generate’ the embryo…they are produced by the embryo as it directs its own development to more mature stages of human life. This organized, coordinated behavior of the embryo is the defining characteristic of a human organism.”

Condic goes on to say that “the conclusion that human life begins at sperm-egg fusion is uncontested, objective, based on the universally accepted scientific method of distinguishing different cell types from each other and on ample scientific evidence (thousands of independent, peer-reviewed publications). Moreover, it is entirely independent of any specific ethical, moral, political, or religious view of human life or of human embryos. …a neutral examination of the evidence…unequivocally indicates that human embryos from the one-cell stage forward are indeed living individuals of the human species; i.e., human beings.”

However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has a slightly different take. They agree that pregnancy begins at the time of conception (fertilization), but they say that pregnancy and “life” are two different terms, and they are not interchangeable. The ACOG notes that they “approach everything from a scientific perspective…but ‘life’ is something of a philosophical question.”

So, if indeed the scientific community is deferring to the religious and philosophical community to define life, my friends, let’s define it accurately.

Judeo-Christian literature is replete with examples of personhood prior to birth: Jacob and Essau wrestled in the womb as they vied for leadership. David says in Psalm 22:10, “From my mother’s womb, you have been my God.” Psalm 58:3 says the wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth.” Hosea mentions Jacob, saying, “In the womb he took his brother by the heel.” And check this out: John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb upon the arrival of Mary, who was carrying Jesus in her womb. In fact, Luke 1:15 says that John was filled with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb.” Personhood is clearly established prior to birth. From a developmental perspective, even the very first human cell of life, the zygote, contains the DNA, the blueprint design, of a human being’s entire development process through the lifespan. This concept, yet unbeknownst to him, underscores King David’s proclamation in Psalm 139 that God’s eyes saw his unformed body in his mother’s womb and that all the days ordained for him were written in God’s book before one of them came to be. 

As Christians, we are called to defend the rights of the poor and needy, to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, as Proverbs 31 exhorts. We are also called to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed, as Luke 4:18 (and Isaiah 61) remind us. This means we speak up for the unborn AND we care for the wounded, frightened mothers who don’t yet realize that the entity within their womb is a living person created in the image of a loving God. The spirit of the Lord is upon us to proclaim the good news, the gospel.