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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.

As the UNC confirms, “The appropriate role of science is to inform the societal dialogue with objective information…Refusing to acknowledge abortion as a death undermines the role of science and the value of transparency so fundamental to a free society.” The definitions matter, for our words shape our worlds.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw abortion as the disruptor of the dream, saying that his people cannot win if they “are willing to sacrifice the lives of his children for comfort and safety. How can the Dream survive,” he asked, “if we murder the children? Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb of his or her mother. The mother decides the fate.” His granddaughter, Dr. Alveda King, says that “if we hear the cry of mercy from the unborn and ignore the suffering of the mothers, then we are signing our own death warrants.”


The 56 million abortions and the 3 million annual STDs in the teen population alone -- 8,000 teens per day contract an STD in the US -- are symptoms of a much larger issue, and I think it is an area where we have a tremendous opportunity to speak words of life and hope.


Where there is an STD, there is a person with multiple sexual partners (you don’t get an STD from a mutually monogamous lifelong relationship). The multiple partner modality has been celebrated in mainstream media in increasing measure; the vast majority of music, movies, and sitcoms celebrate the “casual sex” relationships that have become the norm for the two youngest generations. But it isn’t only the casual consumption of media that is fueling the fire. Over the last decade, public schools are pushing an aggressive, liberal agenda on sex education that ignores traditional values, daily indoctrinating their captive audience of young teens daily. Abstinence is mocked as an impossible standard, and very young students are given examples of relationships they shouldn’t even be thinking about yet. You can read the curriculum here.


Is their plan working? Is the increasingly aggressive sex ed curricula stemming the tide of STDs in the US? No. In fact, the CDC reports that 50% of all the new sexually transmitted diseases in the US are contracted in the youngest members of our society. And the rampant disease rate doesn’t begin to address the heartbreak, the attachment issues, the anxiety, and the depression gripping the two youngest generations. The next generation is hurting, anxious, lonely, and desperate for the good news that they have value, that they are worth more than the objectification of their bodies.


Furthermore, the casual sex culture has resulted in skyrocketing rates of cohabitation amongst Millennials and GenZs: 51% of Mills are currently cohabiting, and marriage, if pursued at all, is being delayed and delayed and delayed. Cohabitation is linked to a higher rate of domestic abuse, drug use, and a lower likelihood of long-term relational success.


Parents have been disempowered in the realm of influence in government schools, which is one of the key reasons that homeschooling is now one of the fastest growing segments of American academia. Public schools have not listened to the needs, desires, and goals of parents. Instead, they have thrust Huxley’s Brave New World upon us without our consent. In fact, in a recent School Board meeting I attended in order to speak out against the oversexualize curricula, when the parents walked in to voice their concerns, school board members actually walked out without responding. If you are a parent in California and have placed your children in the care of a public school, whether traditional or charter, I would echo the infamous words of Dr. James Dobson: “It’s time to get them out.”


What’s at the root here? These are all symptoms.


The current crises of abortion and STD rates is indicative of a culture who has lost its sense of value, its personal worth, its connection to the core. The US leads the developed world in youth violence, homicide, incarcerations, abortions, teen pregnancy, self-injury. Clearly, we have some issues.


Dealing only with the presenting problem is ineffective in the long run. Instead, we have to focus on the lack of value, dignity, self-worth. We have a cultural crisis on our hands, and the 56 million annual abortions are symptoms of the problem.


We noted earlier that organisms are defined by their content and their behavior: what they are made of and what they do. Could the same be said of us as Christians? Yes. We are what we’re made of, what we meditate on, what we talk about --and what we do with that information. What will we do with this information?


Throughout history, great men and women have responded to cultural crises by allowing a holy discontent to serve as a catalyst for behavioral change. As sociologist Anthony Giddens once remarked, Christianity is a “revolt against the ruling social order of the day.” As believers, it's our responsibility to act wisely into the conversation of our culture. We are the pacesetters, the anchors, the reflection of the light of truth on a cloudy, confused country. Let's speak the language of life.



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