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Feedback archiveFeedback 2012

Abortion, brain development, and brain death

Does an embryo become a person only once brain cells begin developing?

Published: 11 March 2012(GMT+10)

This week’s feedback features a supporter from Canada, who asks some thoughtful questions regarding abortion and brain development, and brain death. Their email is reproduced in full, and then CMI’s Dr Carl Wieland responses are interspersed below.

Wikipedia: Helmut Januschka

D.M. from Canada writes:

Hello,

I was doing some thinking on abortion and how it could possibly tie in with organ transplants, people with disabilities, and the new science of “growing organs”.

It is clear from people who are disabled and can’t use any part of their body that the same person is alive, even in cases of “locked-in syndrome”. It is also the same case for people who are in a persistent vegetative state.

It is also the same case for people who go through an organ transplant. If you need a new heart, you are still the same person.

I recently saw a video from TED featuring a Dr. Anthony Atala from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine where he explained how he can grow new organs using the patient’s own DNA, thus avoiding the risk of rejection.

So, bear with me here as I go into something that is very hypothetical and probably many many decades away, perhaps centuries, or maybe impossible, I don’t know. But if it is possible, we should probably think about some consequences.

What if one day, it becomes possible to perform a brain transplant? And let’s say that we go even further into the future and instead of using a “brainless” body (from someone who died), we perform a modern day miracle and are able to grow basically a whole new body without a brain using the patient’s own DNA, simply to avoid the foggy issue of whether or not the old brain in a former person’s body is still the same person. This way, the entire body has the same DNA, and it appears physically the same for the most part. It is clear from people with “locked-in syndrome” and organ transplanting that it is the brain that is the basis for personhood, and ultimately, life. This also ties in with why many people (I assume wrongly, but I could be proven wrong decades/centuries from now) hope that if they can go through cryonics (just for their brain, in some cases…), they will still live once they can somehow be resuscitated. Also, this is why most Christians do accept brain death as the end of life and find it ok to withdraw artificial life support for the body, at least that’s what I gathered from Apologetics Press’ article on this issue. Picture a body without a brain. I doubt most of us would consider it alive if it is only kept alive by machines. In fact, from what I can tell from philosophy of mind and dualism, the soul seems to be intimately tied in with the brain. (I guess this also ties in with the issue of when we get souls…)

So, if once the person is born, we consider life to end with the brain, does this somehow affect our anti abortion arguments? I know that it is a very grey area as to “when” a baby is a “human” due to the ongoing development process, which is one of the many good arguments we use against abortion, because it’s all one continuous process of development which really continues after birth as well. That’s why we say that there is no one point at which humanity begins. Therefore we say it starts at conception. So for the sake of argument, let’s just say that we pick the beginning of the development of the brain. I read that it starts around day 20.

So if once the human is born, we consider that the life depends on the brain, how can we also defend the lives of babies who haven’t begun to develop brains?

stock.xchng: lumix2004

I realize that parts of the argument rely on speculative events, but others (PVS, locked-in syndrome, organ transplants) are not speculative.

So, if this does cause a problem, should we view a human body whose brain is dead to actually still be alive as well? Should we as Christians then be against brain death as the time of death?

Thank you,

D

Dr Carl Wieland:

Dear D

Many thanks for your email. I actually think it is an interesting point you raise, and my responses interspersed below do not pretend to be definitive.

You wrote:

Hello,

I was doing some thinking on abortion and how it could possibly tie in with organ transplants, people with disabilities, and the new science of “growing organs”.

It is clear from people who are disabled and can’t use any part of their body that the same person is alive, even in cases of “locked-in syndrome”. It is also the same case for people who are in a persistent vegetative state.

It is also the same case for people who go through an organ transplant. If you need a new heart, you are still the same person.

I recently saw a video from TED featuring a Dr. Anthony Atala from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine where he explained how he can grow new organs using the patient’s own DNA, thus avoiding the risk of rejection.

So, bear with me here as I go into something that is very hypothetical and probably many many decades away, perhaps centuries, or maybe impossible, I don’t know. But if it is possible, we should probably think about some consequences.

What if one day, it becomes possible to perform a brain transplant?

CW: That is very highly unlikely, simply because of the countless millions of individual axons going from the spinal cord to the brain (that would have to be cut, i.e. disconnected entirely from the old body and then exactly ‘reconnected’ to the corresponding one in the new body). So let’s leave that one to one side as too hypothetical with today’s technology.

And let’s say that we go even further into the future and instead of using a “brainless” body (from someone who died), we perform a modern day miracle and are able to grow basically a whole new body without a brain using the patient’s own DNA, simply to avoid the foggy issue of whether or not the old brain in a former person’s body is still the same person. This way, the entire body has the same DNA, and it appears physically the same for the most part. It is clear from people with “locked-in syndrome” and organ transplanting that it is the brain that is the basis for personhood, and ultimately, life. This also ties in with why many people (I assume wrongly, but I could be proven wrong decades/centuries from now) hope that if they can go through cryonics (just for their brain, in some cases…), they will still live once they can somehow be resuscitated. Also, this is why most Christians do accept brain death as the end of life and find it ok to withdraw artificial life support for the body, at least that’s what I gathered from Apologetics Press’ article on this issue. Picture a body without a brain. I doubt most of us would consider it alive if it is only kept alive by machines. In fact, from what I can tell from philosophy of mind and dualism, the soul seems to be intimately tied in with the brain. (I guess this also ties in with the issue of when we get souls…)

If development of the adult human is one continuum from conception to adulthood, doesn’t that make the point that there is no point before which one can say with confidence ‘not human yet’?

CW: All fair comment.

So, if once the person is born, we consider life to end with the brain, does this somehow affect our anti abortion arguments? I know that it is a very grey area as to “when” a baby is a “human” due to the ongoing development process, which is one of the many good arguments we use against abortion, because it’s all one continuous process of development which really continues after birth as well. That’s why we say that there is no one point at which humanity begins. Therefore we say it starts at conception.

CW: That does not seem unreasonable, though, does it? I.e. if development of the adult human is one continuum from conception to adulthood, doesn’t that make the point that there is no point before which one can say with confidence ‘not human yet’?

So for the sake of argument, let’s just say that we pick the beginning of the development of the brain. I read that it starts around day 20.

CW: But here is where I see the argument breaking down, because there is no discontinuity in that area of brain development, either. I.e. does one pick the point at which the rudimentary brain structures are first visible, and if so, visible using what level of technology? And how does one define the structure in question as ‘appearing’? I.e. is it when the first of its components appear, e.g. neurones appear? If so, then what about while they are being constructed, why is this not part of the appearance of the brain?

And then, granting that the process of construction is part of the appearance of the brain, is it not the case that the machinery and the coded program for it are humming from day one, the point of conception? So to try and say otherwise becomes quite arbitrary, which is, as I think will become clearer, quite different to the issue of acknowledging that brain death is the death of the person.

So if once the human is born, we consider that the life depends on the brain, how can we also defend the lives of babies who haven’t begun to develop brains?

CW: My point is firstly that they are beginning to develop brains, in a particular sense as shown, from day one. Perhaps a better way of putting it is this, which I hope will show you the difference between both ends of life in this very interesting question. For the developing baby, there is a process in train which if left uninterrupted, will lead in a smooth continuum to obvious personhood. At every stage, looking forward, the personhood becomes increasingly obvious, without thereby implying that prior to it being obvious, there was no personhood. That potential, that process, begins at conception. Because there is no biblical or biological information to the contrary, there is nothing apart from arbitrary whim to define the organism as anything less than fully human, from both biblical and biological standpoints.

For the developing baby, there is a process in train which if left uninterrupted, will lead in a smooth continuum to obvious personhood.

However, at the other end, accepting brain death as the point at which cessation of personhood is definite is the very opposite of an arbitrary whim. It is, rather, based on a recognition that death (by definition an irreversible process) has arrived. The definition of life starting at conception does not overlook the possibility that the soul and thus true personhood, as opposed to potential or obvious personhood, is assigned, say, 1 day after conception—but there is no way of knowing that, so any argument claiming something like this in order to support abortion can only be based on an arbitrary choice in order to fulfil a desire to terminate the potential adult (who is, in the absence of any non-arbitrary criterion, fully human, as pointed out).

Similarly, in the case of death and brain functioning, there is no way of knowing for sure that the soul may not have departed well before the point of recognizable brain death. In which case, the point of irreversibility may have been reached prior to the point of recognizable irreversibility. But when the brain is truly dead, i.e. not capable of any recovery of function and thus in an irreversible state, then, by definition based on universal experience, the person concerned is in an irreversible state, which put in other words is death. Whether the actual soul departure occurs at a slightly different point in time is in that sense irrelevant as well as being unknowable. I hope it’s obvious, however, that this issue of arriving at a non-arbitrary irreversible state is quite different from what takes place at the ‘other end’ of life in normal development, where no such irreversibility is involved at all.

In summary: The issue related to the end of life involves both a point of irreversibility, and an obvious or definable biological demarcation point between when such irreversibility has been reached and when it has not. Whereas when it comes to the beginning of life, there is neither involved.

In short, defining the beginning of human life even without regard to the soul is not just the simple mirror image of defining death, because different processes and issues are involved.

I realize that parts of the argument rely on speculative events, but others (PVS, locked-in syndrome, organ transplants) are not speculative.

So, if this does cause a problem, should we view a human body whose brain is dead to actually still be alive as well?

CW: In a biological sense, if say the heart is still pumping, e.g., then it is still ‘alive’. But because we recognize that the person as a whole has reached that irreversible state, then for all practical purposes, death defined as the end of personhood has taken place.

Now just to throw in a red herring at the end, note that where I have spoken here of brain death it means the point at when we know for certain that the brain is dead. E.g. if it is sitting in a jar of formalin in the corner of the room, that would be unambiguous. In practice, there is also the issue of how to define the parameters which we would accept as meaning that brain death has occurred. Most of the time, that is not that difficult, but I did not want you to think that it was quite that simple, as it does affect things like switching off life support and organ donation, things that are beyond the scope of this reply—or, indeed, my sphere of experience, as it has been decades since I engaged in practical medicine where such issues arise.

Kind regards,

Carl W.

Should we as Christians then be against brain death as the time of death?

Thank you,

D

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Readers’ comments
John D., United States, 11 March 2012

I'm pretty sure now that identical twins do not each possess one soul and that a chimeric person does not contain two souls. I think that helps push forward the point in time when we can say a soul exists to after that point when souls would have to split or combine as that property does not seem compatible with souls. I guess souls might be able to do that, but I don't really know since I never made any souls.

Carl Wieland responds

John, sorry about the publishing delay; I find your opening proposition hard to take on board. For one thing, I have known of identical twins where one accepts Christ and the other does not. Perhaps the very appropriate and humble sentiment expressed in the last part of your last sentence could usefully apply to the first sentence.

Gary J., United States, 12 March 2012

D brings up "an interesting point" indeed! ... especially when he says "it is a very grey area as to 'when' a baby is a 'human' due to the ongoing development process." I will confine my comments to that one point. The Bible in many places clearly says human beings consist of body and soul (spirit).

Furthermore, in Ps 51:5 we read, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." Using the words I, sinful, and conceive in that passage suggest several important characteristics of the product of conception. We can paraphrase David this way: "I was sinful from conception." That tells us that David, speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understood he was a human being all the way back to the earliest stage of his development and that he was sinful already at that point. Although the ancients did not have the advantage of being able to see the spermatozoon and ovum and the combination of them, the zygote, and so did not have the same ideas about fertilization as we have now, they clearly understood conception to be concurrent with sexual intercourse (if the conditions were right - the female was not sterile and was "ready" and the male was not sterile). The very word for conceive in Hebrew is related to heat (both "to be in heat" and "to be feverish") and intense emotion or passion. In Greek, the word for conceive connotes "sowing the seed." Thus, rendering David's inspired words in modern biological language we get "I was sinful already as a zygote." Apparently, David considered himself a human being (body and soul) as well as sinful already as a zygote because physical substance does not sin; sin is associated with spirit. How the soul (spiritual aspect) comes into existence, i.e., how the zygote is a human being (body and soul) is not so clear from the Bible. Of course, Adam had a perfect body created by God and a sinless soul created by God, but all people since Adam start as a zygote with an imperfect (corrupted by the fall) material aspect and a sinful soul. Some Christians believe the soul is created at the time of conception while others believe the soul is naturally generated just as is the body (traducianism). The latter belief is favored because God finished his creative work in six days (with the implication that he is not still creating souls) and it helps with the explanation of the transmission of original sin (sinful nature). I inherit my genetic makeup from my parents as well as my sinful nature. Besides,

God wouldn't create something sinful. So just as a new, unique material form (body), corrupt though it may be, comes into existence at fertilization, so also does a new, unique spirit (soul), sinful though it may be. The two parts together are a new, unique sinful human being. In the end, the separation of that body and soul constitutes the physical death of that person. So although the point at which a new human being exists is theoretically observable, only God knows the exact moment when the soul separates from the body in physical death.

Matt M., United States, 12 March 2012

In response to D and Gary, I think this argument is pretty simple from a bible perspective. When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, He said:

"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee..." Jer 1:5

It is clear from God's word that He created your soul before your body, or at the very least simultaneously. It is also then clear that the argument of when the brain is formed is irrelevant, as your body is simply an earthen vessel for your soul which has already been created. This is the reason professing Christians should argue that "life begins at conception" and not just because of a measurable amount of matter.

I will grant you that in a forum such as this specifically intended to marry faith with science that a certain amount of data is conducive to a sound argument. However, at some point, it has to be a matter of faith and this topic is really no different than the first/last Adam that most of CMI topics are geared toward. Just as I've read in many of your articles, if you're going to accept God's word for what it is in saying that the earth is ~6000 yrs old, then you must also accept when God says He knows you before forming you in the womb, that you exist prior to your body forming, and thus life as it relates to our material world must begin at conception.

On the death end of the spectrum, I'm in full agreement with you (CMI), but would add only that when God calls a soul home there's nothing we can do to stop it. The body cannot live without a soul just as a soul cannot stay on earth without a body.

Thanks for all that you at CMI do. You've been a great encouragement to me in many ways.

Douglas B., United States, 13 March 2012

I would think that the Bible already indicates at what point "personhood" is "achieved". If any doctor of the time had aborted Mary's Holy-Spirit-conceived fetus at ANY point AFTER she had conceived, I think we can accurately say he would have been guilty of killing the Messiah. The very conception of Jesus was miraculous, and a direct act of God -- one would think we should consider that it was at that very moment that Jesus could be found in Mary's womb. But perhaps I'm mistaken in some way.

Doug L., United States, 23 March 2012

This is a great topic and I'm glad you addressed it because I've given some thought to the question of when does a person become a “person” and it thus becomes a case of murder if you destroy him/her. Because, after all, that’s what we’re talking about here with abortion: is it murder? If it’s NOT murder then we as Christians should keep our mouths shut. If it IS murder then we should be screaming bloody murder at the top of our lungs!

I don’t want to get off topic here but it’s necessary for me to address the death penalty. Amazingly, I have met some Christians who actually think the death penalty is wrong! Personally, if find that degree of ignorance or lack of discernment to be repugnant. God invoked the death penalty through human government after the Flood and later clarified it through Moses. The laws of government were not the topics of Christ’s sermons. Christ spoke about forgiveness on a person to person basis. No Christian should have any confusion over that.

So this directly relates to abortion and “personhood”. If the unborn baby is a person then killing it is murder. Those involved should suffer the death penalty. Period. End of discussion. This is why I say that most Christians are not really “pro-life”. They do not fully face the implications. If you believe that government should define human life and personhood as beginning at conception then you MUST call it murder to intentionally kill any unborn baby! This includes a fertilized egg.

Therefore, even to use something like an IUD, which prevents the fertilized egg (a single cell) from implanting, would be murder and the woman would be subject to the death penalty! I don’t know any Christian (and I wouldn’t WANT to know him) who would demand the death penalty for terminating a single cell. On the other hand, I read where John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary’s voice was heard. So we absolutely know that an unborn baby at some point has a soul and spirit and is fully alive.

I know that the progression of development is continuous, as Dr. Wieland argued in his response. I know that it’s impossible to say, with certainty, at what exact point there is a heart beat and brain activity. But I do know that when there is a single cell, that there is neither a heart nor a brain. My position has been that, legally, we should define life the same way we define death: heart beat and brain activity. When we’re talking about the abortion argument we’re primarily talking about what we permit, what our laws are. God will hold us accountable for what we, as a people, allow in our laws. So I maintain that the law should be that the fetus is a person when there is detectable heart and brain activity. This is going to be sometime in the first three weeks. Taking this position allows a woman to legally use an IUD. It gives legal relief to the rape victim (as her conscience dictates knowing that she must be accountable to God for the choice she makes.)

The Bible doesn’t clearly address the issue of abortion. So we have two separate problems here. First, we must each have our own personal policy. Second, we must, as a people, decide on what we allow others to do. I.e. a law. Personally, I don’t want to take the chance that God considers the zygote to be a person. Therefore my wife and I will not use things like an IUD or the “morning after” pill. As for what we should allow others to do legally, I think the brain/heart activity criteria is good enough. It may be somewhat imprecise but to my way of thinking it is reasonable and would bring some peace over the abortion question.

A. B., United States, 23 March 2012

The Life at Conception Act "would declare the unborn to be a 'person' under the 14th Amendment to the (U.S) Constitution, and therefore entitled to the right to life guaranteed therein."

[Website reference removed under feedback rules]

This is being actively supported by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky as a way to make Roe vs. Wade null and void and end legal abortions in the USA. Its declaration that the unborn are "persons" directly relates to your present article.

Michael T., United States, 23 March 2012

"I know that it is a very grey area as to “when” a baby is a “human” due to the ongoing development process,"------I think the easiest part of the response is that we are fully human from the point of conception. There is no grey area, 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. The zygote (conceptus) will never be born anything but a human being. Now we can say that they are not a fully developed or fully functioning human being but then again neither is a 1yr old, or an 8yr old etc.

"So if once the human is born, we consider that the life depends on the brain" ---- Life is in the blood.

I think some of the false premises have contributed to the seeming difficulty of the question.

I would highly recommend the book "The Unaborted Socrates" by Pete Kreeft. It's about 200 pages and a very fast read. It simplifies these arguments so just about anyone can understand them. Very enjoyable book, you won't be sorry you read it.

God Bless.

alister M., Australia, 25 March 2012

When translating the Bible, it has been stated that if a passage is difficult the most likely translation will be that which is simple and obvious. I am going to apply that principle to this matter which some see as difficult. First: human cells are unlike anything on earth.They are by definition human and we should be very careful what is done with the least of them. Christians may have a very different mind set in the matter than other people who are not God's children.Second: Every living person on earth knows that the sex act between a man and woman is essentially, and likely, to produce a baby. No woman that conceives says "I have got cells; I have an embryo" etc.No, it's "I am going to have a baby". Regretablly sin has so seriously invaded mans thinking that the mind is now desperately sinful beyond all things.In seeking to form an opinion on the subject Christians would do well to examine what their "imagination" has served up in times past. Was it always pure and holy and good. Then take heed to the doctrine and to themselves. Read, obey and apply Scripture; the only source of true information on all matters.

Gavin D., Australia, 25 March 2012

Other things to consider are that the brain may not be the total storage of "personhood". I have read of organ recipients having a change in food or music preference more in line with the donor. A quick search led to this ...

http://www.effective-mind-control.com/cellular-memory-in-organ-transplants.html

Also "brain death" is not neccessarily complete death. There are numerous instances of people being declared dead, then kept on life support to preserve organs for donation and later waking up. Case in point ...

http://blog.beliefnet.com/news/2011/09/%e2%80%98brain-dead%e2%80%99-quebec-woman-wakes-up-after-family-refuses-organ-donation.php

and

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2106809/Dead-man-wakes-as-transplant-surgeons-prepare-to-remove-his-organs.html

So our (Scientific) understanding of death is not yet complete, as I suspect our (Scientific) understanding of LIFE is also incomplete.

henry D., Romania, 25 March 2012

A response to Doug

A heartbeat is not “life”, but only a function of a whole organism that is alive. Same with breathing, brain function, movement.

The question is not “life”, as you have tried to frame the debate, but the LIFE OF a human being, a human organism.

How can a dead organism, based on your definition of "life", give rise to a heart and a brain??? Think about it.

The uni-cell human embryo formed at the beginning of fertilization, however, is both a living human organism and a cell. It is a uni-celled organism – as each of you were when you began to exist. That single-cell organism is capable of developing further into an adult human being; a mere cell is not and cannot.So it doesn't matter that you have a problem with "single cells". In that respect: "I don’t know any Christian (and I wouldn’t WANT to know him) who would demand the death penalty for terminating a single cell" you're begging the question by assuming that a human being/person can't be a single cell organism.

As for the death penalty, God allows it, but it's not mandatory, go to tektonics(JP Holding's website)for more info.

I'm disappointed that cmi didn't post your comment with a rebuttal as your position is contrary to theirs.

Carl Wieland responds

I agree with your comments, Henry, right down to just before the last line. I had the option of trying to cover all the bases in a response that would be of the same scale as another article, or rely on the totality of comments plus the article to make it clear what the biblical realities were. Thanks for helping that to happen, at least to some extent.

Joan S., Australia, 25 March 2012

At my birth in 1948, my teenage mother abandoned me. I became a Christian at age 33 and knew I would have eternal life and yet I was greatly fearful of death. I suffered rejection for around 50 years when The Lord brought all this to the surface. The Holy Spirit revealed

my mother had tried to abort me. In 1948 this was a very dangerous and risky thing to do. This caused a spirt of fear and death in me. The Holy Spirit then showed me in the spirit, my birth.

I "saw" myself in her womb, everything was black and I saw myself slowly moving down a tube, similar to a plastic vacuum cleaner handle which has ridges on it. All of a sudden I saw light, light every-where, at which point I was born into this world. Then the Lord revealed to me as an adult, my thoughts as I saw the light at my birth into the world. I was so pleased to be getting out of there!(her body.) It was one of relief.

I was shocked by these revelations from The Lord and understood that it was God Himself who had protected my life. He had and still has plans for my life. It makes me wonder if my fear of being killed in the womb and subsequent spirt of death carried through my life, is felt by actual aborted babies at the time of their death. I give all praise to God as He released this burden from me. The spirit of rejection was a hard one to bear, but God wants to set all His children free. I was so full of bitterness and hate to this young woman but my loving Father is in the healing business and now I can let it go knowing that I can forgive and be free. In 1948 any abortion was carried out between 2 and 3 months of pregnancy and abortion clinics barely existed so women took to using instruments to try and procure one, therefore I would have been up to 12 weeks of life in the womb when she tried my remove me and even at that early period of growth, I "felt' fear. I believe without hesitation life commences at conception in line with God's Word. I am now 64 and with my body's death, I will be present with the Lord. I believe that when my heart stops then my sould will be released. The body must taste death - absent from the body, present with the Lord. Glory to God.

John F., Australia, 26 March 2012

This has been a very interesting article and the effort that has been put into defining the origin of 'life' has been kept very scientific. I just can't avoid wondering though at which point humans realise they are looking for an 'out' to ending the possibility of a wonder of God's skill and love for us. I can tell you now 'I' did not develop in my mothers womb from 10 weeks on, I required the first 10 weeks of cell division and development to support the rest of me that was to follow, therefore 'I' started at conception and could not have started at any other stage in the growth cycle. No other human would be able to disagree because it is physics. How this debate can go beyond that is only through the insistence of evil thinking. Many are looking for a 'safe' point to stop a potential life rather than getting excited that they are making one!

Carl Wieland responds

Yes, I would echo Matt M's comments earlier above. I did not reiterate that in the response, the style of which was, 'OK, even if we grant that the brain were the issue that defined personhood (ie when a soul is assigned, if you like), here are some scientific reasons to back up what seems so clearly taught in Scripture anyway'. The fact that the clear biblical parameters were restated even led to one supporter emailing me direct to chide me on daring to suggest that it was all about the brain, so obviously it had not been made clear enough. These sorts of comments at the end of an article are great for fleshing out and teasing out things on some of these important issues. Thanks for your help in that, John.

L. K., Australia, 26 March 2012

Would you please address the issue of frozen fertilised eggs through the IVF program. The dilemma is what to do with the eggs (embryos) that remain unused.

Are these frozen eggs considered 'alive'? I would say yes but I may be wrong. My daughter has a beautiful IVF baby but there are another 7 frozen. It would be my preference to see them all given 'life' but this is not my decision, thank God.

Carl Wieland responds

It may make it seem easier for society to refer to them as 'frozen eggs', but once fertilized, each of them is no longer an egg; a tiny human life has been conceived, as affirmed by several of the articles on this site concerning embryonic stem cells.

The fact that at that early stage of progress towards adulthood, the human being can be frozen and can make a complete recovery does not alter that. Some whole animals can be frozen and can be thawed out and commence their life functions, but it does not make them any less alive. So yes, I would say they are definitely alive but in 'suspended animation'. By the sorts of biblical criteria that have been raised here (often by the correspondents) and elsewhere on this site, destroying such embryos is taking an innocent human life.

Joshua K., Singapore, 27 March 2012

A note of thanks to Doug L.

Your point about heart beat and brain activity helps me to understand this issue better.

Roger P., United Kingdom, 27 March 2012

The newly conceived child in a material sense is a 'blob of protoplasm' so abortionists use this phrase to belittle matters and excuse murder.

Hower this tiny blob has all the potential to be fully human and therefore, being potentially a thinking, moral,loving, creative, vocal being, is human. To destroy it is to destroy the potential human that resides in the DNA.

One correspondent has mentioned 'the soul'. We are and the tiny, recently conceived child, is more than matter. though this argument will not appeal to the followers of Heinrich Himmler,et al, yet is is crucial for the Christian.

At the end of life there is no more potentiality everything is in decline and is closing down. Nor may we hurry that process for "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." (Ps.116:15.)

David B., Australia, 29 March 2012

This is a well written article. However, I feel that I need to point out one thing that both Carl Wieland and D.M. from Canada have got wrong.

Both of them spoke of the soul as if it is something separate from the body. If you read Genesis 2:7 it reads, "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man BECAME a living soul." (Emphasis added). You will notice by this text that man BECAME a living soul, he did not RECEIVE a living soul. BODY + BREATH OF LIFE = SOUL. Once the body and the breath of life are separated from each other there, according to the above text, is no soul.

Carl Wieland responds

This gets into other contentious areas, some of it outside of our non-denominational ministry mandate. But note that it is in any case not as simple as this, biblically, compounded by the overlapping meanings of the English word ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ in both common usage and in English translations of the Bible.

My colleague in CMI-US, Lita Cosner, has commented pertinently as follows (square brackets mine):

“1. Psyche [translated as ‘soul’ in the NT] and pneuma [‘spirit’] have a large overlap in the Greek. But psyche can refer to a whole person (Acts 2:41) or it can be a synonym for pneuma, while pneuma is more often specifically the non-material aspect of a person, or refers to 'unclean spirit' (pneuma akatharton) or 'Holy Spirit'. If I could generalize a bit--it seems that we are souls who have spirits, if that makes sense.

“2. The words in Greek overlap, but Hebrew seems to use the same word to mean both things--it seems that the Hebrew language, at least the lexicon that we have of it, had a much smaller vocabulary than Greek or English, so words had to cover larger semantic fields. In other words, an ancient Hebrew speaking person could express any of the same ideas that we could in modern English, or that the author of Hebrews could in his impeccable Greek, but the Hebrew speaker would have far fewer words to do it with, which results in a bit of unavoidable ambiguity.

“3. The Bible indicates that there is a non-physical component of human beings that survives their death--if not, then what goes down to Sheol in the Old Testament, or what did the witch of Endor call up for Saul? In the New Testament, Jesus told the thief on the cross beside him that that day they'd be together in Paradise--but both of them died that day, so if Jesus kept His promise, then it had to be the component of them both that wasn't physical. In the same way, 'to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord', but that implies some continuing individuality of the spirit after death, otherwise how could it be 'I' that will be present with the Lord, if 'I' don't exist except as a union of body and spirit? The souls under the altar in Revelation ask how long until their blood is avenged--so a martyred spirit can say "I was murdered"--but if there is no 'soul' apart from the union of body and breath of God, then it hardly makes sense to refer to an 'I' at all.

“4. Adam, it hardly needs to be said, is a very special case, and combined with the OT's undeveloped anthropology, it seems a bit unwarranted to be drawing the conclusion that because Adam became a living soul [our English word] when the breath of God entered him:

a. The two components of humans are physical body + breath of God and

b. When those two components are separated, there is no human being.”

The OT sees animals as also having a ‘soul’ (nephesh, as in nephesh chayyah, or living creatures) as well as a spirit (ruach—see Ecclesiastes 3:21).

Joshua K., Singapore, 30 March 2012

My thoughts about L.K's dilemma.

Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder."

Murder is defined as the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.

Hence murder is not the same as causing a person's death by accident.

God hates murder, but He allows killing under certain circumstances (example: God commanded Joshua to kill the inhabitants of Canaan).

The question to consider is not: "Is a frozen egg a human life?"

It should be: "Is it murder?"

For me, Matthew 5:21-32 is the best comment.

Likewise, a related question to ask is: "Is abortion murder?"

Carl Wieland responds

Nonetheless, the question of whether the entity being killed is a person or not is fundamental to the question of whether it is murder or not. I suggest that the murder prohibited in Ex 20:13 is the intentional and unlawful taking of an innocent human life.

Key words:

--Intentional (hence the difference at civil law between murder and manslaughter);

--Unlawful (hence implying that there could be situations where taking a human life would be permitted under biblical/moral/civil law. Some suggestions would include the lawful judicial execution of Nazi mass murderers following the Nuremberg trials (Gen 9:6, Romans 13:1-4, as well as a whole host of hypothetical situations in which taking one life will save several others. Example: You come upon the Norwegian mass slayer of 77 mostly young people, Anders Breivik, during his shooting rampage. So far his tally is only 30 victims but you see him ready to squeeze the trigger on more. You have a onetime opportunity to take an action that will end the spree but cost Breivik's life. Is that murder? I suggest not.

--Innocent. This does not mean without any moral guilt before God, which all have, at least prior to conversion. It is used in the older sense of in nocens, doing no harm. I.e. Breivik would clearly not qualify.

--human life. Putting down a horse with a broken leg is not murder. Mutilating a corpse is not murder. In order for a deed to qualify as murder, the victim must be a) human b) alive. Thus the question of whether an embryo constitutes human life or not, far from being 'not the real question to consider', is actually the most basic and crucial one of all. Because if it is, (and as this site has consistently argued, it is) then the the other criteria for murder are clearly fulfilled in the case of abortion.

Jared N., Zimbabwe, 1 April 2012

Excellent article! And very interesting questions and comments shared too. Its refreshing when such topics can be discussed openly without decending into criticisms and belittling. Well done guys! Here are a few of my own personal thoughts on the article and some comments posted. I tend to look at things with a simplistic and common-sense approach (as subjective and biased as that may be! ;) )that I think may help some. (Please note, I am not a doctor or scientist or theologian so please bare with any apparent ignorance :) )

On the question of when is a person a person, I have to agree with the article and say I think its based on 2 things: Physical viablilty and the spirit. These 2 define what is a person. A person is physically alive and has a spirit. Looking at these two a little further we can come to a logical conclusion.

1) Physical viability - Obviously a sperm cannot become a person on its own. Nor can an egg. So contraception is not murder. But once there is fertilization and viable growth then there is potential for life and therefore I think personhood. That potential I would then say is precious and should be protected as being alive. Looking at it a little further, if one was to assume that the processes involved at conception stopped after conception, then perhaps one could say the baby is only a person at 7 days or 20 days or at brain development or whatever. But here is the problem with that. Our bodies continue to develop cells all our lives, the processes involved in human existence never stop until we die. Our bodies continually use DNA to produce new cells to either grow or repair old dying cells. This process of generating new cells is what keeps us "alive" and biologically viable. So if being alive is defined as having the mechanism to create new cells from DNA in order to survive, then the start of life in the womb could be considered to start at the point where a cell has a complete DNA strand and the mechanism to create new cells from it. I'm not sure when that is exactly, but i'm guessing its right at the beginning shortly after fertilization. As adults our bodies still do the exact same thing, generating new cells from DNA. If we are "alive", then the tiny cell in the womb is also "alive". On that note: I would be interested to know at which point a cell does actually inherit the ability or mechanism to use DNA. That may settle the issue! Any ideas?

Death then results when, for whatever reason, our bodies can no longer adequately repair itself and generate all the new cells necessary to maintain physical viability.

2) The spirit - All of the above is considering things from a purely physical perspective. But if we consider the spirit, we must realize that its not so clear cut. We may never "know" when a spirit is given to a "baby" so killing them at any point may be murder. We just dont know, so in the absence of better knowledge its best to be safe rather than sorry. I would like to think that when the fertilization occurs and the cell receives its full physical blue-print (DNA) that it also recieves its full spiritual blue-print (the spirit). Both body and spirit then develop together.

A few thoughts on some comments.

A person quoted the following verse:

"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee..." Jer 1:5.

While I agree with the persons conclusions, this verse ideally should not be used in support of the topic because it has been interpreted incorrectly. The meaning of this verse and similar verses is not that God knew who we were before we were, but that he knew who we would be before we were. It speaks of Gods foreknowledge of the person. He sees them in the future and knows them intimately before they are born in the present. Its not who we are before birth, but who we will be after birth. God sees the end from the beginning and often speaks of things in the future as though they are in the present. Thats what is meant when it is said "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee". Before Jeremiah was even concieved, God saw the kind of man that Jeremiah would become. So just be careful in using such scriptures in such situations as it may be perceived as a "straw man" argument.

In regards to the discussion about a persons soul: do we have one, are we one etc. I have a rather simple understanding that works well and is consistent with Scripture and experience. I believe the word or concept of "soul" is simply descriptive of the life and nature of a person, it describes the totality of who we are as a living being. Thats why we are referred to as a soul both on earth with a physical body and in heaven without a physical body. I dont believe there is a "soul" realm, so referring to "a soul" as an object is misleading and confusing. I believe there are only 2 realms: the physcial realm and the spiritual realm. That means a person on earth only has 2 aspects to them, a body and a spirit. The "soul" is just a descriptive term used to refer to the person as a whole, including their character, nature, personality, and everything that makes them unique. This is independent of the body. This would then agree with CW's response where its hard to seperate the term sould from spirit because in essence, the soul describes the body and spirit. But then when a person dies they lose their physical body, but the spirit continues and so the term "soul" would then still apply to the spirit because they still carry their nature and personality and everything that makes them... them!

I think the confusion comes when all three terms "body, soul, and spirit" are mentioned in sequence as if they are three seperate "things" that we have. But as mentioned above, I believe this is a false assumption that has come because of mans poetic nature and fondness for patterns and numbers. He has tried to numerically compare himself to God's trinity. We believe God is a trinity and so we find it convenient to refer to ourselves as a trinity: body, soul and spirit. It has a pleasant poetic ring to it. But I believe it is misleading and untrue. There are only 2 realms referred to in Scripture: physical and spiritual. We are only two parts: body and spirit. The soul refers to the totality of we are, with or without a body. Thats why the word "soul" in Scripture is so vague and sometime refers to physical bodies and sometime refers to spirits in the afterlife, depending on the context of the passage. But the current physical is temporal while the spiritual is continual. So one could summarize by saying: I am a spirit. I have a body.

The term soul just refers to who I am as a person, both physically and spiritually, but not limited to the physical.

Thats why Scripture refers to the mind of the spirit. Our spirit almost duplicates our physcial existence. When we live on earth, all our experiences and knowledge are stored physically in our brains as well as spiritually in our spirits. Thats why blind people that have out-of-body experiences often have visual experiences and see things by their spririts even though their physical bodies are incapable of sight. This is also why our "slates" are not wiped clean when we die. When we die and our brain is eaten by worms, we dont lose our identity or experiences or memories because all that information is stored in our spirits as well as our bodies.

Thats why doctors and evolutionary scientist will never be able to define life in purely physical terms. You lose a vast majority of what makes us who we are if you leave out the spiritual realm. And thats why I believe CMI are right on in readily accepting that some things in the Bible are only possible by supernatural means. Not everything can be desribed and explained in purely physcial terms, God has to be in the equation too. And thats whats so exciting about the Christian life; the God that created the universe is actually actively involved in out lives! How phenomenal and awesome is that!!!

Keep up the excellent work CMI!

Paul C., Australia, 4 April 2012

Forgive me but im a very uneducated person here so my comments might not mean much but if humanity has the right to determine whether life started or stopped at a point and then at another time it is futher defined that we where wrong then and so on and so on, isnt it futile of us to go on this quest,maybe we should just beleive we were all breathed into being, and thats it!!!

Carl Wieland responds

Paul, you make a good point that arbitrary definitions of when human life starts are risky, which is why we prefer the biblical one, which is also scientifically logical and defensible, i.e. at conception. Accepting we were 'breathed into being' (I presume you mean when the human soul exists in concert with the body) while it is a Christian fundamental, in one sense, would still allow wiggle room about the 'when', without the biblical understanding that it starts at conception, thus also the 'breathing'.

D. S., United States, 6 April 2012

If we are using the comparison of taking someone off of life-support and aborting a fetus(at any stage), and trying to use the former to moraly justify the later or visa-versa, than we should look at the actions being taken as well as the point of life in which they are taken. I think there is a great difference between the two actions. One is a positive action directed at ending life (whether or not you believe it is a person), while the other is a non-action(or withholding actions) that may result in the ending of life. I am not so much trying to define or defend the morality of taking someone off of life support, but rather point out the difference in this comparison. If you end someones life support that does not bind God to allow them to die if they are still alive. Taking the life of a fetus oversteps into God's sovereign right to end life. A fetus is a human life that has been set in motion. At no other point before coception is this true, and activly stopping this motion is, at any point, I argue, always God alone's Sovereign right. Ending life support is not stopping life, it is stopping the effort to prolong it, which is a different moral subject.

Carolyn M., Australia, 9 April 2012

I would like some clarification around the point of death. Do people ever come back to life after they have been declared brain dead?

Does brain function become undetectable in extreme cold? I am thinking here of people that have slept in the open in the cold, declared dead because no pulse was detected, but woke up when they got warmer.

I have heard that organs for organ donation have to be taken while the heart is still beating/ circulation is still happening because they begin to break down when the blood stops circulating,and this means the patient is still actually alive when the organs are taken.

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