Should a fetus have rights? In the feature article (“The War over Fetal Rights”) that she wrote as the cover story for Newsweek, Debra Rosenberg pondered that question. The minute the reader opened the magazine to page 40 to begin reading the article, the answer should have been plainly obvious. In a breathtaking (and extremely graphic!) two-page spread on pages 40 and 41, Ms. Rosenberg had eight 2.5 x 4-inch full-color photographs of a human embryo as it developed in utero from the 7-week-old stage to the 35-week-old stage. Four of the photographs “floated” above the text of the article, and four floated beneath the text. While I certainly cannot speak for anyone else who might have read the article, I have to admit that I had a bit of trouble forcing myself to even begin reading the story, because I was so incredibly impressed, and so completely captivated, with the striking photographic images of the beautiful fetus as it developed from the tiniest, most fragile of humans into a child almost ready to be born.
But almost equally amazing were the captions beneath the pictures. In small-but-still-legible print were descriptions such as these: “Week 7, the fetus is tiny, grape-size, but fingers and toes are starting to form”; “Week 10, now two inches long, the fetus has its first tooth buds and a sense of touch. Body proportions begin to resemble an infant’s”; “Week 13, the fetus starts to move and has all major organs”; “Week 16, the fetus quadruples in weight, limbs lengthen, fingerprints appear and newly curious hands may tug on the umbilical cord”; “Week 12, putting its long legs to use, the fetus begins to kick”; “Week 23, after this week, partial-birth abortion is banned in 40 states, and the fetus, able to survive outside the womb, achieves viability” (emp. added); “Week 32, the brain can now control breathing and body temperature”; “Week 35, the fetus is now almost full mature, with perfect hearing.”
After reading such vivid descriptions of this precious unborn child, should anyone really have to ask, “Do fetuses have rights?” I hardly think so. Yet such a question is being asked. Why? Notice the two-word phrase in the caption for “week 23” that I placed in bold print—“after this week…the fetus…achieves viability.” What does it mean when a fetus “achieves viability”? From a medical/scientific viewpoint, viability is defined as: “of living things, capable of normal growth and development.” But in the current controversy, there is much more to it than that. Hubert Markl, as president of the Max Planck Society, wrote a stinging article for the “Commentary” section in the August 2, 2001 issue of Nature, under the title of “Research Doesn’t Denigrate Humanity,” in which he wrote:
This all boils down to the eternal question, “What is a human being?” ...Every human being is new, unique and developed from a fertilized egg cell. However, the fertilized egg is far from being a human being in the full sense of that word: it can be called a human being only if the word is given a meaning totally different from its usual definition. When we refer to an organism as “human,” this is an expression of self-reference, the meaning of which is stipulated not by nature but by humans themselves. “Human” is a culturally defined attribute, not a purely biological fact....
A human being is made not at conception but when the zygote becomes implanted.... [T]here is no biological reason to attribute complete personhood to a few-celled embryo simply because, in interaction with a mother organism, it has the ability to become one (2001, pp. 479,480, emp. added).
John Harris, in his volume, Clones, Genes, and Immortality, suggested that “it would not be wrong” to use unwanted embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures “so long as the embryo is not in fact implanted” (1998, p. 63).
So—if we take these two scientists at their word—were the embryo to be allowed to attach itself to the uterine wall, then it would be wrong to employ it in any given research procedure, even if that procedure “kills” the embryo/fetus. But if it is not allowed to implant, then there would be nothing wrong with destroying the embryo or fetus. [One cannot help but wonder, upon seeing statements such as these, what makes it “right” to destroy the embryo or fetus seconds before it attaches itself to the womb, but “wrong” to destroy it seconds after it implants? Furthermore, think for a moment (from the viewpoint of those who defend such a position) about how this argument simultaneously would apply to those cells harvested from aborted fetuses—which represent embryos that most definitely have “already implanted.” Such a procedure—given their own definition—would be “wrong”!]
So what, exactly, is the fetus prior to “week 23” when it becomes “viable”? That, of course, is part of what the current controversy is all about. Fifty years ago, viability was acknowledged as existing as the 50-week stage. Twenty-five years ago, viability dropped to 25 weeks. Now we have documented cases of fetuses surviving at 20-21 weeks.
In her article, Rosenberg related various “horror stories” that relate to the issue of viability. She told, for example, of a fetus that had “died” as a result of a pregnant woman being attacked (the attacker, however, could not be charged with homicide because the fetus was not considered a “born person”). [Do not overlook the obvious question that begs to be asked: If the fetus is not a “person,” how can “it” be designated as a “he” or “she” that can “die”?] Rosenberg also told of a Catholic couple that was opposed to abortion, but whose ill daughter desperately needed stem cells that could be acquired by “killing” a human embryo. [Another obvious question: If the embryo is not “viable,” how can it be “killed”?] The mother involved in this scenario admitted: “My conscience tells me that for me personally, having an abortion would not be the right thing to do. That same conscience tells me that stem-cell research is needed” (as quoted in Rosenberg, 2003, 141:42). After presenting such scenarios, Rosenberg observed:
The politics of the womb have never been more personal—or more complicated. When abortion foes are willing to destroy embryos for lifesaving medical research and abortion-rights supporters are willing to define a fetus as a murder victim, the black-and-white rhetoric of the 1970s abortion wars no longer applies. People on all sides of the debate are confronting long-held beliefs, often sending their most private emotions on a collision course with their political principles…. Activists on both sides are struggling to tread this new territory without losing their political footing (p. 42).
Sadly, when all the dust has settled from the controversy, “political principles” and “political footing” seem to be what this is all about. Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, defended her organization’s stance against considering granting “human rights” to fetuses when she said: “If they are able to make fetuses people in law with the same standing as women and men, then Roe [the Roe. v. Wade Supreme Court decision that allowed women the right to have abortions—BT] will be moot” (as quoted in Rosenberg, p. 43). With a giant “Harrumph!,” Ms. Feldt clears her throat and cuts through the rhetoric to scream that the one thing the pro-abortion camp does not want is for fetuses to the considered (gulp!) as “people.”
According to Paul Marx, the United Nations estimates that there are some 55 million abortions performed annually throughout the world (Abortion International, n.d., p. 1). On January 22, 1973 the nine justices that form the Supreme Court of the United States voted (in a seven-to-two decision) to allow abortion as a legal method of destroying unwanted babies. Subsequent to that edict, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, have reported the number of infants slain by abortion to be approximately 1.5 million each year—more than all the American lives lost in the almost 200 years of wars since our country’s inception. In fact, in the unpopular 11-year Vietnam War, over 58,000 Americans lost their lives, yet this country’s medical profession, via abortion, kills more than that in any given 11 days!
If a person shoots an eagle—the symbol of our country—the judicial system will throw him in prison and toss away the key. That same system will stop a multi-million dollar dam in the state of Tennessee to save an inch-long snail-darter fish, or fly a former president of the United States to the northwest sector of America to sit around a conference table and discuss the fate of a spotted owl. Yet should someone wish to destroy the human baby growing inside the mother’s womb, such an act will be looked upon not only as entirely within that person’s rights as an American citizen, but also as perfectly legal.
While the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for hardened criminals, it simultaneously imposed that same penalty upon multiplied millions who never had committed a single crime. Their only “crime” was that they were not “perfect,” or that they threatened to arrive at an “inconvenient” time. These tiny infants, still in the womb, are being murdered by techniques crueler, more vicious, and more inhumane than any thus far devised by even Hollywood’s worst gut-wrenching horror movies. These deaths occur in abortion clinics, doctors’ offices, and hospitals around the world. The conspirators in this atrocity include potential mothers, consenting doctors, whining advocates of “planned parenthood,” and approving judges.
We lead western civilization in many areas, yet we have come to the point where life is so cheap that hospitals have been turned into slaughter houses, doctors have been turned into butchers, and our own children have been turned into “blobs of tissue” to be excised and unceremoniously dumped in the local landfill. We abhor from a distance the unspeakable crimes of Adolf Hitler as he murdered six million Jewish men, women, and children, or mass murderers like Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Yet in our own land we snuff out the lives of countless millions far more defenseless than they. The announcement of an unwanted pregnancy, or one that likely will produce a less-than-perfect child, often is met with sheer hysteria. Years of having been taught evolution as a fact have taken their toll. Convinced that man is nothing but a “naked ape,” the value of human life has diminished. After all, they shoot horses, don’t they? And now the violence spawned by such thinking has reached even into the womb itself in what must be one of the most despicable of all acts—murder of the helpless!
Abortion is a violation of biblical morality, and should be opposed by every faithful child of God. The Proverbs writer stated: “There are six things which Jehovah hateth; Yea, seven which are an abomination unto Him; haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood (6:16-17, emp. added). What blood could be more innocent than that of a tiny infant not yet fresh from the womb?
And that is exactly the position taken by those on the other side of the issue—people like Ken Connor, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, who said in regard to husbands being put on trial for killing an unborn fetus (numerous cases of which are before various courts around the country): “It’s not OK for the husband to kill his wife’s child, but it’s OK for the mother [to have an abortion]?” (as quoted in Rosenberg, p. 43). Hmmm. Good question, that.
Should a fetus have rights? The fact that those of us in America have to ask such a question in the first place is a sad commentary on the sorry state of our national conscience and (im)morality, is it not? If we would listen first to God’s Word on this matter, and then second to the incoming scientific information that touches on the subject, we would have our answer. And that answer is: Yes, a fetus should have rights!
As we investigate this issue, we must ask the question: When does life actually begin? The answer, quite simply, is that life begins at conception. When the male and female gametes join to form the zygote that eventually will grow into the fetus, it is at that very moment that the formation of a new body begins. It is the result of a viable male gamete joined sexually with a viable female gamete, which has formed a zygote that will move through a variety of important stages.
The first step in the process—which eventually will result in the highly differentiated tissues and organs that compose the body of the neonatal child—is the initial mitotic cleavage of that primal cell, the zygote. At this point, the genetic material doubles, matching copies of the chromosomes move to opposite poles, and the cell cleaves into two daughter cells. Shortly afterwards, each of these cells divides again, forming the embryo. [In humans and animals, the term “embryo” applies to any stage after cleavage but before birth (see Rudin, 1997, p. 125).]
As the cells of the embryo continue to divide, they form a cluster of cells. These divisions are accompanied by additional changes that produce a hollow, fluid-filled cavity inside the ball, which now is a one-layer-thick grouping of cells known as a blastula. Early in the second day after fertilization, the embryo undergoes a process known as gastrulation in which the single-layer blastula turns into a three-layered gastrula consisting of ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm surrounding a cavity known as the archenteron. Each of these layers will give rise to very specific structures. For example, the ectoderm will form the outermost layer of the skin and other structures, including the sense organs, parts of the skeleton, and the nervous system. The mesoderm will form tissues associated with support, movement, transport, reproduction, and excretion (i.e., muscle, bone, cartilage, blood, heart, blood vessels, gonads, and kidneys). The endoderm will produce structures associated with breathing and digestion (including the lungs, liver, pancreas, and other digestive glands) [see Wallace, 1975, p. 187].
Within 72 hours after fertilization, the embryo will have divided a total of four times, and will consist of sixteen cells. Each cell will divide before it reaches the size of the cell that produced it; hence, the cells will become progressively smaller with each division. By the end of the first month, the embryo will have reached a length of only one-eighth of an inch, but already will consist of millions of cells. By the end of the ninth month, if all proceeds via normal channels, a baby is ready to be born. As one biologist (and author of a widely used secular university biology textbook) noted: “As soon as the egg is touched by the head of a sperm, it undergoes violent pulsating movements which unite the twenty-three chromosomes of the sperm with its own genetic complement. From this single cell, about 1/175 of an inch in diameter, a baby weighing several pounds and composed of trillions of cells will be delivered about 266 days later” (Wallace, p. 194, emp. added).
Is it alive? Of course it is alive. In fact, herein lies one of the most illogical absurdities of arguments set forth by those who support and defend abortion, and who would opposed granting fetuses rights “as people.” They opine that the “thing” in the human womb is not “alive.” If it is not alive, why the need to abort it? Simply leave it alone! Obviously, of course, from their perspective that is not an option because, as everyone knows, in nine months, that growing, vibrant, developing fetus will result in a living human baby. The truth of the matter is that human life begins at conception and is continuous, whether intrauterine or extrauterine, until death. Consider the following scientific facts regarding the living nature of the fetus.
Barbara Kisilevsky, a Queen’s University professor, believes this research indicates that a fetus in the womb can exhibit “preference/recognition” before birth. This would suggest that fetuses are capable of learning in the womb, and can remember and distinguish several different voices. How does our federal government continue to designate these babies as “nonliving tissue” when, in fact, we have evidence that they can learn, even while in the womb?! Dr. Kisilevsky’s team is continuing its study to determine if there is a similar fetal response with the father’s voice. Scientists speculate that these results may help demonstrate when the foundation for speech and perception are laid down.
Is the child alive? Do you know any dead creature that attains such marvelous accomplishments?
But is the fetus growing in the uterus actually human? It is the result of the union of the human male gamete (spermatozoon) and the human female gamete (ovum)—something that certainly guarantees its humanness. [The Washington Post of May 11, 1975 contained an “Open Letter to the Supreme Court”— signed by 209 medical doctors—which stated: “We physicians reaffirm our dedication to the awesome splendor of human life—from one-celled infant to dottering elder.”]
And how, exactly, does God view this unborn yet fully human child? He said to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee” (Jeremiah 1:5, emp. added). Jehovah knew the prophet—even while he was in utero—and viewed him as a living person. Further, God already had “sanctified” Jeremiah. If his mother had aborted the baby, she would have killed someone that God recognized as a living person.
The same concept applied to the prophet Isaiah who said: “Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken ye peoples, from afar; Jehovah hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.... And now, saith Jehovah that formed me from the womb to be his servant…” (Isaiah 49:1,5, emp. added). Jehovah not only viewed Isaiah as a person prior to his birth, but even called him by name.
David, writing in Psalm 139:13-16, provided one of the clearest and most compelling discussions on the nature and importance of life in utero when he wrote:
For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks unto thee; For I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. My frame was not hidden from thee, When I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance; And in thy book they were all written, Even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them.
The phrases, “I was made in secret” and “curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth,” refer to the psalmist’s development in the womb (see Young, 1965, p. 76). Notice also that David employed the pronouns “me,” “my,” and “I” throughout the passage in reference to his own prenatal state. Such usage clearly shows that David was referring to himself, and one cannot talk about himself without having reference to a living human being. The Bible thus acknowledges that David was a human being while he inhabited his mother’s womb (and prior to his birth).
Job, who was undergoing a terrible life crisis, cursed the day he was born when he said: “Why did I not die from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when my mother bore me?” (3:11). It is clear that if the fetus had died in the womb, prior to that it must have been living. Something (or someone) cannot die if it (or they) never lived. It also is of interest to observe that in Job 3:13-16, the patriarch listed several formerly-living-but-now-dead people with whom he would have had something in common if he had died in utero. Included in the list—along with kings and princes—was the child who experienced a “hidden untimely birth” (i.e., a miscarriage). Job considered the miscarried child to be in the same category as others who once lived but had died. Obviously, the Holy Spirit (Who guided the author of the book of Job in what he wrote) considered an unborn fetus as much a human being as a king, a prince, or a stillborn infant
In the Old Testament, even the accidental termination of a pregnancy was a punishable crime. Consider Exodus 21:22—“If men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follows; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him...but if any harm follows, then thou shalt give life for life.” The meaning of the passage is this: If the child was born prematurely as the result of this accident, but “no harm follows” (i.e. the child survived), then a fine was to be exacted; however, if “harm follows” (i.e., either mother or child died), then the guilty party was to be put to death. Look at it this way. Why would God exact such a severe punishment for the accidental death of an unborn child—if that child were not living?
The same understanding of the fetus as a living child is found within the pages of the New Testament. The angel Gabriel told Mary that “Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age” (Luke 1:36, emp. added). Please note that the conception resulted in neither an “it” nor a “thing,” but in a son. In Luke 1:41,44, the Bible states (in speaking of Elisabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist) that “the babe leaped in her womb.” The word for “babe” in these passages is the Greek term brephos, and is used here for an unborn fetus. The same word is used in both Luke 18:15 and Acts 7:19 for young or newborn children. It also is used in Luke 2:12,16 for the newborn Christ-child. Brephos therefore can refer to a young child, a newborn infant, or even an unborn fetus (see Thayer, 1958, p. 105). In each of these cases a living human being must be under consideration because the same word is used to describe all three.
The fact that the zygote/embryo/fetus is living (an inescapable conclusion supported by both weighty biblical and scientific evidence) thus becomes critically important in answering the question, “When does man receive his immortal nature?” When James observed that “the body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2: 26), the corollary automatically inherent in his statement became the fact that if the body is living, then the spirit must be present. Since at each stage of its development the zygote/embryo/fetus is living, it must have had a soul/spirit instilled at conception. No other view is in accord with both the biblical and scientific evidence.
Should fetuses have “rights”? Yes, they should! They should be afforded the same protection under the law as any other human. The fact that they are not a “born” person, does not mean they are not a “person”! Those of who us are “pro-life” object (and rightly so!) to any procedure that results in the death (like aborting a fetus) or destruction (like dissecting a human embryo) of a human being. In an article titled “Cloning: Where Do We Draw the Line?” in the August 13, 2001 issue of Time, Nancy Gibbs properly assessed the pro-life position when she wrote:
For strict pro-lifers the issue is straightforward: an embryo at any stage of development is a human life, worthy of protection, and any kind of research that entails destroying an embryo to harvest its cells is immoral, no matter how worthy the intent. It involves using people as means; it turns human life into a commodity and fosters a culture of dehumanization that we accept at our peril (158:20).
That “culture of dehumanization” will indeed come “at our peril.” In Proverbs 24:11-12, the writer urged:
Deliver them that are carried away unto death, and those that are ready to be slain see that thou hold back. If thou sayest, Behold, we knew not this; doth not he that weigheth the heart consider it? And he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? And shall not he render to every man according to his work? (emp. added).
We, as individuals and as a nation, would do well to remember the message of 1 Samuel 16:7:
But Jehovah said to Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for Jehovah seeth not as man looketh, for man looketh on the outward appearance, but Jehovah looketh on the heart (emp. added).
The sanctity of human life must be affirmed both prior, and subsequent, to birth. In speaking of the Judeo-Christian ethic, Eugene Diamond referred to the fact that “its tattered mantle of protection over newborn defective infants must be upheld. It is really protecting us all” (1982, p. 63). Indeed, when that ethic fails to protect the unborn, eventually it will fail to protect the child in the nursery or the elderly in the rocking chair. Physician R.A. Gallop addressed this very point:
Once you permit the killing of the unborn child, there will be no stopping. There will be no age limit. You are setting off a chain reaction that will eventually make you the victim. Your children will kill you because you permitted the killing of their brothers and sisters. Your children will not want to support you in your old age. Your children will kill you for your homes and estates. If a doctor will take money for killing the innocent in the womb, he will kill you with a needle when paid by your children. This is the terrible nightmare you are creating for the future (as quoted in Waddey, 1978, p. 6).
The legalization of infanticide (or, for that matter, euthanasia) represents a Pandora’s box of evils being thrust upon society. Christians must oppose such atrocities in a forthright (yet, of course, legal and non-violent) manner. John J. Davis has explained why:
Human life is sacred because God made man in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26,28). This canopy of sacredness extends throughout man’s life, and is not simply limited to those times and circumstances when man happens to be strong, independent, healthy, and fully conscious of his relationships to others. God is actively at work in the womb, for example (Ps. 139:13-16; Job 10:8-13), long before the human being can exercise the mental functions that secular humanists tend to see as the key criteria of value for human personality. The same God who lovingly is present in the womb can be present in the dying and comatose patient, for whom conscious human relationships are broken. The body of the dying can still be a temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor. 6:19), and hence sacred to God (1985, p. 191).
It is not an “option” for Christians to care for those who cannot care for themselves; God’s Word contains specific commands regarding such actions (James 1:27; Isaiah 1:11,23; Romans 15:1; Leviticus 19:32; Psalm 71:9). Ignoring those commands, and remaining apathetic to the horrors occurring around us, invariably produces evil fruits. What will be the natural progression that flows from the legalization of abortion on demand? Are we not seeing it, even as I write this article? The attitude is beginning to be expressed that, if one can justify the destruction of the “unwanted” fetus inside the womb, then why not treat the “unwanted” person outside the womb in a similar fashion? “Euthanasia on demand” is right around the corner. And once we have euthanized the first group (say, for example, the comatose, the chronically ill, and others), who will be next? Will it be the mentally retarded, the lame, the blind—or even those of a different color?
Take away the fetus’ right to life, and how long do you think it will be before those who carried out that act decide to take away the right to life of other humans? Dr. Gallop was right—this is the horrible nightmare we have created for our future. Fetuses do have rights. They, just like every other living human, are made in the “image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). And is that not one of the greatest “rights” of all?
Abortion International (n.d.), (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control).
Davis, John J. (1985), Evangelical Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed).
Diamond, Eugene F. (1982), “Treatment versus Nontreatment for the Handicapped Newborn,” Infanticide and the Handicapped Newborn, ed. Dennis J. Horan and Melinda Delahoyde (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press).
“Fetal Heart Races When Mom Reads Poetry,” (2003), Queen’s University New Center, [On-line], URL: http://qnc.queensu.ca/story_loader.php?id=3ebc016fcd1ec.
Gibbs, Nancy (2001), “Where do We Draw the Line?,” Time, 158:18-21, August 13.
Harris, John (1998), Clones, Genes, and Immortality (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press).
Markl, Hubert (2001), “Research Doesn’t Denigrate Humanity,” Nature, 412:479-480, August 2.
Rosenberg, Debra (2003), “The War Over Fetal Rights,” Newsweek, 141:40-40-44,46,49, June 9.
Rudin, Norah (1997), Dictionary of Modern Biology (Hauppauge, NY: Barrons).
Thayer, J.H. (1958 reprint), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).
Waddey, John (1978), Euthanasia: “Good Death” or Selective Killing? (Fort Worth, TX: Pro Family Forum).
Wallace, Robert A. (1975), Biology: The World of Life (Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear).
Young, Edward J. (1965), Psalm 139 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust).
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