I have deep respect for people who believe the rights of full human life are conferred upon a cell at the moment a human sperm fertilizes a human egg. Those who hold that religious belief intend to value human life. I respect that.
I also respectfully disagree. I do not know when human life begins. I'm comfortable saying that a mass of dividing cells with human DNA is not yet fully human life – not yet comparable to a living, breathing newborn, or to a mother. I believe that the closer that nascent life gets to full term, the more human value it attains.
Genesis 2 says that when God blew into the nostrils the first human became a "living being" (nefsh hayah, literally "a living breath"). In the Bible, life begins and ends with breath (ruah, equally translated breath, spirit and wind).
The Bible does not address abortion directly. In Exodus 21, where many other acts of mortal violence are punishable by death, there is only a monetary fine when fighting between people induces miscarriage.
There are various religious beliefs about the origin of the human soul. Some associate the coming of the soul with the moment of "quickening," when the mother begins to feel fetal movement in the uterus, around 15-20 weeks. Some theologians say the soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed, developing only after some mature, conscious moral awakening. These are religious and spiritual debates, hard to reduce to secular laws.
Medical and legal experts offer some markers in the mysterious journey. A fetus is said to be "viable" when it has greater potential to survive outside of the uterus after birth, sometime between 23 and 27 weeks. Brain development toward something we might call human consciousness begins to emerge by about the 24th week. A fetus does not have consciousness of something like pain until around 29 weeks.
Our values are often best expressed by our sense of loss. We don't issue a death certificate or perform a full funeral and burial for an early miscarriage. Yet we do treat the death of an infant with dignity comparable to the death of any other person. I've conducted full services for stillborns and once for a third trimester miscarriage.
Behind every abortion is an unintended pregnancy. Some women have been violated sexually and do not want that violation to continue through an unwanted pregnancy and birth. At least one-half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and about one-third of them will have an abortion. I believe that their reservations are personal and serious, worthy of public respect. These are private, personal, faith and family matters. The government should not be interfering.
Over ninety percent of all abortions occur in the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy. More than half of abortion patients say they would have liked to have had their abortion earlier, but nearly 60% of women who experienced a delay in obtaining an abortion say it took time and money to make the arrangements. Access is getting harder. A new Arkansas law intends to make it impossible.
Abortion is one of the safest of surgical procedures for women, ten times less fatal than childbirth. Repeated studies for over 30 years conclude that abortion does not pose a hazard to women's mental health.
In an ideal world, all pregnancies would be planned and every child welcomed joyfully into a family prepared to nurture its highest potential. Better education and access to contraceptives can lower the number of unplanned pregnancies. Adoption policies could make it more attractive for women who wish to bear their child but cannot raise it. Overcoming poverty would make it possible for more women to welcome an unplanned pregnancy. But ours is a complicated and ambiguous world.
Children deserve to be wanted and supported. Raising a child is an awesome responsibility. It should not be forced upon the unwilling.
I do believe that society has a right to confer human standing and protection upon its people. We become U.S. citizens at birth. It seems reasonable to me to regulate abortion sometime around the 25th week when human consciousness and the experience of pain is beginning.
Prior to that time, I believe the choice to continue or to end pregnancy should be a matter of personal conscience. The notion that life begins at conception is a religious belief. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of any particular religion. A woman and her family have the right to these intimate, personal, private choices. Let conscience dictate.