On the beginning of human life

The LDS church has made RSS feeds available for several of its news outlets.  One of them is “Comments on the News,” which makes corrections or clarifications on LDS-related things reported in the secular news.  I noticed an entry regarding embryonic stem-cell research, on which there was an article in the Lincoln Journal-Star.  It says:

Fact: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on the moment that human life begins. Further, the Church has not taken a position on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research.

I don’t understand this.  If you have no official position on the beginning of human life, wouldn’t it make more sense to have no official position on abortion?  Or to err on the safe side and banish it until further revelation comes along?  How can you not know when human life begins, but feel safe permitting abortion in some cases?  The same goes for abortifacent contraceptives.

27 Responses to “On the beginning of human life”

  1. Kaffinator says:

    Has the RCC issued an infallible proclamation concerning the moment that human life begins?

  2. Brad says:

    For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.
    Gaudium et Spes, 51, §3

    See the section on Respect for Human Life in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, whose article on abortion quotes the above and refers to the teaching of the Church against all abortion from the first century on.

  3. Kaffinator says:

    Thanks for the references. Are either of these statements considered “infallible”?

  4. Steve says:

    Fact: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on the moment that human life begins. Further, the Church has not taken a position on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research.

    And yet they have an official position on drinking coffee.

  5. Brad says:

    Kaffinator, just in case you didn’t know, infallibilty does not belong to the Pope alone, but also to the unified teaching of the college of bishops, and to the teachings of Church councils (these latter two in union with the Pope, of course). The Church’s teaching on abortion etc. falls under both categories; it has been taught consistently by the bishops of the Church since her beginning, and it was also taught in the document Gaudium et Spes in the Second Vatican Council. It may well have been taught in other councils; I haven’t read the documents of all the councils.

    More info here.

  6. Brad says:

    Steve, this is what I think of whenever an LDS believer professes joy at having a living prophet to provide continuing guidance during all times.

  7. Kaffinator says:

    Hate to be picky here, Brad, but I’m told that Roman Catholics do not regard ALL councils as pronouncing things infallibly. And even in an infallible pronouncement, the linked New Advent article admits,

    It need only be added here that not everything in a conciliar or papal pronouncement, in which some doctrine is defined, is to be treated as definitive and infallible.

    Yes it has been taught consistently and yes we find it in documents coming directly from the pope and from other bodies but does that make it, technically speaking, “infallible”?

  8. Brad says:

    I took that statement to mean that there can be other things in a pronouncment besides definition of doctrine, and those things are not necessarily also definitive and infallible.

  9. Kaffinator says:

    But again, there are many documents that are issued by the vatican. And the new advent article insists that even in an “infallible” one there might be error.

    So perhaps it would be most fair to say that on the matter of the beginning of life, Roman teaching is consistent, clear, and public but does not necessarily claim infallibility for itself, correct?

  10. Kaffinator says:

    Incidentally with a small amount of searching I found this Ensign article by church authority Russel M Nelsonn which treats the subject:

    It is not a question of when “meaningful life” begins or when the spirit “quickens” the body. In the biological sciences, it is known that life begins when two germ cells unite to become one cell, bringing together twenty-three chromosomes from both the father and from the mother. These chromosomes contain thousands of genes. In a marvelous process involving a combination of genetic coding by which all the basic human characteristics of the unborn person are established, a new DNA complex is formed. A continuum of growth results in a new human being. The onset of life is not a debatable issue, but a fact of science.

  11. Brad says:

    Kaff – I don’t know what you’re after here. The Church doesn’t exercise solemn definition of doctrine on every single thing she believes, because she doesn’t have to. If (God forbid) a significant number of people within the Church began asserting that human life begins at some other point than conception, I imagine that the Pope at the time would promptly issue a solemn definition. One could argue that he already has, considering that the solemn declaration that abortion is gravely evil is based on that same notion of the beginning of human life.

    It’s still the universal teaching of the bishops, past and present, that human life begins at conception, and by Catholic standards that is infallible. The efforts of the bishops, of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes, of Pius XII in Casti Connubii, John XXIII in Mater et Magistra, Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, and John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (search through it for “conception” and see how often human life is defined as beginning at conception) amounts to a heck of a lot more guidance for the world than “no official position on the moment that human life begins.”

    My girlfriend also showed me the quote from Mr. Nelson. I appreciate his teaching. It’s true. And still, the church as a whole “has no official position on the moment that human life begins.” I remember well when embryonic stem-cell research was being developed and became a hot issue – I clipped articles about it and papered one of my walls with them. I had two of my letters about it published in the Omaha World-Herald. During that whole time, there was no doubt what the Catholic Church thought of the idea. The issue has faded from the public eye, and still the LDS church “has no official position.”

    Is it a matter unimportant enough to leave to the reason and conscience of each believer? Shouldn’t the prophet be getting and relaying revelation on it? That’s my point with the whole thing. Or even if it wasn’t prophetic guidance; I mean, there are beliefs and practices of the LDS church that have never been defined and sustained in General Conference, and yet nobody would argue that they don’t believe. If the doctrine that human life begins at conception was one of those, I would appreciate the help in the defense against the culture of death. As it is, I see a hole in LDS anthropology that can negatively affect their ability to make moral judgment and teaching when the need arises.

  12. Kaffinator says:

    Hey Brad,

    The Church doesn’t exercise solemn definition of doctrine on every single thing she believes, because she doesn’t have to.

    That is what I am getting at. LDS probably feel the same way about the moment of conception. Although the LDS church does not take an official position on this, it really doesn’t need to. It is enough that the general authorities of the LDS church say so; Salt Lake has spoken and the debate is over (well, at least, until and unless a later prophet says something different).

    Is it a matter unimportant enough to leave to the reason and conscience of each believer? Shouldn’t the prophet be getting and relaying revelation on it?

    As Nelson states, to an LDS, the moment of the beginning of life is a matter of scientific inquiry. Therefore, prophetic revelation in such an area no more necessary than revealing the location of the moon.

    As it is, I see a hole in LDS anthropology that can negatively affect their ability to make moral judgment and teaching when the need arises.

    A true-bluer would say, as long as there is a living prophet, there will be no lack of moral guidance and teaching. (When polygamy is OK again, don’t worry, they will tell you.)

  13. Kaffinator says:

    I should clarify my first paragraph (where is the Preview button anyway?):

    It is enough that the general authorities of the LDS church say abortion is a no-no

  14. Brad says:

    It is enough that the general authorities of the LDS church say so; Salt Lake has spoken and the debate is over (well, at least, until and unless a later prophet says something different).

    To which authority do we listen? If Nelson represents Salt Lake, then human life begins at conception. If Salt Lake’s official media outlet represents Salt Lake, then we have no idea when human life begins. The authorities’ statements aren’t unanimous.

    There isn’t that discrepancy in Catholic teaching. It’s not that bishops unanimously teach it but authoritative statements by the Pope or Councils say they have no position on it. It’s that bishops, Pope, and Councils all unanimously teach it, and the solemn definition is implicit, but not yet explicit.

  15. Brad says:

    We can leave abortion out of it. I’d still take issue with the matter of no clear teaching (or contradicting statements) on the beginning of human life, or embryonic stem-cell research, or IVF, or whatever…

  16. Brad says:

    P.S. I don’t know where the preview button is. Maybe I can find a plugin for it. It’d also be cool to have formatting buttons for the comment box.

  17. Brian says:

    Is it true that the LDS church permits abortion in some circumstances (if, through prayer, the individual and their bishop determine it’s okay)? If this is true, is it the case that the LDS church’s position on abortion is in fact clear and consistent? Do the general Authorities in fact consider it a no-no?

  18. Brad says:

    Brian – yes, in certain extreme cases, it could be permitted, but it’s never encouraged. Make no mistake – in general, the LDS church does not approve of abortion. I don’t know how often these allowances are actually applied.

    I believe the allowances are wrong, and come from their incomplete anthropology. But in their view, abortion, like war, is gravely evil but sometimes justified.

    I also believe that the LDS church’s position on abortion (I mean, the fact that they have one) and lack of position on the beginning of human life are incompatible – I think knowing when human life begins is essential to making judgments on anything related to the unborn. But they don’t see things that way, either.

  19. Brian says:

    Brad,

    I am aware that, in principle, the LDS are opposed to abortion and I am sure that many if not the large majority are in favor of the legal restriction of the pratice. If exceptions are allowed, however, it does appear to undermine the strongest arguments for opposing the practice- that it is an innocent human life and cannot be killed.

  20. Brad says:

    That’s the way I see it, and that’s why I wish more official, revealed doctrine was available in this area.

  21. Kaffinator says:

    I also believe that the LDS church’s position on abortion (I mean, the fact that they have one) and lack of position on the beginning of human life are incompatible – I think knowing when human life begins is essential to making judgments on anything related to the unborn. But they don’t see things that way, either.

    But, why is the question concerning the instant that human life “begins” necessarily a religious question? You want to fault the LDS church for not having a position only because the Roman Church does. But at the same time a Mormon could complain that the Roman Church doesn’t have an official position on what appearances Jesus might or might not have made in the prehistoric Americas. Certainly this is a question of immense theological and practical importance! And yet Rome has said nothing infallible about it!

    In the end you are probably right that vagueness about the beginning of life does lead to vagueness in other areas. But, in many important areas, vagueness is what God deliberately leaves us to work with. Remember, even Jesus didn’t know the time of his Return.

  22. Brad says:

    I’m surre if you asked any bishop, he would tell you Jesus never appeared in the Americas. And if the question became popular enough, the Catholic Church would respond. That question hasn’t. The question of embryonic stem-cell research, etc., has. That and all the unborn-related issues are still significant questions. And the Church has responded.

    Vagueness concerning the time of Jesus’ return doesn’t leave us without guidance in some moral issue; in fact it reinforces right living. Vagueness concerning the beginning of human life has to affect judgment in unborn-related issues. If the LDS prophet announced tomorrow that human life begins in the third trimester or some such thing, would it not make judgment possible for both before and after that point? In the case of embryos, it would mean they’re not human life, and only the principle of stewardship applies to them (e.g., we shouldn’t waste them, as we shouldn’t waste food); it’s impossible to sin against a thing. Once it’s human life, then all moral principles that apply to born human beings would apply to them too, and to destroy them would be to sin against them.

    If anyone believes they have an adequate and complete moral map on this subject without knowing at all when human life begins, I would be interested to know how they view things. I mean, I’d like to see a set of basic principles that allow judgment on any issue, without requiring the person to wait for further revelation, leaving them with no guidance in the meantime.

  23. Kaffinator says:

    I’m surre if you asked any bishop, he would tell you Jesus never appeared in the Americas.

    How could this bishop possibly know that? We do not have an exhaustive list of Christ’s appearances (visionary or otherwise). I’d think that the most he could say is, “we have no reason to believe Christ made any such appearance”.

    Vagueness concerning the time of Jesus’ return […] reinforces right living. Vagueness concerning the beginning of human life has to affect judgment in unborn-related issues.

    If vagueness about the time of Christ’s return leads us always to expect it (and I believe this is true) then I could also argue that vagueness concerning the beginning of life could also lead us to be careful and respectful of unborn children. If we were not really sure when life begins, then we should not take the risk of killing it.

    I mean, I’d like to see a set of basic principles that allow judgment on any issue, without requiring the person to wait for further revelation, leaving them with no guidance in the meantime.

    If only life were so simple that basic principles invariably left us with perfect clarity in every possible situation.

  24. Brad says:

    If vagueness about the time of Christ’s return leads us always to expect it (and I believe this is true) then I could also argue that vagueness concerning the beginning of life could also lead us to be careful and respectful of unborn children. If we were not really sure when life begins, then we should not take the risk of killing it.

    That’s what I would think, if we didn’t know when human life began. That’s why I think the LDS church should stay firmly on the side of caution, and say that embryonic stem-cell research should not be pursued, at least until further revelation.

    If only life were so simple that basic principles invariably left us with perfect clarity in every possible situation.

    What I mean to say is that we have one revelation, Jesus Christ, and He left us with everything we need to make it until His return. It’s the Church’s job to apply it when new eras bring new problems, and this is what she has done.

    This is also my answer to your argument about the bishop. If Christ’s appearance in the Americas was, as you said before, a question of immense theological and practical importance, He’d make sure we know about it. He could have made an appearance to people, and if someone makes that claim, the Church will be open to it, and look for proof or disproof. But He would not have appeared to people and brought some new revelation that was not given to the Apostles, or anything like that. I think we’re actually on the same page here, but I thought you were talking about an LDS idea of an appearance of Christ in the Americas, where He started another church and things like that.

  25. Kaffinator says:

    That’s why I think the LDS church should stay firmly on the side of caution, and say that embryonic stem-cell research should not be pursued, at least until further revelation.

    Perhaps, but I was just supplying a possible moral inference from a position of vagueness to show that it could be done. The moral reasoning that the LDS church applies in this area is for Mormons to work out, based on their own epistemological footing. Apparently, they feel no need to determine the moment of the onset of life before they can determine abortion is moral or not. It is a question already resolved by the LDS “magisterium” if you will. If the morality of stem-cell research blips on their radar then perhaps they’ll address it one day.

    Your contention seems like, “the Mormons should reach conclusion X in exactly the same way the Roman Church reached it” which seems pedantic, when the real point of division is, to whom or what shall we turn for infallible moral teaching?

  26. Brad says:

    The moral reasoning that the LDS church applies in this area is for Mormons to work out, based on their own epistemological footing.

    Is that true, or are Mormons obliged to have no official position on the issue either?

    Apparently, they feel no need to determine the moment of the onset of life before they can determine abortion is moral or not. It is a question already resolved by the LDS “magisterium” if you will.

    I realize that. I know that if I believed in their system, I’d probably have no problem with it (or at least look the other way). But I don’t need Catholic beliefs to tell me that if you’re not sure whether it’s human, you shouldn’t approve of destroying it.

    If the morality of stem-cell research blips on their radar then perhaps they’ll address it one day.

    If the fuss three or four years ago doesn’t get it onto their radar, I don’t know what will.

    Your contention seems like, “the Mormons should reach conclusion X in exactly the same way the Roman Church reached it”

    Actually, the Catholic Church has different reasons for condemning embryonic stem-cell research than that we don’t know whether it’s truly human life. She condemns the research because she knows that the embryos are human beings. My argument against the LDS lack of position is more an appeal to caution or common sense.

    the real point of division is, to whom or what shall we turn for infallible moral teaching?

    That may be the root of the division, but I can argue based on natural law or even on basic precepts of the LDS church. Especially when it comes to a question on which they’ve taken no position.

  27. Steve says:

    “I think knowing when human life begins is essential to making judgments on anything related to the unborn.”

    I agree. Leaving the door open on this issue allows relativism to creep in. Perhaps that is why Mitt Romney supports embryonic stem cell research.