At the Moment of Conception

Question
When does a person receive a soul, at birth or at conception?
Answer

As far as fetuses (embryos) are concerned; It is important to note that every fetus, no matter its stage of development, has a soul. He is already a he, and she is already a she; the person is already a person.

John the Baptist, "before he was born" was responding to God, which implies that he was already a living soul (Luke 1:41, 44). Exodus 21:22-23 speak of a fetus as having "life" - (life for life). Having life requires a soul; Adam became a living being only when God breathed into him and he became a living being (Gen 2:7). See "How does the soul of a man originate?" below.

As Sproul says, "Even those who do not agree that life begins before birth grant that there is continuity between a child that is conceived and a child that is born. Every child has a past before birth. The issue is this: Was that past personal, or was it impersonal with personhood beginning only at birth?" Luke 1:41, 44 emphatically reveals it is personal ("leaped for joy").

In Psalm 51:5 we observe that David sees that he was sinful at the time he was conceived. But if he was not a person, if he did not have a soul, then he could not have a sinful human nature. While a mere mass of cells could not have any basis for morality, a human being possessing a soul, does! We may say with Tertullian, "The one who will be a man is already one" (Apologeticum IX, 8). Life begins at conception.

Any argument that asserts that fetuses (embryos) are not mature enough to have soul or to be called persons is pure fantasy. The fact is humans upon this earth are never fully-developed. We are not born complete. We grow, change, and mature constantly. We are continually developing in our many stages of life. John even mentions some of the stages of our development in 1 John 2:13-14 saying:

I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Yet in all these stages we have a soul, don't we? As we go from conception to becoming old men and women, we recognize that all life has a beginning. We do not go from nothing to becoming old, we actually have a living beginning. We begin where we begin; at conception.

Many maintain this even without making a Scriptural case, as I briefly did above:

Floare Farcas wrote:

Each of us has a very precise starting moment. This is when all the necessary and sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized egg. This is the moment of conception. There is no difference between the early person that you were at conception and the late person which you are now! You were and are a human being! Consequently, unborn babies must be protected and guaranteed their 'right to life'.

Jason M. Steffens writes:

There is, in fact, no doubt from a scientific standpoint that an unborn child is a life from the moment of conception. Not only is it a life, but, 'by its intrinsic biological nature,' it is a human life from the moment of conception, for 'it can be nothing else.' This is because 'to be a human being is decided for an organism at the moment of fertilization of the ovum.' By the end of the eighth week of its existence, an unborn child 'has features that are distinctly human,' confirming the child's humanness. French geneticist Dr. Jerome L. LeJeune testified before a United States Senate subcommittee in 1981: 'To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence'.

Jerome Lejeune writes:

. . . each of us has a unique beginning, the moment of conception . . . when the information carried by the sperm and by the ovum have encountered each other, then a new human being is defined because its own personal and human constitution is entirely spelled out. The information which is inside the first cell obviously tells this cell all the tricks of the trade to build himself as the individual this cell is already . . . to build that particular individual which we will call later Margaret or Paul or Peter, it's already there, but it's so small we cannot see it . . . It's what life is, the formula is there; . . . if you allow the formula to be expanded by itself, just giving shelter and nurture, then you have the development of the full person.

Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr. writes:

The underlying premise in the arguments pro-abortionists give against fetal personhood is that non-persons can change into persons. They are saying that a living being can undergo a radical, essential change in its nature during its lifetime. But there is a logical problem here. If the change was biologically inevitable from conception, given time, then this change is not a change in essential nature. This is because if the being naturally initiates the change, it must be in its nature from the beginning to do so. If it is in its nature to do so, then despite any changes in such characteristics as independence, place of residence, physical development, or demonstration of mental ability, what the being is in later life is what the being is from the beginning of its life. This means that if we are persons with the right to be free from aggression later in life, we are persons even at conception.

Though I often disagree with the Catholic Church on many issues, here we agree. Pope John Paul II wrote:

Some try to justify abortion by claiming that the product of conception, at least until a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. . . In reality from the moment in which the ovum is fertilized, a new life begins which is not that of the father or of the mother but of a new human being which develops of its own accord. It would never be made human if it were not human already . . .

As Tertullian (160-220 CE) once wrote, "To prevent birth is anticipated murder; it makes little difference whether one destroys a life already born or does away with it in its nascent stage. The one who will be a man is already one" (Apologeticum IX, 8).

All fetuses have souls. A person is a person at conception.

Related Links:

How does the soul of a man originate?
Is Abortion Murder?

References:

Farcas, Floare. "Life begins at conception," "The Peak," Simon Fraser University. (1996). http://www.peak.sfu.ca/ Last Accessed August 1, 2015.

Lejeune, Jerome. The Concentration Can , Ignatius Press, (1992).

Pope John Paul II, "Evangelium Vitae," (1995). http://www.vatican.va/ Last Accessed July 30, 2015.

Sproul , R. C. Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1990), p. 55.

Steffens, Jason M. "The 'Peculiar' Being: The Rights of an Unborn Child in Iowa, 88 IOWA L. REV. 217 (1988). http://www.june24.net/ Last Accessed August 1, 2015.

Vieira, Edwin, Jr., "A False Assumption," Libertarians for Life, (1999). http://www.l4l.org/ Last Accessed July 30, 2015.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).