The Moral Life of the Unborn

Yesterday I registered my resistance to calling an unborn child a “person.” Today I want to address the subject of the moral state of the unborn child.

But first, let’s begin with a text of Scripture, Genesis 2.7: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” The created thing becomes a living soul when he starts to breath.

In the Bible the “soul” is often a synonym for what we today call the self. I am a soul and you are a soul; a soul is the union of flesh and spirit. It is the soul that makes the human animal so different from all other animals; we are a soul, whales are not. (I would say dogs are not but that would generate more heated protest than anything I might write about a person!)

It is the soul that falls into sin; it is the soul that is redeemed; it is the soul that rejoices in God; it is the soul that struggles between right and wrong.

Is an unborn child a soul? The book of Genesis seems to teach that he or she becomes a soul only when he or she emerges from the womb and begins to breath: that is, takes on a life distinct and increasingly independent from the mother.

So is an unborn child a soul? Before you answer too quick consider this: is the unborn soul a moral being, capable of good and ill, subject to condemnation and in need of redemption?

Historically, the Christian church has taught that moral agency begins with birth or sometime after birth. Many Protestants have the idea of “the age of accountability.” Many Christian theologians—not this one—have taught that children are contaminated with (original) sin from birth; this is why they advocate baptism soon after birth—to remove the taint of sin.

But does this contamination extend into the womb? If so, why has there been no teaching on the moral state of the unborn? If so, why do we wait until birth to baptize or christen?

These are not silly questions. The debate about life, choice, and abortion has generated political and theological assertions that push us to think about these things. Just as I rejected “personhood” yesterday, today I reject the notion that unborn children are moral agents, not a soul in the biblical sense of the word.

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3 comments so far

  1. Rick on

    So, in your opinion, it’s ok to murder little babies, as long as you kill the unborn darlings, before they take their first gasp of breath?

  2. Ken Holden on

    I was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1978-1981. I took Theology from Dr. Dale Moody. I believe you were the Graduate Assistant for the “other” Dr. Moody at that time. I have just a question for clarafication. In the third paragraph of your article, “The Moral Life Of The Unborn”, you said, “…it is the ‘soul’ that makes human animals so different from other animals. We have a soul.” It is my remembrance that Dr. Dale Moody would never say, “We have a soul”, but rather, “We (humans) are a soul”. So, isn’t there a difference here? If we ‘are’ a soul, then would we not describe that soul (i.e. self) as body (flesh), mind, and spirit?

    Just wondering. Would love to hear others’ thouoghts.

  3. Chuck Queen on

    I would like to respond to Ken’s comments.I would not say “we are a soul,” because we are more than “souls.” In the Hebrew mindset I don’t think they clearly differentiated between soul, spirit, and body the way the more Hellenized Jews did later. It was the total material and immaterial aspects of human life that constituted the “person.” So in that sense, perhaps the term soul could include physical, biological aspects of human life. They would never have imagined the kind of dichotomy that so many Christians today speak of when they talk about the body returning to dust and the spirit/soul going to be with God. I could be wrong, but I don’t think “soul” is the defining term however. I think it is more proper to talk about the “self” or “person”–it seems to me that in the New Testament the terms “flesh” and “body” are more often used in an all-inclusive sense than the words “soul” or “spirit,”
    which seem to take on a more specialized function.


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