(POST 1 of “Pleas from a Birth Center Chaplain”)
Before we get into a heated debate about abortion or women’s rights, let me first pose a question: Have you considered when life begins?
(You would be surprised at how many people try to argue with me and have never considered this question. Put on the spot, they fumble about with talk of heartbeats, sonograms, ejaculations; and most of it, when thought through, sounds like utter nonsense. One conservative man even tried to argue with me that life began when the sperm left the penis, until I asked “what if there is not a woman around?”)
I have thought about life — how it begins and how it ends – more than most people. As a pastor, I have sat vigil with many in the final stages of dying and as a chaplain who has served in a Birth Center, I have witnessed the miracle of creation that is birth. I have considered life more than most.
And I have come to the measured conclusion: Breath is life.
My consideration of life started at the hospice bedside…. where life ends. I’ve watched many people transition from this world; each time their body went through a similar process that looks very much like the labor cycle of birth. First, slowed digestion, then altered consciousness, then the “death rattled” breathing. Finally, the last breath taken. In the case of my beloved friend Hortense, I (literally) saw her soul rise out of her body as she took her last breath. Life ended with… her last breath. Death was breathtaking and humbling and was just as miraculous to watch as the moment of birth is, too.
And it is from this perspective of the end of life that I also consider the beginning of life as well. When does life begin? Just as in death, I believe the soul enters the body with the first real breath that a baby takes. That moment when the doctor hears the baby’s first cry — that is life. I don’t not believe that it’s a mistake that the very last organ to develop in a fetus is the lungs. It is critical to me that when babies are born preemies, they worry that their lungs will not function. Preemie babies often have lung issues for their entire lives (like my own preemie can’t shake that asthma).
At the beginning, as it is at the end: Breath is Life.
As a woman of faith, I source my belief from the Bible as well as from my own experience. When I look to scripture, I find the words for my belief that the essence of life is intertwined with the ability to breathe. In Genesis 2:7 the creation story tells us, “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Adam became human with God’s breath filling his lungs. This breath — ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek — is what gives us soul and brings us life. There are verses throughout the Bible that speak of this ruach/pneuma being the giver of Life: Psalm 33:6, Ecclesiastes 12:7, Job 33: 4, John 20:22 Psalm 51:11,… just to name a few.
For all the searching I’ve done, I have not find any scriptures that link life to heartbeats or sperm. (If I have missed something, please point it out to me.) My son confirms this for me as well — every time he guts a fish, he pulls out the beating heart and shows it to anyone who will look — a beating heart separated from its body, does not a soul make. And in my mind, a fetus with a heartbeat but no lung capacity…. same. There is also a lack of scripture around sperm as well, other than to say, don’t waste it (which of course, can be interpreted in a variety of ways).
So, without any real life experience or a scriptural base to back it up, I have come to these conclusions: human life does not begin when the sperm permeates the egg. It does not begin when the egg plants itself in the uterus wall. Human life does not begin with a beating heart, or a sonogram of fingertips, or an ultrasound of earlobes. And it most certainly doesn’t begin with a man’s ejaculation.
Human life begins when God animates the body with the very first breath. And yes, I know that could spin us off into a debate about ventilators, but that is why this is just “Part 1.” I have lots more thoughts on this subject.
Breath is life, so take a deep one.