Pro-life curriculum: The six principles at the foundation of the Christian pro-life movement
This free pro-life video course by Educe® online learning for the Personhood Alliance, explains the six fundamental principles at the foundation of the Christian pro-life movement.
Welcome to the Personhood Principles course. This course will explore the six fundamental principles at the foundation of the Christian pro-life movement. This course is brought to you by Personhood Alliance Education in partnership with Educe online learning.
What is personhood? Personhood is simply the right to have rights. It’s the basic acknowledgement that all human beings are human. Our race, sex, economic status, developmental stage, level of dependency, physical and mental capacity, medical prognosis, manner of conception, contribution to society, and wantedness do not change our humanness. They don’t make us more or less valuable, equal, or deserving of protection.
Six fundamental principles lay underneath this concept of human personhood. They help us understand and call us to action.
- Humans are made in the image of God.
- Humans are human from their earliest biological beginning.
- Humans aren’t constructed, we develop from within.
- All humans are persons with God given rights.
- Equality is based on our humanness.
- God calls us to works of justice and mercy.
Let’s explore these principles now.
Principle # 1: Humans are made in the image of God.
Humans are God’s image bearers. This scriptural truth is found in Genesis 1:27-28, also known as the Doctrine of Imago Dei. This doctrine reveals the dominion mandate, God’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” and “subdue the earth,” which builds the foundation for Psalm 127:3, “Children are a blessing; the fruit of the womb a reward.” Imago Dei also reflects the five elements of God’s beautiful design for humankind – life, marriage, gender, family, and sexuality.
“So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Like the design elements that make up an object of art – color, line, shape, texture, space, and form – God’s design elements are wholistic and interconnected. They synthesize to construct a purpose. They are woven together to form our human identity. To attempt to separate or alter these design elements is to try to corrupt the very nature of the human person; to destroy our value and purpose.
What we are witnessing everywhere in our culture today is a direct assault on the Imago Dei-on God’s foundational design elements for humankind. As Christians, we must adopt this perspective to be successful in defending human life and human dignity in the 21st century. To stand against abortion and all other design-destroying practices, and to truly change hearts and minds, Christians must never lose sight of this spiritual battle.
Principle #2: Humans are human from their earliest biological beginning.
It’s an indisputable scientific fact that human life begins the moment a human being comes into existence. Biologically, this is when the fusion of haploid games (egg and sperm) form the diploid zygote. In that moment, all of our DNA is created. In that moment, we are a living, separate, genetically distinct human being who is wholly human. We don’t start out as something else and become human later. At no point in the cycle of our development are we anything but human. In other words, potential human is a scientifically invalid term. So what does scripture say about this?
Amazingly, the first person to announce the coming of the Messiah was a child at the fetal stage of development! In Luke 1:40-42, we read that John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb when he recognized Jesus’ existence. Based on the scriptural account of Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth, who was 6 months pregnant with John at the time (Luke 1:36-40), we know that Jesus was about 6 to 7 days post-fertilization. Our Savior was a blastocyst — smaller than the tip of a pencil, appearing much like this image!
The bible consistently speaks of humans being both conceived and born. For example, Eve conceived and bore Cain (Genesis 4:1). Leah conceived and bore several sons for Jacob (Genesis 29:31-35). Mary conceived and bore Jesus (Luke 1:31). Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” (Matthew 1:18-25). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word zera is used to describe both pre-born and born offspring or “seed.” In the New Testament, the Greek word brephos is applied to children both inside and outside the womb.
Both the bible and modern science agree. Humans are human from the earliest biological beginning.
Principle #3: Humans are not constructed; we develop from within.
A few years ago, Valparaiso University law professor Richard Stith published a journal article that explored the basis of the embryo-research and abortion debates. In his essay, Stith proposed that our extremely polarized views of these debates stem from two incompatible ideas about human gestation…construction and development. In other words, some people think humans are put together piece by piece, like a car on the assembly line, and therefore, are not wholly human or even alive until a certain point.
Others think humans grow and develop from within, based on internally driven processes, and therefore, are wholly human from the beginning. There’s a right and wrong answer here. As Christians, we marvel at the wondrous works of our Creator. He knits us together in the secret place (Psalm 139:13-15). He fashions us like clay and clothes us in flesh (Job 10:8-12). But what does modern science reveal?
Humans are human from their earliest biological beginning. This means we aren’t just clumps of cells waiting to receive something external that will make us human once enough parts are in place. On the contrary, we are human independent of our appearance and our functioning. Humans do something that no constructed thing could ever do…We self direct our own internal growth and maturation.
Each stage of our development – zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, child, teenager, young adult, middle-aged adult, senior – is a milestone on a continuum; a continuum that’s driven forward from the inside.
At the blastocyst stage (5-7 days post-fertilization), our outer cell mass is already “pre-programmed” to develop into the amniotic sac and placenta, which will sustain us until we’re born. Through a process called organogenesis, our inner cell mass will fold into layers that become our organs and organ systems, as illustrated to the left. Though there is a brief period before this programming kicks in (and thus, why and when researchers, harvest embryonic stem cells for experimentation), nothing external happens to activate these changes.
Fast forward to the end of our fetal stage. Proteins within our body cause a reaction in our mother’s body that initiates labor and delivery. Sometimes, when the process isn’t happening as quickly as doctors would like, they induce labor. They act externally to alter something internally.
Jump ahead several years to puberty. This physical, hormonal, and psychological maturation process is also triggered internally. We don’t put on a puberty suit to transition into adulthood. It’s a natural, gradual process that’s driven from within. To say that humans are constructed and thus, to assign humanness based on some relative point along our continuum, is inaccurate and as Professor Stith claims, illogical.
He writes, “Construction involves discontinuity while development brings about change within a continuous identity…An individual life, one in the process of growing and unfolding itself, does not develop into a human being but rather, develops as a human being.”
Principle #4: All humans are people with God-given rights.
Humans are people. This seems odd to have to call out, but nevertheless we must, as history and the present continue to reveal the depths of sin and darkness. The declaration of independence once pierced this darkness; its words boldly defying the tyranny of government…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This truth – that equality and human rights are naturally present because we are created by God in His image – has been a thorn in the devil’s side for millenia. Since ancient times, personhood and humanness have been intentionally separated and put in conflict to justify denying the rights of certain people groups. This was true for African-Americans during slavery. It was true for Armenian Christians in Turkey and for Ukrainian peasants during Stalin’s holomodor. It was true for Jewish, disabled, and homosexual people under Hitler’s horrific regime.
Property. Subhuman. Untermench.
We see this today for humans who are trafficked and for humans who are not yet born. But the arguments that separate personhood and humanness for the unborn child are unique.
Personhood is denied specifically for the unborn child using three arguments: Sentience, moral agency, and dependency. The sentience argument claims that, because pre-born humans aren’t conscious, they don’t recognize their own existence and therefore, aren’t people. But a quick glance at modern science corrects this error. Consciousness of coma patients is a highly debated area of neuroscience, and, as the field of developmental psychology tells us, children’s self awareness unfolds in several stages up until age 4 or 5. Clearly, coma patients and five-year olds are people.
The moral agency argument claims that, because pre-born humans can’t distinguish between right and wrong or make moral arguments, they aren’t people. Most likely, we’ve all met a toddler that falls short of this mark, and to be honest, many adults have trouble with this as well. Yet, we consider these people to be…people.
The dependency argument states that the pre-born aren’t persons because they depend on someone else for survival. Of course, so do infants. And teenagers. And those with disabilities, in some cases, for their entire lives. So this begs the question…What is the motivation for specifically denying an unborn child their personhood?
In general, personhood is denied because someone wants to control someone else for some kind of benefit. This looks different depending on the people group being oppressed. For the pre-born, we need to look at the origin of the three arguments.
The sentience and moral agency arguments were brought into medical science in the 1970s so embryos could be experimented on without the protections and ethical limitations put on human subject research. In the 1960s and 70s, the now infamous “my body my choice” argument for abortion was created. This argument helped mothers of pre-born humans exercise their autonomy in a tragically misguided quest for “equality.”
Whether the benefit is scientific advancement, financial gain, or simply convenience, our society continues to embrace this dark, historically familiar ideology. But as God’s people, we find ourselves in a familiar place, too — a place of watchmen, abolitionists, and warriors (Ezekiel 33:1-11, Ephesians 6:12). It’s a place void of justice and mercy (Isaiah 1:17, Luke 4:18-19) that desperately needs the abundant life that Jesus came to bring (John 10:10). May the Christian pro-life movement use this time in history to return once again to the foundation of biblical personhood that has set so many captives free.
Principle #5: Equality is based on our humanness.
The fight for human equality is a noble and just cause shared by millions of people around the world. Organized movements against labor and sex trafficking, cultural genocide, religious persecution, racial injustice, and gender based violence all play a critical role in the battle. There’s a common thread that connects these movements – the belief that human equality is worth fighting for and that human rights are central to achieving it. From there, however, unity falls apart.
Let’s look at some of the questions at the root of this conflict:
- Where do human rights originate?
- Who defines what a right is?
- What happens when the rights of one human conflict with another?
- How is human value defined, and how does that relate to our rights?
- How does a human’s impact on society play a role in how rights are distributed, and who decides?
- What do equality and justice really mean and for whom?
Fortunately, there is a group among all the disparate factions of the equality struggle that brings much-needed clarity and consistency… The pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement believes that all humans are equal and deserving of rights, including the unborn, simply because they are human. Our race, sex, economic status, developmental stage, level of dependency, physical and mental abilities, medical prognosis, manner of conception, contribution to society, and wantedness do not change our humanness. These things do not make us more or less equal, valuable, deserving of rights, and worthy of protection from violence – whether that violence is inflicted on us in the streets, in the classroom, or in the womb. The pro-life movement focuses so intently on the unborn not because we’re “pro-birth,” but because, even though they’re human unborn children are left out of the equality discussion entirely. Hence, our passionate and long-standing fight against this injustice.
In America alone, thousands of unborn children are violently destroyed every day; their bodies discarded like garbage or sold like parts of a car. As Christians we see this attack on our fellow image-bearers as an attack on the One who created them (Genesis 1:27-28). We mourn the physical, emotional, and spiritual destruction that the sin of abortion inflicts (Romans 6:23) and we want to help post-abortive men and women find freedom and healing. We understand the eternal consequences for unrepentant violations of “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). In other words, we know this is urgent.
Ultimately, what unites the Christian pro-life movement for the cause of human equality is the sacrifice that Jesus made for every person, born and unborn. He died for all, not just for some and not so we could continue to live for ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:15). He died because of God’s immeasurable love for each and every human being He creates.
It’s up to us to carry out the mission of Jesus – in the ways of Jesus and in alignment with the Word – while there’s still time.
Principle #6: God calls us to work of justice and mercy.
Human rights are the motivating factor for all works of justice and mercy in the world. For Christians, these words are also a natural outpouring of our faith (Galatians 2:16). They’re evidence of our calling and purpose in His Kingdom (Ephesians 2:8-10). They’re the fruits of our desire and commitment to love and serve the Lord (James 2:14-26). God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8), but this is especially important when standing up for the weak, the powerless, and the oppressed (Psalm 82:3-4). Why?
Because they are the first to have their rights taken. Because they cannot defend themselves. Because they have no voice. Because they are our neighbors who we are commanded to love as ourselves.
So how are we to engage in this monumental task? What do justice and mercy require of us? Like all big questions we face today, we can find the answer by contrasting what the world says with what the Word says. Let’s look at justice and mercy through this lens.
Mercy: Compassion vs. confusion.
The culture of death has twisted biblical compassion – as reflected in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – and constructed an entire worldview based on moral relativism and human empathy. We see this in arguments for assisted suicide and embryonic research and for abortion in cases of disability, fetal anomaly, rape, and incest. We even see death argued as the compassionate solution for “unwanted” children who will be born into poverty, neglect, and abuse. It’s important for us to recognize the politicized research at the basis of these arguments and to reject the confusion these emotional appeals cause.
To bring victory here, we need to point broken people in broken situations to the truth. The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. (John 10:10) In bringing truth, though, let us not go forward in a spirit of condemnation (John 8:10-11, Lamentations 3:22). Because truth without compassion can be just as damaging as compassion without truth. Broken people need hope and healing, not further damage.
If we truly are pro-life, we must be pro-everyone’s life, including the people we often think of as our enemies – like the abortionists, the workers, and the activists. And including the people we often sacrifice on the political battlefield – like the rape conceived, the disable, and those with poor prognoses. Abortion is destructive, deceptive, and devaluing. We must never be any of these things.
Whether we’re called to the sidewalk or to Congress, each of us has a responsibility to correctly handle the truth (2 Timothy 2:14-16). And in order to do justice for the weak, the powerless, and the oppressed, we must apply the truth consistently and without compromise.
Justice: Principles vs. positivism
Today, justice is usually tethered to a government-granted right. It’s often hollowed out and stripped of its meaning to intentionally separate what’s legal and what’s ethical. This compromised version of justice has a name. Positivism denies God the Father as the sources of morality and natural law. In this view, laws are “just” based on social standards and are only limited by what public opinion will tolerate. In other words, law is a matter of what can be made culturally acceptable, not a matter of morality or preservation of individual liberty. Proverbs 28:5 tells us that evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. So, do we?
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
As we have discovered throughout this series, the six principles at the foundation of the Christian pro-life movement are steadfast and unchanging. They’re the “why” behind God’s command for us to speak up, rescue, and seek justice (Jeremiah 22:3, Proverbs 24:11, Psalm 82:3).
These principles must guide our steps and light our paths. They must form the basis of our discussions, when defending any issue of life, so that truth and compassion can reign instead of relativism and confusion. They must become the focus of our political efforts so that all humans are protected in all circumstances, not just some humans in some circumstances.
It is time for us to return to the principles that first united the pro-life movement and can unite us once again. Our job as the Church is to uphold a biblical standard and call all of mankind to that standard. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, our ways must begin and end with God’s ways. To walk in our own ways is to continue to prolong the injustice.