The Death of a Fetal Human is Different Than the Death of a Dying Human

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While hosting the Stand to Reason Radio Show, a caller asked me how to defend an objection related to abortion. A friend asked him how he could be comfortable ending the life of a person on life support, yet uncomfortable ending a life in the womb. He was asked to imagine the scenario of a dying man who (as the result of suffering a stroke or being involved in a car accident) had no recordable brain activity and will die without our intervention to keep him on life support. Isn’t this person just like the fetal human in the earliest weeks of development? Neither has any observable brain activity; should either been seen as a living human? If we have the right to “un-plug” one (the dying human), why don’t we have the right to unplug the other (the fetal human)?

Of course the biggest problem with this description of “living humans” is that it equates mental capacity with personhood. Can a person still be a person even if they lack a certain degree of measurable brain activity? How much activity is required before one attains personhood? Am I less a “person” if I don’t have the mental capacity of someone who is smarter? What if I am in an induced coma? What if my diminished metal condition is temporary? See the problem? But this is not precisely what the caller was offering in his example. This scenario involved an injured person who would die if not for our intervention. Given this scenario, we must distinguish between these two groups:

“Not Yet” Adult Humans
Fetal humans may lack brainwave activity, but if left to their own devices (if we do nothing to intervene) they will eventually become fully functioning human beings. They are “not yet” adult humans, but if you simply leave them alone, they will become adults like you and me. Ever notice the bananas on sale at your local market? Most of them are green. Many are so green that you wouldn’t even imagine eating them for a week. But we buy them anyway. Why? Because they are “not yet” ripe bananas. If we buy them, put them on the shelf, simply leave them alone and do nothing to intervene, they will become the ripe bananas we all know and love. We don’t throw away green bananas; we wait patiently for them to ripen. We understand their value even though they are green.

“Never Again” Adult Humans
But we don’t feel the same way about over-ripe, black bananas. We recognize that bananas (like all living things) have a life cycle. There is a time when a banana’s life is over. Sadly, there are times when we must also admit the same is true for humans. At the end of one’s life, when we are sure that someone will “never again” be alive (unless we intervene artificially), it may be appropriate to allow life to “run it’s course.” Critically injured humans, in this sense, are not like fetal humans. When someone is so injured that they have no brain activity and will certainly die, we find ourselves asking, “Should I intervene to prolong life artificially?” When considering the fate of the fetal human, we find ourselves asking, “Should I intervene to end life prematurely?” See the important difference?

As Christians, we are consistent in our approach in these two scenarios when we say we ought not intervene. We ought not intervene to end the life of a fetal human who – if left to the destiny God has for them – would be ushered into our presence, and we don’t want to intervene to extend the life of a fatally injured human who – if left to the destiny God has for them – would be ushered into the presence of God. Fetal humans ought to be allowed to live, even as fatally injured humans ought to be allowed to die.

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.

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