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A human's life does not begin at conception

Writing about abortion (News, May 2), Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance states that the key question is whether the pre-born is a human being. Yet the Bible, which he presumably follows, says it isn't.

The general view in Old Testament times was that life began with "first breath". Thus, in Genesis 2:7 we read: "And the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a human being." Indeed, throughout the Bible neither God nor His followers treat the foetus as in any way sacred.

There is a common Christian belief in Northern Ireland that life begins at conception, even though this idea only appeared in the mid-19th century. It is, in any case, biologically and philosophically mistaken.

Sperm and egg cells are alive even before they meet. But becoming a person is a different matter again. A foetus has no moral rights above that of the mother, because it satisfies none of the criteria of personhood. They include sentience, emotionality, reason, communication, self-awareness and so on.

These characteristics only begin to appear late in pregnancy. "Quickening", the first detectable foetal movements around the fifth month, is often taken as a guide. So too is viability, when survival is possible outside the womb, in some cases around the 20th or 21st week. The English law, which allows abortion normally up to 24 weeks, is probably too flexible, but its principle is sound.


Director, NI Humanist Association

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