I recently spoke at a church on the topic of embryonic stem cell research and was challenged by an audience member who gave a biblical defense for killing the early human embryo. The attendee cited Leviticus 17:11, which says, “For the life of the creature is in the blood.” She argued that shortly after conception, the developing human embryo is still travelling down the fallopian tube and has not yet implanted in the uterus (the woman’s womb). Prior to implantation, she argued, there’s no blood. And without blood, there’s no life, as Leviticus 17:11 suggests. Therefore, killing the embryo before implantation should not be described as killing a human life.
Since January 22 is the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion the “law of the land” in the United States), I thought it would be appropriate to address this claim that challenges a component of the pro-life position.
There are several ways to respond. You can challenge the facts of the claim, or you can accept the claim and follow it to its logical—and possibly absurd—conclusion. Let’s begin by challenging the facts.
First, scientifically speaking, an individual human life begins at conception, not at implantation. This is a biological maxim. It’s even the opinion of most scientists. A recent survey of biology professors at over 1,000 institutions around the world revealed the following result: 5,337 biologists (96%) affirmed that human life begins at conception. Only 4% rejected that view. Therefore, the claim that the pre-implanted human embryo is not a living human being goes against scientific understanding.
Second, the human embryo before implantation is identical to the human embryo after implantation. There’s no difference in kind, only in degree of development. The pre-implanted embryo is not a different creature with different DNA than the post-implanted embryo. Rather, both are the same kind of organism with the same DNA. That means if it’s permissible to kill the human embryo before implantation, there’s no morally significant reason why we shouldn’t be able to kill it after implantation.
These are scientific considerations, though. They challenge the facts of the claim. It turns out, however, that you can also respond to this challenge by employing a tactic we teach at Stand to Reason: Taking the Roof Off (also known as reductio ad absurdum). This approach begins by accepting their claim as true and then asking what logically follows. If their claim leads to a ridiculous outcome, then we can reject their rationale. As you’ll see, there are at least three absurd consequences to their view.
First, assume it’s true that Leviticus teaches humans are alive only when they have blood in them. It turns out there’s no blood in the human embryo even immediately after implantation. In other words, according to the rationale that a human is alive only when he or she has blood inside, that would mean even an implanted embryo isn’t alive. It isn’t until day 21 (or 2 weeks after fertilization) that red blood cells form and a heart begins to pump blood. On this view, not only would killing the pre-implanted human embryo be permissible, but so would killing the human embryo after implantation and, indeed, during the first three weeks of gestation.
Second, if life is in the blood, then some animals that don’t contain blood are not alive. Jellyfish, for example, lack a brain, lungs, a heart, and blood but are clearly alive. Insects, amoebas, and many other animals that don’t have blood are also living. How does this understanding of Leviticus 17:11 make sense of living creatures that don’t have blood? It can’t.
A third absurdity is that if life is in the blood, then anything with blood should be living. For example, a fresh human corpse would still be “alive.” After all, immediately after death, a dead body still contains living red blood cells (alive for a limited time, of course). Surely we wouldn’t say it’s possible to kill a human corpse simply because it has blood in it. That would be absurd.
At this point it’s reasonable to wonder what the Leviticus passage actually means if it doesn’t mean what was suggested by the attendee of my event. That’s a fair question, but let me offer a thought. Even if we don’t know the correct interpretation of Leviticus 17:11, that doesn’t mean we can’t be confident of the incorrect interpretation. Surely the passage can’t mean that only humans with blood are living human beings who deserve protection because of the absurdities that arise given that understanding.
Reading the passage in context, however, gives us a clue as to the meaning of the words in verse 11. God tells Moses, “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood.” The principle: Don’t eat blood. Why? God explains His rationale in the next verse: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Emphasis mine.) God forbids eating blood because it gives the animal life and, during animal sacrifice, the blood is spilt to atone for your sins and give you life.
This is a picture of the atoning work of Christ, whose spilt blood washes our sin away and gives us life. Since we now have life, we’re called to protect the life of every human being, no matter their stage of development.