When does human life begin?

By Matthew Ruttan, Pastor

My goal in this post is to thoughtfully explore the question, “When does human life begin?”

The question is relevant throughout all generations, but I write about this topic now because it has recently garnered increased attention.

I want to encourage you to read to the end. I realize it’s a difficult and controversial topic. But I raise several points that, I think, will raise more questions in your mind as you read. My hope is that many of them will be addressed.

My own conscience, and yours

Each person must think and act according to his or her own conscience. And each of us must strive as best we can to identify truth and live our lives accordingly.

So I share these thoughts not from a place of superiority or judgmentalism, but simply as someone who is trying to be true to his own conscience, and who is trying to be thoughtful and faithful about one of the biggest and most controversial issues of our time.

In our day of extremes and degraded public and political discourse, people should be encouraged to have opinions and thoughtfully disagree. We do so trying to be true to our own conscience.

More Loving, and also Counter-Cultural

I realize that in this article I’m going against majority Canadian dogma. But that’s okay. Galatians 1:10. I’ve never been one to just go along with the majority.

In 2010, an EKOS/Globe and Mail survey found that 52 per cent of Canadians were “pro-choice,” 27% were “pro-life,” and 21% wouldn’t say either way.

But I feel that what I’m about to suggest is (a) the most loving approach for the most amount of people, and (b) very much counter-cultural in a country that approves of abortion, pays for abortions with public tax dollars, has no legal limits on abortion to the end of nine months of pregnancy, in a country which has witnessed four million abortions since 1969.

Yes, I’m in the minority. But I feel what I’m about to say is the most loving approach for the most amount of people.

To me this is a matter of love, compassion, human rights and social justice.

Political correctness

I intend to put aside political correctness. What I mean is that I will do my best to speak thoughtfully and without bowing submissively to “political correctness”—which, although originally intended to help us be kinder toward one another, has sometimes become a kind of tool to shame people into silence or short-circuit discussion.

Should we be kind and respectful? Absolutely. But Canada’s blind commitment to political correctness is naïve and intolerant of the way of life it supposedly supports.

My audience

Anyone can, of course, read my blogs, articles, presentations, or listen to my sermons. And I hope that whoever reads this will find it useful.

But as I write, I’m thinking mostly of fellow followers of Jesus. I think that what I’m about to say will be most helpful to those who think (a) that objective truth exists, and (b) that, as I will explain shortly, the Bible gives eternal wisdom for living in a way that honours God and helps us be truly and profoundly loving toward others.

A quick history in Canada

Abortion was illegal in Canada until 1969. Abortions then became legal if the pregnancy was a risk to the life or health of the mother. This decision was to be made in hospitals by a committee. In this scenario “health” wasn’t really defined which left the door open to interpretation.

In 1988 that one safeguard was removed and there became no legal restrictions to abortion. There have been over four million abortions in Canada since 1969.

On average, about 100,000 abortions take place each year in Canada. That averages out to 274 abortions per day.[i]

Abortions happen in hospitals (and are paid for with public tax dollars) or in private clinics. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 1.5% of abortions are the result of rape or incest (U.S. data).[ii] Percentages seem to vary slightly, but cases where there is a physical health risk to the mother are in the vast minority.

In Canada, abortion is allowed for any reason up until the moment of birth. This is deemed a medical procedure under the Canada Health Act. Our Criminal Code defines a human being “when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother.”[iii] Therefore, children still in the womb have no legal protections.

Earlier this year in Pickering, Ontario, a man was sentenced for murdering his wife who was nine months pregnant. He was sentenced for one murder, not two. The victim’s sister told Global News: “For my sister, I just wanted more… It’s just not fair, he took two lives from me, I will never get to have a niece, I will never get to have a sister again.”[iv] But in the eyes of Canadian law, he only murdered one person, not two.

Does Canada stand alone in having no legal protections for unborn babies? No. We stand alongside countries including China, Cuba, Vietnam… and North Korea.

I encourage you to google pictures or videos of a baby’s growth in the womb. In Canada, those babies can be legally aborted at any time.

It should also be noted:

  • That only a few hundred newborn babies are put up for adoption in Canada each year, a statistic that has been fairly stable year after year.[v] International adoptions are much higher.
  • According to the Adoption Council of Canada, “there were fewer than 1,000 private adoption placements in 2017.”[vi]
  • There is an increasing problem of babies being born after attempted abortions and not being given the medical treatment they therefore deserved. They deserved medical treatment because, according to Canadian law, they were human beings. Apparently, 491 children were born this way between 2000 and 2009.[vii]

How do you determine truth?

Let me be up front about the fact that the Bible is my authoritative source of truth. That doesn’t come as a surprise to many of you because you know I’m a Christian. To me, the Bible is the primary place where we learn about God’s will.

I also prioritize reason and logic. Reason and logic cut through cultural dogma and political correctness, and help us engage thoughtfully in public discourse.

I acknowledge that others will not share all my views. I respect and appreciate that. But regardless of your views, I think it’s important for everyone to ask this: How do I determine truth? Is truth what the law says? Is truth what my peer group says? Is truth based on feelings or intuition? Is truth based on the opinions of media outlets or cleverly spun internet memes?

I should also say that I believe science should definitely play a part in our considerations. Surely most of us believe that science has a lot to say about what is true. But we need to be clear that science doesn’t truly “say” anything, at least in any discussion about what is right or wrong. Scientific method can help us measure and analyze whatever is repeatable in nature; it can tell us when a heart starts beating, or when a right hand is fully developed—but it simply observes and informs. It is mute on morality.

That said, it is instructive that Norman Geisler and Frank Turek have pointed out that when a male sperm and female ovum unite—both with their 23 chromosomes—a new and unique 46-chromozine human “zygote” is created. Even though it’s small, “this new creature has all of the genetic information that a fully developed person has.”[viii] Or, as it says in Langman’s Medical Embryology (12th edition): “Development begins at fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.” These are facts worth considering.

What is abortion?

Definitions will vary slightly, but generally speaking, abortion is the intentional removal of an embryo or fetus from a uterus in order to end one’s pregnancy.

The root issue

I’m going to argue that the root issue in all of this is when human life begins. Many argue that the root issue is something else: “A woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body.” In many ways I appreciative this argument; in fact, I think it’s a very persuasive and compelling one. After all, I like women’s rights, I like choice, and I like her choosing what happens to her body.

But, in my view, this obscures the main issue. The main issue is when a human life begins. If it begins in the womb, then it makes no sense that a doctor, woman, or anyone else, can take the life of another person (a baby girl or a baby boy). That would be like saying a mother is allowed to take the life of her two-year-old or twenty-year-old. Or it would be like saying that my neighbour has a right to do what he likes with his hands… while beating my children. If my children are in fact humans then their rights trump the actions of my neighbour.

If life begins in the womb, then it’s a life that is due all the other protections it would be granted anywhere else. As Dr. Seuss has said (albeit in a different context), “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Supporting someone’s personal choice

Someone told me that even though they didn’t personally like the idea of abortion, that they support someone else’s personal choice to have one. This line of thinking is often well-intentioned, and certainly appeals to the supreme value of “personal choice” in our highly individualistic North American culture.

But it again skirts the main issue about when a human life begins.

For example, would it be good for me to support someone’s personal choice to walk down the street and shoot someone? No. But why not? Because we recognize that taking someone’s life isn’t a good idea, even if someone else thinks it is. That life has value. So when it comes to abortion, tucking the issue into the sphere of “personal choice” again presupposes that a baby in the womb isn’t a full human life.

I simply point out that those who adopt this line of thinking, although often well-intentioned, presuppose that a baby in the womb isn’t a real human life.

Looking to the Bible

In the Bible, we learn that all human life has value because God created humankind “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27, NIV). Humans are a part of God’s creation—like all other creatures—but they are elevated above other creatures. They have a special responsibility and sanctity.

But we’re still left with the question about when life begins.

There are several passages in the Old Testament which speak about God being active in the formation of humans in the womb. Psalm 139:13 (NIV) says, “For you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

Similarly, Jeremiah 1:5 (NIV) tells us this: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” This tells us not only that God formed Jeremiah (a human) in the womb, but even knew him beforehand.

Jesus himself quoted Psalm 22:1 from the cross. In verse 22 (NIV), the psalmist says, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” Not only is it a picture of human life in the womb, but of a relationship between a human and God.

In the New Testament, there are some other helpful passages to consider:

In Galatians 1:15 (NIV) we learn that the apostle Paul was appointed for a special purpose from the time he was in his mother’s womb: “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace…”

A well-known passage is Luke 1:41-44 (NIV). We often read it before Christmas: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord [Jesus] should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

The baby is active in the womb (no surprise there), but is called a baby. The original Greek word used here is brephos, translated as “baby” or “infant.” That same word is used six other times in the New Testament to describe a human child outside the womb, including two verses announcing the birth of the newborn baby Jesus in Bethlehem. For a list of other references see footnote number nine.[ix]

The biblical passages are not specifically “about abortion.” But they all highlight a clear and consistent understanding about the origins of human life.

Two other early Christian documents are worth noting. They are not authoritative in the same way that the Bible is, but they certainly shed light on early Christian attitudes toward abortion. A well-known document called The Didache (The Teaching), probably written sometime between 85 and 110 AD, says, “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when they are born” (section 2.2). Another document called the Letter of Barnabas, written in approximately 130 AD, says, “You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide” (section 19).

I also find it interesting that helping abandoned children was (and is) common among Christians. In the early 3rd century Callistus was active in placing abandoned children in Christian homes, as was Benignus of Dijon, including some with disabilities as a result of unsuccessful abortions.

In my view, the biblical worldview is that when a woman is pregnant, she is carrying a (very small) human, a human who is formed by God and valuable because he or she is made in God’s image.

What about cases of rape or incest?

Sometimes a pregnancy occurs after a woman has been raped or has been the victim of incest. These are obviously very difficult situations where the utmost care and compassion needs to be shown. As stated earlier, 1.5% of abortions are the result of rape or incest. Also, the vast minority of abortions occur because there is a physical health risk to the mother.

In all situations, the question about when life begins continues to be relevant. It cannot fall from view. If a baby in the womb is a human, is it ethical to take that life?

The denomination that I’m a part of, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, has advised that only a danger to the mother’s life or the likelihood of permanent or prolonged mental or physical impairment to the mother should be regarded as grounds for abortion. In my estimation, the rationale of the denomination has been that it is preferable to lose one life (the life of the baby) than to possibly lose two (the life of the baby and the life of the mother).

In these cases, Christians should be proactive and intentional about seeking God’s guidance, about caring and praying for those involved, and about seeking out the proper avenues for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual care.

I should note also that The Presbyterian Church in Canada has stated that a fetus always qualifies as a human life, and that abortions should never be “on demand” or used as a way to control population growth (i.e. “birth control”).

In their wisdom, the denomination has also said that the conscience of health care workers should be respected, and that they should be protected if they choose not to participate in abortions.[x]

I want to acknowledge very clearly that some people struggle with their decision to have an abortion, and that some surely live in difficult situations and face complex choices. This article isn’t meant to trivialize or oversimplify those circumstances. It is meant to underscore the root issue about when human life begins. I believe that all other decisions need to be made in light of this larger one.

What about those who regret an abortion?

Christians want to live in a way that is pleasing to God. We want to glorify, know, love and serve God. We want to become more like Christ and serve as his hands and feet of love and truth in the world.

But if we believe that life is created by, and belongs to, God, and if we are convinced that babies in the womb are fashioned by him and made in his image, is there forgiveness for those who have taken one of those lives? After all, one of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, NIV).

Again, let me reiterate what I said in the last section, that there are people who, even though they choose to have an abortion, have morally struggled with the decision.

The Christian mindset is also influenced by how we understand our bodies. Our bodies are not totally our own because we have actually become “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19, NIV). So again, we wonder, is there forgiveness for those who have done wrong not only to others, but to themselves?

In 1 John 1:9 (NIV) we find this promise: “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” The good news is that the Bible teaches us that with faith in Christ, when we confess our sins, Christ takes the penalty for our sin upon himself. In a loving and merciful exchange, he grants us forgiveness and peace with God—both in this life and the next! He pays the penalty for what we deserve.

So we need to place our faith in Christ, trust in what he has done for us on the cross, acknowledge that what we have done is sin, and ask for forgiveness. The good news is that forgiveness is possible because of God’s overflowing love for us through what he has done for us on the cross.

Another root issue: Changing attitudes about what sex is for

Again, we cannot neglect the fact that the vast minority of abortions are because of rape, incest, or a significant health risk to the mother. With that in mind, let me share a thought:

In our highly sexualized society, where “anything goes” so long as the participants are consenting and over sixteen years of age, the meaning and purpose of sex has changed.

In many people’s minds, sex is less and less about creating new life in the context of a family or about mutual joy between husband and wife, and more and more about personal, individual pleasure. In this scenario, pregnancies and babies are, to some, an unfortunate outcome of this individual experience and pursuit of pleasure.

Is this always the case? No. But sometimes, and maybe even often? Yes.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking could be extended to those who choose to abort a child if there is something “wrong” with them, and perhaps even if they are of the un-preferred sex. We have become so highly individualistic as a society that our own personal experience trumps the life of another.

If we don’t think that a baby in the womb is a human life, then individuals may think they have wider latitude to do as they wish. But if we do think that a baby in the womb is a human life, then this line of reasoning makes no sense.

Final Thought

To sum up, to some people in our society, abortion is a controversial and highly contested issue. Some don’t seem to care. But let me be clear:

These. Concerns. Will. Never. Go. Away.


Over four million abortions have occurred in Canada since 1969. In this country there have been no legal restrictions on the procedure since 1988. Babies can be aborted at any time. Only 1.5% of abortions are the result of rape or incest. A vast minority of cases occur because there is a physical health risk to the mother. In those cases, the utmost care and prayer should be taken both before and after whatever decision is made.

Dr. Alveda C. King is the granddaughter of famed civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What she says is speculative, but gives us serious food for thought:

“What would Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed of having his four children judged by the content of their characters, not just the color of their skin, do if he’d lived to see the contents of thousands of children’s skulls emptied into the bottomless caverns of the abortionist’s pits?”[xi]

As I stated at the outset, I share these thoughts not from a place of superiority or judgmentalism, but simply as someone who is trying to be thoughtful and faithful about one of the biggest and most controversial issues of our time. Each person must think and act according to his or her own conscience. And each of us must strive as best we can to identify truth and live our lives accordingly.

I realize people will disagree with me. I respect and accept that. But I won’t be shamed into silence by Canada’s naïve demands for political correctness. And I won’t be forced into the same silence that has been forced upon millions of unborn babies in our country.

I realize that I’m going against majority Canadian dogma. But I feel that what I’ve written—based on the argument that human life begins in the womb—is (a) the most loving approach for the most amount of people, and (b) very much counter-cultural.

To me this is a matter of love, compassion, human rights and social justice.

When does human life begin? According to biblical teaching, I believe it begins in the womb. The biblical worldview is that when a woman is pregnant, she is carrying a (very small) human, a human who is formed by God and valuable because he or she is made in God’s image.

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[i] To see the rationale for this number visit: https://www.campaignlifecoalition.com/abortion/

[ii] See a summary of findings here: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/socialissues/life-issues/dignity-of-human-life/abortion-statistics . See also: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2135792?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Accessed May 23, 2019.

[iii] See the Government of Canada ‘Justice Laws Website’: https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/section-223.html. Accessed on May 23, 2019.

[iv] The story can be read at: https://globalnews.ca/news/5231348/pickering-man-nicholas-baig-murder-pregnant-wife-sentenced/. Accessed on May 22, 2019.

[v] As reported in: Today’s Parent, “Parents in Waiting: International Adoption” by Dianne Peters, August 4, 2009.

[vi] See information at: https://www.adoption.ca/copy-of-search-and-reunion

[vii] Read more at: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/born-alive-dead-in-moments-grey-zone-of-live-birth-abortions-a-deep-divide-between-mps-and-physicians. Accessed on May 22, 2019.

[viii] Norman L. Geisler and Frank S. Turek, Legislating Morality: Is It Wise? Is It Legal? Is It Possible?(Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 1998), 154.

[ix] Luke 2:2; Luke 2:16; Luke 18:15; Acts 7:19; 2 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:2.

[x] See the appropriate section in the Social Action Handbook at www.presbyterian.ca.

[xi] See the article and quote by King here: http://www.civilrightsfortheunborn.org/howcandreamsurvive.htm. Accessed on May 23, 2019.


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