A close reading of Genesis could resolve many of our biggest social issues

Abortion — right or wrong? Stem cell research on embryos — does it kill human life? The theory of evolution contradicts the Gospel — yes or no?

These three social issues take up a huge amount of time among religious people trying to act in moral ways. But it seems to me that there is a relatively easy solution to these problems for many religious people, and that is to read the book of Genesis more closely.

Here is what Genesis 2:7 says: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”

How was Eve formed? This is in Genesis 2:21-22: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs…And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

In each case, there is a two-step process. Man is formed of the elements of the earth (dust or Adam’s rib). This is step one. Then God breathes in his spirit, which is presumably what he did with Eve when he took her away. This is step two.

Human life is not a life until these two steps take place. Our story on this Earth is about saving the human family through ordinances. The people we are meant to save — the people who are part of our human story — are the people who have been born since Adam who have gone through this two-step process, being created from first earthly and then spiritual material.

So, does human life begin at conception? It is possible, but I would argue that the answer is no. If human life begins at every conception, then why don’t we give natural miscarriages a name and do temple ordinances for them? My wife and I went through several miscarriages, and in none of those cases did I feel that these young fetuses were yet people with spirits. And indeed, modern-day prophets have NOT told us they need to have ordinances done for them. We are not even told to keep track of them in any way. The only conclusion I can come to is that they are not yet human beings in the same way you and I are. Is it possible that God gives them spirits upon conception and then takes the spirits away when they die? Yes, this is possible (there is no way of knowing for sure), but then why aren’t we asked to keep track of these spirits? If a child is born and dies, we are asked to do temple ordinances for that child (if he or she was not born in the covenant). But this is not the case for a miscarriage.

I can only come to the conclusion that not every embryo contains a spirit. If this is the case, then it helps us make more informed decisions regarding some pretty thorny social issues.

–Day after birth control? Should be legal — embryo has not yet received a spirit.
–Abortion in the third trimester — should be illegal except in the case of the mother’s life being in danger. It seems to me pretty clear that a fetus that is viable and can move in the womb and is beginning to look like a human being has received a spirit. It is of course theoretically possible that this spirit is implanted in the womb at the moment of birth, but that doesn’t seem likely to me. Science is showing us that fetuses act like babies as early as the fourth or fifth month.

So, if we can settle on policy that is somewhere in between, could we resolve the abortion issue so that the majority of people — not the ones on the fringes on both sides — would be satisfied?

Personally, I would favor legal abortion during the first trimester in all cases. I would favor legal abortion during all three trimesters in the case of the mother’s life being in danger. I would favor legal abortion during the first two trimesters in cases of rape or incest. I would also favor laws that require women getting abortions to see ultrasounds of their babies. Is that a pro-choice or a pro-life position? Both? Neither? I’m not sure.

If you want to argue that abortion should only be legal for everybody during the first two months or the first four months, I might agree with either position. The point is that there is a compromise position that would satisfy the majority of people, I believe.

Stem cell research. When my wife and I were looking to have our latest baby we were considering fertility treatments. One of those (which we did not need, thankfully) included the creation of several dozen embryos. They would then be implanted until one took and the baby grew in the womb. What happens to the other embryos? Well, we did not ask, but apparently some of them are frozen or discarded. Are they human lives? I really don’t think they are. Does anybody think they all have spirits? Again, if they did have spirits, wouldn’t we have to do temple ordinances for them? We do not. So, I can only assume they are not human beings and part of our earthly story.

So, it is ethical for scientists to use these left over embryos for research to save human lives? The answer has to be yes. Is it ethical for scientists to specifically create embryos for such research? Frankly, I don’t know. Creating a potential human life specifically for research (rather than creating it to create a baby) seems a slippery slope we may not want to go down. My understanding is that there are enough left over embryos from fertility treatment to use in research today, and I also understand that adult stem cells can be used for much of the required research. So, it seems to me there is an easy solution: don’t create embryos for stem cell research but allow the use of leftover stem cells and adult stem cells. Does that sound reasonable?

Evolution. Never has so much time been spent arguing about something that has nothing to do with religion. (Full disclosure: I used to be one of those skeptical anti-evolutionists who spent his time arguing about this issue, but I have “seen the light” by carefully reading Genesis and thinking about the endowment ordinance). Evolution clearly exists in nature and is central to all discussions of biology. But evolution is only a discussion of how our human bodies (the dust or the rib) got here. It has NOTHING to do with the discussion of how our spirits got here.

So, did God form us from the dust or did he take a billion years to form us through evolution? Frankly, I don’t know and I don’t think we can possibly know given the evidence we have now. But the discussion of how our bodies were formed has nothing to do with religion, which is a discussion of the salvation of the human being imbued with a spirit after Adam and Eve. All of the stuff that happened before Adam and Eve is speculation and has nothing to do with our salvation.

So, my new position is: leave biologists alone regarding evolution. It has nothing to do with our religion. The Bible tells me so.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

21 thoughts on “A close reading of Genesis could resolve many of our biggest social issues

  1. If any child dies before the age of 8, I thought we didn’t do temple ordinances for them, except for being sealed to parents.

    Having seen my baby a lot in the first trimester, I think you’re mistaken about when they start to “act like a baby.” The concept of when life begins is something I’ve had to think a lot about because of our extra embryos from fertility treatments. I can’t imagine letting anyone experiment on them, but the reality is some of them are unusable and very expensive to maintain. But somehow I still feel attached.

    I kind of lean towards the heartbeat being a good indicator of “life.” And that starts beating really early, 5-6 weeks. I think some pro-life groups argue that we don’tn know exactly when “life” begins, but shouldn’t we err on the side of protecting it too much?

  2. You ask “If human life begins at every conception, then why don’t we give natural miscarriages a name and do temple ordinances for them?” Wouldn’t the same argument hold true for the child who dies some after birth? Or the child who dies at age seven? If ability (or need) to receive baptism and endowment are the indicators of membership in our human family, then my three year old son doesn’t qualify for another five years.

  3. Geoff – I agree with your “two-step” analogy. Conception is when the mortal tabernacle begins to take shape. It is strictly a biological process.

    The second step I call “animation”. It is at this point that I believe the spirit for which the body is intended comes down and takes possession of the fetus. If this is the case, then it is at this point that the fetus becomes a “living soul”.

    When exactly does “animation” take place? We don’t know for certain. But many women report feeling their baby moving or kicking for the first time beginning in the second trimester. The spirit, being suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar environment, wants to try it out, “kick the tires”, so to speak. So I suggest it is at this point where the spirit takes control of its intended body.

    I find the official LDS position on abortion to be sensible.

  4. I read much of what I personally believe; as far as the abortion/embryonic stem cell/life issue, it appears that you are advancing the idea that life begins at “ensoulment”. This certainly is consistent with LDS belief (“the spirit and the body being the soul of man”). So, from an LDS perspective, someone attempting to answer the question of when life begins is on pretty good ground if their answer is somehing like “when the spirit and body unite”, after all, isn’t it he case that life ends when spirit and body part? The clear problem is when we seek to apply this belief within a public policy context.

    You can’t measure when a spirit enters the body, can you? So what do we default to? Some later benchmark, a stage when society can (virtually) completely agree that life has begun (such as birth), or an earlier stage ( such as conception or a heartbeat) with a view of erring on the side of caution?

    What about applying the principle of stimulus/response? I was under the impression that a measure of life included the living thing having the ability to respond to stimulus. Clearly this would have the “compromise” effect the original poster was hoping for, while basing the measurement on a more generally accepted benchmark in our secular society than the unmeasurable ensoulment.

    I think this approach also covers the embryonic stem cell issue, and I agree with the OP approach to evolution — though I think we need to square the circle with 2 Nephi 2:22 in our acceptance of evolution (and my position is that the proponents of evolution bear the burden of proof in making that theory compatible with the scriptures, for what it’s worth).

  5. A very interesting post. I don’t think I could ever feel good about a third trimester abortion––just something about ending the life outright doesn’t sit well. I have considered instead early delivery and palliative care (if the fetus is not viable), but that approach also has some real downsides too. I do agree with you about the morning after pill though.

    Now, the real tricky one, imo, is the rape/incest exception. I agree with making those exceptions, but how could this be legislated? Do they just have to say a rape took place? Is there a legal procedure to follow? If so, wouldn’t that delay the abortion unduly (particularly as the general consensus is that the later the abortion the more morally objectionable it is)? I just can’t think of an acceptable way of putting that into law.

  6. You forgot two other great parts of the genesis story. What was the first commandment given to Adam as they left the garden of eden?
    “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”
    A few great principles from this:

    Retirement: Early retirement or late retirement? Genesis tells us to work all the days of our lives (naturally that work will change in substance and quantity over time, but we should always be engaged in work). Most emphatically, it says nothing about taking a 5, 10, 20+ year vacation at the “end” of our life.

    Work & Unemployment: We should have to work to provide for ourselves. And we’re definitely not “entitled” to the fruit of another person’s labor. This says nothing about helping those who can’t help themselves, as in the case of Adam, it was clear it was a fit person capable of work. Personally, I think families, churches, communities, and governments should have work together in some form of safety net, but nothing resembling the entitlements as they are now.

    Ironic that the more off track our society seems to become, we can look back and see how far we’ve strayed (as a society) from these principles. I think these are foundational elements of a society, whether you few Adam as the true first man on the earth, or as a foundational story that applies to the state of humankind.

  7. Jared, huzzah indeed! Glad we agree.

    A clarification: I should have been more careful in discussing the temple ordinances issue. The only temple ordinance performed for infants not born in the covenant is sealing to their parents. Children up to the age of 8 are considered saved and do not need other ordinances performed. So, with regards to a miscarriage, my argument still applies, ie, a miscarriage is not kept track of, and the single temple ordinance of sealing to its parents does not take place.

    Great comments all. I’m glad to see people looking at this issue. Regarding abortion, I think there are many compromises that would be acceptable to most people. For most people today, the upsetting issues regarding abortion are: 1)late-term abortions and 2)abortions on demand by irresponsible people who treat it like birth control. If the only late-term abortions allowed were when a baby was literally going to kill its mother if it were to be born, we could see ways of allowing those abortions. Personally I don’t think it’s realistic to think we can stop people being irresponsible about sexual issues, but perhaps we could prevent some abortions (and encourage adoption) if we required potential mothers to see their babies as growing human life, which could partially be accomplished by making sure they see ultrasounds of the moving fetuses.

  8. This is a very thoughtful post. I agree with a lot of what you have said. I wanted to comment that in cases where it is necessary to end a pregnancy for medical reasons (mother’s life is endangered) I can’t think of any scenario in the third trimester where it would be necessary to kill the fetus to protect the mother. Preterm infants down to 24 weeks can usually survive with appropriate care; sometimes even 22 or 23 week infants can survive. The third trimester starts after 26 weeks. Infants born at 26 weeks generally grow into healthy children if they did not have any other defects to start with.

    I would love to see more restrictive abortion laws, but I would not be too bothered by abortion on demand if it were restricted to the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, for some of the reasons you have outlines.

  9. Great thoughts, Geoff. I don’t really disagree with any of it. My one concern is the effect of receiving an abortion on the physical and emotional health of the woman involved, but I don’t claim any particular insight into this risk or its reality. Okay one other concern has to do with using a religious text to inform the public policy of a pan- or areligious sovereign state.

    The “ensoulment” Tom O. mentioned has also been called the “quickening,” the moment at which the spirit quickens (=gives life to) the body. Historically this is defined as having occurred by the time the mother first senses motion inside her womb. To my mind, an embryo is the construction phase of the body and the fetus is the initialization phase. I’m not cavalier about abortion, but I agree that wherever the line is drawn, “morning after” treatments would generally be on one side and third-trimester abortions generally on the other.

  10. Geoff, glad to find an issue where I am to the right of you. I agree with respect to evolution, and morning after pill (or IUDs for that matter). I agree with you regarding stem cell research except where human embryos are created with the purpose of being used (i.e., are not produced ancillary to fertility treatment). As a legal matter, I would also limit abortion to health or life of mother, or where the pregnancy results from incest or rape, or in cases of severe birth defects. My own opinion is that society has an interest in protecting developing life within the womb, and that is where I think the lines should be drawn. I also think that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and that decisions regarding protection of developing life during pregnancy can and should be decided through the democratic process. (My guess is that the democratic process would probably result in a standard more like yours than mine.)

  11. DavidH, I would cheer if Roe v Wade were overturned. The issue of abortion would be handed back to the states, and more liberal states would have abortion laws similar to today’s, and more conservative states would have various levels of abortion restrictions. The problem I have with your position, “As a legal matter, I would also limit abortion to health or life of mother, or where the pregnancy results from incest or rape, or in cases of severe birth defects,” is “where do you draw the line?” So, you would allow morning-after pills but if a woman finds out she is pregnant six weeks into a pregnancy, you’re goint to force her to have the baby? Granted, she can keep it to term and give it up for adoption, but I don’t know how you logically would allow an abortion a few days after conception but not allow it six weeks after conception. Logically, the concept of “quickening,” which clearly happens in the second or third month, makes a more clear line of demarcation. In addition, you would have real problems keeping abortion illegal for women who want to have abortion at six weeks. An entire industry would pop up again, just as we had in the 1960s.

    I think we are more in agreement than disagreement, however.

  12. The idea of quickening is interesting – it sounds like you’re defining it as when the mother can feel the baby moving. Before I could feel my baby moving, I could very clearly see her moving all around in the ultrasound. Because of fertility treatments and some high risk factors, I got to see her early and often. She was kicking her legs at 8 weeks, and dancing all around by 12 weeks. Most women don’t feel the baby move until around 20 weeks, but the baby is moving long before that.

    I’ve ever understood how we can say that something with a heartbeat isn’t really alive. I don’t know if life begins at conception but just 3-4 weeks later you can clearly see a heartbeat. That’s about 5-6 weeks pregnant, and around the time most women realize they are pregnant.

  13. I agree with JEE ( nicely said).

    Development of the First trimeter

    By the end of the first 4 weeks:
    the neural tube (which becomes the brain and spinal cord), the digestive system, and the heart and circulatory system begin to form
    the beginnings of the eyes and ears are developing
    tiny limb buds appear (which will develop into arms and legs)
    the heart is beating.

    By the end of 8 weeks:
    all major body systems continue to develop and function, including the circulatory, nervous, digestive, and urinary systems
    the embryo is taking on a human shape, although the head is larger in proportion to the rest of the body
    the mouth is developing tooth buds (which will become baby teeth)
    the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears are becoming more distinct
    the arms and legs are clearly visible
    the fingers and toes are still webbed but can be clearly distinguished
    the main organs continue to develop and you can hear the baby’s heartbeat using an instrument called a Doppler
    the bones begin to develop and the nose and jaws are rapidly developing

    After 8 weeks, the embryo is now referred to as a fetus (which means offspring or developing human from 8 weeks to birth).
    Although the fetus is only 1 to 1 1/2 inches long at this point, ALL MAJOR ORGANS AND SYSTEMS HAVE BEEN FORMED.

    During weeks 9-12:
    the external genital organs are developed
    fingernails and toenails appear
    eyelids are formed
    fetal movement increases
    the arms and legs are fully formed
    the voice box (larynx) begins to form in the trachea

  14. Who exactly are we to decide when the quickening occurs? Doesn’t it really come down to that question? I’m ok with “playing God” when it comes to the creation of life, but not ok with it when it comes to the destruction of it.

  15. D. Sirmize, I think you make a good point. Even discussing this issue makes me squeamish, because who am I to claim I know when spirits enter an embryo or fetus? And the reality is nobody except the Father knows.

    Nevertheless, we are still left with the reality that secular laws must be based on something. Ideally, they should be based on morality (which is why the 10 commandments is in the Supreme Court building). So, if we want to have morally-based secular laws we must come up with some reasoning for them. Most people feel that morning-after pills are OK. Why is this? Because most people feel intuitively that a recently conceived embryo is not a person. This is the same reason most people are OK with having multiple embryos created for fertility treatments. At the other end of the spectrum, most people feel late-term abortions are horrible.

    This post is simply an attempt to take a stab at trying to bring some sense (and Gospel principles) to these issues. I am completely OK with people saying that life begins at conception and then wanting to base laws on that belief. That is not what I believe, however.

  16. Nevertheless, we are still left with the reality that secular laws must be based on something. Ideally, they should be based on morality (which is why the 10 commandments is in the Supreme Court building). So, if we want to have morally-based secular laws we must come up with some reasoning for them.

    Good point.

    Most people feel that morning-after pills are OK. Why is this? Because most people feel intuitively that a recently conceived embryo is not a person.

    I agree with the scientific aspect of this argument, but I personally would discourage the use of the morning-after pill. Again, it’s because once I, ahem, “create,” I think the ball is out of my court.

    Not that there aren’t some obvious legitimate uses for the pill, but I’d bet a solid 90% of its use is for “oops” reasons. Hey, here’s a novel concept: don’t put yourself in an “oops” scenario. I know, crazy, huh?

  17. Here is some interesting 19th century speculation:

    According to Wilford Woodruff’s journal (15 October 1867) Brigham Young said: “When some people have little children born of 6 & 7 months pregnancy & they live but a few hours then die they bless them &c. but I dont do it for I think that such a spirit has not a fair chance for I think that such a spirit will have a chance of occupying another Tabernace and developing itself.”

  18. D. Sirmize said, ” Not that there aren’t some obvious legitimate uses for the pill, but I’d bet a solid 90% of its use is for “oops” reasons. Hey, here’s a novel concept: don’t put yourself in an “oops” scenario. I know, crazy, huh?”

    Exactly. Most of the other scenarios such as health of the mother are rare and of course should be taken into consideration, but most cases are just lapses in judgement and then consequences naturally follow.

    I think BY was stating his opinion. I do not believe in reincarnation, so his speculation does not work for me. If not even a hair of the head will be lost; then these perfect, tiny children will be restored.

    “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. (Alma 40:23)”.

    Joseph Fielding Smith said, “There is no information given by revelation in regard to the status of stillborn children. However, I will express my personal opinion that we should have hope that these little ones will receive a resurrection and then belong to us.”

    I have that same hope.

  19. The connection to reincarnation hadn’t occurred to me.

    What Brigham’s speculation on infant death does for me is raise the question of there being a time lapse between when the spirit first comes in contact with its physical body and the time it is permanently assigned to that body.

    I hope that a spirit child who faces an abortion has an option to become detached from his or her physical body and get reassigned to a family arrangement more conducive to a favorable upbringing.

    On the other hand, I accept on much firmer grounds that there will be many cases whereby righteous parents will be granted the privilege of raising children who experienced death pre-maturely at a later date.

  20. I agree Keller. I think ( do not know) that the spirit during the physical body’s gestational development is not securely tethered, but is coming and going between the womb, earth, and the preexistence. Perhaps some spirits are not required to have earthly experience, but still need a physical body.

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