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When Does a Child Becomes a Person?

Few matters of moral significance are as culturally explosive as the care of unborn children. It is difficult to enter the public conversation in ways that do not inflame passions or invite accusations.

But the introduction of fetal homicide bills around the country invites public discourse, as do the words of English poet John Milton: “Give me the liberty to know, to write, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Let me, then, begin with my own experience.

I remember the call 30 years ago to tell my mother she would soon be a grandmother. It was wonderful news to us and also to her. I am glad to report she received such announcements a dozen more times—although not all from me: I have two sisters and a brother who made some of those calls.

The love and attention we showered upon our children prior to their birth and the inherent value we placed on these children has not been inconsistent with this simple fact: a child is not considered a person in the legal definition of the term until birth.

Proposals to change this will confront us with serious legal, political and theological questions.
Such as: can expecting parents be held criminally liable if they expose the unborn child to danger, disease, or drugs (including tobacco and alcohol)?

Will children who suffer mental, physical or even emotional damage prior to birth have the right to file for damages in civil court?

Will the state (through social workers and prosecutors) be empowered to monitor the conditions of the unborn child? Will failure to provide pre-natal health care be grounds for legal action against parents (much like the failure to provide children an education when they reach school age)?

Will court-appointed attorneys represent the interests of the unborn?  Do we want state authorities monitoring the pre-natal relationship between parents and child?

If the unborn child is a person before the court, does the child need a Social Security number or a name? Should the state keep a record of all unborn children? Will doctors be required to notify the state of both pregnancies and miscarriages?

Will parents be allowed to claim a tax deduction or child credit for unborn children?

Will unborn children be added to homeowner, automobile and life insurance policies? Will insurance premiums rise?  Could parents make a claim if the child is lost during pregnancy?

Will children who die prior to birth be given funerals? Will death certificates be required? Will the state develop guidelines for proper burial? How will this expand the authority of the coroner?

These legal questions raise even more serious political questions.

If the unborn child has legal rights does she also have political rights?

Such as: should our unborn children be counted in the national census? Should they be included in the formula by which federal dollars are distributed? Should they have representation in Congress and the Legislature?

What about citizenship: should it be determined by country of conception rather than country of birth? If yes, how would that impact immigration and tourism policy?

This brings us to the theological questions.

If the unborn child is a person before the court is she also a moral agent before God? Is the child stained with Original Sin from conception? Is an unborn child in need of baptism, christening, or dedication? Does the spiritual effect of communion (however we express this in our various churches) touch the soul of the baby?

Do unborn children from conception to birth have the hope of everlasting life? Do they therefore constitute a large population of “those who have never heard of Jesus”?

These legal, political and theological questions are troubling and portend turbulent times ahead.

We love the stories of Jesus—especially of his conception and birth—and believe they teach us to treasure our children as gifts of God. But these convictions should not prevent us from considering the urgent questions that will occupy the legal, political and moral landscape for years to come.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.