Breathing Clarity into the Abortion Debate: A Response to Peter Buttigieg

/ Commentary

Someone once said “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Unfortunately, in the world of social media, this has become more true than anyone ever imagined.

As the abortion debate heats up in preparation for the 2020 Presidential Election, former candidate Peter Buttigieg made comments during a podcast interview which highlight this phenomenon:

“[Pro-life people] hold everybody in line with this one piece of doctrine about abortion, which is obviously a tough issue for a lot of people to think through morally. Then again, there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath. Even that is something that we can interpret differently. . . . No matter what you think about the cosmic question of how life begins, most Americans can get on board with the idea of, ‘I might draw the line here. You might draw the line there.’ The most important thing is the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision.”

Buttigieg has famously defended other progressive policy ideas by appealing to the Bible to criticize Republican Christians by alleging they are hypocrites for opposing the social welfare policies of the American Left. He has now defended abortion in a similar vein.

Buttigieg’s comments are hardly new. Roy Bowen Ward once made this sort of argument in a piece entitled “Is the Fetus a Person?” Highlighting the passage of Genesis 2:7, Ward (and by extension, Buttigieg) argues since God “breathed” life into Adam’s nostrils, the preborn are not “alive” yet until they take their first breath. Unfortunately for Mayor Buttigieg, this is the only verse related to life beginning at “first breath.”

This is a popular but incredibly sloppy interpretation of the passage. To more adequately understand the verse, we cannot pull it out of its context. As Greg Koukl puts it, we should “never read a Bible verse.” We need to read a passage or more to get the context of the verse. Bible verses were not even a part of the original Biblical text; they were added in the 16th century to make Bible study easier — not so we could pick and choose and read them out of context today.

Reading through Genesis 2, we see this is a part of the overall Creation narrative. It is not referring to life before birth in any way. The verse is referring to how God created the first people. And as Scott Klusendorf points out, if Buttigieg was meaning that whenever God creates a new human being out of the dust of the ground, then we can agree, life only begins when God has literally made that new human being alive. That is a far cry from pregnancy, though.

Christian apologist Tim Barnett highlights the absurdity of using this verse to determine whether or not the preborn are alive:

“...the Bible does not say life begins at “first breath”...It says Adam came to life at first breath (Gen. 2:7). Of course, this is a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive statement. The author of Genesis is not telling us when all human beings come to life. The Bible doesn’t teach that every man comes to life at first breath any more than it teaches that every woman comes from the rib of a man (Gen. 2:21–22).”

Furthermore, the Bible does refer to the preborn as living before birth. A favorite passage during the Christmas season, Luke 1:39-45, describes the following exchange between Mary and Elizabeth:

“39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

So according to Buttigieg’s reasoning, preborn children may not be alive yet, but they are capable of leaping for joy. Amazing!

Other problems arise from Buttigieg’s arguments. As Scott Klusendorf points out, they ultimately prove too much. Newborns may not breathe through their nostrils until several minutes after birth. Is infanticide now permissible?

The reason newborns do not breathe until several moments after birth is not because they have not had the breath of God breathed into their nostrils (because He doesn’t have to breath into them). The umbilical cord and placenta provide the process for respiration until the baby’s lungs are fully developed at 35-36 weeks gestation. As Scott Klusendorf also points out, you can think of this as you would switching from AC to DC electricity. There is still a flow of electricity, just the means of receiving power have changed. Same thing goes for children in the womb.

Buttigieg’s waxing eloquent on “cosmic questions of when life begins” is also false. The question has been settled for decades. Multiple embryology texts and the relevant scientific literature points to when the life of a new human entity begins. Here are just three quotes:

“Human development begins at fertilization, when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell (capable of giving rise to any cell type) marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”
Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2016. p. 11
“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization… is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.”
Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Miller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001. p. 8.
“All of us were once human embryos, so the study of human embryology is the study of our own prenatal origins and experiences.” (p. 2) “Fertilization, the uniting of egg and sperm, takes place in the oviduct. After the oocyte finishes meiosis, the paternal and maternal chromosomes come together, resulting in the formation of a zygote containing a single diploid nucleus. Embryonic development is considered to begin at this point.” (p.14)
Schoenwolf, G. C. Larsen’s Human Embryology, 5th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, Saunders, 2015. p. 2, 14.

The question of when a new human life begins is not complicated as Buttigieg lazily claims. The relevant scientific literature gives us a fairly clear answer. (For more on the topic, see Dr. Maureen Condic’s Human Embryos, Human Beings)

The pro-life argument is that it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Elective abortion does that. Therefore, elective abortion is wrong. Pro-life Christians do not need to rely on Scripture to make that essential argument; they rely upon the science of embryology. By changing the subject to Biblical interpretation (and very bad interpretation, at that) Buttigieg is attacking a strawman.

When Peter Buttigieg speaks about how Conservative Christians who oppose the policy ideals of the Left are being hypocritical for not “loving their neighbors,” then turns around and says the preborn can be killed with impunity, he is engaging in a far worse form of hypocrisy. If the preborn are human beings (with little room for doubting that they are), then we have an obligation to stop the killing of them.

By defending abortion, Mayor Buttigieg has arbitrarily redefined who our neighbors truly are to favor his own social justice agenda, only allowing it to include the born people who are just like him. In doing so, he has made himself more like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan; indeed, worse than them, marching past the fallen victim to his next speech lecturing Christians on how they do not care about their neighbors.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

Nathan Apodaca

Nathan Apodaca

Nathan is a staff apologist for the Life Training Institute, equipping pro-life advocates to make the case for life. Also a contributing writer at The Millenial Review and CampusReform

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