Does Life Begin with the First Breath?

Does the Bible teach that life begins with a person’s first breath?

by Avery Foley on September 27, 2022
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You may have heard a supposedly biblical pro-abortion argument:

An unborn baby isn’t alive because the Bible says life begins at first breath.

Those who read, believe, and care deeply about rightly applying the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15) have long argued that the Bible teaches life begins at the moment of fertilization. Verses like those below clearly give humanity and personhood to unborn children.

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:13–16)

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:41–44)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22–25)

So if the Bible’s testimony is that life begins at fertilization, how can some people argue that the Bible explicitly teaches life doesn’t begin until after birth, when the baby takes his or her first breath of air?

The Breath of Life

This idea comes from Genesis chapter 2 with the creation of Adam.

Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7)

Is it that first gulp of air after delivery that transforms an unborn baby into a person?

Adam was clearly not alive until God breathed into him. It was at that moment that he turned from being a lump of dust, fashioned into a human form, into a living, breathing human being, made in God’s very image. So, is it that first gulp of air after delivery that transforms an unborn baby into a person?

Genesis 2:7—Descriptive of All Life?

To answer that question, we must consider: Is Genesis 2:7 describing to us how all human lives begin or just how Adam’s life began? It should be obvious that this passage is only describing how Adam’s life came to be. After all, Genesis 4 tells us how the next human (excepting Eve—more on her in a moment) came to be.

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain. (Genesis 4:1)

And the following generation is described as coming about using the same euphemism.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. (Genesis 4:17)

Clearly Genesis 2:7 is not describing normal human development; it’s concerned with the special, one-of-a-kind creation of the first man, Adam.

Also consider the creation of the first woman, Eve.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21–22)

We’re not told whether Eve had the breath of life breathed into her. We’re simply told that God fashioned her and then brought her to Adam. Her life didn’t necessarily begin with God breathing into her or her taking her first breath of Eden’s pure air. So, to be consistent with the above argument, we must say only a male child’s life definitely begins at “first breath.” But, of course, that is nonsense because Eve’s creation is, like Adam’s, not descriptive of how all other women have been created—rather the Bible is chronicling the unique, never-to-be-repeated creation of the very first woman.

To take a passage about the special creation of Adam and apply it to all humans is to rip the verse out of context and ignore the completely unique circumstances surrounding his creation.

Inconsistent Interpretation

As is characteristic of those who pull Scripture verses out of context, those who posit the “life at first breath” argument don’t apply their thinking consistently throughout the passage. If the creation of Adam is describing how all people come to be, then those who believe that must also say that you must first be formed from the dust of the ground and then God must personally breathe into your nostrils. But, of course they don’t believe that. Why? Because it’s inconvenient to the point they want to make!

Those who posit the “life at first breath” argument don’t apply their thinking consistently throughout the passage.

Such people are inconsistent because they aren’t attempting to accurately read and interpret God’s Word; they are trying to force the Bible to support a view they’ve already come to.

Babies Breathe in the Womb

Furthermore, this argument is fallacious because babies breathe in the womb: they just don’t yet breathe the same way they will outside the womb. Babies are taking in oxygen and exchanging carbon dioxide through their mom’s blood via the umbilical cord and placenta. This is the same thing taking place in your lungs every time you inhale and then exhale.

Babies’ lungs are also at work, taking amniotic fluid in and out for months before delivery. This “inhaling and exhaling” allows them to practice the motions, strengthening their tiny lungs before the big day.

We Aren’t Lumps of Dirt

Before God breathed into him, Adam was a lump of dirt, formed into the shape of a man and yet not a man because he lacked life (or a soul). He wasn’t lying on the ground, wiggling, smiling, sucking on his fists, or playing with his toes. He was inanimate because God, the Giver of life, hadn’t yet given his creation life.

Contrast that with an unborn baby. In the womb, babies respond to light and sound (particularly the sound of their mom’s voice), are learning the rudiments of language, suck their thumbs and fists, play with their toes and even the umbilical cord, and kick, stretch, and roll. Surgeries can now be done in utero to save the lives of unborn babies, and babies born too prematurely to breathe on their own can survive with medical interventions.

God gave Adam life when he breathed into him; he gives each person after (excepting Eve) life at the moment of fertilization when he begins knitting them fearfully and wonderfully together.

Clearly an unborn baby and the formed-but-not-yet-alive body of Adam are in no way analogous (nor were they intended to be!). God gave Adam life when he breathed into him; he gives each person after (excepting Eve) life at the moment of fertilization when he begins knitting them fearfully and wonderfully together.

Twisting Scripture

Those who cavalierly (usually in meme form) claim the Bible says life begins at first breath are twisting the Scriptures to support an agenda. Such people do not genuinely love God’s Word, seeking to please and honor God in their interpretation and application of it. Rather, such people have already rejected God and his Word as the authority and are looking for a quick “proof text” to justify their own sinful beliefs and actions (and to convince believers to get on their side). But Genesis 2:7 does not teach what they want it to teach because Scripture is utterly consistent from Genesis to Revelation, and it always treats the unborn as fully alive and human because . . . they are.

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