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King: Mystery of life not answered by laws

POSTED: March 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.

It appears that some Georgia legislators want to tell us when life begins.

In the past, the law said life began with the first breath. At one time the church said it began at "quickening," the time when movement was first felt in the womb. Later, the church said it was conception, but they weren’t sure exactly when that was: when sperm met egg, or when the embryo reached the womb, attached and began to grow.

We live in a diverse society, and our people hold many different beliefs, but the law must be consistent, applying equally to all individuals. If the legislature is going to enter the debate about when life begins, I have some thoughts of my own.

Is there life after death? Yes or no, please. I am asking for a gut-level response, not a theological treatise. Do you believe the "soul" survives after the body is gone? Most of us do believe this even if we have different ideas about what that exactly means.

Next question: Is there life before birth? Again, yes or no. Most of us don’t believe in reincarnation, but the idea that the soul pre-exists the body is equally logical, and the belief is common to many cultures around the world. Hindus believe the soul travels from existence to existence, from one life to another. Buddhists believe in an eternal, undifferentiated stream of being that gives birth to all life.

Judaism, even Christianity, has at some point accepted a degree of spiritual transmigration. So if you believe the soul is immortal, that it survives death, it is equally possible to believe that it exists before birth. If an individual soul is created at the point of conception, it has to be created by something and out of something.

Traditional Christianity believes in a God that creates out of nothing, but this is no answer. It is a religious belief and has no place in a court of law. Nevertheless, there are things we do know about life that may shed some light on the idea of a human soul.

In nature, nothing is gained or destroyed. It only changes form. The acorn sprouts, grows into a tree, produces leaves and more acorns, which fall to the ground and start the process all over again. Rain falls to ground, soaks into the soil, fills the streams and rivers, which run to the sea. Water evaporates, rises to the heavens to form clouds, which bring forth rain once more.

The creatures of the Earth do the same. Man and women are born, grow, mate and reproduce. The genes they inherit from their parents are passed through them and on to their offspring.

But today, we know more than the obvious. We know that genes are discreet bits of matter that are passed from generation to generation with little or no change in the matter itself.

Genes are a code, an instruction book, that tell the molecules that make up the body how to grow, and every bit of that growing body existed before conception. Your genes came from your parents, your parents’ parents and their parents before them. The carbon, the hydrogen, the iron and other elements in your body are as old as the Earth itself. Is it so strange to believe that the soul is equally enduring?

And what of life after death? No one dies without leaving some mark. The people we have loved or who have loved us, the deeds we have done, the mistakes we’ve made, all leave their mark.

History forms the world into which we are born. We then make choices and form the future. We, the living, do this, and what we do lives on after we are gone.

It is not unreasonable to call the life force we inherit from the past and pass on to the future a soul. This life doesn’t begin at birth. It’s as old as creation. Life isn’t confined to the individual. It is shared by all sentient creatures.

We honor life by honoring creation itself, and — most important for a divided nation — we can do this without evoking or denying anybody’s God or any particular religion.

If the legislature wants to honor life, it can do so by enacting laws that protect the environment and laws that uphold human dignity and individual freedom, not by imposing arbitrary boundaries on life and the human soul.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville


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