Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life Begins At...?

I'm not a big abortion blogger. It seems most people view abortion in terms of black and white. It's either akin to slaughtering babies, or it's a key aspect of woman's rights. And since the arguments seem to devolve into these simplistic terms rather quickly (even more so than in most political arguments), I remain confused.

One important question in this debate is when life begins. Pro-lifers have a very simple answer: at conception. Pro-choicers have a bevy of objections to this. Some are pragmatic (""If a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you can only save a petri dish with five blastulae or a two-year old child, which do you save if all are equally persons?"). Others are theoretical--it is fair to argue that even if life begins biologically at conception, one does not have moral personhood until some later part of development (incidentally, the Catholic Church used to abide by this through the doctrine of "ensoulment", which did not happen "at conception" but (I believe) two months into pregnancy. But I digress). Peter Singer essentially believes this--he says that a fertilized egg is unquestionably alive, and unquestionably part of homo sapiens, so its a bit peculiar to say its not a "living human." He continues to argue that something else besides being biologically alive is required before one has complete human rights. Unfortunately, Professor Singer also defends infanticide, a position most pro-choice people would rather disassociate themselves from. On the flip side, some people say that it is illogical to assert even "biological life" begins at conception. PZ Myers takes this view, arguing that the privileging of fertilization over other stages of fetal (and human) development is completely arbitrary.

Thus, I'll group the objections to the "life begins at conception" (LBAC) claim in the following categories: it's (a) practically untenable, (b) based on falsely replacing moral personhood with biological personhood, and/or (c) biologically arbitrary.

All fair objections, and I find them compelling. But we still need to answer the question: when does life begin--if for no other reason than we think killing "people" is generally bad, so we need to establish who "people" are so we can avoid killing them. If one believes that "In a free society a woman would be able to terminate with absolute ease an unwanted pregnancy for any reason that strikes her fancy" (and I realize that not all self-identified "pro-choice" people sign on to that statement), then one needs to create a definition of life that precludes a fetus at any stage from being included. Because if a fetus is a full human (or at least as fully human as an infant) at any point in its development, then abortion "for any reason" becomes morally untenable. So I give an open question to pro-choice bloggers out there: when does life begin?

The answer should avoid the objections that are lodged against LBAC if it's going to be valid. One can object to LBAC on any or all of these grounds, but to be even-handed one kind of has to make sure one's own definition doesn't fall into the same trap. If the only objection is practicality, then why wouldn't "life begins at viability" be a valid response (which would sanction many abortions)? That seems practical in most cases, and while there are cases where it runs into trouble (life of the mother, for example), that problem also manifests itself in certain cases with post-natal children (a child with a severe medical deficiency born to a family with no health insurance bankrupting them). If the objection is based on "moral personhood", then when does one receive moral personhood--and will that definition also sanction killing newborns and/or the severely disabled (or even the elderly)? If the objection is based on biological arbitrariness, then explain why your standard is less biologically arbitrary than conception.

Again, I'm not taking a position as to any of these. As I pointed out, LBAC has serious flaws that I think preclude it from being a sensible standard for the abortion debate. But I do think it is valuable to explicate when full human life begins if not at conception. So have at it, pro-choicers--my comment boards (and/or trackbacks, if that's what you prefer) are yours.

UPDATE: A brief clarification, because I think I'm being misunderstood. Several people have said that the important question is not when life begins, but when we begin to protect life. In other words, the claim that moral personhood, not biological personhood, is the kicker question. That's lovely--I'd be inclined to agree with it myself. But that just shifts the question back a notch--when does moral personhood begin? If that's the position you take, then that's the question you have to answer, in lieu of "when does life begin," because I suspect the pro-lifers would argue that moral personhood is endowed at the same moment biological personhood is--I.E., at conception.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

The question is a red herring. Arguing about when life begins is like arguing how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. Inasmuch as somewhere between 25-35% of all conceptions spontaneously abort then those people who believe in god must acknowledge he is really screwing up. The real issue is when does a fetus become a legal person, entitled to civil protection from the state. The simple answer may be "when a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb." On the other hand, since medical technology is expanding the range of early preemie survival, this may be too much of a moving target for some people. Does the state have an interest in protecting the lives of 6, 7, 8 month old fetuses? Probably. Are there circumstances when saving the life of a mother requires the abortion of even a late term fetus? Probably. Why can't we just leave these questions to mothers and their doctors for resolution?

pacatrue said...

I somewhat agree with old Anonymous who already posted. I am not sure there is a point when life begins. It may be more of a how many grains does it take to make a pile question. I also generally agree with him or her that even if we knew the answer, assuming there is one, then that answers the question of abortion. After all, it is the fact that the fetus/baby is part of another human being that makes it so tricky. I know you may view this as a cop-out to your question, but at the same time, I am not sure there is an answer. I don't know.

Mike said...

I think you raise some very good issues. However, I don't think it's in the pro-choice movement's interest to offer concrete alternatives to these issues, which is why they don't. Not so dissimilar to the Intelligent Design strategy of trying to identify faults with evolutionary theory rather than offering another theory that better fits the observations.

Not that I think pro-lifers have the better philosophical argument. I think it's that the pro-choice folks are stuck because they *really* want to claim that "life begins at birth", but that's a pretty untenable claim. However, to admit anything earlier is a strategic error.

Of course, the main problem is the whole "fallacy of the beard" issue. Any decision will be essentially arbitrary because human development is a continuous process.

Doug said...

I'm not pro-choice, so I'm not going to participate.

It's interesting to me to see how pro-choice people choose to address the question. Even more interesting to see the tremendous implications some of the reasoning seems to strongly imply, yet I suspect those stating it would not support. (And I don't mean "interesting" as in "fodder for snarky commentary." I mean truly interesting, and likely significant in a meaningful way.)

Anonymous said...

"Life" doesn't begin and doesn't end. Life grows, expresses, and proliferates in an endless cycle of individuals, "Darwin's Garden." Are sperms and eggs lifeless?

Now sure, individuals begin and individuals end, genetically and consciously.

Genetically, individuation begins at conception, no question. But most people think that an individual is not worthy of full rights unless there is enough of a functioning brain to imply consciousness.

Human consciousness and awareness is the precious thing, and this is not possible without a critical mass of neurons correctly arranged.

I suggest that when "life" begins is a silly question, but when an individual consciousness, or just individual, arises is more appropriate and more relevent to the abrotion question. When is the fetus a separate individual consciousness?

This is a tough question, one I am not qualified to answer. HOWEVER, I can say assuredly, that until at least two connected neurons in a fetus are formed and firing, there is absolutely NO POSSIBLITY OF AN INDIVIDUAL. This is the line that I think no reasonable person can question. If you can believe in "sperm and egg theory" you have to believe that neurons and brains are essential to consciousness.

This is why I do not think that there are ANY moral implications to any kind of morning after pill, contraceptive or abortive. Likewise for stem cells.

This is just one line in the sand.

Jeff Fecke said...

The answer is simple. Human life in the meaningful sense ends with the cessation of organized higher brain function. Ergo, human life beigins with the onset of organized higher brain function.

When does that happen? About the start of the third trimester. Before that, the brain is still developing and function is choppy and disorganized.

Before the fetus gains the ability to think, it's not human in the colloquial sense; it may be on its way to becoming human, but it isn't yet. Destroying it may not be completely morally neutral, but it isn't murder either, any more than removing Teri Schiavo from life support was murder.

After the child begins to think, things are different. I still tend to think that third trimester abortions should be legal for life-and-health reasons, especially since the vast, vast, vast majority of third trimester abortions are performed for those reasons. And those are questions that are indeed best left to a woman and her doctors.

(It is a red herring, of course; there are precious few third-tri abortions where a woman decides, apropos of nothing, that she doesn't want to be pregnant anymore. At that point, she's pretty much figured it out. Not for nothing, but I also know that depending on the health issue, a whole bunch of women would choose to continue the pregnancy to term and risk whatever. That's why it's pro-choice.)

david78209 said...

I like the idea I read on some blog recently: a fetus becomes a person worthy of legal rights and protections when the lady carrying it decides it has become a person.

dadahead said...

The question is irrelevant. Grant the fetus full personhood; it still doesn't follow that a woman is required to carry it in her womb for nine months.

Anonymous said...

The question is a false something or another, I forget which. Life began long ago, and we inherit it from our parents. The ova are living, the sperm are living, there is no "beginning" of life here. What there is, later, is the miracle of live birth, which any number of parents of stillborne can remind you of, because they know the pain of that miracle not occuring.

Before that happens, it's a possibility of a live baby, however much you may want it to become one.

Old doctrine (from the Greeks?) was that humans had three souls, vegative, animal, and rational, installed at conception, quickening, and live birth, respectively.

Doctor Gonzo said...

I'm pro-life, and I also don't think that the "When does life begin" question is the right one. When an egg is fertilized by a sperm, is it a person? No, it's a cell that can start a pregnancy. When it is implanted in the uterus, that's the begining of a pregnancy. Sure, it's alive, but it's still not a person.

So when does moral personhood begin? Once the fetus is not biologically dependent on the mother for survival, i.e. viability. Only at that time, when the fetus is not a parasite (in the biological sense, not the moral sense) of the mother's body, is it morally a separate entity.

Yes, I know that this explanation certainly isn't as short or simple as LBAC. I wish there were a simpler way to explain it.

Anonymous said...

I am mother to the world's most perfect 11 month old son, fiscally conservative, socially liberal and strongly pro-choice. With that said, for me the answer to your questions is simply "I don't care."

For me, the question of reproductive freedom turns not upon when life begins, but whether women should be free to control their lives, bodies and destinys.

I agree that the concept of life beginning at conception is patently untenable. I also know tht my son was very much alive to me when I first felt him move at 18 weeks. I chose to get pregnant and chose to bring him to term. For me that was easy because I have a wonderful husband who is a true father in every sense of the word. However, I would never dream of telling another woman what she should do in her own situation. The scenarios for pregnancy are sometimes troubling and violent - and those who would limit a woman's ability to come to terms with her pregnancy in her own time and in her own way are utterly contemptible to me.

The bottom line is that pregnancy is a unique, and uniquely female condition. It requires unique and personal decisions from beginning to end and should be left to the one person who must live with the consequences.

For me, life begins with the mothers.

Anonymous said...

Here's a more important question.

You are in a fertility clinic, it's on fire. A terrible fire, it's burning all around you. You need to get out now.

On one side of the room is a 2 year old girl, she's crying, she's terrified. She needs your help.

On the other side of the room is a petri dish with 5 fertilized embryos in it.

You have time to run to one side of the room and then get out. You have time to save either the little girl or the embryos.

Which do you choose?

The pro-lifer will run for the embryos.

The pro-choicer will help the little girl.

Is my question any less valid than yours? Ask yourself that question.

Ryan said...

It's interesting that I came across this topic today. Just yesterday, I was posting on another blog that I believe the pro-lifers who claim "life begins at viability" or some other argument along that line is arbitrary are being just as arbitrary by saying life begins at conception. Life is a continuous transitional process. There is no single moment when life "begins".

I find the arguments of viability and higher brain function offered here to be very interesting ones and I think ones that hold more legitimacy than conception.

In the end, though, at this point in time, I'd say this is an issue that should be decided between the woman and her doctor. In the case of minors, include her parents as I believe you should for any medical procedure. Leave legislators and courts out of this personal medical decision, though.

jack said...

I'm pro-life and pro-choice. Here is my analysis, which I've never heard made by any bioethicist but I think is sound.

I think the moral value of a fetus is its potential to become a human being- a son or a daughter, a wife or a husband, a doctor, a teacher, a writer, a being capable of love, trust and understanding. That potential, however, isn't enough for us to assign the fetus with rights in the absolute sense. Since they aren't yet any of those things I mentioned above the idea of assigning them a laundry list of rights they are incapable of exercising is essentially absurd. (And if we assigned rights to potentials in such a manner we'd very likely have to require that women let themselves be raped)

(David, for another way of thinking about the argument, recall our highly problematic (but perhaps salvagable) foundationalist approach to proving the life has meaning and moral rules. The justification we gave for a liberal ethic was that in a state of complete ignorance about anything outside of our own minds an individual would choose to value others whom the individual could identify as being similar to her. This of couse is generally done through communication and increased understanding of others. If we want to buy that justification we would conclude that since fetuses are incapable of such communication and being understood they don't have rights. But if we decide we value other persons then I think that means we value the fetus insofar as it has the potential to become a human life.)

Under this argument abortion, imo, is rarely justified. However, since fetuses don't have rights neither I, nor the government has the moral authority to tell a woman what they can and can't do.

Anonymous said...

David, in regards to your "clarification":

When "life" begins is irrelevant to the abortion question. And the answer of your commenters is that 'when personhood begins' is the key question for those who are pro-choice, like me.

Be careful not to limit the debate to a bad question.

thefreefood said...

David78209: I like the idea I read on some blog recently: a fetus becomes a person worthy of legal rights and protections when the lady carrying it decides it has become a person.

Here's the problem: what's to stop her from deciding the kid's a child seconds before impact in a car accident so she can double her insurance payment? Or maybe so she can get vengeance by having the other driver charged with manslaughter if she miscarries. That's just way too arbitrary of a line to form a legal standard.

Randomscrub said...

I don't think asking "when life begins" is irrelevant. That question is aimed at finding a standard for personhood in a certain sense. I'm sure we can all agree that there can be no personhood without life, so it's an attempt to find the lowest common denominator, below which abortion would be OK with everyone.

And I'm very disappointed that almost all commenters are essentially ignoring the potential for human life as having any sort of moral value.

And some of you, by denying that any standards are necessary (for life, personhood, whatever your critereon) seem to be espousing positions that imply that since moral personhood cannot be objectively defined, the taking of human life need not always (or ever? - I can't tell) qualify as murder. Please elaborate on why a standard isn't important.

jack said...

Re: Above, why standards for personhood aren't needed


My problem with the standard of "life" is that it reall makes no sense scientifically. I mean, we could draw a line if we wanted but it would be completely irrelevant. Indeed I would dispute your claim that life is a prerequisite for personhood. At some point in the future, for example, we may have the ability to upload a person's entire consciousness onto a computer. This isn't sci-fi, its a sound prediction given current trends in neuro, cybernetic and biological technologies. In any case it would make no sense at all to eliminate the rights of consciousness uploaded out of a human body as such a consciousness would be able to exercise the same mental abilities we can.

Neither does the lack of a standard devalue human rights. Just because I can't tell you when and what requirements are needed to assign human value to someone doesn't mean there never is anything. But we've tried for centuries to come up with some line and it has never really worked at all. Modernity, actually hasn't been very good at protecting human rights at all. Personhood? I know it when I see it.



(Also, did you see my comment that was exclusively about the potential for personhood?)

Mark said...

So, as someone who is adamantly pro choice, I of course find the LBAC argument both biologically ridiculous and totally ignorant of the realities of pregnancy. As an atheist, I completely reject the idea that the potential for life has a moral component at all. I believe that viability is a good standard for legal purposes but it is indeed a moveable one when we consider scientific breakthroughs. I must say that the strongest argument for a specific determination of life is consciousness. Although this varies widely, it is generally agreed to be around the onset of the third trimester (this also coincides with Roe v. Wade). The end of life is undoubtedly the point where consciousness (ie brain function) stops. If this is the end of life, then the onset of brain function is the beginning. However, Both of these arguments (while very reasonable and effective) are incidental to the rights of the woman carrying the child. If the woman's life is in danger, it is self defense. If the woman was raped, the fetus is an unwelcome parasite. If the woman changes her mind and simply does not want the child any more, who will determine whether she is justified in her difficult choice? Will it be the government, the doctor, the woman, or the courts? If it is the government, this would be the most significant increase in the power of the state to forcefully remove individual's right to privacy. Government regulation of pregnancy is akin to forced adoptions and it opens the door to the government regulating sex itself. If it is the courts, who is the guilty party? The father, the doctor, the mother, or even the minister? Even the most staunch pro-lifers do not want to say that women are to blame. Even they see it as a social ill that can be remedied with love (or Jesusification) and not placing mothers in jail for murder. So, the question of life is answered simply. Women must determine what they can do with their own bodies. Abortion is a women's issue. If men could get pregnant, they definitely would be pro-choice, pro-contraception, and pro-privacy. Women are not baby making machines. If human life is in need of protection, pro-lifers need to start with protecting the humanity of a woman rather than the potential woman or man attached to her (and not to said pro-lifer!). Finally, I would just like to point out the religious component of this debate. There are a tiny fraction of atheists who happen to be pro-life but these people have the misfortune of being selectively rational. In order to honestly believe that life begins at conception, one must believe in a soul or creator who can imbue a soul. Without a soul, a fetus is a cluster of cells attached to a living woman with individual dignity worthy protection in her own right. Therefore, any government intrusion into the status of a fetus constitutes an first amendment violation. The government would be both respecting an establishment of religion and prohibiting the free practice thereof (as it does when it tries to define marriage). On the flip side, the pro-choice position does neither. It is clearly no more acceptable for the government to force women to have abortions (as they do in China) than it is for the government to prevent them. Abortion is a medical procedure, which does not constitute murder in any rational sense. Roe got it right and we need to call it even.

sillybillydoda said...

simple solution

life started thanks to one asteroid with a single cell organism landing a pool of water. with the current earths atmosphere the cell grew and adapted to the climate. with this cell mulitiplying it split into different cell edgeing towards the edge of the pool of water, changing the cells key features. the best way of acknowledging this is that we share genes with all animals and plants e.g monkey 99% and a bananna 50%. therefore it is easy to see that we all (life) came from one single cell organism which developed.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts to consider:I was at the county fair and having a conversa-tion with some pro-abortion women.
They firmly believed human life began at birth. I commended them for their great faith! They believed in the miracle powers of the birth canal. Yes, in just a few earthly minutes a blob of parasitic tissue is turned into a human being with full protection granted by the constitution!!
I hear it's human at viability:
What's that! When a fetus/baby can survive out side the mothers womb. 25 weeks??? more or less. Can a new born survive? 1 year old? 2,3 year old? Of course we are talking
about survivng without the aid of another human, right. Let's see, Womb, mother, father, care provider, nurse, doctor, soldier etc. There are lots of people that could not survive without the help of someone. So, all those who provide protection and care for someone to survive, you are empowered with a choice "terminate ate will" Where will all this lead??? Think on it!!
Why should only women be given the right to choose life or death for their unborn fetus/baby? Where are the fathers rights?
The basic right of all is the right to life, then liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America, in the past we have failed our dream!!
How long will we fail on this one??
When I was a child I had no doubt my mother would have died
trying to save me. A poll recently
showed over half of the parents polled would CHOOSE their own life over their children. Think!!! Wher are we headed??
When dignity and justice for the unborn is lost, WE ALL LOOSE!!

Fortepiano said...

Life begins at conception, that is a sceintific fact. That is the very point you came into existence.

Just because you were very tiny does not mean you are any less human. You have a soul and your DNA is decided. At the moment of conception your sex is decided.

So the moment you conceive, you are a parent as you have conceived a new life. This new life is human. Just because they don't yet have the full developed body, doesn't mean they're just a "clump of cells." They are no less human than a full grown adult even if they look very tiny.


The circumstances of "saving the life of the mother" are rare and even then the aim should be to save both mother and baby. Surely they can just deliver the baby earlier than they are due because of a life-threatening condition, but to deliberately kill a baby??

Surely if both your wife is hanging off a cliff and your daughter is grasping the foot of your wife, you would want to save both your wife and your daughter.
Or would you kick your daughter off to save the life of your wife??

This is exactly the same situation here and the priority should be to save both lives. Abortion is inhumane and murder regardless of the circusmtances.

In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, again the priority should be to save both the life of the mother and the baby.

There have been cases where babies were born as a result of an ectopic pregnancy! So nothing is impossible, and so a physician should do everything he can to save lives not kill them!

Fortepiano said...

How can you call a fetus an unwelcome parasite if a woman is raped?? Just because their means of conception was immoral, the baby is totally innocent.

How would you like it if your mother aborted you because you were conceived as a result of rape?

Surely if a woman is not able to look after the baby, then she should give him/her away for adoption. There are many couples who cannot have their own biological children and would welcome such a child with open arms!

Look at this video with an open mind, don't close your minds because you're pro-abortion, watch this video and see what you think:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y2KsU_dhwI&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=SPF7A795CE0A9857FE