When does Human Life begin? One man's intellectual journey. A 4 Controversies Entry
|“I Think, Therefore, I Am”
Although a complete fallacy, the recent White House celebration of “repeal and replacement” of the American Care Act, or “Obamacare” as it’s disparagingly called, highlighted a continuing controversy within the American electorate. Designating pregnancy as pre-existing condition seems to be one more step in the Conservative agenda of usurping a woman’s right to make decisions about their own bodies. Their argument is “Since life begins at conception, abortion is akin to murder as it is the act of taking human life. “
I agree. The taking of a human life is wrong. But, I have to ask, what is a “human life?”
The question of when a human life begins is intricately complex, with widespread implications, ranging from abortion rights to stem cell research and beyond. A key point in the debate rests on the way in which we choose to define the concepts of humanity, life, and human life. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human?
For myself, the question became real when my oldest daughter came looking for advice. She was pregnant, unmarried, and in rehab for drug addiction. As I struggled with the issue – as a father, as a man of faith, and as a human being – I kept coming back to words that were written hundreds of years ago: "Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am." (Descartes, René. 1637. Discourse on Method).
I believe that self-awareness is the essence of human life. I base this on the current scientific research and arrived at it through a process of elimination.
Human Life begins at birth. Historically life has been equated to birth. As far back as 380 b.c., Plato contended that the human soul did not enter the body until birth. His position became the law of ancient Roman society (Buss, M. 1987. Journal of Religion). This view sees human life as beginning when an individual has become independent of the mother and has its own functioning circulatory system, alimentary system, and respiratory system. This is the traditional birthday when the baby is born into the world and the umbilical cord is cut. I see this more along the lines of independence since clearly the developing fetus can respond to stimuli (feel, hear, see) prior to actual birth. It responds to its environment. It is aware.
Human Life begins at conception. As time went by, the belief that birth was the first blossoming of life was challenged by the Greeks who stressed that the human soul was created at the time of conception and this is reflected in the Hippocratic oath. Hippocrates' outright disapproval of abortion stemmed from his belief that conception marked the beginning of a human life (Tribe, L. 1990. Abortion: The Clash of the Absolutes). In considering this, my problem was two-fold. Both the sperm and egg cells are alive to begin with. The idea that their union is "new life" doesn't make sense. In this view, there is no one point where life begins. In reviewing the literature, I also discovered that discrete marking points such as the fourteen day dividing line between a zygote and an embryo are entirely artificial constructions of biologists and doctors in order to better categorize development for academic purposes. This position is supported by recent research that has revealed that fertilization itself is not even an instantaneous event, but rather a process that takes 20-22 hours between the time the sperm penetrates the outermost layers of the egg and the formation of a genetically unique cell or zygote (Kuhse, Helga. 1988. Bioethics). The most popular argument against the idea that life begins at the moment of fertilization has been dubbed the "twinning argument." The main point of this argument is that although a zygote is genetically unique from its parents from the moment zygote organism is formed, it is possible for that zygote to split into two or more zygotes up until 14 or 15 days after fertilization. Suppose that an egg is fertilized. If at that moment a new life begins, the zygote gains a "soul" in the religious line of thought, or "personhood" in a secular line of thought. Then suppose that the zygote splits to form twins. Does the soul of the zygote split as well? No, this is impossible. No one would argue that twins share the same "soul" or the same "personhood."
From what we know – as opposed to what we believe – it seems that "human life" must occur somewhere in between ... but when?
Human Life begins with self-awareness. There is a universal acceptance that life is finite – it has a beginning and an end. From a scientific point of view, the reality is that all life has both a beginning and an end, usually identified as some form of death. The debate surrounding the exact moment marking the beginning of a human life contrasts the certainty and consistency with which the instant of death is described. Contemporary society defines death as the loss of the pattern produced by a cerebral electroencephalogram (EEG). If life and death are based upon the same standard of measurement, then the beginning of human life should be recognized as the time when a fetus acquires a recognizable EEG pattern. This acquisition occurs approximately 24- 27 weeks after the conception of the fetus. There is a strong argument that the unique and highly recognizable EEG pattern produced by a mature brain is a defining characteristic of humanity. Therefore, the moment that a developing fetus first exhibits an EEG pattern consistent with that of a mature brain is indicative of the beginning of human life. It is from this point and onward during development that the fetus is capable of the type of mental activity associated with humanity. (Morowitz, H. J. and Trefil, J. S. 1992. The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy).
In the end, understanding the moral standards that drive the question appears to be the key to figuring out how to approach the question of when human life begins. Science has not been able to give a definitive answer to this question. It would seem that faith alone is the only basis we have for answering this difficult question.
Realizing the uncertainty led me to use the gifts the creator provided and find an answer that balanced both my need for "facts" and my own belief in a power greater than myself. There is definitive evidence that at a point in embryonic development that "magic happens." The unborn gain the capacity to use their minds in a manner we define as human. At this point, the embryo begins the process of self-awareness and starts out on the journey that leads each of us to appreciate the strengths and weakness of being human – and to appreciate that, however we got here, it wasn't by accident.
An entry for "The 4 Controversies Contest"
Prompt: I want to read some nonfiction encompassing something 'Controversial'.
Word Word Limit: Minimum 1,000 words
Word Count: 1,138