By Fairooz Adams, Outreach Director
Few moral quandaries are vexing as the abortion question. Proponents of abortion rights view attempts to curb access to abortion as an assault on the fundamental right to bodily autonomy; made all the more egregious because it most directly affects the bodily autonomy of women. Meanwhile pro-life people, generally, believe life begins at conception and therefore the termination of a pregnancy is tantamount to murder.
This debate, however, is almost entirely devoid of any serious discussion over what actually constitutes the beginning of life. The pro-choice side has largely ceded this area of contention to the pro-life side; evidenced by the notable lack of an alternative vision for the beginning of life in pro-choice arguments, focusing almost exclusively on “a woman’s right to choose.”
Both sides of this argument have laudable goals: life must be protected as must bodily autonomy. The state’s first and foremost responsibility is to protect the life of its citizens, and the modern conception of the state adds improving living standards to that list. As a result, the state has a dual responsibility to be ruthless in the pursuit of the safety of its citizens from its foreign enemies, while at once going to extreme measures to protect the lives of its citizens at home. Because of this, the definition of life is a federal issue.
Others attempt to sidestep the question of the beginning of life by asserting this is a purely philosophical issue. Beyond the intellectually lazy moral relativism, this assertion has serious problems. While there is truth to the idea that not all perennial questions on existence can be tamed by logic – indeed, much of the physics at the level of atoms and elementary particles defies reason as logic only developed as an evolutionary adaption to navigate the world operating at a Newtonian level of physics – it is also true that logic and reason has unleashed humanity from a subsistence level of existence to making incredible advances that has allowed humanity to conquer nature in a growing number of ways. Science has ended fantastical mysteries in nature, and it would be a mistake to shirk away from trying to do the same on the mystery of life.
This philosophical question, like many philosophical questions before it, can be solved by utilizing science and reason. Unlike some other philosophical questions settled by science and reason, to a certain degree an intuitive sense of what is alive and what is not will need to inform the debate, and an intuitive sense of morality. As such, a definition of life which would allow the disposing of those who have been born with inconvenient birth defects strikes most as morally reprehensible, and thus must not be pursued. Whenever there is a question of whether something is alive or not, the strictest assumption must be made, and policy must err on the side of life but within reason so as not to extend the definition of life to endorse an absurd threshold.
Beforehand, there must be two assumptions that must be established to provide a framework for understanding the question. First, bodily autonomy is of absolute importance; it is an inviolable principle that the state must never tamper with an individual’s right to bodily autonomy so long as it does not infringe upon the bodily autonomy or fundamental rights of others. Second principle: bodily autonomy is only granted when life is achieved.
So, when does life start?
The biological definition of life asserts that matter that is able to replicate itself, metabolize, and reacts with its environment is alive. For this reason, viruses are considered at the edge of what is living and what is nonliving. Under such a definition sperm cells are alive, because sperm cells react to the environment, metabolize, and their existence is entirely for the purpose of reproduction, more than usual. Yet, most people would not consider that a satisfactory definition, for good reason. Such a standard for life becomes silly when it is considered that little regard is given to microbial life.
Obviously then, merely fulfilling a biological definition of life is insufficient. What we really want to preserve is human life, as distinctly as we know it. A more rationally consistent approach would be to save sentient life. A sperm and an egg cell, while possessing half of the genetic material necessary to produce a human, does not come close to qualifying as having a distinctly human life.
Then the next most obvious standard for life becomes conception, and the argument easily runs aground. Conception is one threshold which some religions believe mark the beginning of life, while other religions believe life begins several months after a pregnancy. Some believe life begins with the first breath, and in an extreme case there is a tribe which believes life begins only after the child is named. The United States cannot use a definition of life derived from religion and force all Americans to adhere to it, as doing so would violate the Constitution. Crafting policy based on the idea that life begins at conception would only be permissible if there was an independent secular reason to justify the belief that life begins at conception.
Such an argument would hinge on only two assumptions. One is that possession of human genetic material confers a special status to cells. The other is that the potential to become human life means the zygote must not be destroyed. As for the first argument, that one is easily dispatched. Had the possession of human genetic material been sufficient for preventing the destruction of a cell, then amputations are immoral. Yet, using a reasonable person standard, that is silly. A thought experiment would also be useful. Imagine a human body is born, but for some reason the cranium is completely hollow and there is no brain. Would that body have the same rights as any sentient being? Of course not. Cells’ possession of human genetic material alone is not sufficient reason to be classified as alive. This is not to say there is no virtue in discriminating in favor of cells with human genetic material. Indeed, a species’s success hinges on its ability to propagate its genetic material. What the aforementioned point does determine, however, is that human genetic material alone is not sufficient reason to prevent cells from being destroyed.
Potential to become a human being capable of being born and carrying out the bodily functions of an independent organism is also woefully inadequate. Sperm and egg cells have the potential to become a human being, but men’s bodies continually recycle sperm and most of a woman’s eggs are either destroyed or never used. A fifth of pregnancies are spontaneously aborted by the body of the mother. Indeed, biology cares very little for conception being the beginning of life, and even skews towards destroying male fetuses with greater regularity than female fetuses, demonstrating there is a biologically premeditated basis for abortion encoded in the human genome.
Of course the fact that the womb sometimes destroys developing human cells is itself not reason alone to determine life does not begin at conception. Biology is incredibly messy and it is not beyond nature to kill living organisms. What spontaneous abortion in humans does demonstrate is that there is no holy or sacred status conferred to a zygote by nature. Any argument that asserts science supports the idea that nature confers personhood at conception is extremely weak.
Another two arguments for the beginning of life often cited are when the heart begins to beat in a fetus and when the fetus is viable. Neither are satisfactory. For one, the heartbeat is largely symbolic but the heart has no special status that marks it as the beginning of life. The cardiovascular system is not the only one which has an enormously consequential role in supporting life; so are the respiratory and digestive systems, amongst others. While a heart is very important, it can be replaced without killing an individual. Many such transplants are made every year around the world. If the heartbeat determined when life begins, then why can hearts can be replaced and discarded? Something more must be what determines the beginning of life. Viability is not a good definition for the beginning of life either. Because of technology, the threshold for the viability has moved to earlier and earlier times. Unless the beginning of life cares for the technological limitations of humanity, that is a flimsy threshold.
Birth is a very strong argument for the beginning of life, but not entirely satisfactory. If physical separation from living being constitutes life, then what must be made of conjoined twins? What of fetuses born many months prematurely but incapable of surviving without the assistance of technology? Something other than the act of separation and birth itself must be what determines the beginning of life.
The following threshold would then become when a fetus become conscious and self-aware, but then again that also runs aground, because a reasonable person would argue that terminating the life of someone that is unconscious would be reprehensible, as would terminating the life of someone who is greatly mentally handicapped and possesses no self-awareness.
What would be a moderate answer to the beginning of life to guide law and public policy? Such an answer must be grounded in science and reason, and such an answer is the beginning of regular brain activity. Essentially, the cusp of this argument is that because brain death – when the human brain is irreversibly switched off, though that may change due to technology – is the definition of death. Then life begins when the brain starts to work. Sporadic brain activity which begins far earlier would not qualify because even those that have undergone brain death see occasional sparks.
Beginning of regular brain activity is a strong threshold. Personhood is contained entirely within the brain, which is why many organs in the body can be replaced, but the brain never can be without completely changing the person.
While the most logical answer for when life distinctly as we know it – replete with the conscious human experiences of being a sentient being which separates Homo sapiens from lower life forms – is the beginning of consciousness, that is not an adequate safeguard to prevent those with severe mental disabilities and those in comas from being labelled as a nonliving burden.
When the neurological infrastructure is essentially formed and brain begins to function regularly, then that fetus has achieved personhood and his or her bodily autonomy becomes inviolable at twenty-three weeks.
Except for some cases.
When the life of the mother is threatened due to a pregnancy, then the priority must be the life of the mother. The rationale is fairly straightforward. Let us begin with the assumption that all human life is of equal value. Even for this reason the life of the mother has a greater cause for being saved. The destruction of the fetus may affect the pregnant mother and perhaps a few others, but not many. Meanwhile the death of the mother will affect all of her loved ones, friends and family. The death of the fetus will have a much more limited impact than the life of the mother. Thus even after a fetus achieves bodily autonomy, exceptions can still be made for the life of the mother.
While ultimately wrong to try to eliminate abortion entirely, the staunchest pro-life advocates are correct in one thing: there is a logical inconsistency in arguing life begins at conception yet the value of a life is diminished should it come about due to rape or incest. For that reason, pregnancies resulting as a consequence of rape or incest may be terminated in the first five or so months, but only the life of the mother will be sufficient reason to terminate a pregnancy once the fetus is alive.
Ultimately the twenty-three week threshold is the best threshold for designating the beginning of life and personhood and is the strongest foundation for the basis of policy. This utilizes the best medically understood definition of human life and is the most logically consistent. Such a threshold marries science and reason with an intuitive sense of what it means to be alive, choosing to err on the side of life without seeking to embrace unreasonable criteria for human life. Perhaps most consequentially, this threshold is very moderate and has the added benefit of preserving the inviolability of the bodily autonomy of all – including a fetus, with an exception for the life of the mother – and thus elegantly reconciles the pro life and pro choice stances.
There must be no illusions that this argument will be final, indeed similar arguments have been made in the past. Nevertheless, this is the most rational approach to answering the deepest and one of the most fraught questions that can be asked: what is the beginning of life?