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The Sanctity of Human Life

A Reasoned Approach

Every few years—every election year, to be precise—there erupts a flurry of excitement over various issues pertaining to the sanctity of human life.  The issues typically involve birth control, abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia, but they also pertain to capital punishment and war.  This isn't to say that such subjects are discussed only in election years, for they're perennially hot topics.  They just become all that much hotter when there are political axes to be ground, and records of performance in office to be veiled behind a convenient smokescreen.  But most people are genuinely concerned about human life, and that's both good and natural; it ought to be a topic of honest and thoughtful discussion.  Unfortunately, most discussion on both sides of this issue is emotionally charged and not particularly lucid.  This essay attempts to demonstrate another approach to the topic.  We'll examine both sides of the issue in light of fact and reason, rather than mere belief and gut feeling, and dispense altogether with name-calling and pot-shots.

It would appear that religious belief plays a major role in this debate.  Some have remarked that it seems to be Christians who are the main contributors to arguments for the sanctity of human life.  However, this might simply be because in the United States there are currently more Christians than anyone else.  So, regardless of the topic, we Americans might expect to hear more Christian viewpoints than any others.  In fact, we also hear from time to time from non-Christians—Jews, Deists, Pantheists, atheists, and others—reflecting similar views about the value of human life, whether that value is characterized as sanctity, preciousness, uniqueness, mutual regard, or something else.  So it isn't only Christians, or only believers, who hold such views.  The idea is pervasive, and transcends boundaries of faith.  It would be hard to find anyone—except perhaps a serial killer, a suicide bomber, or a warlord—who disagrees that human life is something especially valuable.

So where's the disagreement?  It would appear to be bound up in differences over exactly what it is that we consider so valuable about human life.  What form does this value take?  When and how does it come into existence, and when and how does it either cease to exist or become transformed into something else?  It is questions such as these—and a perennial shortage of consistently verifiable answers for them—that lead to honest differences of opinion.  Evidently our disagreements hinge mostly, not on the immorality of willfully ending the life of a human being, but rather on just what constitutes a human being.  For some, the answer seems simple and obvious; for others, it's a serious question that deserves a serious answer, and a serious answer requires serious effort to get at whatever truth might lie hidden in the shadow of the seemingly obvious.  After all, that the earth stands motionless at the center of the universe might seem obvious, yet thorough observation and disciplined reasoning reveal this isn't true.  Indeed, differences over what a human being is are as pervasive as the intensity of the topic of human life as a whole, with Christians taking different sides of the issue, and likewise non-Christians and non-believers.  So it seems prudent to ask at what stage of development a fetus acquires all of the characteristics that define it as a human being.  That, in turn, depends on just what those characteristics are, and that turns out to depend on whom we ask.  One criterion on which we could probably all agree is: "It's alive."

People often ask, "When does life begin?"  It seems a pertinent question.  Yet in fact, the beginning of life isn't an event in the world of today.  Whether we credit natural causes or miraculous ones for our origin, life on our planet began eons ago, and all life since that time has been a continuation of the processes started in that ancient beginning.  At no point in the human birth-growth-reproduction cycle is there a non-living phase.  We know that every human individual alive today developed from a living fetus, which developed from a living embryo, which was formed by the union of two living gametes, which were produced by the living gonads of two other living human individuals, with no gap in the life process at any point.  Thus, we can see that although each individual has a beginning, the life that animates any particular individual is simply the latest drop in a continuous stream that began in the distant past.  Since that time, there has been no beginning of life, but only a continuous cycle of life.

So, we might more meaningfully ask, "When does a human individual begin to exist?"  Now, that's a very good question.  It's been answered many ways, but usually not with any clear and convincing allusion to any indisputable factual reference.  The Judeo-Christian Bible asserts that God breathed the breath of life into the first man, Adam.  (Other creation legends offer similar accounts.)  So it was widely accepted for thousands of years that the beginning of one's existence as a human individual corresponds to one's first breath, which for every human (except the legendary Adam and his mate, Eve) has occurred at the moment of birth.  Even if this claim is unproved, it's credible, for although the newborn remains entirely dependent on its parents, it has become physically separate from its mother and is henceforth an individual.  However, another popular view holds that a human becomes an individual sometime before birth, at the time of quickening, when the prospective mother first feels the physical stirring of the fetus in her womb.  Although the fetus remains within, and attached to, the mother's body, its ability to move independently of the mother's will seems to indicate assertion of itself as an individual—even if its gyrations at this stage are reflexive, and not the product of conscious will.

More recently, with the support of major religions, it's become a very popular notion that a human individual comes into existence at the moment of conception, when it is allegedly endowed with a soul.  Yet, despite its immense popularity, there's a fundamental problem with this view: identical twins.  During the first two weeks of gestation, the human embryo remains a mostly undifferentiated blob of replicating cells, a blob that might or might not split into two or even more blobs, each of which might then develop into a separate individual.  If we assume that an embryo acquires a soul at conception, we must then ponder the question of what happens to that soul if, during the next fourteen days, the embryo subsequently splits into two individuals.  Do these two individuals share a common soul that binds them together forever?  Or does the soul split between the two individuals?  And if so, does it split evenly, or does one twin sometimes get a distinctly better share of the bargain than its sibling?  We could cite anecdotal evidence to support any of these views, and still remain unconvincing to anyone who holds a differing view based on different anecdotes.

Now, we might well expect some to interject: "All this talk of sharing or splitting soul is absurd!"  But we'd have to respond that speculating about what happens to soul when twinning occurs is no more absurd than arbitrarily claiming that soul must originate at conception.  To assert the one is to open the other to conjecture.  There's no hard evidence for soul itself; it's never been empirically detected or measured.  And unless that becomes possible, the matter remains confined to the realm of speculation, not fact.  In the meantime, though, we could simply skirt the problem of twins by supposing that soul doesn't enter the picture until at least the third week of pregnancy, when the period in which twinning can occur has passed, and the identity of the individual is physically established.  (Incidentally, this is the time limit currently accepted by stem-cell researchers.)

Those who are content, or even eager, to believe in soul, or else who are simply too incurious to care about looking into the matter any further, may be satisfied with this view.  But what about others who aren't persuaded, who insist on basing their opinions on something tangible, something more convincing than an unsubstantiated belief or a convenient assumption?  After all, the only distinguishing characteristics of a third-week human embryo are that it is (1) alive and (2) an individual—a broad enough description to apply to any multicellular organism, be it a lizard or a larch.  If human beings are truly special, then there must be more to it than that.  So what is it, precisely, that we so value in human beings that we suppose their importance to exceed that of all other living things?  It's definitely a tough question; but there are some things we can logically rule out.  It can't be their human genetic content, for we routinely discard human tissue—hair and fingernail trimmings, wisdom teeth, ruptured appendixes, inflamed gall bladders, shattered limbs, and liposuctioned fat—without a trace of worry about even the partial destruction of the being to which they'd been attached.  And it can't be their general human form, because we don't value things that merely resemble humans—dolls, mannequins, sculptures, or images—nearly as much as we value human beings themselves.  What is it about human beings that elevates them alone above all other creatures?

Perhaps a clue lies in our insistence on calling ourselves, not just humans, but human beings.  Part of this is surely attributable to anthropocentric vanity: as humans, we're simply inclined to rate our own species superior to all others.  Superior, but not necessarily supreme, for we also imbue our deities with the same essence: being.  So what do we and our gods have in common?  Why do we reserve this special distinction of being for our own species, and perhaps for a divine entity, but not for any other creature?  Some may call it spirit, assuming it to be detachable from the physical body; others may call it soul, assuming it to be immortal.  But in the interest of keeping disputable complications to a minimum in this discussion, let's agree to refer here to our shared yet (presumably) species-unique experience of conscious self-awareness and reasoning thought as mind.  We may disagree about its attributes; but inasmuch as we each personally experience mind, we can hardly deny its existence.  And it's arguably the only significant feature that distinguishes us from other creatures that we routinely cage for our amusement, harness for our convenience, or slaughter for our food.

So now the question becomes: "When does mind begin?"  We left our new human individual, the embryo, at the beginning of the third week of gestation, when it was simply a microscopic blob of undifferentiated cells.  Aside from its genetic makeup, a human embryo isn't distinguishable in form, chemistry, or behavior from embryos of any other vertebrate species—tiger, tortoise, toad, or trout.  By week eight, however, cell differentiation has become evident, and the cerebrum has begun to form out of an as yet disorganized web of randomly firing nerve fibers.  At this stage, the embryo advances to the stage of fetus, and is thus henceforth categorically excluded from embryonic research of any sort.  But the emergence of mind is still a long way off, for the physiological hardware to support it just isn't yet there.

Much later, at week twenty-three, the fetus has developed to a point that it could survive, with life-support, outside the womb.  There has been brain activity for some time, but still not at a level that could give rise to consciousness.  The mental state of a fetus at this stage is essentially vegetative, barely comparable even to that of an advanced-stage Alzheimer's victim, whom we could reasonably consider a candidate for humane removal of life support.  In the fetus, however, this is the stage at which brain development is on the verge of dramatic transformation.  (It's also the stage beyond which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled out arbitrary abortion.)

At about week twenty-eight, fetal brain development accelerates to a furious pace.  Nerve cells multiply, connections are made, glands secrete, activity intensifies and becomes orderly.  Eventually, rudimentary consciousness begins to fade in, followed by primitive emotion, and the behavior of the fetus becomes human-like.  It exhibits recognizably human responses to pain, pleasure, comfort, and boredom.  Even so, exactly when it becomes self-aware is still a matter of speculation.  Indeed, some psychologists have quite reasonably argued that self-awareness doesn't emerge until after birth, perhaps even as much as two or three years afterward—about the time permanent memory appears.  But whenever it is that the emerging consciousness acquires an experience of self, an awareness of being, that's when we can confidently say it has truly advanced from a merely potential being to an actual being in any meaningfully human sense of the word.

Now, we could also approach the issue from the opposite direction, from the standpoint of decline and degeneration rather than growth and development.  We could argue that someone who's catastrophically brain-damaged—whether by disease, by physical trauma, by drug abuse, or simply by advanced atrophy and deterioration—to the extent that the neural structure of the brain has become permanently incapable of supporting a level of activity corresponding to conscious awareness, is no longer a being, since it is no longer capable of sensing and appreciating that it is.  The eyes may stare, but there is no longer any I behind them.  We might also argue further, on behalf of the terminally ill, that even conscious being isn't worth sustaining if the only prognosis is an existence of unrelenting agony.  But let's consider the point well enough made, without the need of exploring those distressing byways in detail.

Upon reflection, we observe that reverence for life isn't the sole issue.  Where human beings are concerned, the existence of mind is a key consideration beyond that of mere biological activity.  But although we've pointed out a practical difficulty with the ensoulment-at-conception view, nothing else has been proved or disproved by what we've discussed.  Thus, our compassionate concern for human beings is logically mandated only when an individual's brain is capable of giving rise to a conscious sense of being after 28 weeks, and the 23-week limit set by the Supreme Court is more than ample to safeguard that threshold in a developing fetus.  We are, of course, entitled to observe more restrictive limits in our personal lives if we so choose, or if we subscribe to a belief system that requires us to do so.  But we aren't entitled to demand that those who don't share our beliefs and preferences must nonetheless abide by them—even if ours happens to be a majority view.  For opinion doesn't shape reality; it merely expresses our views of it, colored by personal experience and preference.

In addition, there's a related philosophical point we might wish to consider when making our choice:  The value of sanctity reflects the value of that upon which it is bestowed.  If reserved for something (presumably) unique to our species—mind—then sanctity is correspondingly exalted.  If bestowed upon mindless embryos and early-term fetuses by mere virtue of their being alive, then it's conceptually cheapened to the level of the livestock and crops upon which we feed.  It's a choice we may make freely, but we ought to be aware of the implications of our choice.  That is, does sanctity actually signify something special, or is it just a pretty word we toss about in an effort to justify our opinions?  Those who hold that human personhood applies at the moment of conception are entitled to their opinion; they have their beliefs.  Those who think of the minimum criterion for a human being as something significantly greater than that for an orchard tree, a barnyard animal, or a household pet are likewise entitled to their opinion; they have their reasons.

The question remaining is whether we can learn to behave as the rational beings we claim to be, to tolerate each other's views, and to grant each the right to conduct his or her own life accordingly, without insult, coercion, moralistic posturing, or political grandstanding.


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