- Paul Stark
When does life begin? It's pretty simple
"When does life begin? It's not so simple." That's the title of a recent Slate essay by Elissa Strauss.
The assertion that "life begins at the bright line of conception," Strauss writes, "is at odds with many ethical traditions." For some religions, she explains, "when an embryo or fetus becomes a person remains a mystery, something that occurs not in a single moment but in a series of moments, none necessarily more important than the next."
There is often an ambiguity when people talk about "when life begins"—a conflation of two separate issues. And Strauss falls headlong into that confusion. Clarity about this distinction is crucial.
First, there is the science question of when the life of an individual human organism begins. The answer (fertilization) has long been established by embryology. Human embryos and fetuses are living members of the species Homo sapiens at the embryonic and fetal stages of their lives. They are distinct organisms with human DNA who are growing and directing their own development toward maturity. This is not in dispute. It is "simple." It is empirical fact.
Second, there is the justice question of how we ought to treat human beings at their earliest developmental stages. When do they begin to matter morally? When do they acquire a right to life (or become a "person") and deserve our respect and protection?
Regarding this second question, there is, as Strauss says, significant disagreement. Strauss contends that the "beginning of life" is a "mysterious process" that is "grayscale" rather than black and white. She suggests that human beings in utero undergo a "gradual passage to personhood" and encourages us to "view life as evolving in stages." Only with this view are we free to "experience all these moments in all their fullness and complexity." The bottom line, she writes, is that "[t]he creation of babies, of life, is a long, complicated, and often messy experience."
It's true that human beings "evolve" in the sense that they grow and develop and change over time. That's the nature of living things. That's biology. But Strauss doesn't say how any of these changes make a moral difference. She doesn't tell us the characteristics she thinks are relevant to whether or not an individual may be killed.
Size? Big people aren't more valuable than small people. Appearance? Looks have nothing to do with worth. Function? Superior physical and cognitive capabilities don't confer superior rights. If personhood is acquired through a gradual process, as Strauss claims, then why doesn't the process continue after birth? Physiological change doesn't stop at birth—it is continuous throughout the entirety of someone's life. But teenagers don’t deserve greater respect than toddlers.
Human beings are different from each other in countless ways. We have different races, ethnicities, genders, and religions; we also have different ages, sizes, abilities, and appearances. Some of us are more dependent and some are less dependent. Some are more intelligent and some are less intelligent. Some are loved by many other people and some are neglected and resented and ignored.
But we are all human. And we all matter.
"When does life begin?" Unborn children (from the time they come into existence as zygotes) are human beings. That's the scientific fact. And all human beings have a right not to be intentionally dismembered and killed. That's the moral principle.
It's pretty simple.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of NRL News.