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When Does Human Life Begin?

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With the issue of abortion rights, a hot button that partisans on both sides of the political spectrum knock each other over to press, at our nation’s forefront once again, a very important question has failed to be raised. This is not about public funding, mandatory waiting periods, age limits, parental notification, or religious imperatives. No, this question is about something far more important, the entire subject’s actual root. At what point does human life begin when evaluated on an objective basis?

As life itself is defined as an organism’s capacity for self-sustainment, with the singular alternative being nonexistence, also referred to as death, it becomes very difficult to claim that an embryo or, in certain cases, fetus is truly alive. While both undeniably possess the potential for life, the equally undeniable fact is that potentials are not actualities. Opponents of abortion rights frequently state that heartbeat begins at a relatively early stage of pregnancy. They are not wrong, but what is being spoken of pertains only to muscular action. Without the woman in question’s incubatory support, all potential for life would vanish.

Viability comes about a far later stage. Estimated to occur between twenty-four and twenty-eight weeks into pregnancy, this is when one can make an, in my opinion, convincing argument that the fetus is no longer a solely developing entity. With the ability to survive outside of its host, it has legitimately attained the status attributed to a living human being. After all, if said fetus no longer requires total and complete support from an objectively living individual, has it not become an individual in its own right? Does any individual have the liberty of taking the life of another? In a nation of laws, of course not.

Some hardline anti-abortion rights activists strongly believe that life begins at the instant of conception. If one is to seriously consider this idea, then all cells operating within a person’s body are alive as well, whether they be in a strand of hair or an appendix. Severing either of these, in turn, becomes murder. It goes without mentioning that such a concept, if applied to the legal system, would cause chaos and strife of epic proportions. The law would collapse under the weight of its own ludicrousness and leave those trying to adhere to it in a worse situation than experienced beforehand.

On the opposite side of the aisle, a growing percentage of ethicists think that life begins at sentience. Essentially the ability for consciousness, which is not present in any meaningful fashion until long after birth. Under this code of morality, terminating a nearly month-old infant is completely acceptable. Needless to say, this sort of thing opens the door for unimaginable horrors. In terms of practicality, it makes about the same amount of sense that putting tumors on the same level as viable fetuses does.

Brushing aside partisan rhetoric and discounting theological substitutions for scientific data are understandably no small feats for a substantial number of Americans. Throughout the course of their lives, many become dangerously immersed in their respective political ideology, religious creed, or both. they often lose track of the reality that others hold different views. By recognizing an objective standard, however, on a topic so monumentally important as the beginning of human life, we can begin to bridge seemingly bottomless divides that have been built in our society.

My opinion is my opinion, and I am sure that the majority of those reading this disagree with it. I personally prefer things this way, and would only ask that, as far as abortion rights are concerned, one’s stance be rooted on the solid ground of reason and facts. Too few, on the left and right alike, bother to make such a provision, and this has led to our degenerated state of public discourse. With so many matters in need of discussion, what a shame that is.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Michael Asciak’s point doesn’t really help the debate about abortion rights at all. A zygote is certainly not viable and only exists for about four days.

    Not that it is anybody else’s business what somebody does with their own body any way, but no anti abortionist argument can be taken seriously unless that person is also opposed to the death penalty, which is a far more serious process. Even then, a woman’s right to choose has to be paramount, although a time limit of 20 to 24 weeks is an obvious requirement too.

  • Dr Michael Asciak MD MPhil PhD

    There are several gross mistakes in this article which mixes up both philosophical and medical concepts including the concepts of life and viability. As all embryologists will tell you, the human zygote is the first cell of the species Homo sapiens. It is an organism not a normal somatic cell.Therfore it merits moral respect. Truly those who do not wish to see stick their heads in the sand and complain of darkness!

  • Glenn Contrarian

    zing –

    That’s why my closest friends are conservatives. Almost without exception, they’ll be wildly wrong in some areas, but absolutely right in other areas. One good friend – the most right-wing of the bunch – claimed that he thinks that all kids who go to school should be allowed to bring guns with them. So in the interest of friendship we don’t talk politics very much unless it’s something humorous…and we get along just fine.

    Truth be told, I’d probably get along just fine with Arch and Warren and Dave and certainly Clavos and Cannonshop on a personal level – but probably not Dan the racist. I don’t think I could abide him.

  • zingzing

    cannonshop: “I often find it sickeningly humourous that you can find Abortion Opponents who rail about the sanctity of human life, and in the next breath, declare what they’ll do to an intruder in their home with their handgun/shotgun/etc.”

    my mind is blowing.

  • (Looks at the comments thread) Sure seem to be a lot of GUYS with opinions on this, and not a lot from the Blogcritics whose Uterine tumors are being discussed.

    (Looks at the Politics section in general) Cannon, how many regular female commenters do we have here? What do you expect?

    But you’re right that it does always seem to be males who are the quickest to pile in when this issue comes up – not here necessarily, but in the wider world.

  • Cannonshop

    (Looks at the comments thread) Sure seem to be a lot of GUYS with opinions on this, and not a lot from the Blogcritics whose Uterine tumors are being discussed.

    Might as well throw my own hat in, and keep the trend up…

    Abortion isn’t a thing the Law should be deciding-period. It really DOES come down to an issue of property-are women property, or are they not? If they are not, then they are sovereign owners of their own plumbing. Period.

    The whole Abortion debate comes down to “Do you own yourself, or does someone else owh you?”

    I often find it sickeningly humourous that you can find Abortion Opponents who rail about the sanctity of human life, and in the next breath, declare what they’ll do to an intruder in their home with their handgun/shotgun/etc.

    Ejection of a trespasser is generally considered to be a ‘right’ in most states, and what home could be MORE a home, than someone’s own body?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I guess in Archie World all the funeral home directors get a woody every morning when they wake up thinking about all the grieving, bereaved families at their business. Why? Because of moneymoneymoneymoney!

    And in Archie World firefighters Just Can’t Wait to be sifting through the ashes of house fires to find dead children. Why? Because of moneymoneymoneymoney!

    And in Archie World, oncologists get all giggly over the prospect of telling their patients they’ve got stage 3 or 4 cancer. Why? Because of moneymoneymoneymoney!

    Archie, maybe moneymoneymoneymoney is what gives you a warm fuzzy every morning and you could care less about the people. I mean, hey – that’s the conservative viewpoint, right? You’re out of the womb, so it’s every human for itself; you’re on your own. Right?

    But for the VAST majority of humanity, from the bureaucrats who work for Rick Perry to the ambulance drivers in now-majority-white Harlem, from the low-level functionaries in the Kremlin to the mean streets of Islamabad, Pakistan, from the guards outside the Kaaba in Mecca to the faithful burning incense at the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok…

    …almost everyone sees life as precious. Almost everyone hates to see bad things happen to people even when it’s a part of their job (which I daresay most combat vets would agree with). Almost everyone, regardless of political or religious stripe, are GOOD people. They might be led by their religion or government to do bad things, but at heart they are good people.

    But that’s in the real world. Not in Archie World, but in the real world.

  • zingzing

    you sure do extract a lot of assumptions from that fact, aechie. i’m sure she’s waking up, bathing in babies’ blood and having a fap to some ultrasounds of deformed babies. just like plumbers slurp up hairballs and shitclogs, because, you know, hairballs and shits are good for plumbers.

  • Aech Conservative

    Whatever Glenn. The fact is that the abortion business has been very good to Richards.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    An article by two “after-birth abortionist” philosophers in an article in a respected magazine does not “gaining steam” make, for the same reason that Time’s selection of Ayatollah Khomeini as “Person of the Year” in 1979 didn’t mean he was seen as a great person in America.

    Likewise, the argument for ‘life at conception’ (as much as I disagree with it) cannot be applied in any sensible or legal way to the lives of other cells in our bodies. The anti-abortionists would never agree to such an argument, and the only abortion-rights activists who would accuse the pro-lifers of such a viewpoint would be doing so as part of a cynical search for political advantage in much the same way that certain GOPers do when they accuse Obama of wanting gas prices to skyrocket even though he has no power or authority to do anything like that. The HuffPost article describes not so much outright political insanity as it does very poorly-written legislation.

    The HuffPost article you refer to, however, does hearken back to a more troubling development in at least two or three states Down South (specifically MS) where a women who have miscarriages or stillbirths may be charged with murder. Unlike the “all cells in the human body are living things” line that would never stand up in any court, the above reference shows that these prosecutions of women who were addicted or mentally compromised are happening today.

    Joseph, I see a similarity here to your series about Maywood, CA. I caution you to be aware of a possible tendency to make more of extreme examples than what is either necessary or proper. Or, to put it another way, the one or two trees you’re looking at can in no wise be representative of the forest as a whole.

  • Glenn,

    I would not have highlighted the first extreme if so many did not actually believe it, nor would I have written about the second if it were not gaining steam as a legitimate idea in the academic community. Perhaps the radicals are far more plentiful than you would have previously imagined.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Yeah, in Archie World, there’s people – all lib’ruls, of course – who wake up in the morning and gleefully start their day thinking, “Oh, boy! Today I get to murder more babies!!!! Oh what a wonderful glorious life this is!”

    Someday, Arch, I hope you realize your vast ignorance of human nature (in whose moccasins you have NEVER walked) due to your blind obedience to dogma.

  • Arch Conservative

    Nobody, but nobody likes abortion.

    I’d beg to differ Glenn. Abortion has made Cecile Richards a wealthy woman.

    On second thought you’re right.

    Ms. Richards does not like abortion. She loves it.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    First, abortion WILL happen. Whether it will happen in a way that preserves the life and health of the mother depends on abortion’s legality.

    Second, here’s what Heinlein had to say about abortion:

    “No man is an island – ” Much as we may feel and act as Individuals, our race is – a single organism, always growing and branching – which must be pruned regularly to be healthy.
    This necessity need not be argued; anyone with eyes can see that any organism which grows without limit always dies in its own poisons. The only rational question is whether pruning is best done before or after birth.
    Being an incurable sentimentalist I favor the former of these methods – killing makes me queasy, even when it’s a case of “He’s dead and I’m alive and that’s the way I wanted it to be.”
    But this may be a matter of taste. Some shamans think that it is better to be killed in a war, or to die in childbirth, or to starve in misery, than never to have lived at all. They may be right.
    But I don’t have to like it – and I don’t.

    Nobody, but nobody likes abortion. But it is often necessary, as untold millions of women in America alone know all too well.

  • Excuse me… it’s not a HUMAN life yet if…

  • It is not a life yet if the jumble of cells can be frozen and survive rethawing.

    The woolly bear caterpillar (the larval stage of a moth that lives in the high Arctic) does exactly that, Jet.

  • Human embryos resemble those of many other species because all animals carry very ancient genes. These genes date back to the origin of cells, which are expressed during a middle phase of embryonic development, according to two separate papers published in this week’s Nature.

    The findings help to explain why our embryos have a tail when they are a few weeks old and why human embryos retain other characteristics, such as fur-like hair and fish embryo similarities, seen in the developmental stages of other species.

    “On average, the similarities will be even stronger for more closely related species,” Diethard Tautz told Discovery News.

    “However, it is indeed true that even fish and human embryos go through a phase that looks very comparable, while they are rather different before and after this,” added Tautz, who co-authored one of the papers and serves as managing director of the Max Planck Institute.

  • The answer is so simple, I wonder why no one has thought of is yet.

    Factor 1-It is not a life yet if the jumble of cells can be frozen and survive rethawing.

    Factor 2-The fetus must be able to survive outside of the womb on its own born prematurely in order to be considered a life.

    Here in Ohio they’re trying to say life begins the moment a doctor can distinguish a heartbeat.

    My sister had the worst tragedy. She had a baby developing inside her and tests proved that its birth defect wouldn’t be able to survive after birth more than a week or two-if that, and would be in agony its entire lifetime.

    She was gullible enough to listen to a bunch of anti-abortion fools that made her listen to the heartbeat of her fetus before aborting it, so she didn’t, then had to witness the agony that that infant went through for a 10 days before she died.

    My sister still can’t get that constant cry of agony out of her mind, thanks to a bunch of self-righteous religious idiots.

    It should be a law that every anti-abortion sign carrier must raise an unaborted child to the age of 18 despite its health problems. You’d see how fast they’d either back down, or get government money to raise it that they’re always critisizing others for needing.

  • I don’t think having an unplanned pregnancy terminated does automatically qualify as a tragedy, Doc.

    If a woman becomes pregnant accidentally and doesn’t want to have a baby, that isn’t a tragedy, it is avoiding an unwanted situation; there may be some sadness or regret involved but there may well be also relief and even happiness at an unwanted future avoided, so the issue appears to be one of your approach to the matter rather than an intrinsic quality of the situation.

    I do, of course, agree with you that working towards reducing the number of abortions through education and preparation is highly desirable but the institutional obstacles to getting that to happen are truly monumental.

  • Chris, no woman plans to put herself in a position where she has to consider having an abortion, so in that sense, yes, it is always a tragedy.

    In fact I can’t conceive of the situation where it wouldn’t be. If an abortion is done to prevent the birth of a child who would be severely disabled, or because the conception was the result of rape, or if the mother’s life would be in jeopardy if the pregnancy continued, those circumstances are still tragic.

    Certainly a world in which abortions aren’t needed is just an ideal, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t work towards reducing the number of them – but do so in the right way and for the right reasons.

  • Well, to give a more serious response, abortion is not ALWAYS a tragedy by any means, so it follows that it isn’t the case that the bigger tragedy is having a debate about allowing it. In fact the tragedy is having a debate about why it SHOULDN’T be allowed.

    Although I’m all for making people of all ages more aware of both contraception and parenting – and good luck getting that to happen in the United States of sexual hypocrisy, never mind in other even more fundamental countries – even if everybody on Earth was perfectly educated on these topics, there would still always be unwanted pregnancies.

    In addition to vastly improved sex education, the various parties that are trying to limit people’s ability to have abortions when they decide it is the right thing to do for them need to be told politely but firmly to fuck right off.

    Then maybe we could even start to address the issue of capital punishment, which most of the people so passionately opposed to abortion appear to have no problem with and to my way of thinking is a far more serious abuse of human life that has no place in a civilised society.

  • Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t even try.

  • Doc, and if wishes were dishes there’d be no hungry people!

    Wonderful as the world you portray might be, ain’t never gonna happen!

  • Abortion is always a tragedy but if we’re going to be honest with ourselves about it, the bigger tragedy is not that we have to have a debate about when or whether it should be allowed, but that it has to happen at all.

    What we should be discussing is how to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Conception via unprotected sex, rape etc needn’t and shouldn’t happen. (Sure, some abortions are the result of medical emergencies but that’s not really the issue.)

    If we have genuine respect for the lives of the unborn and their potential mothers, then figuring out how to make a world like that should be where our energies are channeled.

    Teach young people the essentialness of contraception. (If they absolutely must go around doinking each other which, frankly, they absolutely must.) Teach everyone how to use contraception properly. Teach parenting and exactly what it means and entails. Teach men respect for women. Keep persistent sex offenders out of harm’s way. That kind of thing.

    Too hard?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    Some hardline anti-abortion rights activists strongly believe that life begins at the instant of conception. If one is to seriously consider this idea, then all cells operating within a person’s body are alive as well, whether they be in a strand of hair or an appendix.

    On the opposite side of the aisle, a growing percentage of ethicists think that life begins at sentience. Essentially the ability for consciousness, which is not present in any meaningful fashion until long after birth.

    I think an argument could be made that an overwhelming majority of anti-abortionists believe that human life begins at conception and should be protected by law as such. And on the other side, I’d like you to provide any proof showing that ‘a growing number of ethicists’ believe that life begins at sentience. You gave no references for either claim.

    The problem, Joseph, is instead of approaching the matter from the positions of the vast majority of those on both sides – life at conception vs. life at birth (or at least at reasonable viability outside the womb) – you not only took the far extreme of both sides, but by doing so you also gave the extremists much more credit and credibility than they have or deserve…and frankly, your article suffered for it.

    Nearly all people on both sides of the abortion issue are good, intelligent people (or at least they see themselves that way). I suggest on this issue, at least, let’s keep the discussion concerning the overwhelming majority of the people, and not just the very, very small fraction who take things too far.