It’s been intensely frustrating, though strangely fascinating as a physician, to see public comments social media regarding the embryonic stem cell and, inevitably, the abortion debate.
The most common difference between the two sides seems to be the disagreement over whether or not the products of conception are a “person.” If they are not, when do they become a person? I don’t think I need to tell the reader which side of the issue maintains which view on that particular issue. Please note that I advocate whole-heartedly all other forms of stem cell research such as cord blood and adult stem cells. These have shown great promise and do not involve the destruction of the human embryo. Why then, if there are promising alternatives, do we fight for the right to destroy life in order to save it?
Clearly, on the surface, the issue is a very complicated one. It involves the notion of individual liberty regarding sexuality and so called “reproductive rights.” The notion that one claims “ownership” over one’s body without respect to the impact individual choices make on others including society as a whole. The dawning of new reproductive and contraceptive techniques over the past fifty years has certainly been part of the debate as are the medical ethics questions that naturally proceed and inevitably follow.
Life Begins with Living
However, as the reader will note, the issue is only complicated on the SURFACE. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “Moral issues are only complicated to those who lack principles.” While offensive to many, to others it is common sense. As it concerns this debate, I am afraid that the question at hand is a simple one. Does life begin at conception? If the answer is yes, what kind of life is it? If it is a human life, does the individual have the right to terminate it under any circumstance? Should the government sanction the procedures? If we are going to argue over whether or not a human life counts as a “person,” however tiny and helpless, then I am afraid we have lost our way.
As recently as March 30th, 2010, Scott Dawson, Assistant Professor of Microbiology at UC Davis, described the single celled organism known as the amoeba as “free living” and can “organize itself internally much as a human cell does.” One of the things that make the amoeba so ‘human’ is it’s approximately 15,727 genes. This compares to the 23,000 or so that humans are known to have. He goes on to say that with those genes, the amoeba can “organize itself internally much as a human cell does.” Interestingly, in all my years in science and medicine, I have never heard anyone question whether or not an amoeba, a tree, a flower, or plush, green lawn possessed life. Why the difference in approach and philosophy when it comes down to a baby before it’s born?
Let’s be intellectually honest. If it’s a life, it’s a human life. Not an amoeba, a tree, or a flower. It has all the things needed to make it part of OUR species. He is a genetically unique individual. Why do we quibble? The discussion should have ended. But it hasn’t. Why?
What is one of the first questions out of a person’s mouth when they meet a new person? Often, it is “what do you DO for a living?” Not “what’s your name?” In other words, our value as human beings is becoming more and more defined by roles we play in society and even by the visceral and mental functions we are able to perform. Many of those who support abortion rights or the destruction of embryos will argue that they cannot physically recognize a blastocyst or an embryo as a human person. He cannot reason or exercise free will. Yet, we cannot see the infinity of the universe and accept its existence. The comatose patient cannot reason or exercise free will. Has he ceased to be a person? But, the functionalist argument is about what you CAN do, not about what you used to do. If you would argue that the potential for these functions cannot qualify the unborn as a human person, then I would argue that the potential to get those functions back again cannot qualify you either. You cannot have it both ways.
Living Versus the Potentiality of Human Life
This begs the question of actuality versus potentiality. The concept of potentiality, in this context, generally refers to any \”possibility\” that a thing can be said to have. Actuality, in contrast to potentiality, is the motion, change or activity, which represents an exercise or fulfillment of a possibility when that possibility becomes real in the fullest sense.
Human life is full of change, perceptible or imperceptible, from conception until death. The process of change never stops. Conception is the only “abrupt” moment in the process. Even death is most often a gradual process. We get closer to it every day of our lives. Thus, from conception is the blastocyst to the embryo to the fetus to the newborn to the toddler to the first day of preschool. The process of moving toward your ultimate destiny began the moment you were conceived.
The difference between each and every one of those phases is simply one thing-TIME. That and the will of your mother to give you time to reach your destiny. Love is the basis for the uniqueness that makes you an individual: an “I” created in the image of God whose own name is “I AM.” A person. It’s that, or we are inventing another group of human NON-persons. You may remember some earlier versions-Jews and Blacks. According to Hitler, blacks were “a monstrosity somewhere between apes and human” and Jews were undoubtedly a race, but not human.
Fortunately, our founding fathers thought differently. The opening of the United States Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, states as follows:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created (not born) equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the most fundamental is life. The rest are irrelevant without it. As you know, even the founding fathers didn’t have it ALL right. The issue of slavery was one of the saddest eras in American history. To some, all men were created equal as long as you were not black.
Slaves were considered legal non-persons except if they committed crimes. An Alabama court asserted that slaves \”are rational beings, they are capable of committing crimes; and in reference to acts which are crimes, are regarded as persons. Because they are slaves, they are incapable of performing civil acts, and, in reference to all such, they are things, not persons.”
The potentiality of becoming a human person only became an actuality if a slave broke the law. Also of note is the notion that slaves were rational creatures yet not persons—not until they were accused of a crime. If the court can say that a rational creature (the slave) is not a person, how can we say that an unborn child is not a person because they are not yet capable of rational thought? It seems that who we wish to define legally as a person depends more on our whims and selfish desires than on the presence of reason in the individual.
Perhaps using human embryos as spare parts to cure what ails us is another form of slavery. One human pressed into the service of others. It’s important to note that even the PRO embryonic stem cell person refers to it as a HUMAN embryo.
At conception, the “who” is already defined. It is life and it is human-an entirely unique individual. The potential for human life has now become an actuality. The objector will argue that there is nothing recognizably or functionally human present. There is no known thought or reason or will. Herein lies the problem of defining people by what they do or don’t do. The objector pits actual life against potential functions. But as stated life is full of potential and inevitable changes in function. They will be actualized only when we allow them. A newborn is a human life in actuality but only has the potential for reason, free will, speech, and other recognizably human functions.
If we are going to insist on the absence of potentiality in life, then by default we are insisting on only the wholly actual, unchangeable. Fortunately for us, that life has existed for all eternity-the uncreated creator and unmoved first mover of every bit of matter in the universe. We call him God. Though He needed nothing for His happiness, He spoke us into existence by sheer love. He is our first beginning and our ultimate destiny. We will spend every waking and sleeping moment of our lives in a state of potentiality. Only when we reach our destiny in the presence of God do we become the butterfly freed from the cocoon.
Many of you may say that God does not exist. These arguments are irrelevant. You may say you are not sure. None of this can be proven. The whole of the universe is random. There is no intelligent design for any of this. If this is your position, then the very brain that you are using to make your arguments is also random. It was not intelligently programmed. How can you trust its conclusions?
In the end, most of us accept or reject the notion of a human person being present in the newly conceived life. However, some of us will simply say we are not sure. How can we know with certainty? Interestingly, most people that hold this position are in favor of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
But, the skeptical position begs an important question. If you cannot determine whether or not a life is present, why would you take the chance if you care about life? For example, to knowingly and willingly take a life is considered murder. A lesser possibility is manslaughter-a reckless choice. Consider then if you are camping in the woods with your family one night. You hear rustling in the bushes. It could be nothing but the wind in the trees. It could be a person. It could be a bear. You just don’t know. Fortunately, you came prepared. Your fear for your health, safety, family and livelihood led you to shoot into the darkness. It was your son. You wished you would have known.