Monday, September 23, 2013

When does life begin?

In a recent comment to one of my posts on my Facebook page about Rep. Paul Broun (R, GA) who I called one of the nuttiest of Republican nut cases, my friend Dave wrote “I happen to concur with Broun that life does indeed start at conception. Prove me wrong."  Now I assume that Dave isn’t asking me to prove that he DOES NOT concur with Broun.  I accept that he DOES concur if he says he does.

I assume Dave wants me to offer proof that life DOES NOT begin at conception.  Now, Dave doesn’t define the term “life” so I can’t be certain exactly what he wants me to prove.  And, I’m not sure that Dave would accept my proof, whatever it might be, since such statements are statements of opinion rather than fact.  In reality, while most people think of the beginning of LIFE and the end of LIFE as events, they can more appropriately be thought of as processes with uncertain beginnings and endings.  We aren’t so much BORN or DIE as we undergo a transition to birth or death.  The fact that we designate certain specific points or moments in those transitions as constituting Birth or Death is a matter of social convention, medical opinion and/or legal definition.  We could designate a different point in those transitions as constituting the events we call Birth or Death. 

In fact that is what Dave, Broun and other like-minded Conservatives are trying to do.  Dave isn’t just posing a philosophical question—When does life begin?  He is stating a policy position.  Broun and others like him seek to enshrine in law, even in the Constitution, a definition—a legal definition—that will confer legal rights, responsibilities and obligations.  They are in effect saying that life begins at conception—the merging of sperm and egg—and that from that point that entity, called a Zagot, is a human being and is entitled to all the rights of any other human being under our Constitution and system of laws.  There are enormous legal and social ramifications for doing what they propose and adopting into law such an extreme position.  Therefore, this issue is one that is worth serious discussion.  That’s what I will seek to provide.
First, we need a definition of “LIFE” if we are to decide when life begins.  A widely used working definition accepted by many, but certainly not all, scientists and used by NASA is:
“Life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”  

Source: “Defining Life” by Carol E. Cleland and Christopher F. Chyba  See the article here:
A key component of this definition is the word “self-sustained.”  A chemical system that is not self-sustaining is, at least by this definition, not alive.  I would add that in defining HUMAN life we would probably want to add something about brain functioning.  For example, most of us would probably agree that a human body with no brain activity that is kept from decomposing only because it is attached to a machine or set of machines is probably not alive since it could not sustain itself separated from the machines.  In such circumstances, we declare the body to NOT be alive and we bury or otherwise dispose of it, hopefully in a dignified way.  However, we would probably reach a different conclusion if we could detect brain activity, although there might be some debate about the type or level of detectable brain activity was necessary for us to make our decision.

Let’s say for the purposes of this discussion and for the law therefore that we define HUMAN  LIFE as a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution that has detectable brain activity.  Admittedly, there are problems with this definition as there are with any definition.  If you want to read a good discussion of the problems with the “chemical Darwinian definition” I'm proposing read the Cleland/Chyba article I mentioned earlier.  However, these problems do not really impact my argument here.
Let me deal here only with the “self-sustained” portion of the definition I have provided as it applies to the issue of when human life begins.

At the point of conception, a single-cell organism called a “Zygote” is created.  The question then becomes whether the one-cell Zygote one second after conception is self-sustaining.  It isn’t.  Indeed for every 100 Zygotes created at conception, only 40 survive the Germinal Period and are implanted in the uterus.  In the absence of implantation they become nothing much more than body waste.  That would suggest to me that the Zygote is not alive in the sense of being self-sustaining.  At most, it is pre-life or an organism with the potential for life.  So, by our definition, at this stage we have not seen the emergence of human life.
Of those Zygotes that are implanted and enter the Embryonic  Period, about 20 percent are aborted spontaneously leaving only 32 to reach the Fetal Period.  Of these another two are aborted spontaneously before 22 weeks or are stillborn.  In short, less than one third of conceptions end up with a birth. 

Now, if we can say that Zygotes are not living human beings entitled to Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law, we may ask when between the beginning of the Embryonic Period and we declare as birth the organism does become something we would designate as a human being for legal and public policy purposes?  In deciding this, we can look to our definition and, in particular, the word “self-sustaining.”
The embryo is certainly NOT self-sustaining.  In fact, you could say that about the fetus until viability—the point at which it can exist (i.e, sustain itself) outside of the woman’s womb.  That certain does not occur until at least 22 weeks.  A fetus delivered before 22 weeks rarely survives more than a few hours.  Even at 22 weeks, extraordinary efforts are require to sustain the fetus which would raise doubts about what we mean by self-sustaining.  Between 23 and 26 weeks from conception, the survival rate improves but there is considerable risk of birth defects—only 20 percent of births before about 28 weeks result in a child who lives and is free of disabilities by age 6. 

Therefore human life begins at about 28 weeks after conception when the fetus becomes self-sustaining but certainly no earlier than 22 weeks.
As I said earlier, from a legal standpoint our interest in the answer to the question “When does life begin?” is important because it provides guidance concerning when a organism becomes a living human being and therefore is entitled to the full range of legal protections we afford living humans.  Certainly if we define the beginning of life prior to the fetal period we run into all kinds of legal possibilities most people would find unacceptable.  For example, could a woman who takes a form of birth control that interferes with implantation be tried and convicted of pre-meditated murder?  Given that 60% of Zygotes don’t implant, how do we know which were prevented from implantation by the medication the woman took?  The answer, of course, is that there is no way of knowing.  The same is true of the fetal period, at least up to 22 weeks.  Should a woman be criminally prosecuted or at least investigated for having a mis-carriage?  Are we going to have the courts engaged in making a determination whether or not a mis-carriage was an act of nature or the result of a pregnant woman’s action or inaction?  For example, could a woman who has a mis-carriage because she fails to follow her doctor’s orders during pregnancy to take certain medication and/or avoid engaging in certain activities that she has been told might put the fetus at risk be tried for murder, manslaughter or, at a minimum, fetus abuse or neglect?  I don’t think that would be acceptable and I think most Americans would agree.  In fact, while most anti-abortion advocates, seek to hold doctors who perform abortions criminally libel, some even accusing the doctors of murder, few call for criminal prosecution of the woman who has the abortion even when she actively sought the abortion.  I find that interesting since if a man or woman had their two day old child killed, we would certainly hold them as criminally liable as the actual killer.  Thus, even abortion opponents acknowledge that there is a difference between a fetus and a child, at least so far as far as a woman's criminal liability for its treatment.

I’m not in favor of abortion as a form of birth control.  I don’t know anyone who is whether pro-life or pro-choice.  To say that any woman would choose having an abortion as form of birth control, which is what many pro-lifers imply, is an insult to the entire gender.   I don’t want any woman to ever have to make the decision about whether to carry a fetus to term or to abort.  No woman wants to have to make such a decision.  That’s why I strongly support contraception and organizations like Planned Parenthood.  If we can avoid accidental unplanned pregancies, we can eliminate or at least greatly reduce the need for abortions accept under highly unusual medical circumstances.
Prior to at least 28 weeks after conception, a woman should have the right to make the decision about whether or not she should have an abortion, as difficult as that decision is for any woman to make.  No one, not the government, not her partner in the conception, no one but the woman herself has the right to make that decision, hopefully with the advice of her doctor.

Let me conclude with this.  When people like Broun, usually middle-aged or elderly white men, propose defining life as beginning at conception, they are really seeking just one thing—the legal authority to control women.  It is not about ethics or law or even religion that much.  It is largely about—power.  And, it is wrong with a capital W.  These are the same people who probably opposed and probably would still oppose adoption of the Equal Rights for Women amendment to the Constitution. (It fell three states short of ratification in 1979).  I think it is both ironic and telling that they would bestow rights on a one-cell Zagot that they deny to more than half of the U.S. population.
My answer to Dave’s question is simple.  Life begins when the pre-human organism develops to the stage where it can be self-sustaining without being implanted in a woman’s body.  Period.  End of story.  That’s your proof, or at least, a very strong and correct opinion.

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