Friday, October 23, 2020

Does "life" begin at conception? Biological versus "biographical" life

About abortion, it's often asked "when does life begin?" Are fetuses even alive?

People who oppose abortion are quick to argue that "life begins at conception": they even say "science says" that life begins at conception. 

Some pro-choice people ask if fetuses are even alive. Their question can seem silly (since abortions involve killing fetuses, and you can't kill things that aren't alive, so fetuses must be alive!), but it's really not. 

It all depends on what "being alive" means. What is life anyway? What do you mean "life"


One clear answer is that "life" is biological life. So to be alive is to be biologically alive or engaging in the processes of living things: taking things in, putting stuff out, growing, repairing, and so on. 

Fetuses clearly are biologically alive. Again, since abortion involves killing fetuses, they must be biologically alive. You don't need a scientist to tell you that. 


There's another legitimate meaning of "life" though. To see this meaning, consider this example:

Suppose a 20-something was in a car crash 20 years ago. She had been in a deep coma ever since, because her brain was extremly damaged, but her body - which breathed on its own - finally died yesterday.
When did her life end? When did she cease to be alive?

We might want to say that her biological life ended yesterday, but that her what we could all her biographical life ended 20 years ago: the "story" of her life ended at the car crash: the person she was ended then. 


So what kind of "life" are we thinking about when asking "when does life begin?" Biological life, or biographical life?

People who oppose abortion tend to assume biological life, partly because they usually aren't aware of the concept of biographical life. They assume that if fetuses are biologically alive, then abortion is often wrong. 

However, consider these assumptions, which are essential to various arguments from fetuses are biologically alive to the conclusion that abortion is typically wrong:

A. All living things are typically wrong to kill.

B. All living things that are biologically human are typically wrong to kill.

C. All living things that are biologically human organisms are typically wrong to kill. 

(A) is false: plants and mold are biologically alive, but not wrong to kill.

(B) is false: a random blob of living biologically human cheek cells wouldn't be wrong to kill.

(C) is what's at issue. 

Is a premise or assumption like (C) true? Why would someone think it's true? 

Although many people assume that this is true, one can see why it's actually probably false by thinking about why human beings are wrong to kill. Human beings can't be wrong to kill just because they are human beings: there has to be more of an explanation: what are better explanations and maybe the best explanation? Thinking through these questions (and better answers arguably appeal to consciousness, sentient, feeling or awareness) contribute to reasons to think that this premise is not true: while many human organisms are wrong to kill, not all human organisms are like that, and early fetuses are among that "not all." 

So, in sum, that biological life begins very early in pregnancy, and even that the biological life of human organisms begins very early in pregnancy, does not mean that abortion is wrong. There are hard steps to reach that conclusion. 


To return to the rough concept of "biographical life," it's worth noting that it's true that beings with biographical lives are typically wrong to kill. To be someone with a "life story," a person, does mean that they are wrong to kill, unless there's a good reason to do so. 

So if people who are wondering whether fetuses are alive, if the question is about biographical life, then the question makes sense. 

But, no, early fetuses are not biographically alive -- they would begin becoming biographically alive far later in pregnancy when they become conscious -- and so the principle against killing beings that are biographically alive does not apply to them. 


This is just a start of this discussion and these issues are discussed here in this section of Thinking Critically About Abortion and these blog posts, among other sources:

All other blog posts are available here

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