Monday, December 28, 2020

"When does 'life' begin? Well, when does 'life' end?"

A common question that people ask in discussing abortion is this:

"When does life begin?" 

A common answer is something like this:

"At conception or soon after: after all, a living egg and a living spermlife—unite to create new life." 

This type of answer is especially common with people who oppose abortion. Sometimes they think that pro-choice people deny this answer and sometimes even think that pro-choice people must deny this answer. 

People who oppose abortion also sometimes think this answer is "scientific" and that it makes their views on the ethics of abortion "scientific."

Unfortunately, much of this is in error, based on understandable misunderstandings. 

First, moral issues are never decided by science: moral views aren't scientific. Scientific information is often essential to figure out what to think about a moral issue, but it's never enough. Moral principles or other distinctly philosophical premises are always needed to reason from any scientific claims to any moral conclusions. So if anyone ever calls any moral view a "scientific" view, that's a mistake, and it's a mistake that happens on a lot of issues, from lots of "sides" on the issues.

Second, to think about when human life begins, it's very useful to think about when human life ends

Ordinarily, death occurs with the death of the body, the whole body. 

But sometimes the brain dies, but the body doesn't. 

So when does someone's life end? 

Many people believe, and argue, that someone's life ends when their brain dies (which often happens concurrently with the death of the body but, again, not always). 

And so we have the concept of "brain death": when someone's brain dies, they die, even though their body—or the body that they used to be "in"might remain alive. 

If this is correct (and it is, right?), then when does "human life" begin?

If it ends at brain death, then it begins at "brain birth."

Brain death is, roughly, when consciousness is permanently lost due to the state of the structure of the brain. So brain birth is when consciousness emerges due to developments in the structure of the brain. (And not just emerges in the sense of some kind of flickers and sparks of consciousness, but enough such that there's a real continuity of consciousness). 

When does that happen? At the earliest, around half-way through pregnancy. More likely, perhaps two-thirds of the way through. Maybe even later. This is a scientific question, and so the scientific research would need to be consulted.

What's important though is that it's not early in pregnancy: it's not when that biologically alive egg is fertilized by that biologically alive sperm. It's later. That is when our lives begin, not when our bodies (or what will become our bodies) begin. And this type of life is sometimes called biographical life, in contrast to (mere) biological life

This answer is more abstract of course than the common one. (It is, however, and perhaps ironically, an answer that many people who are religious [who, of course, sometimes oppose abortion] are more inclined to accept, instead of a view that identifies them with their body).

Why don't more people know of this view about when life begins and its merits?

I suspect it's simply that many people's views on this issue are not developed on the basis of "fair and balanced" education on the issues: they don't learn about the many options for belief here and decide their views on the basis of their informed understanding. Rather, people often come to these issues by way of what religious and political groups they are members of and then form their views on "groupthink" which, again, doesn't allow for a fair and balanced understanding of the various views and arguments. 

What can be done about this?

As I see it, the best options are honestly observing the situation for what it is, and then education and discussion done in good faith and with open-minds, meaning minds open to learning more and critically evaluating any and all proposals, including those anyone currently accepts. Of course, this attitude and approach would be helpful for many, maybe all, issues, so we might as well give it a try.

Might anything else help?

If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments. Thanks!

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