Monday, February 1, 2021

The Ambiguities of "Life" and "Human": Responding to Steve Jacobs at "Secular Pro-Life"

Steve Jacobs responded at "Secular Pro-Life" to this post of mine that was critical of his dissertation project, and I think his response misses the main issues.

So the issue here is that the question "When does life begin?" is ambiguous: it can mean different things. (The question "When does human life begin? is likewise ambiguous too, as we'll see). 

First, there's biological life, something being engaged in the biological processes that define life in a biological sense.

It is very, very obvious that biologically human zygotes and embryos and fetuses are biologically alive: they came from eggs and sperm which were biologically alive; they are engaged in the processes mentioned on page 1 of a biology textbook.

But this obvious fact that biologically human fetuses are biologically alive isn't very important because of this: just because something is biologically alive, that doesn't mean it's wrong to kill it. E.g., mold and plants are biologically alive, but they aren't wrong to kill. Other counterexamples make the point. (Now, the point is not that human fetuses are comparable to any living thing; the point is to engage the exact premise that completes the reasoning as given). 

So here's the problem: if someone thinks that proving the obviousthat biologically human fetuses (we aren't talking about kitten or puppy fetuses, right?) are biologically aliveproves that abortion is wrong, that is mistaken: it's a bad argument. 

Some people are really excited to "prove" that human fetuses are biologically alive, but they just shouldn't be: nothing interesting follows from that fact (or, to be more accurate, interesting moral conclusions about abortion follow from that fact only when conjoined with this false premise: 'all biologically alive things are wrong to kill' or even 'all biologically alive things are prima facie wrong to kill'.

I think this explains the negative reactions that Jacobs got: people thought, "Oh, he's going to take my answer and use it to argue for conclusions that it really doesn't support." And they were right about that. (Right?).

So what else can "When does life begin?" mean? In particular, what can "When does human life begin?" mean?

You can get at that by thinking about the question "When does a human's life end?"

Most people recognize that this is a complex question because of examples like a permanent coma or permanent vegetative states or major, major brain damage. In these cases, someone's body may be alive, but their brain is dead: so we often think that their life has ended, even though their body is biologically alive.

Why has their life ended (even though their body is biologically alive)? 

Because their consciousness has permanently ended: they exist no more: there is no individual or person there anymore, and nobody who can be harmed anymore. So, while there are different ways to put this, we’d say their “biographical lifeended even though their body remains biologically alive.

So back to the question: when does "life begin" for us, and “life” in the morally significant sense, or "biographically human life"? When consciousness begins. And this is a different answer than the biological answer, in part because it's a different question: it's not just about biology; it's about us and what we really are: although we are very much related to our bodies, we are not our bodies.

So, this problem all arises from asking an ambiguous question and not clarifying the options for what the question might mean: in other words, not engaging in a core task of critical thinking. Had that been done, the answers here, from biologists and anyone else, likely have been quite different, as would have been the tones of their reaction!

Especially related blog posts:
All blog posts are here.

  • Updating the question to "when does biologically human life begin?" or even "when does a biologically human organism begin?" doesn't change the discussion: the points above still apply. 
  • Further comment: Jacobs write this: 
If a fetus is not a human, then abortion restrictions stop women from having a basic, harmless medical procedure. 
If a fetus is a human, then each abortion kills a human and is a presumptively punishable crime without an affirmative legal defense.

About the second claim, each fetuses is obviously "a human" in the biological sense and abortion kills beings that are biologically human: every thoughtful pro-choice person recognizes that (any who are not are confused). What they deny is that fetuses are "human" in the sense of having what they consider human characteristics, like consciousness, feelings, awareness, and so on, and they think that those types of characteristics are what make killing someone wrong. So this statement suggests a misunderstanding of what people actually think about about these issues.

About the first claim, again, of course fetuses are biologically human, but they are not "human" in the sense of having what they consider human characteristics, like consciousness, feelings, awareness, and so on. But that doesn't automatically mean that abortion is not wrong either: e.g., the most famous and important philosophical argument against abortion, from Don Marquis, denies that fetuses are "human" in this sense. So this claim is false: even if fetuses aren't human in this sense, they could be wrong to kill nevertheless.  

  • While these issues about "what we are, in our essence" are abstract, Lynne Rudder Baker's Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View (Cambridge, 2000) is a great discussion of them. Here's part of the introduction to one of her articles on these issues:


Another update:

In engaging Jacobs on these issues (on Twitter), it seems very common for him to observe that his survey results were these:
  • Many "average" people reported that biologists were the best candidates to determine "when life begins.
  • Of course, most biologists report that "life begins" at conception or, more literally, there is a living organism at or soon after conception
Now, about the first claim, is this, in general true:
  • If "average" people -- people who are untrained and inexperienced on an issue -- report that some group of practitioners are the best people to ask about that issue, then that group of practitioners is indeed the best group to ask. 
This is false. What are great examples to show this?

About the second claim, since many or most of the biologists surveyed are pro-choice, that just shows that they (like many or most people!) are informed enough about the ethics of abortion to understand that just because an embryo is a living organism, from or near conception, that does not mean, or even much suggest, that abortion is wrong or should be illegal. That, of course, is what led to the angry reactions: their biological claims were twisted to try to support an agenda that they, and their biological claims, don't support. 


  1. Calling this a “critical thinking” blog is a gross farce. All that is being done here are feeble attempts to make abortion okay no matter what while trying to sound intellectually superior. The arguments given fail on both accounts!

    1. Thanks for responding, but without any details and reasons to substantiate these bold claims, we should not take what you are saying seriously. Right? Thanks!

  2. "a woman has no right to kill the Fetus unless medically necessary to save her own life."

    Maybe, but why? A beginning fetus is very much not like a refuge.

  3. Like most people- I have zero training/schooling in any field beyond my kitchen so my questions may come off as "dumb" compared to these wonderfully well written articles- but I'm going to ask them nonetheless. Are my eggs not "living"? What about sperm? If life begins at conception, where do harvested embryos fall on the "scale of living"? If I understood someone correctly who went through the procedure of having embryos harvested- they are fertilized, implanted and then removed 4-6 weeks after implantation has occurred. Then kept frozen until needed or wanted. Also- a woman is technically about 2 weeks pregnant PRIOR TO fertilization. **YES- a woman's "pregnancy clock" begins BEFORE they have sex to fertilize that egg. When sperm meets egg, woman is already 2 weeks along. At "4 weeks", the egg has been fertilized approximately 2 weeks. Implantation takes 7-10 days so the embryo has been attached to the uterine wall for a matter of DAYS only.** Are scientists charged with negligence if those embryos are not stored correctly or if there is a malfunction in the equipment (like freezers)? What about any unnecessary embryos that remain? What about those that can not be used due to time? Are bans in place to restrict the number of embryos that can be kept to lower the death toll? If life ends at "death", when we take our final breath, why does life begin prior to the first breath? If life ends at the final heartbeat, where would those who have devices to keep their hearts going fall on that spectrum? The heart is not fully developed until weeks 8-11. Is THAT when "life starts", once the heart is completely formed? I must admit that my thought processes obviously falls very short of how a biologist or someone with a doctorate may think so again, excuse my level of ignorance. No- I don't have a firm opinion on abortion. I feel like there are so many murky areas that leave this far from a clear cut subject. One more thing- a comment above states that abortion should only be when mother's life is in danger. Does that mean mother's physical wellbeing? Life or death physically? Or is that her mental and psychological wellbeing too? I realize mental health is only important in *some* situations so I am curious if this would be one of those times...? Should law makers be the people who determine when each mother's life is at risk or are those decisions best left to actual MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS? Should law makers dictate when you or your loved one needs services? Or should a physician be the person to turn to for those things?

    1. Hi, you have many questions here. A short answer to some of them is that these things are biologically alive, but that that's not what matters. Maybe this will help:

  4. A cancerous tumor is made from human cells and is biologically alive, though we remove as soon as they are found. The defining characteristics: "of human cells," and "biologically alive," are not exclusive to human fetuses. You'd have to at the least add 1 more defining characteristic, "will/can grow into fully formed human." Though after you add this characteristic and/or create a definition narrow enough to target the fetus apart from other human organs or growths ect you end up admitting the fetus is not the same as an alive human and/or that terminating a fetus up to a certain point does not meet the standards required to criminalize the mother for a private medical procedure. Big government doesnt belong in the bedroom and big gov doesnt belong in the doctors office. Church doesnt belong in schools or the law.

    - concerned libertarian

    1. Thanks, yes. In addition to this "can" claim though what's also needed is an explanation of what can happen, must happen: there's an obligation to make it happen. See the section on arguments from potential in TCAB. Thanks!

      Yes, it's too bad more "conservatives" aren't libertarians!

  5. But you're not just claiming a right to life; you're adding the right to use someone else's organs, a right that no other person enjoys.

    The part of the law you’re missing is that no person’s need for the use of another’s body grants him the right to such use, regardless of the “innocence” of that need. If that we’re not the case, we’d regularly be forcing blood donations, marrow donations, and organ transplants.

  6. Hi, that's current law, and we know that laws can change. Laws could change to require some beneficience, although not necessarily along the lines you suggest.

  7. And to you I say that an individual’s right to consent or refuse consent to access the interior of their body does not depend on your assessment or approval of their motives for doing so.
    The courts have already established that one person’s need to access the interior of another’s body in order to survive does not grant the right to such access. A fetus does not have more rights than other human beings.

    1. I find interesting that in essence you are saying a fetus has no rights. When do you decide it’s no longer a fetus but a baby??

    2. I assume you are responding to this (other?) anonymous person.

      They are not saying that no fetuses have any rights (although they may think that). They are saying that, like you and me, a fetus doesn't have a right to anyone else's body.

      About "fetus" versus "baby" we might think that far later fetuses are babies since they look like babies and have feelings like babies. Embryos and early fetuses need not be called babies. See

  8. It looks like the court changed it's mind on that, on the basis of bad arguments.