Tuesday, July 11, 2023

"When does life end?" can be a religious question: so can "When does life begin?"

Here I want to quickly explain (again!) why "When does life begin?" can be a religious question, since it seems like some people don't understand why that is. I suspect too many pro-choice people don't do a good job explaining this, which doesn't help anything. 

The key, or a key, to understanding this is reflecting on the less controversial observation that "When does life end?" can be a religious question. If we see why this is so, we can see how the issues are similar (not identical or exactly the same!) with beginning-of-life issues. 

To begin, here's a little survey I ran the other day:

The deal is this: the biological life of human organisms very clearly and obviously begins very early in pregnancy (and we might even want to say before pregnancy): a biologically alive egg is fertilized by a biologically living sperm, and soon there's a new biologically alive thing. There are some disputes here about when exactly there's a new thing, but all answers agree on this: very early. 

(Some say there isn't a living thing because it's dependent, but that's just foolish: there can be and are living dependent things: they are alive and their being alive is dependent on something or someone else.) 

Now, when anti-abortion people talk about "life" beginning at conception or soon after, they are talking about biological life. And they are correct! Biological life does begin at conception or soon after!

When (usually) pro-choice people deny this  when they claim that "life" does not begin at conception  and claim that "life" begins at birth, or that "life" begins when fetuses become conscious — far later in pregnancy  they clearly do not mean biological life. They don't think that a biologically dead thing, or something that's somehow neither biologically dead nor alive, becomes biologically alive halfway or two-thirds of the way through pregnancy or at birth. That's ridiculous. 

Someone would think that's what these pro-choice people think only if (a) they don't bother asking them to clarify what they mean and, if needed, doing a good job helping them clarify what they mean and/or (b) the person saying this just doesn't know how to explain what they mean. And (a) and (b) are common: anti-abortion people don't ask (why would they? what's in it for them to be charitable with people they want to "dunk" on?) and many pro-choice people don't successfully tell (as is suggested by the Twitter survey results). 

So pro-choice people agree that biological life begins early. So when they say that "life" begins at birth or far later in pregnancy, they don't mean biological life. 

The "life" they mean can be more readily identified by thinking about "when life ends." 

When does life end? When even does biological life end, for human beings?

Here it's pretty well-known that there are multiple answers. Here are three:

  • when someone's whole body is dead: that's when "life" ends;
  • when someone's heart isn't pumping and they aren't breathing: that's when "life ends";
  • when someone's brain is dead: that's when "life" ends.
Now, it's well-known that someone could be brain dead, but the rest of their body is still alive. So "When does life end?" in all cases? Is it the brain? Is it the whole body? Is it something else? 

Here the answer seems to be that the answer depends on our purposes, or why we are asking the question.

If we are asking the question because we want to know what we should do in these cases, ethically, then asking, "What are the person's religious beliefs?" might surely be relevant. Do they have religious or ethical beliefs such that letting their body die (or keeping it alive!) would be problematic, or contrary to their wishes? Do their religious beliefs have any bearing on what should be done here? 

Yes, of course, and that's why "When does life end?" can be a religious question: it's not a question about biological life and death--it's a question about what matters from ethical or religious points of view--with an emphasis that there are different, and often equally reasonable, ways of answering these questions

So, the same issues come up with beginning-of-life issues. Yes, of course, embryos and beginning fetuses are obviously biologically alive: when, however, do they have the type of "life," or are they "living lives" that have value and our various religious and ethical systems recognize as having value? 

Anti-abortionists claim that merely being biologically alive is what gives value here. They see this about embryos and beginning fetuses, but forget that they deny this in end-of-life cases: they forget that although a human body may be biologically alive, it may no longer be "alive" or have "a life" that matters morally or religiously anymore, and so that biological life can be ended, either by letting the body die or, potentially, actively killed. 

The same is true about embryos and beginning fetuses -- they are biologically alive, but are not "alive" or have "a life" that matters morally or religiously, from many legitimate points of view -- and so this is why "when does life begin?" is not just a scientific question, but a religious or ethical one.

This is are themes that I've written about in these various places (especially this Salon article, When does “life” begin? When it comes to abortion, it depends on what you mean by "life": Perhaps surprisingly, the word “alive” has a lot of nuance. A philosopher explains whyand perhaps this new offering will do some more good. Another important brief reading here is this: Is ‘brain birth’ the beginning of human life? Or conception? Science can’t draw the line, but only provide more evidence to ponder. People are familiar with "brain death," but are not familiar with "brain birth" and being "brain alive," but these are very helpful concepts!

Some related posts here:

@nathan.nobis When does "life" begin & end? it depends on what you mean by "life"! #abortion #prochoice #prolife #abortionrights #ethics #philosophy #philosophytiktok ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis