In humanity’s childhood, nobody ever really needed to ask “when does life begin?” or “when does life end?” But now that we have come so far in our understanding of the mechanisms by which physical reality operates, there are no longer clear boundaries. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a clear sense that by virtue of our minds and of our consciousness (and, depending on who you ask, of our capacity for communion with the divine), there is something that makes human life distinct from generic biological life. But that’s not really something we can measure. At the same time, we can keep zooming in on the components of biological life and measure them, and start to discover very fuzzy boundaries between life and death.
Demarcating the beginning and end of human life is the closest thing we have to “scientifically” measuring, quantifying, and describing it. Toward this, many will say that we can simply take a biological definition of life, insist on the presence of human DNA, and voila, there we have our answer. Others will swoop in and say that this is not quite the definition of life most people intend when speaking of human life — after all, we don’t mean life in the same way that bacteria have life, and many don’t mean life in the same way that simpler animals have life. Some will tie it to another concept altogether, one that they may or may not believe transcends physical order — personhood.
A particularly nasty abuse of this latter approach is to insist on a certain socializing as a rite of passage in acquiring personhood, and therefore the fullness of life and humanity. The abuses here are many — consider the boy raised by wolves. He could have had human social interaction, and may still have the capacity for it, but by this requirement, he is not really a person. What of the comatose? What of the severely mentally disabled? None of them are living people according to this view, all too prevalent amongst academics. I had a class back in college in which the majority position in the classroom was in favor of this view. And it may be gaining alarming influence outside the halls of the academy:
“The fetus, given the opportunity to develop properly before birth, and given the essential early socializing experiences and sufficient nourishing food during the crucial early years after birth, will ultimately develop into a human being,” John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions.
In the past, defining life had major implications for the abortion debate, as focus centered on the start of life. Then came the euthanasia debate, which usually focused on quality of life and ownership of one’s own life. But now, there is a real danger that if views like this one become widespread, a new debate could emerge: no longer sovereignty over one’s own life, but sovereignty of an intellectual elite over the biological lives of unpersons diverting scarce resources away from persons. This is not eugenics, because it is not aimed at the construction of a master race, but it does share a common means in putting people down like dogs for the benefit of a larger abstraction in society.
And let’s not forget the end of life. (I particularly enjoyed reading this rumination on it.) We have already had this foray; if you will recall, just a few short years ago Terri Schiavo died because she lacked consciousness and was therefore not a legally-protected human life. Her life was judged to have already ended, even though she persisted to live biologically. A very nasty and mean-spirited eruption followed. Those among us who believed this tantamount to murder were mocked and reviled as stupid zealots. And a woman died. Don’t let yourself think that debate is over.
I’ve only touched on physical (or as I’ve been calling it, biological) life and mental (conscious) life. What about a sort of life that carries with it strong moral imperatives, but that a very large minority believes does not even exist — spiritual life? That is the real ghost in all of these debates, but good luck measuring it by the standards of the new order of reason.
Edit: If you’re interested in how to go about thinking about when life begins, you may enjoy reading Abortion and the Architecture of Reality by some guy named Sean.