Defining the Moment

By Cyberquill 05/17/20136 Comments

Time of death is easily determined—but when exactly does human life begin?

The other day, I caught an interview with feminist in chief Gloria Steinem, during which she touted her decision to have an abortion at age 22 as the best decision she’d ever made and went on to extol elective pregnancy termination as an act of “liberation” for women.

Surely, though, if a woman elected to decapitate her toddler and bury the remains in the backyard, this would be no less an act of liberation from the trials and tribulations of motherhood as it would have been had she liberated herself a lot earlier in the process, yet we may assume that even Ms Steinem will concede that there comes a point at which a human being’s right to life equals, or peradventure even trumps, its mother’s right to feel liberated; namely the point at which a human being has become, well, a human being.

Unfortunately, Ms Steinem failed to specify, and the interviewer forgot to ask her, where on the continuum from conception to adulthood that point might reside and to explain why. After all, it is not before age twenty or thereabouts that the development that started at conception finds its completion. Until then, this living “entity” just keeps growing and developing, first inside the womb, then without.

For better or worse, the debate over whether abortion constitutes primarily an act or liberation or an act of premeditated homicide hinges on defining the point at which the “entity” becomes a human life such that terminating it on purpose is now no different than pushing a teenager over a cliff, and presenting a cogent rationale for choosing that point over any other.

Determining this point is important not merely from the standpoint of moral curiosity, but also for legal reasons. Otherwise, how are a judge or a jury supposed to decide, for instance, how many counts of murder a pregnant woman’s slayer has committed? Does it depend on the stage of the pregnancy at the time of the murder? If so, where’s the watershed?

Obviously, the moment human life begins must be identical with the moment when killing a pregnant woman ought to be rightfully regarded as a double-homicide. As already discussed in a previous post, whether or not an act of premeditated homicide has been committed cannot possibly depend on who committed or greenlighted the act; for if one were to argue that if a mother has consented to terminating her own offspring, terminating it isn’t homicide, but if she hasn’t, terminating it is, then one would have to explain why this very logic does not apply to terminating her five-year-old just the same. (To say that a five-year-old is “clearly” a human being returns us to the original question of precisely when human-beingness sets in.)

Stalwart conservatives, of course, take the easy way out of the conundrum. Erring on the side of caution, they simply insist that human life begins at conception, case closed, thus eliminating the specter of accidental homicide as a result of mistakenly assuming that human life begins later than it actually does.

For the rest of us, who feel that scraping out a clump of cells whose arms and legs are so tiny as to be virtually invisible without the aid of a magnifying glass, cannot possibly be tantamount to terminating a first-grader, the issue presents a bit more of a headache than it does to the likes of Sean Hannity.

For some people, “viability” (the ability of a fetus to survive outside the womb) is the point at which human life begins. Here, of course, the paradoxical situation arises that this point keeps shifting up or down depending on the state of medical care and incubator technology that happens to be available at a given time and in a given place. Ergo, as per the viability hypothesis, in modern first world countries human life begins a lot earlier than elsewhere or in the past. How can that be?

Others simply argue that human life begins at birth, which basically means that whether or not the “entity” is a human being depends on its whereabouts. This makes no sense, either.

Dr Kermit Gosnell has just been convicted of multiple first-degree murder for deliberately severing the spinal cords of viable fetuses with scissors after those fetuses had accidentally been delivered alive during botched attempts to abort them in utero.

The question of the legality of late-term abortion in Pennsylvania aside, what appeared to excite most of the public revulsion was the fact that these terminations had taken place ex utero (i.e., on the operating table) rather than in utero, as if the entity’s relocation from the inside of the mother to the outside of the mother abruptly turned it into a human being that it hadn’t yet been a minute earlier.

Sadly, the only alternative to throwing in with the GOP on the issue of abortion appears to be to pick an arbitrary moment out of one’s hat, declare with confidence that this is the point at which human life begins, and hope that no one will press for a rational explanation.

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  • Richard

    Another masterly illumination by you of the logical aspects of a moral issue.

    Law, of course, dodges the difficult questions by artificial definitions of the offences for the practical purpose of conviction or acquittal. They vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can only satisfy some of the people some of the time.

    The inherent mral dilemma is the definition of life or the potential for life. In the extreme case life is regarded as potential even before conception and the use of contraceptives found unacceptable.

    Attitudes can be divided broadly between those that regard life as the consequence of a chemical process -- which, surprisingly, include certain religious objections to contraception, those that treat life as separate from the body -- or as synonymous with soul or consciousness, and those that do neither but rely simply upon the sense of revulsion to which you allude.

    The second of these provides no solution because soul or consciousness cannot define itself and so is applicable to any state of affairs -- whether before creation, during pregnancy, after birth or after physical death. Certainly, it us not possible to ascertain whether another entity has awareness.

    Thus we are left only with legal definitions, which, rather than acceding to the whims of the mother, might better endeavour to balance the needs of a viable independent physical life against the admissible needs of the mother, excluding matters of mere convenience. There is no place for moral indignation, as above demonstrated.

    • Cyberquill

      Yes, it’s all a matter of balancing

      Speaking of the potential for life, I remember another interview I heard many years ago where the host asked a pro-choice activist whether, since she obviously refused to accord human-being-status to the unborn, she would at least acknowledge that abortion amounted to the destruction of a potential human being. After tapdancing around the question for about ten minutes as the host kept repeating it, she grudgingly answered it in the affirmative — what else could she have said?

      For even if one doesn’t believe that the unborn are human beings quite yet, the sole purpose of aborting (= destroying) them is to prevent them from becoming human beings at some point down the road, which means they have that potential.

      Of course, to openly admit that one is OK with — or, in the case of the aforementioned lady, even actively promotes — the destruction of potential human beings sounds real bad, but that’s precisely what being “pro-choice” means. There’s no way to sugarcoat it.

      For the record, I am very much pro-choice. Put less flatteringly, I am OK with destroying potential human beings; although based on the considerations discussed in my post, I cannot decide at which trimester to draw the line.

      All I can do is hope that human life begins closer to birth than to conception.

      • Constellations

        I appreciate how clearly and straightforwardly you’ve written on such a touchy subject, but I think you’re using an ad hominem to get around the issue. It seems as if your aversion to being against abortion arises because those whom you don’t like, i.e. “stalwart conservatives”, are opposed to abortion.
        Someone might not see eye-to-eye with a great deal of people who believe that slavery is wrong, but it doesn’t stop them from speaking out against slavery.
        Hypothetically, if most Republicans were extremely pro-choice, particularly the ones whom you like the least, and campaigned for greater abortion “rights” etc., would you be more open to being openly against abortion?

        • Cyberquill

          I don’t think so. Although I don’t much care for hardcore conservatives and hardcore liberals alike, I generally don’t hesitate to fully throw in with either on certain issues. Most issues, though — abortion among them — strike me as too complex for a simple and summary yes or no vote in accordance with the philosophy of either political camp.

  • Cheri

    Your essay was moving along just fine, approaching the topic logically and thoughtfully. Then you had to go and spoil it by using the words Sean Hannity.

    • Cyberquill

      Says the lady that used the words Richard Nixon five (!) times in her latest post.

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