The beginning of life

Pro-lifers want to know: when does life begin? Is it at conception? What about birth? Somewhere inbetween?

Biologists have trouble defining life, too. Is a virus alive? What about a toenail? The difficulty for biologists is constructing a definition that corresponds to everything that seems alive, from a commonsense standpoint, and excludes everything else. They want to keep plants in, but rocks out.

Why not just go with the Wikipedia definition? After all, Wikipedia typically reflects a consensus, right? Here’s Wikipedia’s version:

  1. Organization – Living things are comprised of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.
  2. Metabolism – Metabolism produces energy by converting nonliving material into cellular components (synthesis) and decomposing organic matter (catalysis). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
  3. Growth – Growth results from a higher rate of synthesis than catalysis. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  4. Adaptation – Adaptation is the accommodation of a living organism to its environment. It is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the individual’s heredity.
  5. Response to stimuli – A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism when touched to complex reactions involving all the senses of higher animals. Plants also respond to stimuli, but usually in ways very different from animals. A response is often expressed by motion: the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun or an animal chasing its prey.
  6. Reproduction – The division of one cell to form two new cells is reproduction. Usually the term is applied to the production of a new individual (either asexually, from a single parent organism, or sexually, from two differing parent organisms), although strictly speaking it also describes the production of new cells in the process of growth.

This is a pretty stock definition. All six qualities are necessary for life to exist. But how can we apply them to a fetus in the womb? A fetus has cells, it metabolizes, it grows, and it responds to stimuli. Adaptation and Reproduction are the sticky issues. How can a fetus adapt? Well, it grows into an adult human, reproduces, and the fittest children survive. But how do we decide whether a 2-week versus a 6-month fetus is “alive” by this criterion? We can’t. The biological definition of life doesn’t help us determine at what stage a fetus is living. Same applies to reproduction. Except there’s this curious addition to the reproduction quality: “strictly speaking it also describes the production of new cells in the process of growth.” Does it?

Let’s take a look at the World Book Encyclopedia’s definition of “Reproduction”:

Reproduction is the process by which living things create more of their own kind. There are two major types of reproduction-asexual and sexual. In asexual reproduction, a new organism develops from one existing organism. Some lower organisms, including bacteria, reproduce asexually. In sexual reproduction, a new organism develops from the union of two sex cells. In most cases, these cells come from two parents-a male and a female. Human beings and most higher animals and plants reproduce sexually.

No mention of reproduction as the process of creating new cells here. Why was that portion added to the Wikipedia entry? If you look at the history of the entry, you’ll find the reproduction quality has been edited repeatedly. Clearly it’s a point of contention among Wikipedia authors. Note also, the next section which qualifies the definition: “It is important to note that life is a definition that applies at the level of species, so even though many individuals of any given species do not reproduce, possibly because they belong to specialised sterile castes (such as ant workers), these are still considered forms of life.” This appears to contradict the Wikipedia definition of reproduction, for obviously even worker ants produce new cells in the process of growth. But this also suggests that the biological definition of life is not useful in determining the ethics of abortion, because there are many exceptions to these rules so that we can fit in our common sense idea of what is alive. No one agrees that a mule is not a life form, so we need to adapt our definition to the phenomenon.

Most important, though, is this phrase: “life is a definition that applies at the level of species.” You can’t apply the definition to an individual member of the species — the biological definition of life doesn’t work that way.

Clearly the biological definition of life is irrelevant to the question of abortion ethics, because it can’t be applied at the level we’re interested in: is a 6-month fetus alive, is a 6-week fetus alive, and so on. It’s pointless debating it.

And that’s all I have to say about the beginning of life from a biological perspective. Let it henceforth be known that when I’m talking about a “living human being” in the context of the abortion debate, I’m referring to the ethical sense, not the biological sense, since biology doesn’t address the question at hand.

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15 Responses to The beginning of life

  1. Jivin J says:

    Hi Dave,
    The biological definition of life doesn’t help us determine at what stage a fetus is living.

    That statement is nonsensical. You can’t say the biological definition of life doesn’t help us determine if something is biologically alive. That’s like saying, “the chemical definition of oxygen doesn’t help us determine if this gas is oxygen.”

    You need to accept that the fetus is a living human organism. Numerous embryology textbooks affirm this basic scientific fact. Here are some below:

    -“The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”
    (Langman, Jan. Medical Embryology. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975, p. 3)

    -“Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr. zygtos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being.”
    (Moore, Keith L. and Persaud, T.V.N. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993, p. 1)

    “Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote). … The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.” (Carlson, Bruce M., Patten’s Foundations of Embryology, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p.3.)

    You can still argue that abortion should be legal but you should come up with some reasoning for why one group of living human organisms (the unborn) shouldn’t have the right to life while other groups do. Asserting that the unborn aren’t alive and that we can’t know if they are seems almost silly to me. You know the unborn grow (which dead things grow?), you know they respond to stimuli and have a metabolism. Your advocacy for legal abortion is keeping you from accepting basic biological facts. If my advocating for something kept me from recognizing scientific truth, then I might begin to rethink my advocacy.

  2. dave says:

    You can’t say the biological definition of life doesn’t help us determine if something is biologically alive. That’s like saying, “the chemical definition of oxygen doesn’t help us determine if this gas is oxygen.”

    No, it’s like saying the geological definition of “glacier” doesn’t help us determine the precise moment when a snowfield becomes a glacier. It doesn’t mean that the definition is useless, it just means that the definition requires a larger scale of time than the period we’re interested in.

    I think your sequence of definitions of zygote is interesting, because as they become more recent, and more aware of the increasing sophistication of arguments about abortion, they become more careful in their use of terminology. “Ontogeny,” for example, in your final definition, refers specifically to the development of the fetus. Clearly no one disputes that fertilization is the beginning of ontogeny. But this sequence shows that biological definitions of life adapt according to “common sense.” So we really shouldn’t be using these definitions to determine what’s right and wrong.

    Asserting that the unborn aren’t alive and that we can’t know if they are seems almost silly to me.

    I didn’t say we couldn’t know if the unborn are alive, I said the biological definition of “life” doesn’t help.

    Look, I think this is a trivial aspect of the debate, but it does disturb me when pro-lifers hold up the “biological definition of life” as some perfect example of how to know whether or not the fetus is living. Even if it did help us, it would be largely irrelevant. But it doesn’t, because it can only be applied to the lifespan of an organism. It would be easier to make the case, from a biological perspective, that an individual blood cell is alive than to say that a fetus is alive.

  3. Jivin J says:

    I’m not saying those definitions necessarily prove that abortion is right or wrong. I’m using those quotes to show that scientists have accepted that at conception, the life of a human organism has begun.

    So if the biological definition of life can’t help us figure out if the unborn are alive, then what can?

    Blood cell v. fetus? You’re confusing parts and wholes. While the blood cell is alive it is merely a part of a larger organism (such as you or I or a fetus) like my skin or sperm while a human fetus is an organism unto themselves.

    Here’s a question for you. There are four basic differences between the born and the unborn. Their size (the born are usually bigger than the unborn), their development (the unborn are usually less developed than the born), their location (the unborn are inside the womb, while the born are outside it) and level of dependency (the unborn depend on others for their survival). Which of these differences is morally revelant and why?

  4. dave says:

    Blood cell v. fetus? You’re confusing parts and wholes. While the blood cell is alive it is merely a part of a larger organism (such as you or I or a fetus) like my skin or sperm while a human fetus is an organism unto themselves.

    By what reasoning do you argue that a blood cell is part of a larger organism but a fetus is a separate organism? It seems to me that you’re assuming that based on your advocacy of an anti-abortion agenda.

    So if the biological definition of life can’t help us figure out if the unborn are alive, then what can?

    An ethical definition is what’s needed, similar to how doctors make a pronouncement of death.

    As to your last question, I’d say all except size are morally relevant. Development is relevant because just as we don’t give children the right to drive cars, we don’t necessarily give a fetus or a blastula the right to life. Location is relevant because in order to protect or harm the fetus, we must impinge bodily on the woman who’s carrying it. Level of dependency is important because during pregnancy, the woman is solely able to nourish and sustain the fetus, so in requiring that all embryos be carried to term, we impinge on the rights of the women who bear them.

  5. Jivin J says:

    I base it on scientific fact and the embryology textbooks I’ve quoted and the other embryology text I’m familiar with. The fetus is an organism that is directing her own development while the blood cell is merely a part of a larger organism. This is basic biology. I’d also base it on the Law of Biogenesis (a fundamental law of biology) which states that all life comes from life and that organisms reproduce after their own kind. Please explain how two human beings can mate and reproduce something (the unborn) which isn’t a human being but later becomes one.

    An ethical definition is what’s need to tell if something is alive? That makes no sense at all. Ethics has no role in deciding whether an entity is a living organism. That’s biology. It makes absolutely no sense to try to determine if something is biologically a living organism based on ethics. Actually, doctors make prouncements of death based on biology as well.

    The right to drive cars has nothing to do with the right to live. That’s a complete non sequitur. We certainly base some rights on how developed/mature human beings are but is a 7 year-old girl (who has yet to go thru the development changes of puberty) not have the right to life because she isn’t as developed as a 15-year-old?

    Regarding your argument on location – that’s not really location – it’s more dependency. I don’t think you believe that the unborn miraclously changes into a human being deserving of the right to life simply because they change location. Do other things become organism based on a location change? Do I morph into a cat if I travel to Nevada?

    Regarding dependency, I can think of a ton of examples where a human being’s life is solely in the hands of another human being. For example, say you’re a lifeguard at a pool and it’s time to close. It appears that everyone has left but when you do a final check, you notice that a 3-year-old is struggling to swim at the deep end of the pool. What do you do? Jump in and save her or ignore her? Is the impingement of your right to leave work on time greater than the child’s right to live? Does the fact that the girl currently relies solely on you to live somehow diminish her right to life?

    Do we impinge on the rights of single mothers by not letting them commit infanticide? Being dependent on other doesn’t prove that the dependent one isn’t deserving of the right to life?

  6. dave says:

    “Actually, doctors make prouncements of death based on biology as well.”

    No, they don’t. The doctor doesn’t sit there asking “is this person able to reproduce? Does she adapt to her environment? No? I guess we can pull the plug, then!” The doctor looks brainwaves, and heartbeat, and other medical measurements. She looks at cognitive ability, and the level of pain the patient is sustaining. These are nowhere in the biological definition of life.

    Regarding your question about the lifeguard, of course “right to leave work” doesn’t trump her right to life. On the other hand, suppose the girl has been rescued and is in the hospital needing a blood transfusion. Do I have the right to force you to give a transfusion to save her life? Maybe. How about a kidney? Probably not. You see, it’s not a black-and-white issue, this right-to-life thing. Some other rights, such as your right to a kidney, trump it.

  7. Jivin J says:

    Do you know what the Uniform Death Act is? Doctors never ever ever make a diagnosis of death based their cognitive ability or the “level of pain the patient is sustaining.” Never. Doctor makes a diagnosis of death based on certain biological facts (such as heartbeat, etc.) Those are biological facts not ethical opinions.

    So then dependency on one person in and of itself does mean that one doesn’t forfeit their right to life, correct?

    If you don’t give her your kidney, then you aren’t killing her, the kidney disease is. She doesn’t lose her right to life just because you’d don’t want to give her your kidney and a kidney disease takes her life.

    Abortion is different because abortion is what takes the life of the child not a disease that you decided not to try to prevent.

    Plus, you might have a right not give the girl your kidney but that right doesn’t mean you have the right to intentionally kill the girl via dismemberment, correct? This is one of the numerous places wear Ms. Thompson’s violinist/kidney argument hits a snag.

  8. dave says:

    “Those are biological facts not ethical opinions.”

    They are not part of the biological definition of life, which was the question at hand. Doctors don’t use the biological definition of life to make death pronouncements, because the biological definition of life doesn’t give them the information they need to make the decision. Which has been my point all along.

    “The kidney disease is”

    So you’re saying it’s okay to let someone die of kidney disease? Since the disease, and not a human, is responsible for killing, then no one should be forced to donate a kidney. That’s the reason?

    But in the case of pregnancy, it’s okay to force women to carry their fetus to term, since the pregnant woman would be “killing” the fetus?

    That sounds like horribly perverted logic to me, but it’s the only way I can wrap my head around the idea, supported by some, that abortion is okay only in rape cases. Since the baby wasn’t the woman’s “fault,” then she’s allowed to kill it.

    But trying to incorporate the idea of “fault” into determining whose rights prevail can also result in significant problems. For example, what if a girl was fooled by her boyfriend into believing that she couldn’t get pregnant the first time she had sex. Then, since the pregnancy wasn’t her “fault,” would abortion be justified?

    Or, returning back to the lifeguard example, what if I wasn’t a lifeguard, just a regular person walking by a lake. I see a small child drowning in water that only comes up to my waist. Rescuing him would put me in no danger, but it’s not my fault he’s drowning, and it’s not my job to make sure swimmers are safe. So does my right to enjoy my afternoon walk trump his right to life?

  9. dave says:

    I should add, I hadn’t heard of the uniform death act, but a quick search on the web indicates that it appears to be a failed attempt to make a federal determination of death based on cessation of respiratory or brain activity. It’s not a law, and there’s no “never ever ever” about it. And respiratory and brain activity are not part of the biological definition of life.

  10. Jivin J says:

    Are you going to disavow your incorrect statement that doctors determine death by looking at “cognitive ability” and the “level of pain the patient is sustaining?”

    They might not be using the biological definition of life but they’re certainly using biology not ethics. Maybe we’re talking past each other because you seem caught up on the biological definition of life when I’m trying to clarify the important differences between biology and ethics. Biology and the evidence it provides is much greater than the biological definition of life.

    You’ll have to do more than just assert the logic is perverted. Do you not recognize their is a difference between the omission of an act (say not giving my kidney to someone) and an intentional act (dismembering the kidney patient)?

    I’m not sure what you’re arguing with regards to “fault?” I don’t see where I used the word or how what your saying addresses my points. I don’t hold the view that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion because she’s at “fault” for getting pregnant. I’m against abortion because abortion is an intentional action which ends the life of a developing human being.

    You should actually do more than a quick search. If you did, you’d find out that every, or nearly every state has the Uniform Death Act written into their law books.

  11. dave says:

    Jivin J, I don’t have time to chase down links on the internet. If you’re going to convince me that most states have adopted the Uniform Death Act, indicating that the end of life is determined by cessation of respiratory or brain activity, then you’ll have to provide me with the links. The quick search I did, along with a Wikipedia article, suggested Maine had adopted it and a couple other states were considering it.

    Interestingly, by this definition, fetuses wouldn’t be “alive” until at least the fourth week of pregnancy.

    With regards to the doctor using cognitive ability to determine death, didn’t none other than Bill Frist use that method (incorrectly, it turned out) to pronounce Terry Schiavo alive?

    I’m glad to see that you finally agree that doctors don’t use the biological definition of life. I would agree with you that they use some biological measures, in the sense that measuring organ function would be a biological measure. But that wasn’t the point of this post.

    Regarding the “fault” issue, I’m glad you cleared that up. So you would say it’s not okay for a rape victim to have an abortion in order to avoid giving birth to the progeny of her rapist? That’s at least a consistent viewpoint.

    Still, I don’t think the drowning child example is an appropriate analogy for deciding whether abortion should be legal. It’s the lifeguard’s job to protect swimmers, and surely it’s in the job description that he needs to make a check of the pool before he leaves work. Furthermore, the drowning child is a living human being, by anyone’s definition. To use an analogy that’s been beaten in the ground too many times, what if the lifeguard had to choose between saving the drowning child or a petri dish with 5 fertilized eggs from a fertility clinic? Only perverse ideologues would choose to save the fertilized eggs before saving the child.

  12. Nicole says:

    “Please explain how two human beings can mate and reproduce something (the unborn) which isn’t a human being but later becomes one.”

    The same way two chickens can mate and reproduce something (a fertilized egg) which isn’t a chicken but may later become one. The same way two cacti can mate and reproduce something (a seed) which can’t stab me but may later be able to.

    I agree with Dave that the biological definition of life is irrelevant to abortion ethics, but not for the reason he claims. I don’t think there’s any question that a fetus is alive, or that it is a member of the same species as people (thus fitting the biological definition of human). I think the question is whether a fetus is a person (fitting the ethical definition of human), which, since we frequently use different names and standards for different stages in a species’ life cycle, is clearly an ethical rather than a biological question. The two definitions of “human” are a stumbling block here, but try making an omelet out of an adult chicken if you don’t think there’s a difference between genetic and practical definitions.

  13. Jivin J says:

    The web address below lists the states that have adopted the Uniform Death Act or an act which is substantially similar. I count 40 states plus a few other principalities.

    The claim that the unborn wouldn’t be considered alive by this definition isn’t true. The unborn haven’t sustained an irreversible loss of entire brain function. There is a difference between never again and not yet.

    Everyone knew Terri was alive. No expert claimed she was brain dead. From my recollection, I think Bill Frist used the video to claim she wasn’t in a persistent vegatative state.

    Your correct, I’m not in favor of rape exceptions.

    My point about the life guard example was not necessarily to show that abortion should be illegal but to show that being dependent on one person doesn’t mean one necessarily loses their right to life.

    So the lifeguard might save the child. How does that prove the embryos aren’t human beings or don’t have the right to life? Let’s say terrorists kidnap you and one of your loved ones. They take you both to a warehouse where they have a livefeed of some of their comrades in India with 5 kidnapped Indians. They tell you that you have decide if your loved one will live or if the 5 kidnapped Indians will live. What do you do? If you choose to save your loved one, does that somehow prove that the Indians weren’t living human beings?

  14. Jivin J says:

    I’m guessing you’re not familiar with the Law of Biogenesis. It’s one of the foundational laws of biology. It basically says that all life comes from life and that a species reproduce after their own kind. Cats reproduce cats, rats reproduce rats, and humans reproduce humans. Chickens reproduce chicken embryos not cat embryos or human embryos.

    And then in your next paragraph you say that you agree that the unborn are living human beings in the biological sense. Huh?

    If the unborn are persons then the important question becomes: What’s the difference between a human being in the biological sense and a person? And why should I accept your definition/criteria of personhood over let’s say someone who says that African-Americans are persons because their skin is darker?

  15. dave says:

    Okay, Jivin, Thanks for the link. Somebody really ought to fix that wikipedia entry…

    Anyway, the fuzzy term in the definition is “irreversible.” Who’s going to decide a condition is irreversible? That’s where medical judgements come into play. It’s completely different from the biological definition of life. What I was suggesting is that similar medical judgements could be used to determine when the fetus is alive. But it’s always going to be a judgement call.

    You’re right that the Schiavo case isn’t really relevant here — sorry, I just couldn’t resist that.

    I have no clue where you’re going with the terrorist example, though. The question is, at what point does the fetus’s right to life supersede its mother’s right to control her body? What does this have to do with terrorists?

    The point about being dependent on one person is this: if the fetus had an unconditional right to life, it would mean that one person must be forced to provide for the fetus. In contrast to a child who’s already born. That child has a right to life, but we can’t force a person to surrender bodily functions in order to care for the child. In the worst case scenario, where the mother doesn’t want to care for her child, we simply remove the child and place it in someone else’s care. Obviously this is impossible in the case of the fetus, which is why the fact that the fetus is solely dependent on the mother is relevant to the ethics of abortion.

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