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What is man, that you are mindful of him?

March 5, 2012

Who is human and what is not? Whoever wishes to debate abortion should give that question some thought. Whether we are aware of it or not, that question is at the root of the discussion. How far back can you trace the origins of a person? When does a human being come into existence? And are women human? Some abortion proponents argue that since deciding over your own body is a human right, prohibiting abortion means denying that women have human rights.

The tricky part is: there is no single event that creates a human out of not-human material. Even semen has been claimed to be sacred and given status as potential humans. It seems incredible to me that anybody could take such a position in earnest, but some thinkers in the judeo-christian tradition did and do. (Links do not represent complete coverage. Google “spill your seed in vain” and you will find more. Much more.)

Conception, the combination of egg and sperm to form a new, unique set of DNA, is sometimes proclaimed as the formation of a new human under the protection of human rights. Drawing the line at conception seems superficially straight-forward, but identifying a human with his or her genetic code is not unproblematic. What about identical twins, should they count as one person? German law defines implantation as the start of pregnancy. However, identical twins sometimes split into two embryos as late as 12 days after conception, when the embryo has already implanted into the uterus. So attachment to the uterus can’t be used as the starting point of personhood either.

How about identifying a human being with his/her mind? It circumvents neatly the problem of identical twins and other clones, but carries its own set of pitfalls. When can a human body be said to have a mind and a personality of its own? The mind is closely tied to the brain – how far must the brain be developed? Is it enough to have functioning neural connections? The first synapses in the spinal chord form already in the fifth week after conception, and by the sixth week, the embryo can use them to bend and curl its body. Brainstem development occurs mostly during gestational week 12 to 26, as seen by the appearance of sucking, swallowing and breathing reflexes. The presence of a functioning brain stem seems to be taken as a criterion of personhood in many laws about abortion. Most countries that allow abortion on request limit this to the first trimester. The cerebral cortex matures very late, with most of maturation (all of it for premature babies) taking place after birth.

Being born is very often seen as self-evidently past the point where human rights set in. Some people question this too. After all, there is no significant difference in development between a fetus 37 weeks into pregnancy, and a newborn baby of the same gestational age. What justifies abortion of the former also justifies killing of the latter, two medical ethicists from Melbourne named Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue in Journal of Medical Ethics. The article has given rise to some depressingly predictable reactions, like threatening the authors’ lives. Julian Savulescu, editor of JME, likens it to witch hunts in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. And, when I read the whole quote, I can’t help but feeling that he has a point:

This “debate” has been an example of “witch ethics” – a group of people know who the witch is and seek to burn her. It is one of the most dangerous human tendencies we have. It leads to lynching and genocide. Rather than argue and engage, there is a drive is (sic) to silence and, in the extreme, kill, based on their own moral certainty. That is not the sort of society we should live in.

So, please everybody, keep your heads on. Nobody has killed any babies. Somebody has claimed that killing a newborn is morally equivalent with performing a late abortion, that’s all. Giubilini and Minerva defines a person as “an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her”. Newborns, like fetuses, are not persons according to this criterium, merely potential persons. And nothing prevents one from taking exactly the same argument and letting it point in the other direction: Killing newborns is wrong, killing newborns is morally equivalent with performing late abortions, therefore late abortions are wrong. Most of the people who are arguing against the article take this approach, in fact.

A concept of personhood closely tied to “whoever is born is definitely human”, is the idea that a fetus crosses the transition line to baby when it can live on outside the mother. The Netherlands uses this: a non-viable fetus may be aborted, but not a viable one. It neatly solves the issue of “but what if the baby has a severe handicap and will never live on after birth and this is only detected late in the second trimester”? On the other hand, it makes the definition of who is a person dependent on the state of medical technology. Before modern hospitals, babies born at 7 months of pregnancy could survive. These days, the viability limit is down at 22 or 23 weeks, with the world record in survival held by a boy born at 21 weeks of pregnancy. I am also firmly convinced that at some point, somebody will develop mechanical uteruses, making pregnancy obsolete. At that point, we would be forced to grant human rights to fertilized eggs. And personhood just seems too fundamental a concept to make it dependent on technology level.

So, when does a gonad turn into a human being with the full sets of human privileges? I don’t know. I can’t decide. I’m actually less sure of it now, than when I started researching embryonic and fetal development for this post.

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