When does a human being become human?

While I don’t relish controversy per se, I seem to be attracted to subjects—the meaning of life, the big bang theory, particle physics, and death—which necessarily lead to differences of opinion. Some of these are unfortunately expressed with contentiousness, with vehemence, and, at times, with weapons of mass destruction (such as the American public school system). For now, I prefer we stick to weapons of relatively unalloyed logical discourse.

So as we consider human nature, especially at the stage of our evolutionary beginnings, we leap unavoidably into the churning morass of ideologically- and theologically-loaded issues: abortion versus the right to life; the right to privacy versus the public good; the right to have control over one’s body versus society’s obligation to protect the rights of those unable to protect themselves; euthanasia versus laws against suicide. These are just a few of the weighty life and death disputes we constantly debate.

The logical implications of this single issue concern the right to abort a fetus that is deformed or mentally deficient. The logical extension of that question leads us to the possibility of the right to abort a fetus of an undesired sex or race or size or disability or whatever other attributes we are gradually learning to predict according to amniocentesis and other prenatal testing.

Presently, the rights of a woman to decide the fate of an embryo (first eight weeks) or fetus (post eight weeks) or child (viable fetus) are determined by the laws of the land in which the woman resides. For the most part, the rights of the unborn child have evolved in the United States since the famous January 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision by the US Supreme Court stating that a woman can abort her pregnancy at any time until “the point at which the fetus becomes ‘viable.’” Decided on the basis of the constitutional right to privacy (part of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment), this ruling asserts that what a woman does with her own body is her own business until her body contains another “viable” human body, at which point the unborn child assumes rights of its own.

Women march after landmark Roe vs Wade decision

Women march after landmark Roe vs Wade decision

Now as anyone not totally oblivious to the realities of contemporary society is aware, this thirty-five-year-old ruling has been, since its beginning, highly controversial and divisive because of obvious problems stemming from the language of the ruling. But the problem in the language of the ruling derives from the inherent problem of the questions we are in the midst of considering—not when does life begin, but at what point can a living entity that is destined to become a mature human being take on the attributes, capacities, and, thus, the rights of a human being.

Two words in the ruling that obviously stand out in particular are “point” and “viable.” The word point is particularly awkward because time and human development does not stop, not in this life. There is no pause, pregnant or otherwise, when we reach these milestones we’ve been discussing. Once set in motion through fertilization or conception, there is no vacillating, even if there are explicit milestones where, as we continue to evolve, we can also reflect on how far we’ve come.

In short, the idea that there is a “point” in the process of gestation other than conception presupposes some specific biological event or transformation from one state or stage to another. Even the distinction between the terms embryo and fetus is merely a useful invention for the purpose of discussion, not an actual point of biological change, which happens continuously.

Obviously the second troublesome word in the language of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is viable, a word that the Supreme Court itself thought necessary to put in quotation marks to indicate the need for definition and clarification. According to the court, they intended the term viable to designate the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb—in 1973, around seven months.

Here we have room for even more ambiguity. With rapid advances in medical science, this “point” of viability has now evolved into a variable period of time that presently can be anywhere from twenty-two weeks (less than six months) and 500 grams in weight (a bit over one pound), all the way to a somewhat standard time of twenty-eight weeks (seven months) and over two pounds. In other words, that point in time is now a month and a half in length. At one end is a medical procedure, while at the other the same procedure is the heinous crime of infanticide.

A third predicament, allied to and derived from this range in the viability of a given fetus is also relatively obvious: the legal system, somewhat in league with the medical profession, is determining at what point humanness occurs based on the parameters of a technology that changes almost daily. Put simply, instead of defining human rights effectively, the court decision in actual fact blurred any useful distinction between a woman’s right to a common medical procedure and the punishable crime of murdering an unborn child.

How does the Baha’i Faith deal with this thorny moral issue? Baha’is believe that the human soul comes into being at conception; that we should refrain from killing and therefore abortion; but that, on the other hand, abortion may sometimes be medically justified. For those reasons, the Baha’i teachings leave such difficult decisions to the parents and the physician:

…the whole matter [of abortion] is left to the consciences of those concerned who must carefully weigh the medical advice on the case in the light of the general guidance given in the [Baha’i] Teachings. – The Universal House of Justice

Another aspect of the complexity and intricacy in determining the “viability” of a human being is that the court decision in no way implied viability without external assistance or artificial aid. Indeed, of all mammals, the human being doubtless has the least viability without continued external and artificial aid. For while some complex mammals may train and safeguard their progeny for months or years, it could well be argued that the human being does not achieve true viability, at least to the extent of some sort of autonomy, until it can say with conviction, “Would you like fries with that?” And even then, we must presume the child has been trained sufficiently well to have the discipline to live on a minimum wage. We also must presume that, if the child is to survive past the age of forty, it does not eat any of the products it proffers to those at the drive-through window.

In conclusion, then, neither science nor the courts have devised, nor will they ever be able to devise in the future, any point other than conception at which a human being becomes distinctly human—and therefore deserving of human civil rights. Once the whole process is set in motion with fertilization or conception, there is no pause, no sudden transformation, no point or series of points at which this evolutionary growth is anything other than a human being in the process of developing, a process that achieves physical maturation around fifteen years of age and peaks at about age twenty-one or so.

We can simply conclude that the debate on the subject will continue until some consensus emerges on when a human becomes a human. In the next essay in this series, we’ll try to understand what really constitutes human life.

Next: Mind or Soul: What Makes us Truly Human?

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

9 Comments

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  • Mar 27, 2016
    The point I wish to make is that regardless of whatever one's opinion or feeling about whether women should be legally protected & able to make the choice of keeping a pregnancy or not, whether abortion is legal or not or if the fetus has rights or not - abortions *will* take place.
    For instance in Brazil, abortion is legal if the pregnancy puts the life of the woman in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of a rape, and yet it is estimated that somewhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million illegal abortions take place EVERY YEAR ...in that country. The idea that if abortions aren't legal, they will not happen is a complete fantasy. I could go on and on. I feel very frustrated that so much of the discussion that surrounds abortion focuses so greatly on the rights of the unborn instead of the rights of the already born; I am certain that this is only because we are talking about the rights of women.
    I am a Baha'i. I am a mother of three grown children. In my understanding, the choice of carrying a baby to term is between a woman and God, understanding that she is responsible to God for whatever she may do - truly an awesome & weighty choice.
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  • Alan
    Mar 22, 2016
    Perhaps we can find more common ground by discussing the nature of soul. Based on Baha'i teachings the soul comes into existence at conception and has eternal existence thereafter. It would seem that nothing done to physical body with a soul has become associate will ever harm the soul, particularly if that soul's physical beating was not the actor. So, maybe we need to look only at the spiritual and social responsibilities and consequences for those who are making the decision. God's mercy, according to the writings, out weighs His justice.
  • Mar 21, 2016
    Could be mistaken, but don't think UHJ intends to suggest nations ought not legislate this matter. For example, the UHJ may say a Baha'i (and all of humanity) ought turn the other cheek and never respond to violence/hate with like kind behavior. But do not believe the UHJ would say a legal code permitting justifiable homicide on account of self-defense was flawed. Real point in all of this is where we place our emphasis - the risk of a positive error (incorrectly identifying/doing something) vs. a negative error (incorrectly not identifying/not doing something). There are an unimaginable number of potential ...personal circumstances (rape, incest, safety of mother, fetus' health, healthcare/finances, etc.) that have implications on pregnancy decisions. And, of course, in the 1st trimester there are a rather large number (~10%+) of natural miscarriages that occur. Think what UHJ is saying is that, subject to confines of legal codes, this is a very personal issue and one we cannot stand in judgment of one another for (anymore than we can discern who had a more successful fast). But also believe the Baha'i faith (as most religions) promotes sensitivity towards a positive error (i.e. doing something wrong by taking a pre-born human life), vs. a negative error (abusing ourselves or rights of another by ignoring right of a woman to self-determination over her own body). This is comparable to saying murder is wrong and should always be avoided - though there may be moments when society appropriately kills as punishment for crimes, when we kill for self-defense or defense of others. We can say there are a million circumstances in which one might be impelled/tempted to take the life of a breathing human being - so given the impossibility of accounting for all circumstances and the inalienable right of each to self-determination, we opt not to legislate murder. But such a society would not last very long. Instead, we say murder is wrong, and let the exceptions speak for themselves. What the "free choice" camp sometimes misses is the point that fundamentally abortion is to be avoided - like murder, lying, theft, etc. But there are likely circumstances in which we would all kill, lie, steal (if only to defend/feed/protect a defenseless child against some monstrous crime). It's not for each of us to stand in judgment of the other, but neither is it for us to become so attached to self and personal will that we refuse to acknowledge heavenly dictates that defend social order/spiritual development. We can either say one should fast unless they are sick enough as to cause an exception or say one ought be free not to fast unless they are strong enough/desirous enough to perform the fast. All Baha'is would generally agree the former emphasis leads disproportionately to social & spiritual growth (the very purpose of our creation). In like manner, we ought avoid abortion as much as possible, taking individual responsibility as potential/actual mothers & fathers, and collectively as a society, for creating conditions optimal to conceiving/birthing a child and educating/raising them to adult hood. Of course, mixed into all this is the concepts of adultery and limiting human sexuality to the confines of marriage (which, obviously would lead to far fewer "unwanted" pregnancies). Here again there are a million unique circumstances. But it is clear that as we develop more spiritually over time, focusing less on self and personal desire, these issues will become much smaller (at least as measured by shear numbers).
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  • Aubrey Baptista
    Mar 21, 2016
    Before I present my comment, I will precede with the fact that I am approximately 8 week pregnant and plan to keep my baby. It has always been my personal opinion that once pregnant I would see the process through. However, now that I am pregnant, I am experiencing first hand the immense changes and sacrifices for this raspberry-sized human life growing inside of me. This child is in all seriousness a parasite. With all loving and caring in my heart for it, it sucks up all my nutrients and energy. The hormones make me nauseous. To compare my brain ...to a computer, I feel like it's being slowed by a virus. Not to mention the pain and growth in my breasts along with the changes in appetite, cravings, aversions, sense of smell, weight gain. I can't do what I could do less than 2 months ago! The changes that are happening to my body are profound. All the articles in the world could not have prepared me for what is happening. So can I understand if another woman does not have what it takes to muster this marathon of a journey? Yes. From the women I know who have had abortions, I know the guilt is life long and that I know I could not endure. But everyone is different and has the right to choose for her own body and lifestyle. How is it my right or anyone else's right to tell a woman what to do?
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    • Mar 21, 2016
      We all need to understand that our choices have consequences, just because the results are not what we wanted to happen does not change our responsibility for our actions. People need to be educated about the possible results of their actions, and to know that if those things happen they will have to live with them, we can not expect that we will always be protected from the results of our actions. This applies to all areas of our life, and include the guilt you spoke of people carrying for the rest of their lives, pregnancy or what ever. If ...you have not had a choice in where you find yourself, that is a different matter, but otherwise, once we have made our choice, and carried it out that is our choice, and we are responsible for the outcome, no matter how much we may regret it.
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