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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.
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?