Happy Roe v. Wade day! Ok, I know I missed it by a few days (the 31st anniversary of the decision, (which, regardless of your views on the topic, is analytically one of the worst in American history) was on Monday - January 24th)(which, coincidentally, has been determined by a group of learned people (scientists and psychologists and sociologists and such) to be the most depressing day of the year). But I haven't been able to get to my blog recently, and so now that I'm here I'm gonna take the opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday. Happy Roe v. Wade day!
Of course, I don't really like abortion. I'm soundly pro-life. So why do I say happy? Truth be told, I'm not really sure. But every year, when Roe v. Wade day rolls around, I feel a certain amount of pleasure, a distinct happiness. I guess if I had to push the issue I'd say that the feeling is directly related to a hopeful confidence. I firmly believe that someday pro-life will be the only way people are. That they won't even question the issue.
I know, this seems to be a blind hopefulness, that doesn't look at the world around, that somehow overlooks the deep divisions in the country and the impractical nature of such a vast change. But this hopefulness isn't an issue of practicality, of when and where and how laws will be rewritten. It isn't founded on the idea that we can build bridges between the polarized factions. I'm not even concerned with igneous process, time and pressure slowly changing dissent into support.
My hope, my confidence, is purely philosophical. For anyone who approaches the question with an honest rationalism there is only one conclusion: Life begins at conception.
"When does life begin?" is, of course, the essential question in the abortion debate (The companion question "What is it that constitutes a life?" in many ways serves the same purpose in this debate; in order to reject that life begins at conception it must be shown that a fetus lacks some critical definitional aspect of "life." It is precisely my contention that this cannot be accomplished.). To answer the question, let us examine serious contenders (I should note that Peter Singer (the noted animal rights philosopher) has done a similar analysis, though he uses it for a different ends. I vaguely remember reading it around 7th grade and I couldn't tell you much about the execution, though I remember that I approved of the approach.). There are only three potential answers which might find reasonable support: conception, viability, and birth.
Let us start with birth. The argument that life begins at birth is simple: the fetus has become independent from the mother, and is now a completely separate person. Those who argue this point would claim that there is some individual element in the constitution of life, and that only at birth is that element satisfied. This argument falls short for several reasons. First among them is that using birth seems to impose an arbitrary line. One minute, while inside the mother, the fetus is not a life, the next, while outside the mother, the fetus suddenly meets the definitional requirements of life. In many ways this is tantamount to saying that anyone inside a certain boundary - let's say, oh, Iowa - is not alive, while everyone outside that boundary is alive. There is nothing about the nature of the people inside Iowa that distinguishes them from those outside of the state. Similarly there is nothing about the nature of a fetus inside a womb that distinguishes it from a fetus outside of the womb. The boundary is more natural, but the nature of thing which is being defined is no different. Perhaps it would be objected that while inside a womb a fetus is hooked directly to the mother and so it is only when the umbilical cord is severed that life begins. The problem with this objection is that it fails to recognize that the fetus is capable of independence, even while still connected to the mother. The natural response is that it is not enough for something to be capable of independence - that the definition of life requires that the fetus must at some point actually be independent. This, of course, would mean that any dependence defeats the definition, and thus no one actually becomes a life until they carve, completely unaided, from existence their own sustenance. If this is the case, there are very few of us who are truly alive. More importantly, however, is the way in which this fails as a definitional argument. If we look at a parallel we can see why requiring actual independence is a fruitless requirement. If we consider the definition of "human" we see that certain characteristics are required. Aristotle famously listed "rationality" as a distinctly human trait. Thus, to be a "human" there must be an element of "rationality" present. If we use the logic of the birth argument that something must actually be independent we would require that before something can be a human it must first actually exercise rationality. The capacity for rationality is not enough to make a being human. Thus, until an infant becomes a child who reasons, it is some other species than it's parents, than the rest of humanity. This seems clearly absurd. If independence is to be considered part of the definition of life (which I do not dispute) it must be enough for the fetus to be capable of independence to satisfy the definitional aspect. As this capability is required much earlier, birth cannot be the starting point for a life; life must start at some earlier time.
The weakness of the "birth" argument becomes the appeal of the "viability" argument. Viability is simply the point at which the fetus is capable of independence, that is, it could survive without the mother. This point is generally deemed to be around the end of the first trimester (or is it second? I forget...), and is a focal point of the law as it currently stands (pre-viability, abortion is legal). I am convinced that the popularity of viability as a starting point is largely attributable to the way the law is currently structured. In other words, from the law people draw the idea that viability is the legal starting point of life. However, what the Court has actually said is "we don't know if it is a life before viability, but after viability we are more confident that the fetus is a life." In essence the court hasn't given a legal starting point for life, but has only drawn a line after which it considers a fetus to be a life. This is exactly like drawing a line for "adult" at 18 - people may reach adult maturity before that, but legally we're not going to investigate, we're just going to draw the line and call it a day. This is exactly what the court has done at viability, and nothing in the legal reasoning precludes the idea that life begins at conception.
But I regress... Viability is the strongest counter-point to saying that life begins at conception. Viability builds on the idea that "life" must contain an element of independence. At viability a fetus is capable of surviving without the mother and is therefore deemed to be capable of "independence." But what does "independence" mean? It certainly does not mean that the fetus can survive completely on it's own, for again this would force the definition of life to a point at which an individual is capable of sustaining itself free from the assistance of others, and we would be left with the same problems discussed above (notice that if this is what is meant by independence the only difference between birth and viability is that the birth definition requires the individual actually survive on their own, while the viability definition requires only that the individual be capable of surviving on their own).
So we need another definition of "independence" in order for viability to have any real meaning. (Notice that we are sticking to the question of independence because our focus is on the beginning - that is, something starts being a life the moment it possesses all of the qualities of life independent or separate from something else which possesses those qualities (i.e. the mother)). What could independence possibly mean then? We have already eliminated complete self-sustenance, so the answer must be "capable of surviving outside of the womb." To say that life begins at viability means that life begins when the fetus is capable of living outside of the mother.
This seems to be a logical place to find independence - the fetus can survive without the mother, and so is clearly an independent being. Notice, like with the legal definition, that the conclusion that a fetus is a life at viability does not preclude it's being life before that. All that we have proved with this definition is that a fetus is certainly a life at viability. The question we must ask is whether there is anything which identifies the point at which a fetus is "viable." What distinguishes a viable fetus from a non-viable fetus? The answer, of course, is the definition of viable - able to survive outside of the womb. But what does this mean? It means we need to look to the empirical evidence, to ask what point an infant can survive outside of the womb.
I must confess, the question is a bit of a tease, because the answer is not important to our discussion here. What is important about the question is the fact that the answer is impermanent. It has changed as technology has progressed. Babies have survived at unbelievably premature birth ages and weights. As early as 1977 there was success with in vitro fertilization - a developing fetus lived for a time (days I believe, though possibly only hours) outside of the womb before it was even placed inside of it. Potentially there will be complete in vitro children someday, fetuses that survive outside of the womb in their entirety. If technology ever reaches that point the concept of viability will lose all meaning; all fetuses will be capable of surviving outside of the womb as early as conception. Once technology progresses far enough there will be no meaningful distinction between viability and conception.
Technological progress, of course, is uncertain, and though this development seems like only an eventuality, I am not satisfied to rest my argument on uncertain grounds. There is a much clearer reason why viability cannot be the starting point of life: viability is not universal.
It is the nature of definitions that they are universal. What is defined as a square in the US is defined as a square in England, is defined as a square in Somalia (setting aside translation issues). 4 sides of equal length, 4 right angles, 2-dimensional, etc. If the definition were different in Somalia - there were only 3 sides, still 2-dimensional and a total angle value of 180 degrees (a triangle obviously) - we would think something were amiss. It doesn't make sense to accept that a square can be one thing in the US and something different in Somalia. Even if there are some similarities between the two definitions we cannot accept that they are the same thing. Definitions must be universal.
This is precisely why viability falters when held as the starting point for life. If we include independence in the definition of a life (a fetus is a life when it has properties x, y, z, and independence), and in turn define independence by reference to viability, (a fetus is a life when it has properties x, y, z, and is capable of surviving outside the womb) then, because whether something can survive outside the womb is an empirical question, it follows that we are defining "life" by reference to an empirical condition. And here's the rub for viability as a definition: empirical conditions differ - from time to time and from place to place. The point of viability is different between the US and a third world country. When a fetus is capable of surviving outside of the womb is different now than it was in 1900. Because these empirical references are being used in a definition of life, we are left with a definitional impossibility.
To say that life begins at viability is to say that life is defined as having the property of being able to survive outside the womb. The property of being able to survive outside the womb differs from place to place and time to time. In the US our current definition may say that life exists at 24 weeks. In 1900 it may have been 30. In Somalia it might be 37 (Just for reference, 37 weeks and before are considered premature).
Parallel to the definition of a square, this kind of variation is unacceptable. "Life" cannot be different between times and places. A baby at 27 weeks in the US possess life but the same infant in Somalia does not? This is clearly absurd, for it pushes all meaning out of the concept of "life," which, by it's nature, must be something without reference to empirical properties. To say that life begins at viability is to commit a logical fallacy, a definitional error. Life must begin at some other point. And, recalling that we have already established that a fetus must be alive at viability, we know that life must begin prior to viability. The only option, of course, is conception.
Given that we started with three options, and eliminated two, we could, as Sherlock Holmes would surely do, conclude that conception is our answer. However, I think more can be said to strengthen the case for conception, and so we will consider it in more depth. To say that life begins at conception is to say that the moment an egg is fertilized a new being, with all the features of a life, has come into existence. Any challenge to this claim must be based on the claim that a newly-fertilized egg does not possess all the qualities of a life. But what qualities could it possibly lack? It can grow, develop, it has a unique genetic structure, etc. (I would further contend that at conception the fetus possesses a soul, but that view is merely supplementary to this argument, and so will be set aside). The only quality of "life" which it seems a newly-fertilized egg might not possess is the same property which our earlier discussion focused on: independence.
How can it be that a newly-fertilized egg is independent? It cannot survive outside of the womb, it is physically attached and dependent on the mother, it has no distinguishable form. These would seem to be hallmarks of independence, but our fetus has none of them. There is no physical reason to conceive of this cell-clump as alive. And in fact, I'm willing to grant that there is no physical reason to presume a life in a newly-fertilized egg (although I will grant it, I am unwilling to say that it is true - I have not investigated this question of physical evidence of life, and have no basis for developing an opinion).
The reason I am willing to grant that there is no physical evidence of life is because there is evidence on a different plane of existence. There is metaphysical evidence that life begins at conception. For anyone with a philosophical background this idea is relatively simple: there is independence of being in the new fetus and this clearly satisfies the requirements laid out in the definition of "life."
For those with no philosophical background I will try to explain a little more clearly. Everything which exists has it's own independent being. A person, a building, a pencil. Even perfectly identical things - two completely identical pencils - are different things. If there are two identical pencils on a desk and you are asked how many things are in the room you will answer three - the desk and two pencils. Each of these has its own "thingness." That "thingness" is, long story short, the object's being. Each of them is a separate being from the other things, and that being stays with the object. Even if we switch the pencils' position so that they sit in exactly the place that the other pencil just sat in they possess the same being that they did before. Each pencil is still the same pencil that it had been previously. Now say we were to grind up the two pencils and make one super pencil. Say that we did so in such a way that each of the previous pencils was completely destroyed and someone walking into the room would now say that only two things were in the room. The being of those pencils, their independent existence, has been destroyed, and they no longer exist. What does exist, however, is a new thing. A giant pencil which has it's own being. This new thing is more than the total of the "thingness" of those previous two pencils. The giant pencil has an independent thingness, it's being is separate from the being of those previous two pencils. (To prove this point simply conceive of the pencils being ground up and turned into a pile of sawdust instead of formed into another pencil - the pile of sawdust is a different thing than the giant pencil, therefore there must be something in the giant pencil's being which is independent).
The same idea applies when an egg and a sperm conjoin. A new thing comes into being, something that is more than the total of the egg and sperm. This fertilized egg has it's own being, and therefore is independent. And, to keep it simple, that's all we need to identify it as a life. It has all the other properties (distinguishing it from a giant pencil, which cannot, say, grow, as a "life" can), and now we find that it truly has independence of being. Philosophically, life begins at conception.
Perhaps this is not enough for some. Surely, even after reading these arguments there are people who will maintain that life does not begin at conception. Perhaps they will point to some other reason which I haven't addressed, perhaps they'll take issue with a particular argument. Perhaps they can point to an element of "life" which a newly-fertilized egg doesn't appear to possess. If that is the case, we will have to begin our investigation anew. But I cannot conceive of such an element, and independence certainly isn't the property which is lacking (if indeed one is). To be sure though, I do not expect this treatise to satisfy everyone now. But to be sure, someday people will come to this table, and they'll take on this analysis, and they'll come to the only possible conclusion.
And so I conclude with a smile and a hopeful confidence. My recommendation is a strange one for someone who has just undertaken the treatise you have read: I recommend that we relax. That we take joy knowing the soundness of the philosophy. This is not say that we otherwise abandon the cause, but rather that as we go about it we take the time to say happy Roe v. Wade day, full in the confidence that someday when people ask the question they will answer with the one true conclusion: life begins at conception.