It seems that every “debate” (a term I use very loosely) on the Reproductive Health Law will always devolve into dogmatists bellyaching about one question: When does life begin?
This happened during the debates in Congress and it is happening again in the debate in the Supreme Court. In both cases, government officials have voiced out that it was not for politicians and non-scientists to decide on the matter. And yet, we can fully expect that this question will be raised over and over even after the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the Reproductive Health Law.
I had written a piece on when life begins three years ago outlining a scientific attempt at answering the anti-choice challenge. In the following, I will revisit and clarify the obscurantism of conservatives on the question. There is a lot of ambiguous language that conservatives employ to muddy the real issue and their intention in asking the question in the first place. Most confusing of all is how they conflate “life” with “personhood.”
Who cares about life?
Life is an ill-defined concept even in the science that studies life, biology. There are many attempts at defining it, but mostly we have the pornography standard. That is, we know life when we see life. Some attempts at defining life include the following criteria: having structural organization, being able to produce energy by decomposing organic matter, being able to respond to stimuli, being able to reproduce. These are not to everyone’s satisfaction, so the debate goes on.
But, just because something is alive, does not mean it is worthy of protection. We eat living things. Even vegans and vegetarians eat living things. We kill living things, such as bacteria, parasites, and pests. Clearly life has begun for these organisms, but we shed no tears at their demise.
Perhaps there is something unique, then, to human life? Consider that even the Catholic Church allows human beings with functioning bodies but incapable of conscious experience, what we would call “brain dead,” to have their organs extracted for the benefit of other humans. John Paul II called these brain dead humans as having lost the “integrative capacity” to have a unitary “personal self.” From this, we know that the specialness of humans can’t possibly be from just having the DNA or the body of a human being.
Who are the people?
The critical concept of “personhood” is at the core of the whole disagreement. Life is not equivalent to personhood. We do not treat life in general as important as we treat persons. Judging by the Church’s acceptance of harvesting organs from the brain dead, permanently terminating the organism’s metabolism, it is okay to end the metabolic life of a human being… as long as that human being is brain dead. We can see that the Church does not see the brain dead as persons worthy of equal protection.
So, it is persons that are important. We shouldn’t be asking when life begins. We don’t really care about life. We care about persons. But what makes a person? Clearly a brain dead human is no longer a person, even by Catholic standards. Where’s the difference between brain death and brain life? Well… the brain.
We consider brains as critical in calling a person, a person. A person is capable of suffering, of having aspirations, of planning for their future. But, can only humans be persons? Well, no. Non-human animals can have highly advanced capacities for conscious experience. Dolphins and whales are known to have deep self-awareness, so much so that they are considered “non-human persons.” And yet, you won’t see the Catholic Church hunting down whaling vessels even though they say they defend personhood.
The trouble is, sperms, eggs, and embryos have no brains. They are incapable of conscious experience. Fetuses, with their just developing neural systems, are certainly less capable of conscious experience than even the pigs and cows we casually slaughter. So, if sufficiently complex brains make a person, then sperms, eggs and embryos are not persons! Easy, huh? Well, not so fast, says the Church.
There is a whole debate on the potential of future personhood that the Church employs to argue that since embryos can become persons then they must. This line of argumentation does not interest me, so I will not waste too much time on it. But I will at least explain why it is uninteresting. The argument from potentiality is a slippery slope that terminates on absurdity. If you take it to its logical conclusion, every proton in the universe has the potential to become part of a person. Every carbon atom in your body came from some other thing. As technology progresses, we will be capable of not just producing humans from embryos, but from any cell. We are doing this now with induced pluripotent stem cells—turning one kind of cell into another. Then every cell has the potential to become a person. You won’t be able to pick your nose and scrape skin cells without committing a mortal sin. So, when does the Church choose to terminate this slippery slope? At embryos—exactly where they wanted it to. How convenient. So embryos are worthy of protection because they have the potential to become persons. Although other things can become persons, embryos are special because we say they’re special. Talk about assuming your conclusion.
Confused? The soul is the key!
This all can be confusing, but bear with me, dear reader. There is a key to this puzzle that will make everything fall into place. The key is—the soul.
There is a lot of dubious mental gymnastics used to justify the complicated and inconsistent position of the Church on life and personhood, but they are all clear when you consider the doctrine of the soul. The Church believes on faith that the soul, crafted by God and unique to every human being, enters the embryo during fertilization. Dolphins are not persons, even though they are quite intelligent and have self-awareness, because they don’t have souls. Only humans have souls. And the soul leaves the body once it has ceased to have a functioning brain. This is what John Paul II meant by having lost the “integrative capacity”—the soul and the body are no longer unified. The soul will now float out into the spirit world with all the angels and trumpets and baby saints.
This all leads to questions that seem to yield no answer. If embryos gain their souls during fertilization, then do identical twins share one soul? Would it be okay to kill one twin since the same soul still resides in the other body? If two embryos fuse and form a chimeric embryo, do two souls share one body? Then is marrying a chimeric person actually bigamy?
Yes, this all seems silly, but this is what the Catholic Church actually believes. This is the basis for all the silly reasons they give out in court. If we are to have an intellectually honest discussion about the RH Law, it is about time to end the “When does life begin?” facade. All this talk about life is actually just conservatives beating around the bush. What they really mean is, “When does the soul enter the embryo?” But they can’t admit this, because it is not a medical, or even legal, question. It is wholly a theological one—a question that the government has no business answering.
Image Credit: Vince Smith, licensed under Creative Commons