Saturday, October 01, 2005

When Life Begins...

...or truly, when life began!

The common phrase "life begins at conception" only skims the surface. Life began long before conception.

Every ovum and sperm are alive. They are living cells before they unite to form a zygote. Those that do not find a cell from the opposite gender to unite with, are alive until they die the death of one-celled life. Tragically, they cannot reproduce by fission and live indefinitely. But the sperm cells at least have the self-consciousness and mobility of many protozoans. Fortunately, they do not possess the consciousness, the fear of death, the thrill of the chase, portrayed in Woody Allen's movie. Sperm cells, while they are alive, do not appear to possess souls. They simply do what they are programmed to do.

The truth is, if we wish to define "when life begins" we must go all the way back to the beginning. Because there is a continuity of life from every living human being, back to the zygote from which they grew, to the ovum and sperm which united to form that zygote, to the ovaries of the mother and testicles of the father from which the ovum and sperm cell came, and so on through every generation.

Life began either with the first humans, or with the first prokaryotic cells in the warm waters of a primordial sea. That depends on whether the creation of humans, adam, male and female, when God called their name adam, was a distinct act of physical creation, or was the spiritual act of breathing into the nostrils of an existing primate, so that "man became a living soul." But that debate need not be settled here. Whether humans were created 6000 years ago or 50,000, as a distinct act or by divine breath imparted to an existing primate, or as the random chance of a morally neutral universe, it remains true that our life began long before any individual conception.

The real question then is when a distinct and separate individual human life exists, apart from and independent of his or her parents. Human society, including Judeo-Christian society, has never been consistent about the answer to that question.

In order to create a new human being, millions of sperm cells must die, competing with each other to be the one in a million that actually fertilizes an ovum. In order for pregnancy to be possible, twelve ova a year must die, every year of each woman's life, between puberty and menopause. These are not mere strings of coded chemicals, they are living cells. Only when a woman becomes and remains pregnant is this process of ova dying suspended temporarily.

Perhaps we should establish a process of adoption for the sperm that otherwise tragically die, or the ova literally flushed down the toilet. Because the natural, divinely-ordained, process for producing a new generation of live individuals, has always involved the sacrifice of millions of living cells.

But let's examine the other end of the maturation process. There have been many human societies that entrusted parents, or the eldest patriarch of a family, with literal authority of life and death over their offspring or juniors. Kill a member of another family, you are a murderer – that family has the right to kill you, or any member of your family they can get their hands on. Kill your own children for disobedience, that is your business. That was the law of Rome and Babylon, and traces of it can be found in the Old Testament, as well as in the Q'uran. The ancient Greeks practiced infanticide of those babies considered too weak to live long anyway.

There is a certain logic to such customs. That is not the same as morality, but there is logic. Infants cannot survive without the care of their parents, so are they truly independent? If the parents abandon them, what rights do they have? Parents today in America are still known to say to their teen-age offspring "I brought you into the world and I can take you out of it." A good number of devout, right-to-life, Christian parents say that, when they are angry and frustrated enough. Of course, they don't really mean it. And we do not, as a matter of law, recognize the right of any parent to act on that expression.

There is no direct Biblical reference for the proposition that "life begins at conception." God instructed the Hebrews in Leviticus that "the life of the flesh is in the blood." This suggests that a distinct life comes into being when there is an independent circulatory system in the fetus, and not before. Leviticus 17 does not discuss fetal viability, it prohibits those in the original Covenant from consuming the blood of animals they have killed for food. God also says "I have given it to you on the altar to ransom your lives, for it is the blood that ransoms in exchange for life."

Leviticus 22:27 requires that a bull or goat offered as a sacrifice must be "seven days under its mother" after birth – because the newborn was not regarded as a viable living creature until it had lived eight days outside the womb. Numbers 3:15 counts "every male from a month old and up" to number the Levites, again, because a high rate of child mortality meant that until a baby survived a month, it was not counted. Of course none of this means that a two week old baby may be wantonly destroyed. None of this would be accepted by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi as condoning abortion, unless the mother's life were in danger. But it raises questions whether we can define by the action of the criminal law that "life begins at conception."

It is beyond dispute in the United States of America that once a baby has a physical, biological existence outside of its mother, it is a distinct and independent life. The fact that it cannot live without its mother nursing it, or mother and father feeding it with a bottle, that it cannot change its own diapers, that it cannot wash itself or seek medical treatment for itself, that it cannot clothe itself, that it cannot earn its own living, does not give the parents any right to destroy it. Most states do have laws allowing the parents of a new baby, if they are unprepared to assume responsibility as parents, to abandon it in a warm, safe place where it will be found and nurtured by others. That is called a safe haven law. But the baby is not merely alive, it is a distinct individual life.

It is also beyond dispute that a man and woman may condemn millions of sperm cells to certain death, without making any effort to save them or find them each an ovum to fertilize. It is beyond dispute that a woman may allow her menstrual cycle to proceed, without making any effort to fertilize the individual ovum in her fallopian tubes. Indeed, most churches teach that until she is married, she must allow these monthly ova to die without fertilization. Our public debates concern the specific form of life that exists after a living sperm cell and a living ovum have united to form a living zygote. Is this living cell part of the woman in whom it lives, and outside of whom it cannot exist? Or is it an independent individual?

Or maybe the zygote is not even inside a womb. Suppose medical technology advances to the point that doctors can scrape a few hundred skin cells off the arm of a patient with pancreatic cancer. Suppose they can take those cells, inject the patient's DNA into an ovum empty of its original DNA. Suppose they could grow that cell into a blastocyst, tease the stem cells to grow into a new, healthy pancreas, which is a perfect match for the patient. An inoperative cancer, carrying a life expectancy of one week to six months, becomes operable, with an open-ended life expectancy. There will be no problems with rejection by the patient's immune system.

Is the zygote an independent life, entitled morally and legally to grow into a new individual human being? Or is it part of the life of the patient whose DNA it matches, which may be teased into becoming a new pancreas? We know it has life. Life began at the first moment when God said "Let the waters bring forth the living thing that hath life." A new pancreas would have life. If the zygote did grow to the point that it could survive as an independent being, outside of any natural or artificial womb, then it would be a distinct individual. But then it would be a clone. There is overwhelming sentiment in our nation that human beings should not be cloned.

If someone does illegally clone a human being, those responsible should be placed in custody where they cannot repeat their crime. But what if there is already a fully developed cloned baby? Should that baby be destroyed as the fruit of a horrible crime? Or is it an independent being, entitled to protection and survival as an individual life? It is not the clone's fault that those who cloned it violated the law. And the clone will not be an adult duplicate of the person who was cloned either. It will be a baby with the same DNA, facing the beginning of its own life experiences. A younger identical twin. Who would be responsible to raise the clone? Maybe it would be better for this zygote to become a pancreas.

There are no easy answers to these questions. We should be careful not to let power-hungry manipulators reduce us to cheap slogans. Life began long before any individual conception. When does human life have a soul? When has a self-conscious individual entered the world? For centuries during the middle ages, Roman Catholic teaching said that the soul entered the fetus forty days after conception. When we know so little, it is a bad idea to pass too many laws. Whatever we do, we are likely to be wrong. That is good cause to let each individual try to do the right thing, and be responsible to God for their own choices.


Paul Emmons '70 said...

Wonderful essay! You've articulated my own views far better than I can, insofar as a bachelor should have any around an issue that has never affected him directly. Are you a Lawrentian or just an Appletonian? In either case, you do a Lawrence liberal education proud!

Isn't it inconsistent for those who assert the full human stature of a zygote not to give full last rites and burial to miscarriages? As you say, human development is a mystery, and there has been great disagreement among cultures. I'm content with seeing a sliding scale.

Women should be allowed to take a morning-after pill without being accused of murder or any other crime. All they want is not to get pregnant. (It's rather annoying when I have to pay for it, but even then it's a trivial expense compared to the social costs when a parent is unable or unwilling to raise a child properly.) But the more well-developed a fetus is, the more offensive it should be to "terminate" it. Our horror over killing human beings rightly extends to some horror over killing other creatures to the extent that they resemble a human beings: a chimpanzee more than a dog, a dog more than a lizard, a lizard more than a fly, etc. And we have laws against cruelty to animals. So we don't need to consider a late-term fetus a full person before considering it worthy of protection.

Without granting the extreme premises of many pro-lifers, I can entertain the possibility that the pro-choicers at present have carried things a little too far.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Paul, I believe this is the first time anyone has gone back to look up something I wrote in 2005. I may be inspired to post something pithy again soon. My father taught at your alma mater, but I only took three math courses my senior year of high school - an arrangement the university had with the local school district. My parents located to the farthest corner of town, but I also became familiar with the campus, and of course the summer community theater.

To be fair to some militantly pro-life people who have tolerated me for a time in their own discussions, some DO give full last rites and burial to whatever is lost to miscarriage, and refer to it tearfully as "my baby." I have scrupulously tried to use "miscarriage" as a verb, not a noun, for that reason.

I agree that there are SOME in the debate who can be legitimately described as "pro-abortion" rather than "pro-choice." There is nothing inherently good about increased numbers of abortion. It would be good if no such procedure were necessary or preferable. But sometimes, it is, and the final judgment must be left to the woman most intimately concerned.

As I've written in another post, if a government ever comes to power committed to a vast program of social engineering, including mandatory abortion in specified circumstances, the law firms that rush into court to enjoin such a law will find that their best citation is... Roe v. Wade. If its none of the government's business, its none of the government's business, period.