Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The Denver Post today published an editorial on the current legal and legislative battles around embryonic stem cell research ( I’m not interested in getting into the weeds concerning the legal interpretation maneuvers required to circumvent the “Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” which prohibits the use of federal funds in any research that results in the destruction of human embryos, or the history of Diana DeGette’s stem cell research bill, twice vetoed by GW Bush. I’m interested in discussing the essence of the issue, and the essence of the two fundamental sides defined by it. This is an issue over “loving life” as a moralistic dogmatic abstraction which condemns conscious human beings to continued suffering, or loving life as the expression of empathy and compassion for creatures that think and feel and are aware of their own existence.

The argument over whether (human) life begins at conception or birth is clearly a semantic game, and clearly dodges the messy functional truth: Human life is a thing in constant formation, even after birth, and, in some ways, even before conception. If we identify the newborn infant as something that is unambiguously a human being deserving of all rights and protections accorded to human beings (something that is pretty well settled at this point), then the messy fact is that that human being comes into existence, as a human being, at some indeterminate point between conception and birth. Regardless of the sophistry employed, the cluster of cells that is a zygote is not a “human being” in any sense that applies to our legal and social structure, whereas (as inconvenient as it may be for people, like myself, who are staunchly pro-choice) the only difference between a late-term fetus and a new-born baby is location (though that locational difference has huge legal implications, and huge implications for what it means to have individual rights).

While I think there is some moral complexity to the issue of late-term abortions, in the final analysis, for both pragmatic and moral reasons, it’s simply not tenable to reduce pregnant women to the legal status of incubators. The bright line, legally, has to be drawn at birth, as it generally has been throughout human history, and as our laws have evolved around. But the complexity that makes that a not completely unproblematic solution simply does not apply to the issue of embryonic stem cells. The embryos involved are not on the newborn side of that indeterminate point in a pregnancy when a cluster of cells becomes a baby. Those embryos are just clusters of cells, in anything other than a mystified perception divorced from the true complexity and subtlety of the real world we live in.

So the question is whether one is the kind of person who loves life in an abstract and dogmatic manner that does not flinch at condemning conscious human beings to continued suffering from paralyzing injuries and diseases that would otherwise be far sooner curable, or the kind of person who loves life as the state of consciousness that makes it so precious, and embraces the sincere empathy of caring about the sufferings and joys that attach to those embued with such consciousness.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

  • In my Facebook introduction to the link to this post, I suggest that some semblence of human consciousness is the threshold for when (human) life begins, because consciousness is the functionally defining characteristic of human life. It is when a person permanently loses consciousness that we consider them to be dead. The issue of whether to take someone in a permanent vegetative state off of life support revolves around consciousness; it is the fact that they once were conscious, might be again, and may be even now, that provides the bases for resisting the termination of life support, or the conviction that they are not now and will not be again that provides the basis for advocating to end life support.

    It is not just the promise of future consciousness, but rather the return to a state of consciousness already established, that is salient in the case of a person in a coma. Once the stake has been established, a temporary loss of consciousness does not revoke it. But a thing that has never been conscious has not established that stake, and is not yet, by all of our functional definitions, a human life.

    Examination of our laws, their purpose and evolution, reinforce the recognition of this functional definition. Our legal structure is designed to coordinate the choices and protect the rights of conscious individuals. Even when our laws protect the non-human members of our global village, they are rooted in a respect of consciousness.

    Animal cruelty laws are to protect animals that experience pain and are conscious, to some degree, of the wrong done to them. No one is charged with animal cruelty for torturing an insect, for instance, because we do not believe that the insect is conscious of its suffering. To the extent that there is doubt about that, there is corresponding discomfort with such behavior. And the desire to inflict harm it betrays in the one who does it (also a function of consciousness, the conscious desire to do harm), who is gaining pleasure from the infliction of harm on something that has the appearance of consciousness (reacting in ways that are familiar as such to human beings), also contributes to that discomfort.

    Even the Endangered Species Act, which technically protects all endangered species (including plants and insects), reflects this focus on the protection of the rights of conscious entities. First, there is a strong bias in its enforcement that favors larger animals, implicitly because such animals are more conscious of their existence, and so have more of a right to have that existence protected. Second, much of the justification for the ESA involves the human enjoyment of and benefit from biodiversity, again rooted in the consciousness of humans rather than the rights of the animals. Finally, there is a residual realization that ecosystems are, in a sense, conscious entities themselves, which is why the protection is aimed at species rather than at individual members of the species (to explain the appearance or reality of ecosystemic consciousness, one must contemplate the similarities of biological and cultural evolution, as I begin to do in my essay “The Politics of Consciousness”:

    Rather than drawing arbitrary bright lines, detached from our real functional understanding, to define the beginning of human life, we should recognize what it is our laws protect, and that before that comes into being, those legal protections do not yet pertain.

  • There are other hypocricies involved in the so-called “pro-life” position as well, such as the fact that most of those who are morally outraged at the failure to treat clusters of unconscious cells with the reverence accorded to human life are fairly indifferent to the slaughter of large adult mammals for their dining pleasure, though those large adult mammals, unlike those clusters of cells, experience terror and pain at the moment of their death. (Disclaimer: I am not a vegetarian, though I tend to think that vegetarianism, rather than overzealous protection of zygotes at enormous cost to conscious human beings, would prevail in a less brutal, more compassionate society).

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.