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Friday, September 28, 2012

Beginning of life


When does life begin? Wow. What a dangerous question. Yet our local boy, MP Stephen Woodworth, thinks it’s worth looking into. Virtually everyone (including him) agrees that this “pursuit of knowledge” is a thin veil behind which hides a push to eliminate abortion. After all, pro-lifers think, what other conclusion will be drawn except that life begins when that fateful sperm invades the monolithic egg, a real life version of the assault on the Death Star. His motion got schooled, defeated 203 to 91. (As an aside, Rona Ambrose, Minister for the Status of Women, voted in favour of the motion. Really, Rona? Jeez, lady. Even her own boss, Harper, made the move to vote against it.)

I’m thrilled this stupid thing got batted down. While usually I’m all in favour of finding answers to all of life’s questions, this strikes me as less a scientific query and more in the realm of philosophy. After all, before you can answer when human life begins, you’ve got to define precisely what we mean by “life.” As any fan of science fiction, knows, this isn’t an easy question. (Many fine episodes of Star Trek have tried to answer it. Star Wars, on the other hand, ignores the whole issue and keeps clearly sentient creatures--droids--as slaves.)

Living things undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, have the capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, respond to their environment in successive generations (stolen from “The Seven Pillars of Life,” by D. E. Koshland Jr.) Now I don’t know what all of that means, but it sounds complicated. I’m not sure I can do all of that stuff. So am I not alive? Or was I alive, but now I’m dead?

Note that the very definition of life includes a nod to Darwinism, the evil thing that creationists (invariably also pro-lifers) deny exists. Because they would deny they have this trait, does it follow that creationists aren’t alive? An interesting notion, if so. This could get complicated, Mr. Woodworth. You sure you want the answers you’re going to get if you run with this thing?

Let’s start with the simplest criteria: reproduction. What about someone who gets their cords cut? No reproduction equals not alive? What if you’ve been incapable since birth? Have you never truly been alive? Taking this on a more basic level, what if we determine that an organism is only truly alive once it’s sexually mature? Boom. Just like that, all humans that haven’t hit puberty aren’t alive.

Or take “capacity to grow” to its literal extreme. As an adult, all I can in terms of growth is a gradual widening of the waistband, ie. I get fat. Is this enough to qualify as alive? Or are we going to embrace the Logan’s Run ideology, and deem all adults as “non-alives?” Grab any of the other criteria and play with them, and I bet you can find examples of humanity that wouldn’t qualify.

It’s obvious that defining “human life” is going to be the truly tricky part, and I think we can’t predict where the final conclusions would end up. Sure, it might end up saving millions of fetuses if the debate can be taken in the direction the pro-lifers hope; life is when sperm fertilizes egg. But what if it goes the other way and the official “start of life” is pushed further back? Instead of just dealing with abortions, we might suddenly live in a country where it’s not considered homicide to whack a gaggle of teenagers. Or seniors. Or the impotent. Or the stubborn (no response to stimuli).

Even if the pro-lifers get their way and the fertilized egg is defined as “alive,” what happens to the ovulating female population? Fertilized eggs can often be swept out of the uterus during menstruation--is that manslaughter now? Our jails will fill overnight just because hopeful women are trying to get pregnant. Failure to properly track your cycle will be considered “criminal negligence.”

Is that really the world you want to live in, Woodworth and company?

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