Wednesday, November 09, 2011

To be or not to be human.

58% of those responding to a CNN poll today answered "no" to the question of whether human life begins at conception. Of course such polls are hardly scientific and they do to some extent select for people who have strong enough feelings to bother and of course for those who can and do read.

Evidently the voters of Mississippi who bothered to vote would have answered the same way and in fact they did so by voting down a proposed constitutional amendment yesterday that would grant 'personhood' to a single celled organism and thereby outlaw not only all abortions but many forms of birth control. Do we see in this some evidence of intelligent multi-cellular life in Mississippi?

I think we do see that more women than usual went to the polls this time, but what I don't see is anyone parsing the loaded questions of what constitutes life and what constitutes the humanity thereof. Certainly both zygotes are alive and the unfertilized egg as well as a sperm cell contains all the DNA needed to produce a human being. It's that DNA that makes us human, of course, and not a monkey or a mouse or an amoeba for that matter and we lack only a bit of technology to produce an adult, or at least an embryo from that helical string of chemicals. It's already been done with simpler creatures. Will we push the "conception" notion so far that we consider a shelf with bottles of cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine a "baby?" Will extremists insist that we put excess chemicals up for "adoption" as they are suggesting be done with unwanted fertilized eggs?

Every question can harbor other questions. This one harbors a legion. Conception of course is the beginning of a natural process that usually results in a breathing infant: screaming, defecating and urinating as well, as some of us know. But we've done things in a laboratory that make me question the idea that this is the Only way to do it. So should we ask whether personhood inheres to the DNA string, to the zygotes carrying it, which are certainly alive? Is any living thing with human DNA a person and if it is, am I aborting "babies" by shaving in the morning (when I bother to?)

Or is a fertilized egg something that can under the right circumstances develop into something we call human -- develop towards it that is? Simple minds, religious minds, want there to be an instant and yet there are few significant instants in the development of life. Most take time; most evolve. Sure, there's a heartbeat within a few weeks but that applies to earthworms and guinea hens as well and it's not a heartbeat that makes us human. It's something ineffable or at least complex and subjective.

The question of just what does do that is one that's hard for religion alone to answer rationally since, after all the Bible tells us that not only life, but personhood, that word for breath: nephesh ( נָ֫פֶשׁ ) which we usually translate from the Hebrew as "soul" actually means breath, as with God's breath into Adam's lungs. Strictly, or at least Biblically speaking, what does not breathe has no breath, no soul, no personhood - that being something conveyed by God in an instant and with the filling of the lungs. Scientifically speaking, human life began quite some time ago and not in an instant. Speaking for myself, personhood is a characteristic acquired over time, just as apes at some time arrived at the point at which thy could ask such questions as we do.

Laws can't cope with such things however and since there is no point that defines a yes-no, on-off, either-or condition, we must consider the unborn as we might consider Schrödinger's cat: both human and not human until we must make a decision. And it isn't an easy decision. There is somewhere between unconscious flesh and sentience where we need to make the choice dependent on other things as well, such as the survival of the mother, the survival or survivability of the embryo that enter into the choice. It's at the most obvious ends of that evolution from egg to embryo to breathing of air that we make ourselves stupid, not at points near to that hazy zone in which many things must be considered.

I don't think a cell or a cluster of cells is a "baby" nor does the beating of a proto-heart make a citizen. I think an 8 month foetus deserves some -- much consideration if not a passport. It's in that gray zone that we need to decide and that zone is an awfully dim place for the light of reason as well as the fog of faith to penetrate. We need to have mercy on people making such decisions as well as on something that might be human to some and not quite human to others. Thanks to yesterday's vote, there may at least remain some mercy in Mississippi.

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