Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 17, 2006

More on the Meaning of Life

Now that the embryonic stem cell thing is back in play, we're hearing the usual, tiresome arguments between the pro-life and the pro-choice people. For some reason, as with many important public controversies, the officially acceptable discourse has an obvious hole in the middle, the real issue that for some reason rarely gets mentioned.

What I have to say about this isn't original (what is?) but it's what this is really all about. What is this thing called human life that we value? Curiously, the Catholic Church and right-wing protestants define human life, which they call sacred and infinitely precious, in a very unspiritual way. In fact, their definition could not even have existed during biblical times or for 95% of the history of Christianity, because it depends on scientific knowledge that we only acquired in the 20th Century. They define human life in terms of biological functioning and human DNA. Therefore a single cell -- a zygote -- is a human being, with precisely the same value and the same moral claim on the rest of us as a five year old child, or Jessica Simpson (whoever that is). And so, of course, is a being which possesses most of a human body but lacks a functioning cerebral cortex, the organ which is essential to awareness and moral agency.

This definition would seem to make sense only to someone who is profoundly autistic. It most certainly is not derived from the Bible, or from Judeo-Christian teachings prior to very modern times. It seems to me that the value of life derives from the capacity for empathy, that is comprehending and being moved by the feelings, desires, and moral choices of others. Hence the moral status of human life derives from the moral agency of human beings -- sentience, and the capacity for moral choice. As Peter Singer very controverisially maintains, on that basis intelligent animals such as dogs, chimpanzees and dolphins have greater moral status than a human embryo or a person with a badly damaged or undeveloped brain.

This seems obvious to me. A blastocyst is not a person. If it happens to be in the process of implanting in the uterus of a woman who wants a baby, then it is valuable to her because of its potential to become human. If it is in any other circumstance, it is valuable only insofar as we have some use for it.

I would love to hear some politician or pundit stand up and actually say this. The controversy is not between people who defend "life" and people who are for the "choice" to destroy human life. It's obvious who's right and who's wrong in that controversy. The controversy is between people who understand what life is, and why we cherish it, and people who don't. And that's how it must be framed if we are ever to move past this.

1 comment:

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