Human Life Does Not Begin at Conception
Life begins at “brain life”
At the heart of the abortion debate is a religious belief — that life begins at conception. This is not a scientific belief; this is a religious dogma that often religious people try to dress up as scientific. But, it’s not.
Naturally, science hasn’t been able to come up with a super solid answer as to when life begins, which is part of why the “life begins at conception” thing has taken off. The religious right has one simple easy to understand answer, and science says “it’s complicated.”
People gravitate toward the simple answer, because it helps them feel safe.
But, let’s reverse this question; when does life end? When you die, right?
What about if you’re on life support, and we can keep you living indefinitely but your brain is dead? Are you still alive? Are we ethically obligated to keep you on life support forever, if there is no chance that your brain will ever work again?
Legally, the answer is no. If a person is brain dead, then they are legally considered dead. It is not murder to unplug someone from life support, if their brain is dead. And, this makes sense, right? I mean, I agree with it personally.
So, how do we know if someone is brain dead? Well, it’s when there is no more activity in the brain. There’s a type of scan called an EEG that records if there’s activity in the brain, and if there’s any activity — any at all — then they’re not brain dead.
To be clear about this, a woman like Theresa Schiavo who was in a constant vegetative state, was not brain dead. That, in part, is was what made her death so controversial; she was in constant vegetative state and she was never going to recover any form of consciousness, but she was not fully brain dead. People in constant vegetative states are potentially still capable of some lower level actives, like blinking and breathing on their own.
So, brain death is a form of even less activity than Theresa Schiavo had. It is less than people in a coma; it means, someone’s brain is so far gone, there is nothing left in there.
No one who has met the criteria for brain death has ever survived — no one. It can be difficult to predict a person’s outcome after a severe brain injury, but it can be said with certainty that a brain dead individual is dead, the same as if their heart was not beating.
People get confused on this, because people in comas or people in vegetative states may improve at some point, but no one actually brain dead ever wakes up. Sometimes, people colloquially refer to these other conditions as “brain dead” but that’s not the true definition.
And so, if we apply this reasoning at the beginning of life — if we consider someone dead when their brain ceases all activity, might we not consider someone alive when their brain activity starts?
When does brain activity start? Well, professor of biology Scott Gilbert says EEGs start reading human specific brain activity around the 24th-28th week, though he doesn’t commit specifically as to if this is when “life begins” or not. However, for me, I feel like it does feel like a workable definition.
If you abort a child before the 24th week, you are ending the life of something with even less brain activity than a person in a constant vegetative state. You are ending the life of something who had even less consciousness than Theresa Schiavo.
Now, of course, I understand the desire to act with some degree of caution when dealing with this —and, honestly, I don’t love the idea of ending the life of anything, even non-human life. But, most Americans are ok with ending non-human life, and most Americans are more in favor of abortions during the first trimester than they are during the second trimester, which starts around 14 weeks. This is well before the 24 week cutoff for human consciousness, and as it happens, 90% of abortions are done before the 12th week. So, there is at least consistency here. I still believe, our eventual ideal is to move in the direction of perfect birth control and ubiquitous vegetarianism, but I accept that reality is far off and people will suffer if we hold out for it.
So, in the meantime, we can at least say we are far in the “no brain activity” safety zone, and we are also in the zone that the majority of Americans feel ok tolerating. So, this is in alignment with modern American ethics.
However, on the flip side, the idea that something is a person at conception when they are light years away from ‘brain life’ is… something I disagree with.
First of all, in natural conditions, over 50% of fertilized embryos will fail to implant (some estimates were as high as 70%) and will never grow into a child. This is very different, from say, an actual baby where significantly less than 1% of babies die during infancy. If someone wants to use a form of contraception that prevents embryo implantation, they’re really just poking the odds on something that was probably going to happen anyway. How can you say a person is unethical for just doing something the body is doing all the time? For every child that is birthed, there were at least 1 or 2 fertilized embryos that failed to implant.
So, what, when we get to heaven are we going to find ourselves outnumbered by scores of tiny embryos just sitting around? Because there are clearly more fertilized embryos who have “died” before conception than there are actual people who existed. Is heaven basically just a huge storage container for vast scores of tiny dots that can’t move, or talk, or think, or feel?
A fertilized embryo is so far away from “brain life” that they don’t even have nerves. They don’t have differentiated cells, they are literally just a blob. A tiny, tiny blob.
Anyway; people who are pro choice have to start putting forward a new definition of personhood. I think “brain life” — when human-type brain activity is detectable in the fetus — could work because it is symmetric with existing ethics around brain death. If someone is dead after their brain stops functioning, then it stands to reason they’re not alive until their brain starts functioning. I’m not sure if that would work for everyone, and if it doesn’t work for you that’s ok — keep your own beliefs.
But it raises a question — why don’t conservatives like a definition like this?
I think it’s because, deep down, they’re afraid they don’t actually have a soul. The ultimate deal of religion, is the Church says “do everything I say now, so that in the afterlife, your immortal soul will be in paradise!” Of course, no one has actually returned from the afterlife, to confirm that yes, it’s really worth doing everything Pastor John told you to do, and no, Pastor John wasn’t just lying to you this whole time in pursuit of earthly power,
But deep down, in their heart of hearts, the religious right must know they may be being taken for a ride. Would you work 3 years for a boss, who promised to pay you in a lump sum at the end? Would you agree to buy a house without seeing it, but with just the verbal assurance from the seller “that it’s a really great house”?
Then why the hell should you believe in Heaven? At least, the one they’re selling you? Isn’t it far more likely that this is all bullshit that they’re spinning so they get to keep 10% of your wages? After all, “A tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain or fruit, is the Lord’s, and is holy.” (Proverbs 3:9)
As it happens, I’m actually not a non-religious person myself. I just happen to believe that personal experience trumps whatever bullshit anyone else tells you. In effect, I believe that the mystical tradition of any religion is better than any mainstream interpretation that exists. You a Christian? Great, check out Mystical Christianity. Muslim? Fantastic, I personally love Sufism. The vast majorities of religion have a mystical tradition — and by mystical tradition, I mean, the emphasis on an individuals direct connection with God or the infinite rather than other people’s interpretations of the divine.
You believe in God? Great! Go find God for yourself. Stop believing all this crap other people are telling you.
But, deep deep down, the people on the right, they feel the bullshit in what their religious leaders are telling them. It doesn’t all add up, but out of fear, instead of finding God for themselves, they decide to cling to arbitrary fantasies.
The existence of a soul — as described by mainstream Christian leaders — means that, at some point, the soul has to be injected into the human body. The advantage “conception” gives, is it provides a clear injection point that doesn’t force Christians to confront the ideologically risky question “if there is no obvious point at which a person becomes a person, do people really have souls?”
But, the risky question is the honest question, and deep down they know it. That’s why they’re so wrapped up in this, that’s why they’re so afraid. That’s why, really, they’re demonizing the women who are willing to have abortions. They must convince themselves that abortions are murder, because if abortion isn’t murder, then they have to face deeper existential questions that could imply they have wasted their entire lives on a fantasy.
Here’s the thing though; just because the soul isn’t what you thought it was doesn’t mean you don’t have one.