Monday, November 03, 2008

When Life Begins - The Politics, The Reality

Robert George has done some terrific work on the matter of abortion and the meaning of “person” and when life begins. His latest major work, Embryo, with philosopher Tollefsen is a thoughtful treatment of the biology, law and philosophy of abortion and personhood. One of George’s latest offerings on the issue is worth quoting at length. Addressing the current fad of treating life as a “mystery” he says:

Yet is Speaker Pelosi correct? Is it actually the case that no one can tell you with any degree of authority when the life of a human being actually begins?

No, it is not. Treating the question as some sort of grand mystery, or expressing or feigning uncertainty about it, may be politically expedient, but it is intellectually indefensible. Modern science long ago resolved the question. We actually know when the life of a new human individual begins.

A recently published
white paper, “When does human life begin? A scientific perspective,” offers a thorough discussion of the facts of human embryogenesis and early development, and its conclusion is inescapable: From a purely biological perspective, scientists can identify the point at which a human life begins. The relevant studies are legion. The biological facts are uncontested. The method of analysis applied to the data is universally accepted….

Why, then, do we seem so far from a consensus on questions of abortion and embryo-destructive research?

Perhaps because the debate over when human life begins has never been about the biological facts. It has been about the value we ascribe to human beings at the dawn of their lives. When we debate questions of abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, we are not really disagreeing about whether human embryos are human beings. The scientific evidence is simply too overwhelming for there to be any real debate on this point. What is at issue in these debates is the question of whether we ought to respect and defend human beings in the earliest stages of their lives. In other words, the question is not about scientific facts; it is about the nature of human dignity and the equality of human beings.

On one side are those who believe that human beings have dignity and rights by virtue of their humanity. They believe that all human beings, irrespective not only of race, ethnicity, and sex, but also irrespective of age, size, and stage of development, are equal in fundamental worth and dignity. The right to life is a human right — therefore all human beings, from the point at which they come into being (conception) to the point at which they cease to be (death), possess it.

A common error these days is for people to convert the question of when a human life begins from a matter of biology to a matter of religious faith or personal belief.... In view of the established facts of human embryogenesis and early intrauterine development, the real question is not whether human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages are human beings. Plainly they are. The question is whether we will honor or abandon our civilizational and national commitment to the equal worth and dignity of all human beings — even the smallest, youngest, weakest, and most vulnerable.

Pushing the issue off as a “mystery” or “above my pay grade” is not only disingenuous, it is dangerous. The political maneuver recently was to brush aside the issue by saying you were personally against it, but publicly for the right of choice. This issue is too important to lay aside or treat as politically unimportant. There are utterly innocent lives we are dealing with, and a culture of life or death we are constructing.


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