THE CENTRAL ISSUES
While the debate encompasses many arguments, the central issues concerning life-ending procedures such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research are when life begins and the concept of personhood.
WHEN LIFE BEGINS
A human life is a collection of cells in a body, with each cell (except sperm and egg) having twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and with each chromosome composed of a molecule called DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – which is composed of segments called genes, which determine the development of the body.
A human body is born at conception, when the twenty-three chromosomes carried by the sperm are paired with the twenty-three chromosomes carried in the egg, forming the first cell of the body. The development of a body continues throughout the pre-delivery stages of life – called zygote, embryo, and fetus – and the post-delivery stages of life – called infancy, prepubescence, adolescence, and adulthood.
Life does not begin at delivery: the fourth stage of life – called infancy – begins at delivery.
Life begins at conception: a human being is born the moment a human being comes into existence and a human being comes into existence the moment of conception. When a human life is created outside of a human body in a laboratory, the conception occurs when the manipulation of the egg occurs, forming the first cell of the body.
THE CONCEPT OF PERSONHOOD
Unlike human life, which exists in reality, a person only exists in theory. A human life is something, whereas “person” is only a word used to label something. Historically, the word person has been used, or more accurately, misused to protect the self-interests of the strong at the expense of the weak. The current legal and medical definitions continue this practice by denying personhood to a human life until that human life has reached a particular stage of development. A person is simply whatever the legal and medical authorities label a person. Therefore, if a corporation is labeled a person, a corporation is a person. And if a slave, or woman, or fetus is labeled not a person, a slave, or woman, or fetus is not a person. But a human life remains a human life, regardless of what concept of personhood the authorities force on everyone.
The main argument given in support of abortion rests on the claim that abortion is a personal choice best made between a woman and her doctor. And the reason? The decision is not arrived at lightly, so abortion should be respected as the right of the woman. But this argument is unintellectual and utter nonsense. The follow-up argument contends that abortion is merely a medical procedure akin to an organ transplant or a blood transfusion. And doctors, not governments, should regulate medical procedures. But governments have a responsibility to regulate medical procedures, including organ transplants and blood transfusions, for example, to prohibit the selling of human organs and to protect incapacitated patients. Governments have a responsibility to protect human rights and prohibit violations of human rights. And governments have a responsibility to prohibit abortion on these grounds, regardless of whether or not the decision is arrived at lightly.
The pro-life movement suffers a self-inflicted wound by arguing that personhood is defined by the presence of life alone or the presence of unique DNA. First, this argument gives legitimacy to the tactic of using a concept of personhood as the basis for determining when the human rights of a human life will be protected: it merely substitutes a pro-life theory for the pro-choice theory. Second, this argument is false: it fails to explain the facts correctly. The life alone argument fails to distinguish between a human life and the tissues and organs of a human life. And the unique DNA argument fails to distinguish between a human life and the reproductive cells of a human life. While sperm and egg are cells, neither are cells of a body, nor can develop into a body, until conception, therefore, neither are a human life, nor have a right to life.
The pro-choice movement further takes advantage of this argument by pointing out the fact that fertilized eggs used for in vitro fertilization are human lives and routinely are discarded when not implanted during the procedure. The pro-life position consistent with this fact holds that in vitro fertilization is not a violation of the right to life provided that every embryo created is either used during the procedure or donated for use in the future, but the current practice of discarding one or more unused embryos is a violation of the right to life.
The procedure followed while carrying out embryonic stem cell research, which involves taking a cell from an embryo, destroying the embryo, is also a violation of the right to life. The promise of finding a cure for many of the diseases that afflict humanity is not limited to embryonic stem cell research; the possibility of effectively using stem cells from other sources, such as umbilical cords, without destroying human life still exists. However, many people do not care that embryonic stem cell research involves the destroying of human life; many people do not care about human life in the earliest stages when the lives of infants, prepubescents, adolescents, and adults are at stake. But while people have the right to either care or not care about anyone they want for any reason they want, a government does not have such a right; a government does not have a right to pick and choose which lives will receive protection from the government. The protection of human rights is not a popularity contest in which only those who are cared about will receive protection from the government; those who are cared about the least need protection the most from the government.
By design, pro-choice advocates, with the help of the media, have framed the pro-life position as one based on religious beliefs. While a strong case can be made that many of the most venerable laws are based on religious beliefs, and God is clearly on the pro-life side, so are the facts.
Every human zygote is a human life. Every human embryo is a human life. Every human fetus is a human life. And human life is the only fact-based definition for the word person.