So I was having an online discussion with my younger brother a little more than a week ago about abortion. Being a devout and pro-life Catholic he held the opinion that life starts at conception, that it a fertilized egg is human and should be treated as human because it is a unique life different than the host parent. I have also been reading bio-ethics and many different places on the debate and they all seem to revolve around trying to justify scientifically what I can best describe as trying to answer the question, "when is an embryo tantamount to a human being?" 

     Of course, that one question gave way to the larger question, "What makes us human?" Where do we define the limits of humanity? Is it strictly in a biological sense as in form, shape, and structure? Is it in potential in the case of infants? Is it in behavior; could someone act in a way that they are no longer considered, if even for a moment, a human? Is it in ability whether physical or mental? Is humanity a transitive property; in other words, is it a label that can be taken away or does it last regardless once it has been gained? Are their varying degrees of humanity where a person could be considered "more human" than someone else?

I am very curious to hear all of your thoughts and ideas!

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Actually, according to religious dogma "all life is sacred" although I'm pretty sure that the Bible itself doesn't really say that one way or another. Regardless, Jahweh's violent escapades in the OT surely point to a deity for which life is not sacred.

What is said in the Bible is that for something to have life it has to have blood. As such, abortion before a certain period is certainly allowed according to the Bible. (BTW, this is one of the reasons why Jehova's witnesses think that blood transfusions are forbidden)

The life of the flesh is in the blood

Thank you for your reply, Rachel, but the question at hand is only tangentially related to the question of human development. Many people would agree that there are certain physical characteristics that define humanity. As Mark above pointed out, we are bipedal, have opposable thumbs, also large brains, the ability to create and use tools, and the capacity for self-awareness and abstract thought. These things are not comprehensive. Consider a newborn infant. It can't walk therefore it is not bipedal. It can't use or create tools as it doesn't have the prerequisite coordination. It may not even be capable of self-awareness or abstract thought. I don't know if there has been any studies on the cognitive abilities of infants. If they don't have these characteristics common to all humans, then can we recognize them as human?

Regardless of what the answer is to that question, we do consider infants to be human beings just as much as puppies are dogs and kittens are cats. But why? There must be some reasoning outside of simple biological claims for why humans are humans. If it was simple biology, then there would be gradations of who is more human as there are multiple gradations in people's physiology. For what reasons do we consider all humans as human, and how do we justify it? That's the real question I'm asking.

The answer, which is troubling but inescapable, is that humanity is a social construct. This is troubling because it seems there's nothing other than common agreement, written into law in modern times, that defines birth as the point at which a human with rights is created. We are now, in response to changing sentiment, in the process of extending humanity and human rights by degrees back into the womb. At the other extreme, at some times and places in history, even babies were seen as less than fully human until they reached a certain age, and could be killed or left to die without consequences. The simple fact is that there is no logical or biological fact that definitively defines the point at which a human comes in to being, and the reason is that the definition of "human" is bound up in how we collectively value a developing fetus/baby.

I could go into the morality of this, describe the innate psychological constraints that keep our definition of "human" within a certain range, and give my own opinions, but that would be an essay unto itself.

I think there's a difference between pain and suffering. Essentially all creatures with a nervous system feel pain to some degree, but because they don't have the mental capacity to suffer mental anguish, there's nothing really "there" to experience the pain in a meaningful way; the degree of consciousness is an essential factor. I think this is a more precise description of most people's commonsense understanding of animals, and is the reason most people don't feel guilty about eating meat.

I don't think a weeks-old embryo, even if it could be technically said to feel pain, can suffer, and I don't think we should be especially bothered by terminating such a being.

You cannot say that animals do not suffer with mental anguish. We simply do not know 100% for sure, however as the arrogance of humanity diminishes in the field of science, we now at least acknowledge there is a possibility that they DO! Just like we now know that brain size capacity is NO LONGER the main indicator for intelligence.

An unborn thing probably DOES feel something, just not in the same measure, and until its born, its an it.

No, we don't know for sure, and this is just my personal hypothesis. Of course they feel something, but it's not necessarily anguish. And as I said, the degree of consciousness is the most important factor. I think whales, dolphins, apes, chimps, etc probably can experience anguish in approximately the way humans do. I think it's pretty clear that mice, lizards, and weeks-old embryos do not.

what about pigs? how do you compute what level of pain or suffering is acceptable?

Pain, yes. Anguish no. I think anguish require a concept of the future. When a squirrel stores nuts, it's laughable to suppose the squirrel is thinking "I'll need these nuts in winter." It's an instinct and the squirrel has no idea why it's saving nuts.

Anguish related to pain seems to require a thought process along the lines of "This pain may go on longer than I can bear." I think that only a creature who can consider suicide is capable of anything resembling anguish. Remember: anguish comes from the same root as angst and involves the concept of dread, which clearly is a future-based concept.

I'm about as certain as can be that only animals very high up in mental development can experience anguish and dread.

RE: "I'm about as certain as can be that only animals very high up in mental development can experience anguish and dread."

It must come as a great relief to you that Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has mercifully excluded you from that group.

I thank my lucky stars every day. ;)

Ingrained, hard-wired behavior.

Wow Unseen - sounds like your biggest only fan is turning on you --!


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