Before answering this question, it is imperative to truly define murder. To me, “murder” is an intentional, malicious act which serves to terminate the biological functioning of an innocent individual. Of course, this definition then begs the question of what exactly constitutes an individual. Surely plants are not considered individuals, yet a coma patient is. I think that the easiest way to define an “individual person” is both the possession of an advanced central nervous system and the capacity for physiological self-sufficiency. By these terms, a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is not an individual person.
In the first few weeks of development, the cluster of embryonic cells may divide into two separate embryos and result in identical twins. If an individual person is created at the exact moment of conception, then how is this possible? Were there two individuals encapsulated in that single zygote? Did one more person somehow enter the womb upon the splitting of the embryo? Even more troubling than this split is the subsequent possible fusion of these two identical embryos back into a single embryo. Did two individuals just become one individual? Which one is dominant, then? Another possible scenario is for two fraternal embryos—resulting from two separately fertilized zygotes—to merge into one single embryo; a baby resulting from this is known as a chimera. This scenario is even more dubious for the individualism of embryos, as this is the fusion of two entirely unique genetic combinations. The lack of development of any central nervous system in any of these embryos seems to be the clearest factor in preventing the identification of an “individual.”
But even beyond the status of a fetus as an individual or not, there is still the issue of physiological self-sufficiency. In this respect, I think of certain cases of conjoined twins. Sometimes when two children are born fused together with shared organs, the physiological structures are only able to support one twin beyond infancy. Parents may be faced with the decision to surgically separate the two children, even if the separation will surely result in one child’s death. Is this murder? If one child is separated from another and unable to survive on its own—despite doctors’ best attempts to help the weaker child—can we really say that the child was murdered? The capacity for independence seems imperative in determining whether a death is really a murder. Similarly, when a fetus is aborted, nothing is done to the physical structure of the fetus. All that happens is the dependent fetus’ link to the mother’s womb is severed. Were the fetus capable of self-sufficiency—as is the case in late-term pregnancy—then the fetus would not die. It is this inability for self-sufficiency that causes the death of the fetus, not any harm done to its physical being.
Of course, the issue of self-sufficiency could be seen to raise an issue with the care of disabled people. I fully understand the unfortunate parallels that may be drawn given that many disabled people require varying levels of assistance to complete daily activities. However, I find that the discerning factor is the first criteria of an individual: possession of an advanced central nervous system, particularly the cerebral cortex. Most people with physical disabilities have absolutely no cognitive impairment. But even for those who do, needing physical or verbal assistance in completing a task is entirely different from requiring biological support to complete bodily functions. I think that there is a marked difference between general self-sufficiency and physiological self-sufficiency. Someone may require that I prepare food for their dinner, but they do not require using my physical body to digest the food and extract its nutritional value.
In the end, a fetus in the early stages of pregnancy does not possess a developed central nervous system, nor is it physiologically self-sufficient. Therefore, this fetus cannot be considered a unique human individual; as such, the removal of this fetus from the uterine wall does not constitute murder.
Philosophy class assignment, 18 February 2010
Also, I fully admit that I am not a science major. If I have been inaccurate on any matters of biology, I apologize and welcome any corrections.
Originally posted here.