I once said that the issue of consciousness does not determine at what point a developing human being becomes a person, at what point life begins. I think I was wrong about that. Perhaps that is exactly the criterion we should use to determine “personhood.”
When Life Begins
Is it ever acceptable to abort a human fetus? Is it always acceptable, or perhaps only in some circumstances? Does the physical and mental condition of the mother make a difference? Stage of fetal development? Determining a suitable standard is not as simple as some pro-lifers make it out to be. There is no doubt that a fetus is alive and human. So is an embryo. So is a sperm cell, for that matter. To say that a fertilized egg cell has all the genetic material of the person it can develop into is only to say that it has that potential, not that it is already a person.
The majority of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterus; at least two-thirds die, without any human intervention. If we determined that personhood begins at conception, would that mean we would have to try to save all those doomed zygotes? That could be an impossible task, as most of them have severe chromosomal abnormalities.
It has been shown that the fetus reacts to stimuli, but it is a huge jump to assume from that fact that it can feel pain. The relevant question is whether it is conscious. Although the fetus has a heartbeat and brainwaves, there is evidence that it lives in a constant unconscious sedated state. Contrarily, after birth, the baby soon shows signs of consciousness, as any mother will attest. More advanced consciousness—self-awareness—takes longer, but perhaps not as long as we used to think. A new study indicates that infants appear to be developing an awareness of their experiences that goes beyond mere autonomic reaction.
At some point children become sentient, in the sense that they can distinguish themselves from their environment; they begin to understand that they are the person in the mirror. That ability seems to set in around the age of two. The brain continues to grow until early adulthood, continually developing more complexity from the time it begins as a little clump of nerve cells in the embryo. But despite the brain’s rapid increase in complexity, even in the womb, consciousness doesn’t manifest until shortly after the birth.
That really shouldn’t be surprising. Our language reflects the concept that life begins at birth. We track our lives from our birthdays, not the day the egg cell got fertilized. That’s not to say that fetuses aren’t important. An expectant mother who has been trying to get pregnant would certainly think so. I have only compassion for the growing connection she may feel for the life growing inside her. If only all babies could be so celebrated.
Life isn’t always like that. Sometimes those who earnestly desire the opportunity to raise children can’t conceive. And for some, a pregnancy is nothing but pain and heartache. I am not enthusiastic about abortion. I would just as soon that all fetuses would have the chance to live and grow. That is not reality, of course, and we have to deal with life as it is.
The tiny living thing in the womb is human, potentially a living, conscious person. If that organism dies, for whatever reason, feel bad for those who eagerly awaited its birth, not for the little being who never experienced life. There is no loss to those who have nothing, no experience of death for those who have never been consciously alive.