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« The Clinton "Lie-Berry" | Main | Murderous London »

What Is Human?

Over at the corner, KLo complains about cloning and a judge that rules that anencephalic babies should be aborted:

Besides the culture of death embraced by New Jersey and California on human cloning (we can clone as long as we kill that new life), the courts insistence on legal infanticide re disallowing partial-birth-abortion bans, and, of course, Roe, Shannen Coffin reminds me that two federal judges here ruled that the government had to pay for abortions of anencephalic babies because they had no chance of survival, i.e., no value to life. (Fortunately, some cooler heads prevailed in the court of appeals where one of those two decisions was reversed (another is pending in the dreaded Ninth Circuit.) How far off are we, really?

At the risk of creeping people out (hey, I have to (re)establish my non-conservative bona fides occasionally here, what with all the complaints about this being a "right-wing" site), I have to say that she sets much too much store by DNA. This all really begs the question of what is human, and what represents human life (an essay that I've been meaning to write for years, but never get around to, primarily because it's a tough problem). The short version is that I don't believe that having human DNA is either necessary or sufficient to be human, or at least to be a person with rights.

While I can see the conservative objection to aborting "human" clones (it's at least consistent with aborting in general), I've never understood the convervative objection to cloning in general (other than the Leon Kass "Yuck factor").

I use the word "human" in quotes because I'm on the fence as to when an embryo actually attains that state. I don't believe that it's at conception, but I do believe that by the time there's a brain stem there, you've got something that shouldn't be deliberately killed without a damn good reason. Which brings us to her second complaint, about aborting "babies" that literally have no minds.

These are creatures with human DNA, but can they really be said to be truly human? I think that much of what makes us human resides in our minds, and that absent a brain, there's no possibility of humanity. For a person in a coma, it can be argued whether or not they are really "there," even if there's no measurable brain activity, but if there's not only no activity, but literally no brain at all (at least none with any higher functions) and no prospects for developing one, what are the prospects for a meaningful life, and what indeed, is the value of such a mass of tissue?

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 30, 2004 02:56 PM
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Rand, you wrote:

"you've got something that should be deliberately killed without a damn good reason."

But I think you meant:

"you've got something that should be deliberately killed without a damn good reason."

We've got our eyes on you, buddy. :-)


Posted by David A. Young at November 30, 2004 03:58 PM

Whoops! I'll try again. I should have known those brackets wouldn't work. I think you meant to say that "shouldn't -- should not" be deliberately killed, etc. etc.


Posted by Davi d A. Young at November 30, 2004 04:00 PM

Personally, my only objection to human cloning (after all, identical twins are clones) is that currently, for every 'Dolly the sheep' that hits the newsstands, there's on the order of 100 spontaneous abortions and 10's of monsters that don't survive very long.

Anyway, a couple of points to throw out...

1) I'd like to see the ethicists on both sides take on the issue of "Is it OK to clone human *ORGANS*?"

2) With Roe v. Wade, haven't we already crossed a certain threshold where the Gov't. has, by fiat, created a definition of human/non-human? My issue with that is that what Gov't defines, Gov't can redefine again and again. The only historical examples I can think of where a government has set a definition of human/non-human all (sooner or later) lead to large scale human rights abuses (either slavery or genocide). Whatever anyone thinks of Roe v. Wade, I think questioning the wisdom of having Gov't set that line at all is appropriate.

- Eric.

Posted by Eric S. at November 30, 2004 05:33 PM

Well, Kathryn Lopez has a tendency towards hysteria, viz. her contribution to the exit-poll "Kerry-blowout" fiasco during NRO's election converage.

But I think one basis of her conservative stance arises in this sentence in Rand's post:

This all really begs the question of what is human, and what represents human life (an essay that I've been meaning to write for years, but never get around to, primarily because it's a tough problem).

Since it's tough for one man as thoughtful as Rand to settle the question, imagine how difficult it would be for 200 million considerably less well-informed ordinary men and women to reach a stable consensus on where exactly to draw the line separating human from not human.

Hence, this particular "conservative" position is that the line should be drawn so outrageously towards the "not" side that there's no chance at all that a human being might accidentally end up on the "not" side. Obviously, this means that in lots of borderline cases humanity will be rather absurdly attributed, e.g. to three-week-old embryos, or to people in a vegatative state.

But that may be a reasonable price to pay in order to avoid having to try to pin down the bright line in a public debate. Would anyone relish 500 people as scientifically ill-informed, narcissistic and unreflective as our average Congressman deciding exactly where to draw the border around "human"? Would it be fun to have to vote on ballot measures every few years fine-tuning the border, shoving it a little bit back and forth? To wade through sound-bite arguments by political candidates on where exactly they stand on the problem? Ugh.

There are significant absurdities in the "conservative" position, in that microscopic blobs of tissue get called "human." But there are absurdities on the other side, too, for example in the unstated assumption that the debate could occur on a high moral plane, as between thoughtful PhD's sitting on a blue-ribbon panel, instead of in the usual half-hysterical sound-bite rough and tumble way that marks most American political decisions.

Or the assumption that the debate could occur only once and then we'd be done with it for at least a few decades. Of course, given advancing medical technology and biological insight, if we tried to draw the line between human (or salvageably human) and non-human (or unsalvageably human) as accurately as possible, we'd actually have the public debate over and over again with each little advance in technology or understanding. Not very appealing.

And yet, there are times when ugly decisions have to be made and one longs for a settled public consensus on the issue. I heard of a case from an RN recently: a child was rescued from a pool where he'd been underwater, not breathing, for five or ten minutes. The paramedics and ER team worked heroically and "brought him back" in the sense that his heart restarted. But after 10 minutes hypoxia there is very little brain function left. Now it's hard to believe this baby -- on a ventilator, comatose, pupils unresponsive -- will ever be anything other than a monstrously cruel torture to the grief-stricken parents. The ER team's inability or unwillingness to make a hard choice has forced an even harder choice on the parents.

In such cases it would be extraordinarily valuable to have a broad social agreement on the magic line, to guide individual decision and corporate policies, to help relieve the lonely burden on individuals by saying: we've all agreed the line is (at least roughly) here, and so you need not struggle with defining it entirely by yourself.

Posted by Carl Pham at November 30, 2004 08:11 PM

Which is more 'human' - an anencephalic child - or a gorilla or chimp with an 800+ word sign language vocabulary?

Being a former sign language interpreter, and having looked into the eyes of a signing ape myself, I have my own subjective opinion.

Posted by Keith Cowing at November 30, 2004 08:13 PM

Clearly this is for you, Keith.

Posted by Carl Pham at November 30, 2004 09:21 PM

Carl, maybe your extended comments serve to prove that a "one size fits all" rule is not available and unless we clearly cross a bright line, government should grant each of us as much personal choice as possible.

Posted by Bill White at November 30, 2004 09:48 PM

Carl, maybe your extended comments serve to prove that. .


[ pulls arrow from side... ]

Sure, I tend to agree with you (and Eric S above), simply because I think it's hardly ever the case that the law is more humane than individual men and women. But I'm not very happy about this conclusion, because it makes necessary the acceptance of unpleasant things.

I'm not sure any of us really knows where we stand until the personal moment of applicability comes. For me a hint of that moment came a few years ago when my son suffered a head injury. For a brief time it was not clear what the future held, although all turned out fine in the end.

In the hospital I thought about certain decisions that might have to be made, and I could feel the enormous weight of the responsibility. It was far heavier than I could have imagined before having been there. I can readily see how some folks just don't want to have to bear it alone, without guidance from their religion, the law, social norm, whatever. And I don't blame them one bit.

But for me, it turned out that I was fiercely determined to make those decisions myself, if they had to be made. However awful it was, it would be worse turning them over, even in part, to someone else. But I can't explain why. I didn't reason to my conclusion.

Posted by Carl Pham at November 30, 2004 11:28 PM

Carl, I couldn't agree more. If my son were in that situation I wouldn't let anyone else (maybe my wife?) tell me what to do. I would listen and consider my mother's advice, however. ;-))

Too many people (IMHO) are far too quick to end life without a casual 2nd thought and too many people (IMHO) are far too quick to impose their own moral judgments on others without a casual 2nd thought.

If both sides would stop screaming at each other, perhaps we could find a general consensus on these issues yet both sides find abortion (for example) too valuable an issue for "rallying the base" and raising money to actually allow for genuine discussion and mutual understanding.

[Sarcasm]After all, people you disagree with aren't really human, right? [/sarcasm]
= = =

PS - - It is pretty much impossible to discuss these subjects without extended comments. . .

Posted by Bill White at December 1, 2004 06:02 AM

For some of the ethical objections to cloning, see section 3 ("Technical, ethical and anthropological objections to human cloning") of the following:

Posted by Hamilcar at December 1, 2004 06:08 AM

Ah the quantam question of what is life and isn't life is a definently a tough one. I think the way to administer such a tough issue is to leave it to federalism to decide whats best for the corresponding region. What works for Florida isn't going to fly in Indiana.

Personally I believe the line approximately is drawn at and around that point whenever the fetus can begin to survive on its own when removed from an artificial or natural womb. I understand this is still a cloudy position in that prenatal care has become very advanced to the point where premature babies only 5 months in the womb can be incubated and survive to live completely normal lifes. I also understand that technically no baby fresh into the world cannot survive on its own without direct adult supervision. Yet a baby has the right to life when it has matured to the point where it can start to breathe and metabolise on its own without the need of a host blood supply. Till that point the host mother can choose to remove the fetus in much the same way that they can choose to have a limb or organ removed it they so wish.

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at December 1, 2004 06:10 AM

<shrill sound of referee's whistle>

Jargon creep is obscuring the debate here, I think.

When does life begin? Life doesn't "begin" in the reproductive context -- it's continuous. The sperm and ovum are living cells before conception, and the resulting zygote is a living cell immediately thereafter. This question isn't really relevant to reproduction.

When does a unique life begin? a more relevant question, but if we're still talking about "life" the uniqueness occurs immediately upon conception.

When does "humanness" begin? This too, I think, doesn't really reach for the issue, because humanness, strictly speaking, is a question of DNA. I think what we're really reaching for, and which Rand did a much better job of reaching for than many of the commenters so far, is:

When does "personhood" begin? Those of us who muse transterrestrially are already well prepared to consider the possibility of "personhood" in the absence of "humanness."

Gentlemen, resume play.

Posted by McGehee at December 1, 2004 06:58 AM

Carl: appreciate your commentary - many good points. One quibble, though. I understand that you're illustrating an untenable position, not pressing your own point, when you point out that these debates can't "occur on a high moral plane, as between thoughtful PhD's sitting on a blue-ribbon panel" - but the implication is that in an ideal world this would be preferable to allowing the "scientifically ill-informed" to stick their fingers into the pot.

Frankly, I'm happier to be stuck with the interminable debate among the dumbass congressman and ill-informed laymen. The scientifically well-informed are just that - scientifically well-informed. We defer to them for facts. However, they are as likely to be as ethically obtuse and short-sighted as the next person, so I have no desire to look to them for the solution to what are essentially philosophical dilemmas. (Not to suggest you're advocating such a thing - that you're not is obvious from your further comments. Just tend to raise an eyebrow at any suggestion that scientific literacy can more neatly solve the question of how human life should be valued.)

Posted by at December 1, 2004 07:31 AM

Uh, that was me. Forgot to fill in my name.

Posted by Moira Breen at December 1, 2004 07:33 AM

Iím typically much closer to this subject than is normal. My wife is a neonatal nurse taking care of infants born at just 23 weeks of a pregnancy.

Neonatal doctors will provide care for a 23-week term infant, but not a 22-week term. The difference in one week is significant develop of brain functions. Still, few 23-week term infants ever leave the nursery and a smaller set ever live normal lives. For experience listening to my wife, 32 weeks seems to be another threshold. As a medical layman, Iím not sure what exactly is different from 31 to 32 weeks, but the difference in care is profound. Younger than 32 weeks, a baby is treated like it barely survived a major automobile crash. Older than 32 weeks, it is treated like it simply has a major illness. Certainly, as each week goes by during development in the womb, the prognosis for a healthy baby increases but the rate of development begins to level off near 38 weeks.

So there I have some boundaries to work by. Going one step further than Rand on ďspinal cordsĒ I say after 23 weeks, there is a potential for viable life. After 32 weeks, there is significant potential of a very normal life. After 38 weeks, it is simply cold-blooded murder of a matured infant.

Personally think the line should be drawn at 23 weeks for any abortion. Otherwise, I go with the abortion is reasonable for: rape (to include what is typically considered statutory rape of a minor) and threat to the mom. The situation of rape is known early on in the pregnancy, and I think the abortion could be done early. My moral judgment of this is that I simply see no reason to torture a woman by forcing her to bare an unwanted reminder of a tragic event. The loss of life I blame on the assailant. Threat to a mom may not be known until late in the pregnancy, but I canít accept the notion, although noble of the mother, to give her own life for that of a child, who may have complications as well.

In the case of non-viable life, my personal moral jury is still considering. My wife has her opinions based on her experience of what complications lead to normal healthy children and which ones lead to a very low quality of life. In the case of anencephalic babies, I disagree with Ms. Lopez. My wife has dealt with a few of these babies, and its certain they will not survive long. Their body survives only because medical technology allows it. In the natural world, they would die shortly after birth. If the parents want to suffer the agony of watching their infant slowly decay, thatís their choice, and again I accept that as a noble decision.

I guess it is not an issue of what is human or not, its what would survive in a natural environment. You can flip that the humans at the end of life, but in many cases, people using life support have proven the ability to survive without it and maintain a potential of returning to a life without life support.

Cloning is another topic in my mind. Iím against the idea of designer children. The ideas of determining what genetic traits are good and which ones are bad. The debate for determining those lines I wish never to have.

Posted by Leland at December 1, 2004 07:58 AM

My last post contained a typo:

. . . smirk . . .

Folks who disagree with ME are neither human nor entitled to the protections of personhood. Fair enough?


Posted by Bill White at December 1, 2004 08:49 AM

Moira, I agree with you, and I apologize for any implication to the contrary. I have spent too long in the academy, which as you know is rotten with the intellectual snobbery about which you were concerned.

Posted by Carl Pham at December 1, 2004 05:05 PM

Rand and Friends,
What if God actually HAD said, "...the rational soul becomes associated with its material body AT THE MOMENT of conception..."

Would that provide a clarifying rationale? The rational soul is the chief distinguishing feature marking humans as meta-animals (hu-> God; -m'n, creature; hence hu-m'n = 'God creature'), and as such needs a functioning nervous system through which to manifest.

My personal reasoning? I have never, EVER read of a fertilized human zygote which developed into a giraffe or a dolphin. They only develop into humans, so I accept the moment of conception as described in "The Book of Laws", revealed by The Glory of God.

In it He establishes the moment of conception as that moment in sidereal-material-space-time as the defining moment where one's supra-physical reality becomes associated with one's physical, material, corporeal vessel.

Makes sense to me.

Posted by Carridine at December 1, 2004 09:53 PM

This whole argument is predicated on the thought that there is some unique "Human-ness" that is fundamentally differnt for "Humans" than for other life forms. If you reject that idea you can then view us as apes that learned to use tools. Unless you are a strict practicing vegan I've always viewed these life/value discussions as hypocracy. Are we hunmans really
more special than a Whale or a Red Tailed hawk?
We are clearly more succesful, but how can you claim we are really superior?

Posted by Paul at December 2, 2004 12:19 AM

Nicely put Rand.

Ugh, did I say that ? ;)

Posted by Dave at December 2, 2004 03:27 AM

What if God actually HAD said, "...the rational soul becomes associated with its material body AT THE MOMENT of conception..."

Would that provide a clarifying rationale?

Only if one believes in God, and souls. I have no such beliefs.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 2, 2004 04:56 AM

I have to say that, while I understand the right's opposition to abortion, I'm a bit mystified by the opposition there to cloning or genetic manipulation.

I gather the basis is not a blanket abhorrence of after-market modification of the body, since there's no serious objection to surgery, braces, dying your hair, et cetera.

So what's wrong with factory-installed modifications, so to speak? Especially given the potential good? I mean, if I could have chosen to have my family's unfortunate tendency to high blood pressure genetically excised from my children, and my children's children, unto the nth generation, I would, in a flash.

Of course someone somewhere will abuse the technology. But so what? Michael Jackson's abuse of surgery is no reason to ban the use of the technology entirely.

Posted by Carl Pham at December 2, 2004 10:59 AM

Neonatal doctors will provide care for a 23-week term infant, but not a 22-week term. The difference in one week is significant develop of brain functions. . .

Leland, I believe there is a subtlety here which is worth noting. It's not that the infant is naturally suited for survival at 23 weeks but not at 22 weeks. It's not. It's naturally suitable for survival near term and not before. But technology has now enabled us to provide enough of an artificial womb that a few 23-week neonates can now survive.

So the line you draw between viability and non is directly and powerfully related to our state of technology. Given different technology, you would naturally draw that line somewhere else.

This is relevant to the debate because some people find it uncomfortable to be deciding something as fundamental as when killing becomes murder on the basis of our present state of technology. Shouldn't murder be murder be murder, and its definition not depend so crucially on the exact state of our medical technology? Isn't it ugly to imagine that our ideas of what constitutes the ultimate crime -- the deliberate murder of a child -- depend on the vagaries of FDA approval of neonatal medical procedures or how inventive the pharmaceutical industry has been lately?

I'm not saying that is an entirely reasonable point of view. Futurists have long held that technology changes ethics. A close analogy can be made in this case with advances in battlefield medical technology. It would be ethical in 1944 when under fire to abandon a comrade wounded in a certain way, in order that the advance not be stopped and the war won sooner, because in 1944 there was no way to save him anyway. But it may no longer be ethical in 2004 to abandon him in order not to halt the advance, because modern battlefield medical technology can readily save him.

Technology can also save us from ethical dilemmas. Imagine that neonatal technology gets good enough that even weensy embryos and fetuses at 4-6 weeks -- i.e. about the age when a woman first realizes she's pregnant -- can be painlessly removed from the uterus and brought to term safely in big glass bottles. This is not an outrageous projection of current technology.

Would it change the abortion debate if a woman could choose not to carry a baby to term without killing it (but at some substantial cost)? I think so. It would be very interesting to hear how the various sides of the debate would react to a change in terms like that. I suspect it would reveal much of their true motivations.

Posted by Carl Pham at December 2, 2004 11:29 AM

So the line you draw between viability and non is directly and powerfully related to our state of technology. Given different technology, you would naturally draw that line somewhere else.

That's the argument that cryonicists (correctly, in my opinion) make.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 2, 2004 11:49 AM

It's a good point, Rand, and the linked article is of course well-written and informative.

I would like to comment that I sympathize greatly with the medical profession's dilemma in both these discussions, of how to demark the beginning and end of life.

So far as I can tell from personal experience (I know some physicans and RNs very closely), they are fully aware of the fluidity of these judgments. It is no news to them that you are far more likely to be declared DOA with a stopped heart if you are old and fat than if you are young and attractive.

But I think their pain and hostility comes from the fact that we the public thrust too much of these difficult and wracking decisions onto them. We demand too often that they uphold (or say they uphold) logically absurd positions, such as that all life be considered equally valuable, or that life be preserved at any cost, or that the frailties of human judgment do not enter into medical decisions. And then we turn on them viciously when events prove that they did not.

This is a branch of the trend towards public infantilism I've mentioned before. It's unfair to ask our mechanic to decide whether our car should be repaired or junked. He should only be required to tell us the cost of either option. But our medical profession should not be asked, either, to decide whether our bodies should be repaired or junked. They should only be required to tell us honestly what the costs of either option are.

I understand the tendency, absolutely. When you're in a hole and have a terrible decision to make, you really want to believe there's an expert with expert facts who can make it better. It takes tremendous self-discipline to realize the decision is yours. Moira made a good point that the academy should not be deciding ethical things. But there is a counterpart, which is that we the general public must stop asking the academy to do so.

Posted by Carl Pham at December 2, 2004 12:12 PM

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