Jul 20, 2006

"Human civilization has always defined the start of human life as birth." [LINK]

A letter I sent to a total stranger:

Dear Mr. Rouse,

I read your letter in today's Globe, and I responded to your first paragraph's central point:

In defending embryonic stem cell research, Andy Rouse argues that "human civilization has always defined the start of human life as birth." While nominally correct, this statement is undermined by doctors' newfound ability to raise extremely premature infants outside the mother's womb, a capability that alters the traditional definition of "birth." Such a being is clearly alive if cared for, and yet there remains the option to discard it.

Regardless, I can't help but wonder how many readers who respond to Mr. Rouse's traditionalist argument reject it when applied to the definition of marriage.

I also take issue with your second paragraph, but that would require a different letter entirely. I'm unaware of anyone making a good-faith argument that an unfertilized egg is alive. While specialized for the purpose of reproduction, an egg has no unique genetic identity and simply can't grow into a baby. It would be as absurd as saying any other cell in your body is a person. You'd be on firmer ground if you referred to the numerous fertilized eggs routinely lost through miscarriage. Still, the essential distinction is between spontaneous death and intentional killing. Doctors who think they can save viable miscarried fetuses are certainly right to try.

One other point. "If a human embryo is indeed a human being, then a whole new body of societal law needs to be written involving embryonic welfare protection." This is already being done. Pregnant women who are substance abusers are sometimes charged for negligence when their children subsequently experience developmental problems. And Scott Peterson was convicted of two murders, not one.

I don't consider myself an abortion "extremist." (Of course, who does?) I'd be opposed, for example, to a ban on first-trimester abortions, especially if it were judicially imposed. Nevertheless, it's important to consider the ethical questions more carefully.

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