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Legal Definition of Life


Phi for All
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I think we need a practical, legal definition of life, something that can put to rest all the moral wheel-spinning over issues like abortion. We've been side-tracked for too long politically on this issue and the resources we've spent on it are desperately needed elsewhere.

 

Btw, if you're looking for a more biological discussion about the definition of life, there is a current one here.

 

I have big problems with life legally beginning at conception. It opens a Pandora's Box of ramifications for both women and men with respect to negligence. Is it homicide if a woman gets the news of being 3 weeks pregnant but then miscarries because she worked out strenuously at the gym the next day? You have to realize that if conception becomes the legal definition of life, law enforcement would inevitably lead to enormous intrusions into our private lives.

 

Beating heart? That doesn't really cut it, since we can artificially keep a heart beating. You wouldn't be correct if you said a person was dead just because their heart stopped beating. The rate of resuscitation shows we can't use the heart as a good qualifier.

 

Brain waves? Lack of brain activity is good enough for a definition of death, so the start of brain activity should be good enough for a definition of life. Unfortunately, pro-life advocates often claim that fetal brain waves start as early as six weeks. I've been reading this article (which has lots of nice citations to scientific studies as well as the common claims) and it suggests that, while brain activity that controls motor functions develops early in the first trimester, higher cognitive brain activity, the kind we associate with sentient thought and experience, doesn't start until the end of the second trimester.

 

As a legal definition of life, and a practical one, I think 26 weeks is a workable guideline. Personally, in any situation I had any control over, I would avoid abortion unless there was medical reasons that threatened the life of the mother. Legally though, we need a more nuanced approach, we need to agree on it, and we need to move on. I'm tired of this being used to stall our political and societal efforts at a very crucial time in our development.

 

What do you think?

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I think we need a practical, legal definition of life, something that can put to rest all the moral wheel-spinning over issues like abortion.

 

We don't even have a sufficient biological definition for life, so good luck. As for morality, life alone is not relevant. Trees are alive, but we don't grant them the rights of humans. The relevant definition we need to worry about is that of "personhood". The anti-abortion crowd knows they don't have a foot to stand on on that issue, so they try to divert to irrelevant definitions like that of "life". Why should we let them?

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The relevant definition we need to worry about is that of "personhood".

Then let's focus on this, since the rest is more wheel-spinning, imo. Is it the higher brain functions of cognition that makes a human a person with rights under the law? A practical line needs to be drawn, if only to keep the lawyers from being able to find a loophole that allows a zygote to hold an adult woman hostage.

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Then let's focus on this, since the rest is more wheel-spinning, imo. Is it the higher brain functions of cognition that makes a human a person with rights under the law? A practical line needs to be drawn, if only to keep the lawyers from being able to find a loophole that allows a zygote to hold an adult woman hostage.

 

Personally, I would say you're a person at the moment you're born, in whatever fashion. That's the moment you become a citizen, so it seems as good a definition as any (I mean if we're leaving aside biological considerations and looking for an arbitrary definition).

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Personally, I would say you're a person at the moment you're born, in whatever fashion. That's the moment you become a citizen, so it seems as good a definition as any (I mean if we're leaving aside biological considerations and looking for an arbitrary definition).

I think I could accept this, but it gives no concessions to the very large and vocal pro-life crowd, which I think makes it impractical. In order to become a legal definition, I think we have to at least prohibit late term abortions for no reason other than "I changed my mind".

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I think I could accept this, but it gives no concessions to the very large and vocal pro-life crowd, which I think makes it impractical. In order to become a legal definition, I think we have to at least prohibit late term abortions for no reason other than "I changed my mind".

 

hmm.

 

Ok, how about the fetus shall be termed a person when it can live independently of the biological mother. In other words, when the fetus is what the medical community terms viable, it becomes a person. That's roughly 24 - 28 weeks, and gels with your 26 week proposal. After that point, abortions would only be allowed in cases where the health of the mother was in jeopardy and surgical methods of removing the fetus (i.e. a cesarean, for example) would be considered too risky for the mother or fetus (as judged by a competent medical professional).

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I think I could accept this, but it gives no concessions to the very large and vocal pro-life crowd, which I think makes it impractical. In order to become a legal definition, I think we have to at least prohibit late term abortions for no reason other than "I changed my mind".

Unfortunately I don't think any concession to the pro-life crowd short of 'life begins at conception' will do. I also don't think changing the discussion to personhood will do either. From my perspective we should just go with the idea that abortion is legal and come up with a 'reasonable' time frame needed to recognize the pregnancy and make a decision on whether or not to terminate. I think 26 weeks sounds like a reasonable time frame.

 

There will never be agreement on when life begins, when personhood begins, what brain function determines life, etc. Therefore we should try to stay away from that kind of discussion. Abortion was made legal without answers to those questions, so let's not introduce them now.

 

hmm.

 

Ok, how about the fetus shall be termed a person when it can live independently of the biological mother. In other words, when the fetus is what the medical community terms viable, it becomes a person. That's roughly 24 - 28 weeks, and gels with your 26 week proposal. After that point, abortions would only be allowed in cases where the health of the mother was in jeopardy and surgical methods of removing the fetus (i.e. a cesarean, for example) would be considered too risky for the mother or fetus (as judged by a competent medical professional).

I like this proposal a lot, except for the problem that the date of independent living will likely shorten over time. I'd prefer to lock the date in.

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I like this proposal a lot, except for the problem that the date of independent living will likely shorten over time. I'd prefer to lock the date in.

 

It may shorten some, but at some point the fetus is just too underdeveloped to be viable. A fetus with no lungs (for example) isn't going to live long even if you put it in a respirator - there's nothing for it to breathe with. I don't think medical science will advance rapidly enough to make this kind of "floating date" a serious issue, but I could be wrong.

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It may shorten some, but at some point the fetus is just too underdeveloped to be viable. A fetus with no lungs (for example) isn't going to live long even if you put it in a respirator - there's nothing for it to breathe with. I don't think medical science will advance rapidly enough to make this kind of "floating date" a serious issue, but I could be wrong.

I don't see the possibility of an artificial uterus anytime soon, but this might be something to think about long term.

An artificial uterus (or womb) is a theoretical device that would allow for extracorporeal pregnancy or extrauterine fetal incubation (EUFI)[1] by growing an embryo or fetus outside of the body of a female organism that would normally internally carry the embryo or fetus to term.

 

An artificial uterus, as a replacement organ, could be used to assist women with damaged or diseased uteri to bring the fetus to term.[1] This can potentially be performed as a switch from a natural uterus to an artificial uterus, thereby moving the threshold of fetal viability to a much earlier stage of pregnancy.[1] In this sense, it can be regarded as a neonatal incubator with very extended functions. Also, it can potentially be used for initiation of fetal development.[1] Furthermore, it could avail for performing, for example, fetal surgery procedures at an early stage instead of having to postpone them until term of pregnancy.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_uterus

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Personally, I would say you're a person at the moment you're born, in whatever fashion. That's the moment you become a citizen, so it seems as good a definition as any (I mean if we're leaving aside biological considerations and looking for an arbitrary definition).

 

 

I think I could accept this, but it gives no concessions to the very large and vocal pro-life crowd, which I think makes it impractical. In order to become a legal definition, I think we have to at least prohibit late term abortions for no reason other than "I changed my mind".

 

I refuse to concede the point that civil rights are subject to concessions to any crowd, regardless of size or vocality. In that regard, the anti-abortion crowd can stuff it; where they move to incrementally make abortion illegal, they are wrong, period. I see nothing wrong with our current legal approach at regulation, except that in some states, mine included, doctors are now required to harass a woman that exercises her right to obtain medical care. If anything, legally redefining life is the wrong tack, and needlessly concedes the existence of a problem that isn't there. The true problem is that many states now arbitrarily require procedures, counseling, or waiting periods prior to a woman being able to have an abortion.

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Really great points, everyone. I had hoped that an attempt at mollifying the pro-life crowd would put an end to the constant bickering about abortion, and the constant tap-dancing politicians need to do to keep from offending a fairly large part of the vote. I think pro-life people most often picture late-term abortions or wanton harlots having unprotected sex with multiple partners every day whenever the subject comes up, in much the same way many conservatives picture lazy slackers drinking publicly provided beer whenever the subject is welfare. The pictures painted by the opposition are usually worst-case scenarios, and yet that becomes the default for many, leading to even more extremism and fear.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Phi,

 

I think we need a practical, legal definition of life
True, but...scientifically it is understood that life begins at conception and ends normally in senescence. To arbitrarilly pick a point in the life cycle that qualifies for protection under law seems arrogant. If you choose 26 weeks as the beginning, you open the door to subjective discrestion. Example being, once it is determined that the beginning is subjective, it could be determined out of convenience that anything younger than an adolescent is abortive.

 

Zapatos,

 

Unfortunately I don't think any concession to the pro-life crowd short of 'life begins at conception' will do.
And that is the reason that some also take this view. I myself being one.

 

 

 

 

Oh...by the way, good to see you fellows again. It's been awhile.

Edited by JustinW
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True, but...scientifically it is understood that life begins at conception and ends normally in senescence. To arbitrarilly pick a point in the life cycle that qualifies for protection under law seems arrogant. If you choose 26 weeks as the beginning, you open the door to subjective discrestion. Example being, once it is determined that the beginning is subjective, it could be determined out of convenience that anything younger than an adolescent is abortive.

But I wasn't asking for a scientific definition of life. I was asking for something that will put an end to all this pointless bickering over abortion. We can't afford to have every baby conceived, we can't afford the legal hassles we'd be open to if life-begins-at-conception becomes law, we can't contend that we support personal rights if we force women to have children they don't want, and we can't afford the extra crime we'd be forcing on the next generation if we stop allowing abortions.

 

And scientifically it could be argued that conception is the beginning stage for the development of life, not life itself. Abortion (which is a misnomer; you don't abort something that wasn't planned) is merely an intercession in that development.

 

Good to see you, too. I hope all is well with you.

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Phi,

 

True, but...scientifically it is understood that life begins at conception and ends normally in senescence.

 

WB.

That is actually inaccurate. Scientifically sperm and ovary cells are well alive, too. And ovaries have quite a significant live span. The problem really is (from a biological viewpoint) that we look at continuities here, whereas for practical purposes we have to set up arbitrary distinctions. The question is probably at which point shall we assume that something is legally a human rather than asking for the start of life. One should for instance consider that many successful conceptions terminate prematurely without ever being detected (except maybe by delayed period or stronger than usual periods). Even if initially successful spontaneous abortion rates are quite common, e.g. a reported 23% in one study after pregnancy was detected (see Steer et al. BMJ. 1989 November 25; 299(6711): 1317–1318.).

 

So conception is not an automatism leading to a new human being. As such, slightly arbitrary but practical borders (as outlined in the OP) are needed.

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True, but...scientifically it is understood that life begins at conception and ends normally in senescence. To arbitrarilly pick a point in the life cycle that qualifies for protection under law seems arrogant. If you choose 26 weeks as the beginning, you open the door to subjective discrestion. Example being, once it is determined that the beginning is subjective, it could be determined out of convenience that anything younger than an adolescent is abortive.

 

 

Nice slippery slope, I'll give you another one. I see the idea that life begins at conception being used to stop some methods of birth control. The same people who bring you anti choice propaganda were at the forefront of... you guessed it anti birth control in the last century. At one time it was illegal to sell condoms... Yes i am progressive but life begins at conception means a great many children never make it. Do we do our best to prevent sex altogether because it might end up in miscarriage?

 

Do you restrict sexually active women from drinking because they might become pregnant if their birth control method fails? Would you charge them with child abuse if they smoked and took the risk of sex and the baby is exposed to nicotine as a fetus? Once the idea that sperm cells are living as well crystallizes in the minds of all those people who lay awake at night worrying that some how some place someone is having a good time.... then the slope becomes the lip of an event horizon... A medieval level of morals enforced by 21st century technology, we would never be able to climb out of that cultural black hole...

 

And what is this life begins at conception idea, at what point does an egg and sperm cease to be alive? When did they begin to be alive? The word life lends an air of some sort of supernatural aspect to this, in religious circles life is used as a supernatural invocation, in science somewhat less so...

 

I know there are probably many anti abortion people who are not theists (I wrestle with the concept myself) but the vast majority are religious, often fringe type fundamentalists. Can we at least define it as when does the fertilized egg become a human being? The word life is used in so many different ways by everyone, it colors the water with ink only the original brain can see... short words are often have slippery meanings...

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Can we at least define it as when does the fertilized egg become a human being? The word life is used in so many different ways by everyone, it colors the water with ink only the original brain can see... short words are often have slippery meanings...

 

Here here! I agree with ypaos, CharonY, and Moontanman on this one. It is biologically inaccurate to say "life begins at conception", for the reasons CharonY laid out. In my mind, "life" is a biological concept, not an ethical one. Personhood, on the other hand, is an ethical and legal concept. Ergo, I think we should really be discussing when we think personhood begins, not when we think life begins.

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