Sunday, July 04, 2010

When does a human organism begin?

From pages 69 to 73 in The Clash of Orthodoxies by Robert P. George:

 A human being is conceived when a human sperm containing 23 chromosomes fuses with a human egg also containing 23 chromosomes (albeit of a different kind) producing a single-cell human zygote containing, in the normal case, 46 chromosomes that are mixed differently from the 46 chromosomes found in the mother or father. Unlike the gametes (that is, the sperm and egg), the zygote is genetically unique and distinct from its parents. Biologically, it is a separate organism. It produces, as the gametes do not, specifically human enzymes and proteins. It possesses, as they do not, the active capacity or potency to develop itself into a human embryo, fetus, infant, child, adolescent, and adult.

Assuming that it is not conceived in vitro, the zygote is, of course, in a state of dependence on its mother. But independence should not be confused with distinctness. From the beginning, the newly conceived human being, not its mother, directs its integral organic functioning. It takes in nourishment and converts it into energy. Given a hospitable environment, it will, as Dianne Nutwell says, "develop continuously without biological interruptions, or gaps, throughout the embryonic, fetal, neo-natal, childhood and adulthood stages--until the death of the organism." 

Some claim to find the logical implication of these facts--that is, that life begins at conception--to be "virtually unintelligble." A leading exponent of that point of view in the legal academy is Jed Rubenfeld of Yale Law School... Rubenfeld argues that, like the zygote, every cell in the human body is "genetically complete"; yet nobody supposes that every human cell is a distinct human being with a right to life. However, Rubenfeld misses the point that there comes into being at conception, not just a clump of human cells, but a distinct, unified, self-integrating organism, which develops itself, truly himself or herself, in accord with its own genetic "blueprint." The significance of the genetic completeness for the status of newly conceived human beings is that no outside genetic material is required to enable the zygote to mature into an embryo, the embryo into a fetus, the fetus into an infant, the infant into a child, the child into an adolescent, the adolescent into an adult. What the zygote needs to function as a distinct self-integrating human organism, a human being, it already possesses.

At no point in embryogenesis, therefore, does the distinct organism that came into being when it was conceived undergo what is technically called "substantial change" (or a change of natures). This is the point of Justice Byron White's remark in his dissenting opinion in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that "there is no non-arbitrary line separating a fetus from a child." Rubenfeld attacks White's point, which he calls "[t]he argument based on the gradualness of gestation," by pointing out that, "[n]o non-arbitrary line separates the hues of green and red. Shall we conclude that green is red?"

White's point, however, was not that fetal development is "gradual," but that it is continuous and is the (continuous) development of a single lasting (fully human) being. The human zygote that actively develops itself is, as I have pointed out, a genetically complete organism directing its own integral organic functioning. As it matures, in utero and ex utero, it does not "become" a human being, for it is a human being already, albeit an immature human being who will undergo quite dramatic growth and development over time.

These considerations undermine the familiar argument, recited by Rubenfeld, that "the potential" of an unfertilized ovum to develop into a whole human being does not make it "a person." The fact is, though, that an ovum is not a whole human being. It is rather, a part of another human being (the woman whose ovum it is) with merely the potential to give rise to, in interaction with a part of yet another human being (a man's sperm cell), a new and whole human being. Unlike the zygote, it lacks both genetic distinctness and completeness, as well as the active capacity to develop itself into an adult member of the human species. It is human cellular material, but, left to itself, it will never become a human being, however hospitable its environment may be. It will "die" as a human ovum, just as countless skin cells "die" daily as nothing more than skin cells. If successfully fertilized by a human sperm, which, like the ovum (but dramatically unlike the zygote), lacks the active potential to develop into a human adult member of the human species, then substantial change ( that is, a change of natures) will occur. There will no longer be merely an egg, which was part of the mother, sharing her genetic composition, and a sperm, which was part of the father, sharing his genetic composition; instead, there will be a genetically complete, distinct, unified, self-integrating human organism whose nature differs from that of gametes--not mere human material, but a human being.

These considerations also make clear that it is incorrect to argue (as some pro-choice advocates have argued) that, just as "I" was never a week-old sperm or ovum, "I" was likewise never a week-old embryo. It truly makes no sense to say that "I" was once a sperm (or an unfertilized egg) that matured into an adult. Conception was the occasion of substantial change (that is, change from one complete individual entity to another) that brought into being a distinct self-integrating organism with a specifically human nature. By contrast, it makes every bit as much sense to say that I was once a week-old embryo as to say I was a week-old infant or a ten-year old child. It was the new organism created at conception that, without itself undergoing any change of substance, matured into a week-old embryo, a fetus, an infant, a child, an adolescent, and finally, an adult.

But Rubenfeld has another argument: "Cloning processes give the non-zygotic cells the potential for development into distinct, self-integrating human beings; thus to recognize the zygote as a human being is to recognize all human cells as human beings, which is absurd."

It is true that a distinct, self-integrating human organism that came into being by a process of cloning would be, like a human organism that comes into being as a monozygotic twin, a human being. That being, no less than human beings conceived by the union of sperm and egg, would possess the human nature and the active potential to mature as a human being. However, even assuming the possibility of cloning human beings from non-zygotic human cells, the non-zygotic cell must be activated by a process that effects substantial change and not mere development or maturation. Left to itself, apart from an activation process capable of effecting a change of substance or natures, the cell will mature and die as a human cell, not as a human being.

26 comments:

OneSTDV said...

Was that a long-winded way of saying you're pro-life?

I want to know what I'm getting into before I try to digest that article.

[I'm pretty sure we hold the same position that life begins at conception.]

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason said...

"Personhood" is not a biological issue. Nobody disputes that a zygote is genetically human.

Abortion is a social question, and as with any social question, you must also ask, "What is the alternative?" What purpose does abortion serve, and how will it be served in its absence?

We live in a society that has a much higher bar to entry than in the past. The economic overhead present in our system means it is no longer possible to support a middle class family on a single income and a high school education. Women are in the work force, and require education. We are also sexual creatures and it is unrealistic to expect 100% abstinence for as long again as it took to reach puberty in the first place. That means accidents will happen.

The upper classes will always have their private physicians to help maintain their daughter's stations in life. Outlawing abortion will not affect them. The lower classes aren't middle class by definition. For them, additional children are just more labor or another welfare check. Outlawing abortion will not affect them.

So, only half facetiously, I must ask: Ron, why do you hate the middle class?

Do you think it's not under enough economic pressure as it is? Do you really think that the world would be better divided into patrician elite and scrabbling serfs?

The pro-life movement has already destroyed churches. The obligation to "choose life" means they must accept single motherhood. Which turns into charitable support. Which makes churches just another institutional engine of cuckoldry, like the welfare state. But men can opt out of supporting churches - and other mens' bastards - and they do. Are you not satisfied with that accomplishment? You have to destroy the middle class as well?

OneSTDV said...

@ Jason:

Sometimes undesirable pragmatic consequences must be accepted to uphold moral values.

To me, abortion is a moral issue about life; all the other practical stuff is just ignoring the fundamental question.

Ron Guhname said...

OneSTDV: Right, the author concludes that a human being comes into existence at conception. I agree.

Anonymous said...

This biology is wrong. The egg is transcriptionally active, and in fact it's the maternal genome that directs transcription for some time after fertilization.

Fertilization is essentially a doubling of the genome content of an ovum and a trigger of certain programs within the ovum to make use of its cytoplasm, organelles, nutrients, etc. The paternal pronucleus has to undergo considerable reconfiguration before it can start contributing to anything.

Thus, fertilization is a crucial step in the development of a new individual, but it isn't as bright a line of differentiation as is suggested here.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Where does a valley turn into a mountain? Obviously valleys and mountains are different, but there is no single point where it clearly transitions from one state to the other.

DCT said...

Anonymous leaves a refutation non-refutation.

The salient point is whether the new organism, the fertilized egg, is neither man nor woman but the new individual. The progress of the paternal nucleus' integration into the ovum is irrelevant. The requisite genetic material for a new individual is already contained within the organism's cell walls, and the process of developing into an adult has begun.

We can reduce anonymous' argument to absurdity by pointing out that by the metric of paternal nucleus' integration, a parthenogenetically born baby would not be considered human.

dctrees said...

Anonymous has not made this argument, but that would be how a pro-choicer might seize upon the scientific details he presents.

Anonymous said...

"The pro-life movement has already destroyed churches."

Jason, I haven't been to a church for something other than a wedding or a funeral in 40 years so this doesn't come from a religious person, but I hold that the welfare state that has been funded to a greater and greater degree since the 60s is what has destroyed families, destroyed children, destroyed fetuses, destroyed good will, and just about everything else in a functioning society.

A welfare state cheapens one's own existence and ability to contribute, reduces his or her value to a check and uses children as a means to an increased income. Anything that devalues life in the womb also devalues life outside the womb, eventually anyway. Having devalued the children and fetuses, the welfare state winds up devaluing all life, regardless of how you choose to define life.

Sadly, the more effective, safe, available, and inexpensive birth control has become, the more girls and women have chosen to get pregnant w/out caring about offering a functional and loving family for the child, and the more they have chosen to abort those kids.

We should get rid of the welfare state. You'd see fewer pregnancies and abortions from the get-go, but try telling that to a lib who is in love with his own sense of superiority which he puts on display through what he perceives as his magnanimous social views and policies.

What a lib doesn't understand: One cannot expect a society that does not begin by valuing life to create and maintain humane, life-affirming institutions that promote good will toward men.

Jason said...

Sometimes undesirable pragmatic consequences must be accepted to uphold moral values.

How nice of you to volunteer someone else to pay the pragmatic costs of your morals. My morals demand that self-righteous people who place burdens on others to appease their own gods be shot in the back of the head with a .22 and dumped in a lime pit.

Kneel down and shut your eyes. This won't hurt.

Just kidding. But how does it feel?

Jason said...

I won't dispute that the welfare state has done quite a bit to destroy the family, but it is not the only source of pressure.

Lack of birth control and abortion was bringing misery to families - including the children - long before the welfare state was invented. Women were desperate for this information. Birth control and abortion were legalized for a reason. You can disagree with those reasons, but you are going to have to address them.

Biology was not the reason. It is a straw man for the lazy.

dctrees said...

@Jason
"How nice of you to volunteer someone else to pay the pragmatic costs of your morals."

How obtuse of you to suggest that no one may propose policies with negative consequences for anyone unless they are a member of the harmed group.

It's almost as if instead of speaking with a rational interlocutor, one were being hooted at by a primate defending a slighted member of his troop...

We are not discussing banana distribution, you know. Your evolved emotional circuitry may not be the most reliable indicator of best practices in 21st century government. Try to have some mental discipline. Or at least, a calming banana.

dctrees said...

This is a rare dynamic for an abortion debate.

As usual, the progressive exposes his crypto-Puritanism, his fanatical, eschaton-immanentizing religiosity. He quickly escalates to murder fantasies and demands for greater empathy.

By contrast, the pro lifer is philosophically comported, giving light without heat, and concerned with first principles: the definition of an individual, the limits of government, utilitarian social concerns. He may have no religion whatsoever - a rarity in humans.

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes undesirable pragmatic consequences must be accepted to uphold moral values."


Okay, yes sometimes, but not this time.

After abortion was legalized, conceptions rose 30% because the sluts no longer bothered to be extra careful.

However, with no welfare, no social safety net for the the most egregious losers, they will themselves self regulate and things can improve. Right now, we have the middle and upper classes taxed to death to support losers. Ending welfare would mean they would have to work or starve and would have less time to screw up unwanted kids whether those kids ever see the light of day or not.

Social programs lure people into not planning for themselves. They are insane.

Anonymous said...

"Lack of birth control and abortion was bringing misery to families - including the children - long before the welfare state was invented. Women were desperate for this information. Birth control and abortion were legalized for a reason. You can disagree with those reasons, but you are going to have to address them. "


Sounds swell, except we have 50 years of data that tell us the opposite of what you are saying. Those with the most to offer kids curtailed their fertility the most. Those with the least to offer reduced their fertility far less. Now the educated and educable have birthrates targeting extinction while the violent and stupid maintain strong levels above replacement rate. It is a no win situation. We need humane, incentive based eugenics programs that financially reward the incompetent who voluntarily get sterilized.

Jason said...

How obtuse of you to suggest that no one may propose policies with negative consequences for anyone unless they are a member of the harmed group.

Hey, I'm not disagreeing with you. In fact, I'm agreeing. Heartily. I just don't want to hear a word of protest from you when it's your ox that is getting gored.

Not. A. Word.

Are you really so confident that you're going to end up on the winning side of that transaction? Every time? The hubris is stunning.

Jason said...

Those with the most to offer kids curtailed their fertility the most.

Which might have something to do with why they have so much to offer.

This is simply a dispute between quantity vs. quality breeding strategies. In an agricultural society where disease takes a massive toll, quantity is definitely the way to go. It costs very little to educate a subsistence farmer, and in a world with very little capital, the addition of one more does not represent much of an opportunity cost.

But if this is the most effective strategy for a society as a whole, why is it that an industrial nation with a limited population and stable birthrate like the U.S. is the world's sole remaining superpower, while Africa, India, and China are still mired in poverty?

"Human capital" is not just a matter of numbers. It is not even primarily a matter of numbers. The industrial revolution was every bit as important to human evolution as the agricultural revolution thousands of years before. The best survival strategies for hunter-gatherers are not the best strategies for people who can domesticate sheep and cattle and sow grain. This is obvious, and it has even made its mark on our genes (lactose tolerance).

It is absurd to expect that the industrial revolution (and the medical revolution along with it) would not have similar - if not even more dramatic - effects on human organization.

Anonymous said...

"Lack of birth control and abortion was bringing misery to families - including the children - long before the welfare state was invented. Women were desperate for this information. Birth control and abortion were legalized for a reason. You can disagree with those reasons, but you are going to have to address them. "

Jason, I am the anonymous who raised the welfare state issue.

My mother told me she saw her mother give herself an abortion by using lye soap (in the 1920s). She said it was not an uncommon practice, as she understood it as an 8 year old anyway. My grandmother didn't want to remain married to my grandfather so I gather that is the method she chose to see to it she didn't become anymore dependent on him than necessary. (Side story--my grandmother disappeared out of the blue, leaving behind her 12 year old daughter--my mother-- her husband, and the elderly Indian aunt who had raised her. Not until 15 years after my mother's death was I contacted by what turns out to be my mother's half sister. Turns out old grandma ran away from OK to CA with another man, a man with whom she had three more daughters over the years. Seems she just didn't want to stay with husband #1 (One of the horrors of all this is that my mother, who had always longed for siblings with whom she could have shared her loss/abandonment, lived only an hour's drive from where her mother and her new family settled.)

Back to my point--there were no safe abortion clinics available to my grandmother, and she's very lucky she survived her self-abortion, but my point is that even though today we offer birth control, too many women don't use it.
We thought that making birth control easily available to all women would greatly cut down on unplanned pregnancies that resulted in keeping women tethered to bad circumstances--seems it hasn't. The kind of women who cannot provide for themselves nor a child are the very women who choose not to use the cheap and available birth control. What's the stimulus for that? Welfare.

Similarly, we thought that birth control would cut down on abortions. Nope. Girl thinks to herself, "If I let him and I get pregnant, I'll just get an abortion." Look at the stats on women who've had multiple abortions.

Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I'm not anti-birth control nor do I believe we can ever simply pass a law forbidding abortions and ever expect it to work. What I do believe is that we can't adopt policies that PROMOTE the cavalier treatment of abortion or the bearing of children whose parents have no intention of supporting.

I taught teens. I know how many of them got pregnant, again and again, knowing, at least in CA, that their welfare check would increase. I know the boyfriends wanted their girlfriends pregnant because they too knew the welfare check would be increased and these boys/men live with and off those checks, even if the check isn't made out to them.

Other than the mentally retarded, I don't know a girl or woman in this state who can't earn enough money to buy condoms. I don't know a woman who can't, without taxpayer dollars, earn enough by washing windows and cars on the weekend to pay for a legal abortion, paying it off on time the way she pays monthly on her credit card.

I am sick of hearing that they need help. No, they don't. Let them pay for such things themselves and the number of pregnancies and abortions will plummet.

Anonymous said...

"Lack of birth control and abortion was bringing misery to families - including the children - long before the welfare state was invented. Women were desperate for this information. Birth control and abortion were legalized for a reason. You can disagree with those reasons, but you are going to have to address them. "

Jason, I am the anonymous who raised the welfare state issue.

My mother told me she saw her mother give herself an abortion by using lye soap (in the 1920s). She said it was not an uncommon practice, as she understood it as an 8 year old anyway. My grandmother didn't want to remain married to my grandfather so I gather that is the method she chose to see to it she didn't become anymore dependent on him than necessary. (Side story--my grandmother disappeared out of the blue, leaving behind her 12 year old daughter--my mother-- her husband, and the elderly Indian aunt who had raised her. Not until 15 years after my mother's death was I contacted by what turns out to be my mother's half sister. Turns out old grandma ran away from OK to CA with another man, a man with whom she had three more daughters over the years. Seems she just didn't want to stay with husband #1 (One of the horrors of all this is that my mother, who had always longed for siblings with whom she could have shared her loss/abandonment, lived only an hour's drive from where her mother and her new family settled.)

Back to my point--there were no safe abortion clinics available to my grandmother, and she's very lucky she survived her self-abortion, but my point is that even though today we offer birth control, too many women don't use it.
We thought that making birth control easily available to all women would greatly cut down on unplanned pregnancies that resulted in keeping women tethered to bad circumstances--seems it hasn't. The kind of women who cannot provide for themselves nor a child are the very women who choose not to use the cheap and available birth control. What's the stimulus for that? Welfare.

Similarly, we thought that birth control would cut down on abortions. Nope. Girl thinks to herself, "If I let him and I get pregnant, I'll just get an abortion." Look at the stats on women who've had multiple abortions.

Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I'm not anti-birth control nor do I believe we can ever simply pass a law forbidding abortions and ever expect it to work. What I do believe is that we can't adopt policies that PROMOTE the cavalier treatment of abortion or the bearing of children whose parents have no intention of supporting.

I taught teens. I know how many of them got pregnant, again and again, knowing, at least in CA, that their welfare check would increase. I know the boyfriends wanted their girlfriends pregnant because they too knew the welfare check would be increased and these boys/men live with and off those checks, even if the check isn't made out to them.

Other than the mentally retarded, I don't know a girl or woman in this state who can't earn enough money to buy condoms. I don't know a woman who can't, without taxpayer dollars, earn enough by washing windows and cars on the weekend to pay for a legal abortion, paying it off on time the way she pays monthly on her credit card.

I am sick of hearing that they need help. No, they don't. Let them pay for such things themselves and the number of pregnancies and abortions will plummet.

OneSTDV said...


How nice of you to volunteer someone else to pay the pragmatic costs of your morals. My morals demand that self-righteous people who place burdens on others to appease their own gods be shot in the back of the head with a .22 and dumped in a lime pit.


I'm an atheist first off.

But secondly, you're paying plenty of "pragmatic costs" on other's morals. Jail for death row inmates is a great example. If morality represents merely a subjective construct (and that seems to be where you're going), then surely one could countenance the notion that murder isn't a wrong. And thus, you're paying to house and eventually kill a bunch of people who have done nothing wrong. Thus, you're burdened with the cost of "upholding another's morals".

But in the end, this is an issue of life, something that only the most nihilistic amongst us can agree has worth. If life begins at conception, then it's a reasonable demand that we "impose" this inconvenient moral value on others in order to protect it.

Jason said...

Life has value? Ok, stipulated. And? How much? You speak of death row. Well, we're taking a life there. A life for a life. So we know some lives have more value than others. This is July 4th. Millions of lives have been sacrificed for the ideals of a country. Many of them draftees who had no choice.

Yes, you're right. We all pay. We all make others pay. Or benefit from others who paid.

So, back to the original point: why should I listen to you about who should pay? Why shouldn't I just make you pay? Any argument you can make against abortion on the basis of "life", I can make too. I just choose different lives.

teacher.paris said...

What is the difference between an American woman and an Australian Aborigine woman? American women do not normally eat their babies after they kill them.

Nanonymous said...

As someone else already mentioned, almost all of the biology in your post is wrong. But that's not important. The important part is that there is no firm line. If so, it comes down to simply to conventions. Unless one is a theist, moral arguments are not of much help either because morals are only evolutionary adaptations. What might have been near-optimal back them does not have to be now.

So, why not ask the honest question: On a balance of all things, when is it OK to kill a human being? Most don't have a problem with capital punishment or killing while fighting a war - obviously, it is OK to kill humans when there is a perceived value of doing so. Other things being equal, which society wins more - the one that allows or the one that prohibits abortions?

Seems a no-brainer that the answer will depend great deal on a specific society being considered. Hence, posturing in abstract is entirely pointless. There is no abstract child, abstract mother and abstract morality.

extropolitca said...

Abortion happen from the start of the time. It happened for hunter gatherers when they had too much children and were unable to feed them and care for them.

Life start at conception?
What life are you talking about?
People confuse life with person. Until there is not a working brain, there is not a person that will be damaged. And people must not be responsible for future people (this is a leftist mantra).

Do you really want force women that don't want children and are not able to use contraception?

They are making themselves childless, so Their line, not your will end. Do you want more children? Do like the Duggars and make sure your children do the same. Four generations and your will be a little nation. Five and you will be a medium one.

What matter is the ability to procreate good persons. Given that many personality traits are transmitted by the parents to the children, you need to make easy for the right people to breed and difficult for the wrong people.

Abortion is like a vice, it have its own price to pay to be able to indulge in it. Let them pay becoming extinct. In the meantime have the babies they will have not.

Anonymous said...

@ OneSTDV

"all the other practical stuff is just ignoring the fundamental question."

This is what you as well as the blogger say. However, you are all ludicrously, actually frighteningly ignorant of the true fundamental question at stake here.

Is it *your* body that is housing the fetus and therefore your choice?

The answer is an unequivocal NO. Not your body, not your decision. Not any legislature's decision. Nobody's decision except for that of the woman who is housing the fetus.

If God wanted you all to be involved in the decision of whether or not to terminate the pregnancy, then God would have made the whole lot of you miraculously become pregnant simultaneously with the woman whose fetus is being debated.

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