A Matter of Life and Death

Vic Stenger

Life and death are again in the news. Of course, they are always in the news, but recently the endless story has taken on new dimensions. The American people have separated into two apparently irreconcilable camps on the issue of what constitutes life - and the absence of life.

Self-proclaimed pro-lifers insist that life begins at conception. Those who call themselves pro-choice do not normally attempt to counter that argument directly. Instead, they invoke a different right - that of a women to control her own body. This is a powerful argument, but it still does not answer the question of the beginning of life, leaving the pro-choice point of view quite vulnerable. For if a fetus is ever legally defined as a living human being, as the U.S. Supreme Court may someday do, then a mother's termination of that human being's life will be considered murder.

When incompatible rights clash, when two rights cannot be mutually honored by society, a societal judgement is made on which right is uppermost. My right to own a gun or an automobile does not give me the right to use either recklessly. Even my right of free speech does not permit me to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Society can take away rights for the common good or some perception of superior principle, and the right to life is likely to be placed on a higher level than a woman's right to abort at her own whim. Only if the fetus being aborted is not legally defined as a living human being, can we expect abortion to remain legal. Otherwise the right to choose will be forced to submit to the right to life. The pro-choice movement cannot continue to ignore this issue, basing its position almost exclusively on the right to choose. It must directly address the issue of defining the beginning of life.

The end of life also presents us with a dilemma of definition, brought upon by advancing technology. Once the end of life was determined by the cessation of breathing and heart beat. With CPR and other modern medical techniques, thousands of people under cardiopulmonary arrest are jump-started daily. So, by default, we have discarded as impractical this simple definition of death.

Since no one has yet been jump-started from what is called "brain-death," a flat EEG, this serves as a pragmatic definition of death - for now. But an EEG does not detect deeper brain activity, so it remains possible that medical science will one day revive someone with a flat EEG. What will happen when a brain-dead person is someday brought "back to life?" Then we will need yet another definition of death.

Can science provide an answer? One might think that precise, rational definitions of the beginning and end of life could be made by a careful application of scientific method. We need a clear signal - like when, in the movies, the camera turns to an oscilloscope screen where the sudden appearance of a flat trace indicates that all hope is lost for the patient on the operating table. An oscilloscope connected to a pregnant woman's stomach might do the reverse, going from flat to jittery waves as it signals the beginning of life in the womb. Abortion could then be allowed prior to that time, and forbidden afterward.

But this is not likely to happen. No specific physical phenomenon can be used to signal the beginning of life. People still labor under the misconception that living matter contains some quality that enables it to be distinguished from non-living matter, what was once called the vital force, or elan vital. But no evidence for such a quality has ever been found, nor is ever likely to be found. Science now knows what life is, as surely as it knows that water is H2O.

No physical property distinguishes living matter from non-living matter. Living things like rock stars are made of the same atoms as rocks and stars, held together by the same forces.
So what then is life? Life is simply a name we give to matter that has reached some high level of organization and complexity. Living matter has certain characteristics that result from its complex organization. It grows, reproduces, repairs itself, and behaves in ways that optimize survival. Human life is considered the highest form of planetary life, on the pragmatic grounds that it has proven to be the most successful in these survival tasks, developing a nervous system that is superior in its ability to provide individual autonomy.

Thus the line between life and non-life is a fuzzy one. When does an organism become sufficiently complex to be called living? One of the more fascinating fields of modern research is called Artificial Life. Computer programs have been written that develop many of the qualities we associate with life, including autonomous, intelligent behavior not originally programmed into them by the software designer. In many ways, those programs are "alive."

In the Gaia theory of James Lovelock, the earth behaves like a living organism. Some have interpreted this spiritually, because they assume living qualities are spiritual in nature . But I would argue that the Gaia idea, if valid, simply demonstrates again that complex material systems have a way of developing the characteristics we associate with life. It illustrates that matter, not spirit, is the substance of life. No evidence has been found for any non-material or spiritual component of life, or anything else in the universe.

So, I'm afraid that society cannot expect science to provide a simple definition of life and death. Society must solve this problem by itself. It must make a moral decision, and determine when a complex lump of matter in a woman's womb is a living human being, with all the legal rights thereto pertaining. It must also morally decide on when a complex lump of matter attached to a maze of tubes and wires in a hospital IC unit is no longer a living human being.

Notice that I have labeled our problem at hand a moral matter. This highlights the depth of the problem, the reason it is so difficult to solve even though the answer is obvious when you think about it logically. The world's religions, especially the Judeo-Christian, have led most people to believe that moral decisions are not for them to make, that what is moral and what is not moral have already been decided by God. In fact, our moral codes have always been the product of human society. They have been brushed over with a religious veneer for centuries because rulers long ago learned that people more willingly obey rules when they think those rules are supernatural. But rules are of mortals, not gods, and so can be changed as men and women decide.

Realizing this makes the way clear, though not simple to implement. A time to, measured from conception, must be selected for a fetus to be declared a living human being. No logical basis exists for to = 0, that is, at conception. If a fertilized egg has the "potentiality" for life, so do all those sperm swimming after all those eggs. Few would argue that to should be as late as birth (although a case can be made for allowing abortion between the ages of 13 and 19 years). The current common rule of the first trimester of pregnancy is a reasonable choice.

The apparent arbitrariness of to will no doubt bother most people, since everyone likes simple, clear-cut answers. But moral definitions are more arbitrary than you might think. Their purpose is not to decide who burns for eternity, but to enable society to function efficiently.
Similarly, we must make a somewhat arbitrary, moral definition of death so that the living can carry on without the economic and emotional burden of thousands or millions on "life-support" systems. As science progresses, do you doubt that it won't someday be able to keep blood flowing indefinitely through the veins of a human body, provided that body was not blown apart in an explosion? Can you imagine paying indefinitely he life-support bills for your parents, grandparents, their parents, and who knows how many earlier generations?

This is the ludicrous point that irrational religious belief is leading us. We know the world is round, yet we are forced by the powers in society to live our lives as if it were flat. Let's hope that the human intellect has sufficient inherent rationality to overcome centuries of adherence to outmoded rules that were never more than convenient impositions by those who wished to control both our minds and our bodies.