There’s a variety of questions that are best answered with the Buddhist “Mu!” and a whack on the head with a rattan stick. The use of “Mu!” by the master is roughly equivalent to “The question is ill formed!” (with an implicit “you idiot” delivered by the whack with the switch…)
It does mean “the question is ill formed”, but also “that is the wrong question” or even “The question does not make sense to one who is enlightened, go fish in the enlightenment pond some more until you ‘get it’, ok?” or even “Try Again”.
One of the endless “debates” in the abortion arena is over when a baby can be killed, and that is wound up in an endless wrangle over “when life begins” (the notion being that killing prior to that moment is O.K. but after that moment is immoral.) The problem is that the question “is ill formed”.
Because life began once and that moment was a few billion years ago, near as we can tell. There is an unbroken chain of life, from that moment forward, to every cell alive in every living thing today. The egg in the mother is alive. The sperm is alive (hey, it even swims, so is alive and animated). To ask “when does life begin” presumes a false state of non-life in the egg and sperm cells. That makes it a Mu! Moment.
The right question?
So if that is the wrong question, what is the right question? What is the enlightened question?
As is usually the case, the correct answer to that is “The enlightened question is much harder to identify.”
If one says “ALL life is sacred” then you end up in a Monty Python moment.
Yes, a bit of reductio ad absurdum, but effective.
Since it is simply impossible for all sperm and all egg cells to be kept alive, or joined to make a new unique person, nature provides the simple argument of reality here. Sperm and egg cells can not be “sacred”. Yet they are alive. (As are other single cell life like bacteria and such.)
As a “first cut” I think it’s pretty clear that simple contraception, while lethal to “living human cells” is not in any sane sense murder.
The more complicated case simply says that the 1/2 gene compliment in the gametes makes them “not human”. They are only 1/2 of a set of human genes, so ‘less than human’ in a very clear way.
What about at conception?
This is where it gets very interesting. At conception, the gene complement is a full set of genes. At that point, the genetic argument is very clear: This is a living human life form.
Yet so is ever cell lining your mouth and gut, and adorning your hair follicles, and shedding from all your skins surfaces, and… We have another existence proof that attempting to keep ALL cells with a full genetic complement alive is a fools errand. Not going to happen.
In the past, there was a case to be made that only the fusion of egg and sperm would lead to a cell that was fully potentiated to develop into an entire human being. Thanks to the work on cloning and stem cells, we can now turn many (most? all?) single cells into a fully formed being. (Note the lack of “human” in that sentence… We’ve done it with other animals, but not with humans, so there is a tiny bit of doubt. Also some cells are far far easier to manipulate back to the reset state.)
So in what way is a fertilized egg different from a human stem cell?
There are many ways that don’t matter much, and one very important way:
That fertilized cell has a new and unique compliment of genes. IT is a unique genetic individual. That is the true basis of the “life begins at conception” argument. Not that life “begins” then, since it never ended; but that a new individual life is formed.
Yet nature makes thousands of “new individual lives” that it throws away every day. The whole idea behind sexual reproduction is to clean up the gene pool a bit. So the sperm and egg with 1/2 a set of genes will die if those genes are defective in any critical process (where a full gene compliment cell can live using the 1/2 of the set that are good and ignoring the other half). Similarly, the fertilized egg can have all sorts of “issues” leading to a natural termination of the pregnancy. From blood group problems to developmental problems that only show up later in the term and lead to a miscarriage. Nature does not respect the “new unique individual” all that much… It is the viable unique individual.
That is the basis of the argument of the “abort until viable” group. If nature is willing to abort prior to full viability, why not people too? (The critical difference here being that nature is tossing out failed genetic mix experiments while human abortions are tossing out many fine future people in the process of becoming…)
In various cultures at various times the practice of infanticide has been common. Even in various wild animals. The simple fact is that nature is very cruel. Using nature as our guide is likely not the most “humane” approach. From birds that lay 2 eggs to have a spare, so the first born kills the other; to animals during times of limited food where “mothers milk” drys up and the infants die: Nature votes for “kill as needed”. Personally, I find that a bridge too far based on other moral grounds.
Yet in any calamity, the natural and reasonable decision is made to kill off the old, infirm, and, sad to say, the youngest and least viable. It is just a fact of life that faced with a fixed quantity of food, a known length of winter, and a minimum ration per mouth to survive to the next crop: It is more rational to kill one than have a half dozen starve a month before the first new harvest. That cruel calculus was more common a few hundred years ago, but “reality just is” and it could return again.
Only that two important things apply:
Looking for “when life begins” will shed vast quantities of heat, and no light.
Nature has more of a “kill as needed” attitude, so perhaps we need different values to use.
It does look like this line of reasoning arrives at roughly the same “bounds” as the present abortion advocates / right-to-life folks found. One side arguing to have the right to kill other unique individual human lives based on them being too unimportant and poorly developed to really matter. The other side arguing that it is a new unique human life and deserves the rights of all of us. (Is it REALLY any different to say a 7 month unborn baby is ‘useless’ and can be killed, vs saying a 70 year old invalid is ‘useless’ and can be killed?)
In the end, I lean toward the notion of “It is a human once multicellular with developed organs”. This gets us out of the realm of skin cells, cloning, ‘sacred sperm’ and other issues. Yet that is still way early compared to the present ‘standards’ for abortion. Those advocating for 3rd trimester abortions would not like me for saying that even second trimester was too late… yet the ‘at conception’ crowed would be similarly up in arms for murder of those “unborn”, even if they looked like a slime mold at the stage in question…
In the end, I find myself mostly a bit aghast at the willingness of women to murder their own children at a variety of life stages. Perhaps it is just natures way of removing that type from the gene pool… The strongest selection comes in 30 generations of strong selective pressure, so after about 900 years of easy abortion, only the ‘right to life’ folks ought to be left. (It does not require extermination of a gene type to remove it, just differential breeding success over many generations. So those that abort and average 1.5 kids vs those that do not and average 3.0 will rapidly have a vanishing presence in the gene pool for those that abort. IFF it is subject to genetic influence.) So only about 800 more years of this argument to go ;-)
At the same time, having population double every 20 years would be a recipe for disaster. So some kind of contraception is important and some kind of solution to the “surprise” pregnancy.
In the end, I guess I don’t have an answer so much as just want the question to be better formed, so that the endless debate at least makes some kind of sense.
Is it a human being with rights:
1) At conception?
2) When multicullular?
3) When differentiated into organs? (How far?)
4) When viable? (With how much medical support?)
5) At birth?
6) At 6 years old? (I have known folks who advocated for a parental right to toss back the broken ones and select for the best ‘keepers’… and it was once common in some cultures. So the question is valid.)
Just don’t start arguing about “when life began” unless you are talking about 4 billion years ago on earth vs 14 billion years ago in a panspermia space origin scenario… Otherwise I’ll need to get my “clue stick” start swinging it and hollering Mu! And that’s not pretty ;-)