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Maximum Ambiguity

I'm arriving very late to this argument—in online journalism, as in presidential campaigns, two weeks is an eternity—but I'd like to add something to what Matthew J. Frank and Ross Douthat have already written about this very stupid post by a very smart man. Commenting on Paul Ryan's answer to the question about abortion in the vice-presidential debate, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik writes:

[Ryan] talked about how, looking at a first sonogram of his daughter, he was thrilled by the beating heart in the tiny bean on the image, so much that he and his wife still call that child Bean.... But Ryans moral intuition that something was indeed wonderful here was undercut, tellingly, by a failure to recognize accurately what that wonderful thing was, even as he named it: a bean is exactly what the photograph shows—a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.

The fundamental condition of life is that it develops, making it tricky sometimes to say when its fully grown and when it isnt, but always easy to say that there is a difference and that that difference is, well, human life itself. It is this double knowledge that impacts any grownup thinking about abortion: that it isn't life that's sacred—the world is full of life, much of which Paul Ryan wants to cut down and exploit and eat done medium rare. It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual consciences doctor).... Ryan talked facilely of what science says in this case. But what real science has to tell us, of course, very different; it says that life has no neat on and off, that while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question, not reducible to a dogma or a simple claim. A bean isn't a baby; a baby was once a bean, and between those two truths it is, or ought to be, every woman for herself.

In response to which, Douthat makes an obvious but important point:

Gopnik is taking the congressmans nickname for his unborn child and literalizing it.... On the one hand, calling an embryo a bean makes embryonic human life sound like a form of vegetative life—not an uncommon rhetorical move in these debates, but also one that collapses on the barest scrutiny. A bean is not remotely like a baby, certainly, but neither is a baby remotely like a full-grown bean plant, and that difference has a more obvious bearing on the debate over embryonic and fetal rights than the facile comparison between plant embryos and human ones. Outside of the world of level five veganism, neither the bean nor the plant have a strong moral claim on us, and its their essence as vegetables, rather than their level of development, that makes all the moral difference. Not even the most ardent enthusiast for the idea that ontology-recapitulates-phylogeny has ever argued that developing human life passes through a vegetable phase on its path toward full adulthood. Biologically speaking, we begin as we end up—which is one reason why any normal person would be rightly horrified to find the beans switched out for human embryos in their favorite cassoulet.

The more obvious point, though, is that Gopnik's argument entails a conclusion that he would almost certainly reject were it put to him plainly. If the difference between a life that's "fully grown" and one that isn't were, as he says, "human life itself," then children and adolescents, being not yet fully developed, would not yet count as "human life." And, in that case, why should their not-quite-human lives count for as much as those of their parents in the eyes of the law?

Gopnik might reply that this isn't exactly what he means, since he goes on to write that "life has no neat on and off...while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question." But this sentence is no less perplexing than the first. After all, a "formed" consciousness is a developed consciousness, and its development continues over many years, most of them post-natal. On the other hand, if what distinguishes human life from merely potential human life "arises" in a "moment," then it does indeed have a "neat on and off," even if it may be hard to place with satisfactory precision.

It is the impossibility of such precision that really seems to backstop Gopnik's complacency on this question: "It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual consciences doctor)." But of course the ambiguities of "conscious, thinking life" extend well beyond birth. Infants aren't conscious the way adults or even two-year-olds are, and such consciousness as infants possess does not begin the moment they are born. If humanity is reducible to "formed consciousness," why shouldn't the law reflect these facts too?


Commenting Guidelines

The nut, not the bean, of the issue, is to ask when the organic material becomes human. At one extreme is the desire to avoid killing any human person. The RCC chooses to be extremely cautious here and say that since it does not definitively know when the transition to human takes place, [God not having deigned to reveal it or place any marker discernible yet to science] to take no chance and advise against destroying any life with a separate human gene pattern acquired at fertilization/conception. Those who chose to frame a different question, as did the Supreme Court, have asked, since science does not know when human personhood begins, who should have the right to decide when that organic material becomes a human person and has answered that only the woman carrying the material has that right with the advice of her physician. Thus, those only interested in law are avoiding the nut of the problem of deciding anything about the separate genetic material in the pregnant woman and has decided instead that the woman has a right to privacy in making decisions.Legally, the issue is moot until there is some way to get the legislature or the court to address the issue all want to avoid. That is why the RC bishops are wrong to make abortion positions the litmus test for elections. There is nothing going to happen until someone can find a way to bring this matter to the courts with a focus on whether the fetus has any rights. Alternatively, a constitutional amendment could be passed to define the matter and thereby force the court to accept it as a given, entirely separate from the question of privacy.Therefore, Catholic laity and clergy should be focused instead on issues which are not moot, such as how well candidates show a preferential option for the poor.

The law does take note - that's why minors can't vote or drive or smoke or marry or drink alcohol, or make contracts.Maybe Gopnik is saying two things. One might be that an embryo is no more a person than an acorn is a tree. The second might be that for something to be a "person" it has to exhibit (or have the capacity to exhibit) a kind of consciousness that thinks, feels, can interact with others.

Fair enough, Crystal. But most people do not believe that one should be punished less severely for killing a two-year-old than for killing a twenty-one-year-old. Why is that? Our culture is generally at least as solicitous toward the welfare of small children as it is toward the welfare of adults. Why is that? To extend your vegetal analogy, we are not more solicitous toward saplings than we are toward full-grown trees.

Well, children are our offspring. If we were trees, we might be more solicitous to saplings :) I could be wrong, so sorry if I am, but I think maybe you are mixing up the two ideas - the one where an embryo is compared to a seed, and the one where an embryo is not thought to have a certain kind of consciousness. There's a difference between an embryo and an infant on both these counts.

Given the way the sbortion debate predictably goes, the "bean" anecdote was an odd one for Ryan to share-the image feeds into the acorn line of reasoning not the teeny tiny baby line.

^Well, not to mention that he kinda "borrowed" Kurt Cobain's anecdote about his own daughter.

Something is regularly overlooked in these discussions: in fact, we DO make judgments all the time as to what is and what is not a human being/person *especially* on blogsa. Everyone on this blog assumes that there are no chimpanzees typing out answers here. We all are judging that we are conversing with persons. And it's not because we know what eachh of us looks like.So just what is it that makes *you* think that the posts from "Cathy" and "Matthew" and "Eric" and "unagidon" etc., are persons? Don't tell me you don't know. If you weren't convinced you were talking to other persons you wouldn't bother answering.So let's drop this myth that we don't know at least some of the marks of personhood/rational animal.

Suppose scientists all over the world attempt to create human clones, and in every instance, no matter how much money and knowledge and effort they put into it, no clone survived past the 20th week of gestation. Would we say science could successfully clone a human being (or human person)? I don't think so.

There's an article in The New Atlantis by Robert George and Patrick Lee titled Acorns and Embryos." It deals with many of the issues here, and may be of interest to anyone who has (like me) said, "An acorn is not an oak tree." I don't agree with the article's conclusions, but it is a very good treatment of the subject nonetheless. What I found of particular interest is that at one point, the authors are grappling with the question of why so many early embryos die, and they say:

Moreover, as almost all authorities in human embryology note, many of these unsuccessful pregnancies are really due to incomplete or defective fertilizations, and so in many cases, what is lost is not actually a human embryo. (To be a complete human organism, a human being, the entity must have the epigenetic primordia for a functioning brain and nervous system, which may be lacking as a result of a severe chromosomal defect.)

Consider anencephaly. Wikipedia tells us that The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) says the following about anencephaly:

A baby born with anencephaly is usually blind, deaf, unconscious, and unable to feel pain. Although some individuals with anencephaly may be born with a main brain stem, the lack of a functioning cerebrum permanently rules out the possibility of ever gaining consciousness. Reflex actions such as breathing and responses to sound or touch may occur.

I think most who self-identify as pro-life would insist that an anencephalic baby is a human being (or human person) with a right to life. But it doesn't have a functioning brain. Does (or did) it have the "epigenetic primordia for a functioning brain"? I am not sure there is any way to know. In any case, apparently what makes a human being a human being, according to George and Lee, is "epigenetic primordia." And apparently life doesn't begin at conception, but rather begins at conception if the right "epigenetic primordia" are present. Life begins at conception . . . except when it doesn't.It seems to me George and Lee are skating on thin ice. I personally would be inclined to agree that if a human egg and sperm meet, and the "epigenetic primordia" for a brain are not present, it makes no sense to call the entity a human being even if it lives long enough to be born and linger for a few days. But it seems to me that for those who argue that life begins at conception, it makes no sense to say some embryos are human beings and some are not. What is the difference between a baby born without a brain who never had the "epigenetic primordia" for a brain and a baby born without a brain who had the "epigenetic primordia" that didn't develop? How can you tell them apart? It seems to me if you insist that life begins at conception, you have to accept as a human being any union of a human sperm and a human egg that begins to grow and divide, no matter how serious the genetic anomalies and how short the life. I don't think you can declare some embryos to be human beings and others not to be. I think the only thing you can say about the ones with serious genetic anomalies is not that they are not human beings, but they are profoundly disabled human beings. (Jonah Lehrer notice: I have written about this topic on other blogs, and I have borrowed some of the above from previous messages.)

Jonah Lehrer notice :)

A very good thing that all of us participating in this blog have successfully traversed the no (wo)man's land between conception and an arbitrary point of moral/legal protection, and can now weigh jury-like about who among our fellow embryos and fetuses deserve the same protection and, perchance, the opportunity to blog at some future point. Perhaps I'm alone in seeing hubris in the toting up of who counts as one of us.

Perhaps Im alone in seeing hubris in the toting up of who counts as one of us.william collier,The way you frame the issue assumes your own point of view. The question is not, "Who counts as one of us?" Rather, it is, "When do we have something that counts as a who?" It's not, "Which persons can we classify as non-persons for our own selfish reasons?" It's, "What makes a person a person?" You are reproaching people for asking the question, which, with all due respect, is a common reaction of "pro-life" advocates. "Oh, Lord, why can't they see the obvious truth, as I do?"It's not those who would permit abortion who are challenging conventional thought. Our legal system did criminalize abortion, but it never said a zygote or an embryo was a human person with a right to life. And as a matter of fact, although many pro-lifers adhere to the Catholic position that personhood begins at birth, it is extraordinarily unlikely that any legislation will be enacted to enshrine that position in the law. Certain the existing state "trigger laws" (laws set to go into action if Roe is overturned) do not declare that human personhood begins at conception. Very few are ready to accept the idea that a raped woman must bear her rapist's baby. That, however, seems to me inescapable if it is declared that personhood begins at conception. So it seems to me that the premise of the Catholic Church and of a great many in the pro-life movementthat personhood begins at conceptionis simply never going to be accepted as a principle of positive law. It never has beenand for very good reason. And it almost certainly never will be.

First, isn't Gopnik repeating Aristotlean biology? As I remember it, humans go through a vegetative state where they cannot move except by growing; an animal state where they can move; and finally a human state. The animating force, the soul, differs according to the nature of the state, though I do not recall if it is by transformation of te vegetative soul into an animal soul, or by addition of the rational soul to the animal. IThis is not some far out idea, as Mr Douthat would have us think, but scientific orthodoxy until 100 years ago. "formless consciousness" is not the best way of describing a "rational soul" but both are subject to the same objections, well stated in this post. Aristotle's view is probably wrong, but it is not deserving of the derision aimed at it.David Nickol gets it almost right IMO: I think the only thing you can say about the ones with serious genetic anomalies is not that they are not human beings, but they are profoundly disabled human beings. All embryos are profoundly disabled human beings; they cannot walk, or see, or think. Some will never acquire those physical abilities because of genetic anomalies, some from other causes. And some will lose abilities without losing their humanity. We all lose all of our abilities when we die. Our humanity persists throughout.

David Nickol gets it almost right IMOJim McK,I was only saying that if you believe human personhood begins at conception, it seems to me you cannot rule out as human persons embryos with severe genetic problems that will keep them from developing. That is what George and Lee do, and I think they are inconsistent.I don't think it makes sense to consider healthy embryos disabled persons any more than it makes sense to consider an acorn a disabled oak tree. Imagine a fertility doctor examining a number of fertilized eggs to pick the best candidates to introduce into the uterus of a woman undergoing IVF. Does he think, "Who of these should I select?" Fertilized eggs are potential persons, not persons. It does seem to me, however, that a spiritual soul, if it exists and is infused at some point, would make a zygote or embryo or fetus a person. An immortal, spiritual soul can't be thought of as a potential thing that needs to pass through critical stages of growth to be an actual thing. But the existence of spiritual souls is a matter of faith, not of science. You can't pass laws based on a belief on ensoulment. The idea of a soul that infused at conception or sometime afterwards and that leaves the body at death makes no sense to me and I think is rejected by theologians and philosophers, so it is difficult to justify its use in a discussion like this.

As Ladislas Orsy has said, we live on the edge of mystery. I don't think this is a question we can ever answer, and I think it should be faced with the humility of not knowing that facing mystery brings. LIfe doesn't begin at conception. The egg and the sperm are not dead and magically come alive by joining. They were both quite alive before they got together. It's a continuum. Something clearly happens at conception, that's obvious. But what? What happens is in good part mystery, a mystery that envelopes all of life, and is not amenable to binary characterization (e.g., before--no life; after--life). That doesn't mean you can't take moral stands on the question of abortion, just that those stands should be tempered by humility.

The political question, of course, is not what one's personal belief is, or how strongly one believes it, but how far one should go in imposing that particular belief on others who do not share it.

" Perhaps Im alone in seeing hubris in the toting up of who counts as one of us."Bill Collier --This assumes, of course, that you really have no opinion about the humanity of whatever it is who/that is producing this email? You're not really sure it's a I/me?C'mon, Bill. You yourself tote up the humanity of persons all day long. So what are the signs?

Taken from katholica yahoo group list, because Tom thinks that Phillip has made an important point.I would make another distinction that seems to have troubled some of us for a while. It's about a woman's right to choose and her role in the abortion debate. Whether a woman's view is equal to everybody else's, etc. etc. In the DECISION to abort, the woman is paramount. It is her opinion that rules, altogether. Nobody, male or female, must make her a prisoner of conception. We hope she would come to an agreement with the father, but absent that, her decision rules. Nobody else has a right to interfere, except to point out that in certain cases it may be a crime, or perhaps a sin, or whatever. But even then it is still her decision, solely. In the DEBATE about the ISSUES, she is not paramount. Her voice is one among many. An equal voice of course, absolutely equal, but still only one of many, which includes prelates, other pro-life women, pro-choice men, jurists, etc. etc. One would hope that a woman who decides to abort would guide herself by the debate, when it is calm and enlightened, but her voice is not paramount at that time. It is only equal. It becomes paramount when she makes her decision, which is hers alone to make. Philip.

LIfe doesnt begin at conceptionJeanne,I find comment is somewhat misleading because it mixes the general and specific concept of life. What I mean by that is a human blood cell is alive but no one thinks killing a human blood cell constitutes taking a human life. So describing life as a continuum does not really add any clarity and probably actually obfuscates the issue. We know from basic biology that cared for under the right conditions, a fertilized egg has the potential to grow into what we recognize as a human. Neither the sperm nor the egg had this ability. On the continuum of life, yours and mine became specific when the egg was fertilized.

AnnDo I tote up the humanity of persons all day long? If only I had the time to engage in such a noble enterprise! ;) Im not going to apologize for taking an inclusivist position as to who counts as persons. Though he set forth his thoughts on such inclusivity in an encyclical, most of what JPII said in the following excerpt from Evangelium Vitae applies IMO with equal force to a purely secular argument for the attachment of moral and legal protection at the time a human life form comes into existence at conception:[W]hat is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life."EV, para. 60 (quoting Donum Vitae)Mere probabaility is impetus enough to keep me totin.

We know from basic biology that cared for under the right conditions, a fertilized egg has the potential to grow into what we recognize as a human. Bruce,One possible way of looking at pregnancy, it seems to me, is as something a woman (or a woman's body) does. The womb is not analogous to a plot of soil in which seeds will germinate and grow if there is enough rain and the temperature is tolerable. There is a complex interplay between an embryo/fetus and the mother's body. One might think of a zygote as a remarkable kit that a woman's body acts on to assemble a human being. Only mammals (and not all of them) get pregnant. Pregnancy is unlike anything else in nature. A human zygote is not like a fertilized hen's egg, where all that is necessary is warmth and a new member of the species results. This does not necessarily mean that a pregnant woman is not obligated to do her part once she is pregnant. But it does mean that "cared for under the right conditions" means a lot more for a human zygote than a non-mammalian egg or a seed or spore.

Mere probabaility is impetus enough to keep me totin.william collier,When a woman's life is threatened by a pregnancy, how do you weigh the "probability" of the life of the unborn against the unquestionable reality of the life of the mother?

if you believe human personhood begins at conception, it seems to me you cannot rule out as human persons embryos with severe genetic problems that will keep them from developing.David,I agree entirely. I guess my rationale is a bit different from yours. A human does not cease to be human because she lacks a particular ability, and so lacking an ability to develop does not mean one is not human.I am taking a literal view of disabled, as meaning lacking an ability. Embryos cannot walk, or see, or think, so they are lacking abilities =disabled. We are all disabled with respect to winged flight. Lacking the ability to develop like other embryos dos not make an embryo less human.You are of course free to disagree. My thinking assumes humanity is not based on abilities, but is intrinsic. That is unacceptable to many.

David--Let's get to the point where we agree that there are two distinct and innocent human lives at issue that have equal moral status, and then we can talk about the extremely difficult, and thankfully rare, cases involving the life of the mother.

Bill C. --I don't disagree with JP II's text you offer. But my question to you is more fundamental: why is it that you *ever* think that some creature that cross your path are indeed a persons? What is it that makes you think so??? Don't tell me they look lke people. You say a zygote is a person, but it doesn't look like one, so that can't be your answer. IT seems to me that this argument about abortion goes round and round interminably because most people are unwilling to ask the hard metaphysical and epistemological and psychological questions, starting with: how does one *ever* know *what* something is? The very obvious fact of the matter is that we all make judgements about what kind of things we're dealing with *all* the time, and that includes "toting up" the human characteristics that lead us to believe we are dealing with people and not some strange primate. ( know what my answers are, and I got them from experience. So how do you tell a person when you find one? The debate really hinges on your answers.

Oops -- should be: What is it that makes you think that some creature that crosses your path must indeed be a person?(See what I get when I try to edit -- more mistakes. :-(

I may be seeing the same difficulty to which Ann refers. For current discussion purposes here, what are agreed, modestly rigorous definitions in English of the critical terms being used, identifying the specifically distinguishing properties or characteristics intended by the word "life", for example? "You know it when you see it" or "Not like a ____" tends to maximize ambiguity. Examples of words that could be usefully defined before argument and conclusion include "life", "human life", "personhood", "person", "human being", "moment", "probability", "consciousness", and "personhood in monozygotic twins".

One possible way of looking at pregnancy, it seems to me, is as something a woman (or a womans body) does.David,Unfortunately, that is not the way the biology works. The fertilized egg chemically and physically signals to the woman's body and the woman's body responds, not the other way around. And the fertilized egg directs its own development, its development is not directed by the womans body. In many ways, the mammalian uterus is exactly like soil, supplying food and water for the fertilized seed in sexually reproducing plants.

I know what my answers are, and I got them from experience. So how do you tell a person when you find one? The debate really hinges on your answers.Ann,The problem with formulating the question this way that it precludes you from learning what you can't personally observe. You may never observe a fertilized egg but that is irrelevant to the fact that your personal bodily development began as a fertilized egg. Even anacephalic babies are recognized as human. I agree that they are just severly disabled humans.

Bruece --The only reason we're interested in fertilized eggs is because we already know, however sketchily, what a person is. So first we have to establish just what is a person and the kind of evidence that let's us know one when we find ne. It's not really sensible to talk about whether or not the zygote is a person if we don't know what we're talking about when we say "person".

Oops, sorry -- Bruce.

Of course the discussion would be helped if there were an agreed definition of "person". The discussion is about defining "person", so having a conclusion would help conclude the discussion.Whatever definition is accepted, there will always be further problems. Some will use a hermeneutic of discontinuity, that sees the mother as "exactly like soil". Others will find that hermeneutic inadequate for the insignificance of the mother in it. Define the individual thing/person all you want, if you do not define its relationship to the mother at the same time you will still have disagreements. (I have often wondered if there is not a wonderful pro- choice argument against abortion, rooted in Mary's fiat and God entrusting child to mother. But pro-life seems to be the only viable position today, despite its rending of the cooperation of God and woman.)

Bruce, when you say "On the continuum of life, yours and mine became specific when the egg was fertilized," you're right, in the sense that our uniqueness was primarily defined by that initial combination of both pairs of DNA. But that is only a part of what needs to go on. A CD contains all the information you need for a piece of music but you don't get the actual music until you put the CD into a CD player, plug it in, and turn it on.

Fine analogy, Jeanne.Here's a related argument: Some claim that the presence of an individual set of DNA molecules within the first cell (the fertilized egg-plus-sperm) is what makes that cell to be an individual, human person. But if an individual set of DNA being present in a cell makes that cell to be an individual human person, it follows when the DNA is copied many times and there are many new cells, then each of those new cells is a person because each individual cell has its own DNA present within it. In other words, every time that initial cell is duplicated, a new person has been formed. From this it follows that every cell in a human body is itself an individual human person. This means that you and I are each billions of human persons at the same time -- which everyone agrees is nonsense. So the presence of the DNA in a cell is not what makes a body the body of one human person.(I say "human person" to distinguish the being from other kinds of persons, e.g., angels and God.) So that whole thing about DNA determining personhood is just a red herring -- nobody thinks that every one of the billions of cells in a human body is a person.

Ann,You don't understand the biology. The fact is that we all start our life as one cell. Then through numerous cell divisions you become what you are today. That is the basic biology. And it is what happens as a baby grows into an adult, yet you readily recognize both as human. It does not follow that each cell is a human.

Mystery was invoked above as an unqualified descriptor and requires distinction. "Mystery" refers to two entirely different categories. One is mystery due to the recognized inability of finite human capacity to comprehend fully the Infinite Divine and the Mind of God. Catholicism abounds in examples, including ensoulment. Faith, assumption, and certitude by decree become involved. Religions honestly differ on the truth. The other is mystery due to present human ignorance about aspects of us and our surroundings. Many of life's mysteries have vanished over time, along with explanations du jour, when a discovery or insight has taught something previously unknown. It enabled concepts and understanding to change fundamentally and, furthermore, to be communicated to curious skeptics. (Contrast some of the knowledge of which you are sure with some of the corresponding old mysteries Aristotle and Aquinas lived with.) Examples related to the present thread include the discoveries of human ova, of the roles of DNA, and of basics of the prenatal neural development process. Note that the first two of these eliminated earlier convictions about the female as a mere fertile pasture awaiting life and spirit to be delivered from the male. It is helpful to separate mysteries of faith from mysteries of reducible human ignorance as well as fact-based knowledge from faith-based belief.

Jeanne,There are many things that need to go one for each of us to maintain our human life: eat, breath, heartbeat etc. Regardless, we all still started our individual life as fertilized egg. Yes, many things need to happen for that fertilized egg to grow into an adult human, but that does not make the biological reality of its being the starting point of a specific human life. Some things are just what they appear. Btw, no one should claim a CD is ever music, even when it being played. But the fertilized egg is more than just DNA.

You dont understand the biology. The fact is that we all start our life as one cell. Bruce,I don't think that is accurate. Identical twins or triplets don't. In their case, two or three individual lives began with one cell. And although identical twins and triplets often look very much alike, they are separate and unique persons, often with different personalities and interests.

Bruce --You missed the point of that argument. (It's not MY argument, it's an argument that other people make, quite wrongly, I think.) Of course the whole process begins with one cell. Nobody denies that. You need to consider that the word "human" is used ambiguously sometimes. Sometimes it is used as an adjective meaning "like a human". For instance, we might say, "That chimpanzee is so funny it looks human". The other meaning is "a human person" or "a rational animal". In that sense, we say, "He is not a chimp, he's a human". In all arguments about abortion it is necessary to use those terms quite carefully and make it clear whether you're using it in the adjectival sense or the noun sense.

Ann: Regarding the argument from DNA, I don't see how the science meshes with your critique. I mean, that first set of DNA in the cell created by the egg-plus-sperm is unique and replicates in cells that come thereafter. If you're trying to distinguish when an individual human being appears on some "continuum of life," when that presence of unique blueprint material first appears seems decisive to me.

Beverly --So what if the DNA is unique? The DNA of every oak tree is unique in the first cell of the acorn, but that doesn't turn that one unique cell into billions of oak tree. In other words, the process is a lot more complex than just having unique DNA in one cell.What i'm concerned with is the simple argument that the presence of a single, particular DNA in that first cell makes that single, particular cell into a person. This is the same as saying that DNA makes the person. If that were true that would mean that *any* presence of that DNA in *any* cell (including the subsequent ones) would make each and every one of the cells in all of those stages into a person. The people who argue like that ("the presence of the DNA at the beginning is what determines personhood) have oversimplified to a truly extraordinary degree.Obviously, the DNA has something to do with the structuring of our bodies, but the *actual* minimum structure of our bodies happens latter than conception, and it is obviously only a part of what makes us a rational animal.Note the ramifications of this argument's being unsound: since we realize that the mere presence of the DNA doesn't cause personhood, we are left with the same old question: so what does make an organism (animal) to be a person (spiritual, rational)? And, at what point in that process (blastocyte-zygote-embryo-fetus) is that factor or set of factors present?

Hello Tom,That is why the RC bishops are wrong to make abortion positions the litmus test for elections. There is nothing going to happen until someone can find a way to bring this matter to the courts with a focus on whether the fetus has any rights.On this logic, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass were wasting their time agitating against slavery - especially after 1857. Likewise, it was pointless for Pius XI and the German bishops to agitate against Nazi race doctrine after it had been made part of Germany's organic law, with little prospect that it would be changed through normal political means. The current state of jurisprudence can help determine the prudence employed in specific Catholic lay efforts to change the law to reflect the natural law. But the Church isn't bound by that if it sees an intrinsic evil at work. And abortion is, always has been, and always will be, an intrinsic evil.

R. M. --Yes, of course the bishops and all the rest of us must oppose abortion. The question is: how best to reduce the number of them. Fewer abortions is the goal -- not simply imposing our will on other people. Abortion won't stop being a terrible problem until people are convinced that the fetuses actually are human persons, and the only way to change their current opinion is to persuade them. Simply changing the laws by a majority vote won't solve the basic problem, and it would only make those who disagree even *less* likely to hear what we have to say, and that would put the goal off even further.