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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Life is Life, the Rest is Just Details

A few weeks ago, Arlen Specter was making the rounds, pushing a definition of life that I honestly had never heard before. Mark Davis of the Dallas Morning News has picked up the refrain, "Life begins at implanation," to wit:
There is no debating that the moment of conception yields the complete blueprint for a new human life. Once nestled in the uterine wall, that life will grow and should be left alone.

Without the aid of an actual womb, that life goes precisely nowhere. This has led me to a claim that doesn't make for good bumper stickers but does make sense: Life begins at implantation...
Well, ummmm, no. First, "that life" with "the complete blueprint" is a human life. Second, without the aid of sustained nourishment and a protective environment, that life goes precisely nowhere, just like every other human life. But let's back up a second and do a common sense thing.

How do we answer the question of what life is? Words mean things, so let's look it up in the dictionary. From the operative definition on Merriam-Webster Online:

Main Entry: life
Pronunciation: 'lIf
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural lives /'lIvz/
Etymology: Middle English lif, from Old English lIf; akin to Old English libban to live -- more at LIVE
1 a : the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body b : a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings -- compare VITALISM 1 c : an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction
The distinguishing quality in part a and the self-determining distinctive quality of part b are captured by the organismic state described in part c. Does a human embryo sitting in a petri dish possess the capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction? Yes, without question.

Still have doubts? Try a thought experiment. Place an embryo in a special container, an artificial womb. Is there any question that it would fully develop? Would it be alive? Using the Specter and Davis defintion, the feature distinguishing the embryo as a living human being would not be the organism itself, but its artificial container. Were we to follow this logic, Terry Schiavo ceased to be a human being the instant her feeding tube was removed. Nonsense. Distorting and changing the meanings of words like this on the fly often betrays charlatans, scoundrels, and people whose beliefs are based on the convenience of their convictions and is unfitting for a nation predicated on the notion that all men are created equal.

Related:

Judd has more on Mr. Davis' true stripes.

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