This was a piece written for our Developmental Biology final. I wrote this with the intention of pushing a radical, controversial concept that I had never seen before. This article does not necessarily reflect my own views. This was merely an assignment I had a bit of evil fun with. Enjoy!
The human mind likes to create false dichotomies. Black or white. Evil or good. Right and wrong. Without saying another word, you know the world does not follow this schema. The world does not operate in binary. Everyday our moral constructs are battered with ambiguous information that does not categorize so easily. Previously clear lines become hazy in light of new beliefs. We exist among a sea of gradients, slowly leeching across man-made boundaries. This erroneous thinking even carries over into the fate of human life.
Is a person with no higher brain function, but perfect cardiac rhythm, alive? Some would say yes. I say no; they are a vegetable. Biologically, yes they are very much living. But is that what the question asks? A virus is not alive, yet it moves from host to host infecting and replicating. Is this not viewed as a characteristic of life? This raises the question of “what is life?” In a very general sense, biology and functional definitions of life are often used synonymously. Life ends when biological processes end. In the case of the human vegetable, they are biologically alive but functionally dead. The virus is biologically dead but functions as if it were alive. It seems a simple task to decide when a life definitively ends. When can one say life definitively begins? To understand this, we must first understand the process by which it develops.
From here, let us work in reverse. A full term baby is one delivered between 37 and 42 weeks from conception (See Figure 1). At this point the fetus has completed prenatal development and resembles a tiny human. All systems are complete and operational. The fetus is very much alive, both biologically and in the functional sense.
Figure 1: Overlay of Trimester, Gestational Week, and Term of Pregnancy.
In the end of the second trimester (week 25), the fetus is substantially underdeveloped. Fetal weight is less than three pounds. The lungs can exchange gases but are unable to move rhythmically. The brain and nervous system still have much development to undergo, but are still functional. Birthing at this point, with medical intervention, could still produce a viable offspring. Biologically, the fetus is living. Although very impaired and with less than a 50% chance of successful birth, the fetus is still alive under functional terms.
Mid-second trimester (week 20), we see the formation of air sacs in the lungs. The fetus weighs less than a kilogram and is just under a foot in length. By now, nails have begun growing on the fingers and toes. Shortly before this, an act known as the “quickening” can be felt by the mother. Quickening refers to the first time the mother perceives the fetus moving inside the womb. The term “quickening” historically defined this time as the child coming to life. The world record for successful premature birth belongs to James Elgin Gill who was born at 21 weeks and 5 days. Biologically, the fetus is alive. Functionally, the fetus is markedly underdeveloped and will most likely die if birthed even with extreme medical intervention.
End of first trimester (week 12), genitalia completes main development and can be easily identified by sonogram. The fetus can make reflex sucking motions and fetal skin is nearly translucent. At this point the length of the fetus is approximately six inches long. By now, the fetus has already developed the initial buds that will become the baby teeth and has even begun producing red blood cells. Biologically, the fetus is alive. Functionally, the fetus is but a shell of its future self. It is simply a blob of human cells responding to chemical gradients.
From fertilization until week eight the organism is referred to as an embryo. The distinction is made when the beginning stages of each major organ initiates development. The embryological development is initiated and directed by chemical signals from the mother. These signals begin chain after chain of processes that will build upon themselves to create a tiny human in nine months time. At this stage of development the organism is not considered viable because it is not able to survive outside the uterus. Biologically, the embryo is alive. Functionally, the embryo is the equivalent of a tumor – dead.
Prior to this stage, you have two individual sex cells. Quite obviously these cells meet via copulation and fertilization occurs. While these cells are functionally dead (in terms of being a “human”), these cells are biologically alive prior to fertilization. The cells that made them were biologically alive, and the cells that made those cells follow the same pattern. They were all alive. The chain of life never actually ended. Just one string of life continuing on until it joins with another string and continues on. Biologically, the cells were always alive. So where do we draw the line on “life”? When does the conception of human life truly begin?
What is it that constitutes “life”? Clearly, we cannot use the biological definition because life never ended for it to have started again. If we refer back to our earlier example of the man with no brain activity (coma guy) some would call him dead. The problem then lies within brain activity. When does the fetus have enough of a ”human” brain?
At 28 weeks the fetal brain reaches a stage in development in which pain can be readily experienced. Many who raise objections to abortions cite this fact to discourage the act or even insist upon anesthesia for the fetus. While pain is biologically hardwired into the brain, the essence of the human mind comes about only from experience. Every higher function must be learned by the developing child. Newborn infants do not have beliefs. They do not have complex thoughts. They do not even know what they are. A newborn may be human, but can you yet call it a person?
For the earliest portions of development, the child responds to the world with a rigid set of reflex responses. The infant will turn towards any stimulus that touches its cheek. Additionally, it will begin sucking on any object that enters the mouth as it assumes it to be food. There is no thought behind these processes, simply a knee jerk reaction predesigned to give the infant food and nourishment. In another instance built for survival, the infant will tightly grasp any item that comes in contact with its palm. This is believed to have arisen from clinging to the mother for added safety. The infant relies on hardwired instinct and a supervising caregiver to compensate for the lack of higher cognitive skills.
The upper limits on abortion have traditionally been set by some form of fetal developmental milestone. When you account for the cognitive properties of development the deadline extends much farther than previously considered. Many individuals place the cutoff at a point in time where the fetus appears human-like, usually before the third trimester. From a cognitive perspective, the infant does not begin to develop skills to replace innate reflexes until four months post-birth. Like the man in a coma, infants are deficient in terms of functionality. For those few initial months, or “fourth trimester”, the human infant cannot yet be called a person. It is for this reason that abortions should be permissible until no later than the fourth trimester. Only after this time period do infants begin the transition into sentient beings. The development of cognition plays the greatest role in human functionality. When deciding the outcome of a life, the developmental progression should take absolute priority.