When is a human human?

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2008 9:43 pm

UPDATE (Nov. 4 11:00 p.m.): Great news! Proposition 48 was crushed, losing by a 3-to-1 vote.

In Colorado, Proposition 48 is up for vote on Tuesday. It is a rather simple statement; here it is in its entirety on the Colorado ballot:

Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution defining the term “person” to include any human being from the moment of fertilization as “person” is used in those provisions of the Colorado constitution relating to inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law?

Basically, this amendment to the Colorado Constitution would define a person as an legal entity at the moment a human sperm fertilizes an egg.

Prop 48 is ridiculous for any number of legal reasons. For example, if a woman who is pregnant for a day has a few drinks which cause damage to the embryo, can she be charged with reckless endangerment? What if she takes medicine that saves her but endangers the embryo? If I drive a pregnant woman around, can I use the HOV 3 lanes?

There are other vital issues, like how granting civil rights to a collection of cells takes away many civil rights of women, and the huge increase in governmental involvement this would mean in people’s lives. These are important to be sure, but not the point I want to make here. Also, these are age-old arguments, and in fact I can see where intelligent people can come down on opposite sides of them.

The real point is, Prop 48 isn’t about science, and it’s not even about legal issues. It’s about religion. This proposition is obviously based solely on religious beliefs; there is little reason outside of that to even bring the argument up that a fertilized egg is entitled to rights as a human being. It is only the belief that the human soul enters the cell at that moment that this is an issue at all.

Proposition 48 is religion trying to create legislation, pure and simple.

And it’s based on flawed reasoning. Try this thought experiment: you’re walking down the street, and you see a building on fire. You enter it to help anyone out, and see it’s a lab. On one side is a five-year-old boy, and the other is a petri dish clearly labeled as having a dozen fertilized eggs in it. You only have time to rescue the boy or the eggs. What do you do?

I would argue that it would be, ironically, an inhuman act to rescue the dish. Yet, according to the law if Prop 48 passes, you would have just chosen to let 12 human beings die to save one.

To me, those cells are just that: cells. There is nothing there that makes them human other than their DNA and their potential to grow.

So this leaves the actual question: what makes us human?

We don’t even have a definition of what life is — I can argue rather convincingly that fire is alive — let alone what it is to be human. And since we are talking legal issues here, you cannot state that it has to do with when a soul enters a body. I want to be perfectly clear about that, since that is an outright and clear violation of the First Amendment. The government cannot legislate religious beliefs.

I have smart readers. Can anyone here give me a reason, besides a religious one, that a fertilized egg is a human being? I’m willing to listen.

But let me help you here. It won’t fly to say that it has the coding (DNA) to become a human. Any cell in the body has that. I wouldn’t even accept that it has potential to be human, because the egg and sperm individually have potential to become human, if only they meet. You might counter and say that an egg already has that step done, but there are still many more on the way to being human. An egg can’t become a human without a lot of outside help (from the mother’s body), so the fertilization, while critical, is just one more step in the process. If any number of those steps fail, you don’t get a human out of it.

And if you wonder where I think the humanity begins in all this, I’ll say I don’t know. I don’t think it’s necessarily definable. I might — might — be talked into saying a fetus becomes human once brain activity starts. Many definitions of death are when brain activity stops, so that at least is reciprocal. But even then it’s difficult. What brain activity? Thought? Conscious thought? Does that make an adult gorilla more human than a five-day-old embryo?

And this, this, finally brings me to the ultimate point here: we are trying to define something here that is fundamentally undefinable. Being human is not a line in the sand where you can say, this is human and this isn’t. I can tell when something is well over the line, like a cat, or a rock, or Rory Calhoun, but something closer to the line is very hard to delineate. Biologists still argue over whether viruses are alive.

Proposition 48 is bad science, bad religion, and bad law. Even if you are religious, and you believe God breathes a soul into a fertilized egg, it’s still a bad idea. Your religion may have a majority in Colorado right now, but it may not always. Separation of Church and State is a fragile thing, a wall made of nothing but ideas. And as we have seen, over and over again, ideas can be stomped flat by ideologues. Your ideas may be next.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Religion

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