Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Can you be pro-life and an organ donor?

There's a thread over at IlliniPundit about the recent stem cell breakthrough. In it, one commenter spouts the usual pro-life and anti-stem-cell line "We must not take life to save life." It's the same mentality that you get from pro-lifers about abortion, namely the valuable part of a person is that he is "alive." They never seem to explain under what definition of "life" a zygote is alive but the sperm and ovum are not.

That kind of belief system, however, isn't consistent with permitting organ donations for organs like the heart. Such transplants can come from people that are brain-dead. But I'm not even sure that the position that a person can even be brain-dead is compatible with the extreme pro-life position.

A brain-dead person is still, at the cellular level, alive. With the exception of breathing, many of the normal bodily functions are going on. His heart still beats; his hair still grows; his body is still warm. A blastocyst is alive only in this sense.

I'm of the opinion that brain activity isn't just the most important thing about a person, it's the only thing that's valuable. It's what makes the difference between living tissue and a person. Cut my arm off, and no one will argue that I'm less of a person; pick up my severed arm and no one will argue that it is in any way a person. So there must be something other than being alive at the cellular level that defines the important part of a person's existence.

I just don't see how anyone who's thought it through can claim these two positions are anything other than logically inconsistent. I guess it's that "logically" part that's tripping me up. The pro-life, "an embryo is equivalent to a full grown human being" position isn't a logical argument; it's an emotional one. It has emotional resonance and it soundbites really well.

I'm sure many people will disagree with me and that's fine. Just give me a usable definition of "alive" that applies to a zygote but not a brain-dead person. For bonus points, give me a meaningful definition of "person" that applies to a zygote but not a puppy.

UPDATE: To respond to Glock21's question "At what point are we a human being or person?" I'd like to hand that one off to The Frontal Cortex:

Both political extremes are wrong. A zygote isn't a baby, and a third-trimester fetus isn't a zygote. If cellular biology knows anything, it's that life is a gradient. Our consciousness slowly accumulates. There is no magic spark when an egg starts dividing and differentiating. It's just DNA doing it's thing. Of course, let those cells divide for long enough, and you'll end up with something pretty miraculous. Deciding at what point the miracle begins - at what point that bundle of cells accumulates a "soul" or "mind" or "brain" - is, of course, the really difficult part. But other countries - like Britain, where abortion is an issue debated by doctors, not grandstanding Parliamentarians - show us that this question can be answered in a methodical and rational manner.

I have to say that the obsession and fascination with a fertilized egg because it's apparently "whole" or "complete" is odd. Really, the only difference between separated gametes and a zygote is that the DNA has come together. Big deal. You can have tons of unique DNA in a test tube and it's not a person. DNA isn't even alive. And looking closely at the biology just makes the soundbite even more invalid. From The Island of Doubt:

...there is no "moment of conception."

For starters, the process of fertilization take a measurable amount of time. First the living sperm and living egg membranes fuse, then the egg completes the second stage of meiotic division -- the process that produces a haploid gamete with only half the DNA of a non-sex cell. Then the sperm loses its tail and the energy factory known as the mitochondria. Then the nuclear material from egg and sperm fuse, a process that again takes time. DNA must be wrangled and manipulated until new diploid chromosomes are ready for the next steps. It doesn't happen all at once...

Furthermore, it's only going to get worse. The better the temporal and spatial resolution of our technology,which is improving with each passing day, the more detail and complexity emerges in the reproductive cycle.

So I ask again: when exactly does in this process does one become a "human being" whose destruction is tantamount to murder? Where precisely is this moral boundary of which Mr. Bush speaks?

I understand that to admit to the fact that there is no boundary, that life is continuum, opens a lot of uncomfortable doors for those who like their ethical architecture to be straight and narrow. Sorry, but that's ... life.

I think a lot of the arguing here happens because a segment of the population is very uncomfortable with greyness. Black or white. Good or evil. You're either with us or against us. By framing the discussion in these terms, there isn't any measured or critical analysis or discussion. But it does make things oh so morally uncomplicated.

UPDATE II: Fig pointed out that this post disappeared from the site. When I wrote the above update, I accidentally saved it as a draft, rather than publishing it to the site. Sorry.


Glock21 said...

I'll start off with the easy one:

A person or human being has human dna... a puppy does not.

The less easy one:

Ovum and sperm are certainly alive but they are not in and of themselves a human being or a person. It takes the genetic information from both to create a new human.

Similar logic behind why an arm isn't considered a human being or person... it's only part of the whole. Before and after being detached the cells are alive (at least for a little while after).

For the harder question:

Does our ability to think make us a person any more than our ability to eat, grow, etc? It certainly may have an affect on whether it is worth sustaining a non-thinking life. That whole "I think therefore I am" is a bit of an oversimplification imho. A person who goes brain dead still exists to those around them. But you can't prove that to the brain dead fellow.

Perhaps you feel that the worth of a human being decreases with decreasing brain function. Are brain damaged folks less of a person? Are they subhuman? Does this apply to mental disabilities too?

At some point when their brain activity decreases enough to be considered brain dead then all their humanity or personhood decreases to zero?

Yet they are still a human being, a person, in and of itself... alive with human DNA. But with one organ not functioning right, or perhaps missing in part.

It may not be worth living that way. It may serve no real logical purpose to exist like that. But how does that erase the fact that they're a human being?

I don't see it.

And for the really difficult question:

We start out as a clump of cells. At what point are we a human being or person?

We have full human DNA right off the bat with the first cell.

But we don't become full grown human beings for another 15-20 years or so when we finally hit the adult stage.

Where do we draw a line if not at the first cell? When that cell divides enough that we become more recognizable as human? It can't just be the DNA... after all, all our cells have that DNA but are not considered, in and of themselves, a human being or person.

But a zygote is a bit different... it is the whole. It's not just a piece.

And the really really difficult question that wasn't asked:

If we're human beings from conception on, do things like awareness, brain activity levels, etc make it okay to kill human beings. Are human beings worth less or their survival irrelevant based on these ideas?

I consider us human beings from conception on because logically that makes sense to me. But I'm also pro-choice and pro-euthanasia under many circumstances. Not because we aren't talking about living people or human beings... but because sometimes there is a greater societal need to consider beyond that and other factors involved.

Someone beating my mother to death is a living human being... but if she killed him to defend herself... she will have killed a living human being, for good reasons.

Abortion and euthanasia can be done for similar reasons. Whether or not you call it a "clump of cells" or a human being is pretty irrelevant. To me it's obviously both. But sometimes it is better to kill them/it/him/her.

Just my 2 cents

moon_grrl said...

If we're human beings from conception . . . every time a pregnancy is confirmed, then the fetus should be issued a social security number, name, and instead of birthday, CONCEPTION day should be celebrated. Oh, and if there is a miscarriage, then an investigation into the cause of fetal death and a death certificate should be filled out. If it's proven that the mother's body is at fault, then she should be convicted of second degree murder. Wait, this means that every time I have a period, the police need to examine my tampons and pads closely to CONFIRM that I am only menstruating and not secretly killing someone. Of course, birth control methods other than barrier and withdrawal will have to be outlawed, since women could still ovulate on the pill or using an IUD and we can't have them murdering by preventing that fetus from implanting!

Seem illogical and rather silly? There's a ballot initiative in Colorado (Initiative 36), which seeks to give fertilized eggs legal rights. An embryo is a ball of cells which has the potential to make a human being (or puppy, depending). POTENTIAL being the operative word.

The Squire said...

Brain death is a hard concept for many to grasp, since many/most of us have ingrained into our heads the idea that pulse=life. In order to accept the idea of brain death, one must accept that being alive involves more than just engaging in the bare minimum of metabolic processes, involving the ability to act of one's own volition and to be aware of one's surroundings. The permanent loss of these abilities, and with them the state of consciousness itself, is itself the loss of one's life.

The official Catholic position on this one is that only Whole Brain Death, where everything including the brain stem is toast, is acceptable for declaring a patient dead. There are a number of tests that, together, allow doctors to conclusively determine that whole brain death has occurred. The fuzziness comes in when only most of the brain is gone. The human brain is a remarkably resiliant organ, and we simply do not know where the limits for such things are. The relatively recent discovery that a sleeping pill can wake up patients in Persistent Vegetative States (determined through inactivity, not necrosis as in the case of Terry Schiavo) is a prime example of how little is known about where the line between life and brain death really lies. While I'm 95% certain that Terry Schiavo's brain was yogurt when she died, I still have to acknowledge the uncertainties of cutting open anyone who is not diagnosed as Whole Brain Dead.

Pro-Life covers both the beginning and end of life, and while they are related though, ya know, living, the means by which we determine it to start and to end can be and, in my case, are two separate sets of criteria.