What Is A Human Being? A Key to the Abortion Debate


I posted the following as a comment on the thread called Politically Correct Torture, and Dr. Turek asked me to post it separately as an article. So, here goes. I also posted this as an article on my own blog, which you can reach here.

In the various debates about abortion, most everybody agrees that there are certain things one should not do to human beings unless they deserve it; things like decapitation, or poisoning, or total dessication and dismemberment with a sharp object. Those of us who feel that abortion is wrong argue from that point that if treating an adult human being a certain way is wrong for any set of reasons, then treating a gestating human being is wrong for the same reasons. It’s a pretty simple argument, and provably correct. Because it’s correct and most everybody knows it, proponents of legalized abortions are forced to argue that at certain points in the normal development of human offspring, what’s gestating inside the mother is not a human being.

So the abortion debate is simple, and the only item in question is, what’s a human being? Because if the gestating zygote, fetus, or whatever is a human being, then the moral calculus is pretty clear; we don’t do certain drastic things to other human beings unless they genuinely deserve it.

Words mean things, so unless somebody wants to suggest that the words “human” and “being” are being used metaphorically or figuratively, we should be able to settle the question by reading the dictionary.

“Human” simply designates species. Any attempt to base humanness on value, maturity, cognitive ability, or any other characteristic is simply obfuscation; “human” denotes only species. Whether an object deserves the adjective “human” or not can be determined by testing DNA. Does the cell contain human DNA, as opposed to, say, canine, or bovine? If so, then it is a human cell. Is the ear comprised of cells that all contain human DNA? Then it’s a human ear. Is the infant comprised of cells that all contain human DNA? Then it’s a human infant. And so forth. Very simple, very unambiguous.

“Being” is a bit tougher, because it’s imprecise and general by design, like the word “thing.” “Being” is a general word denoting existence (based on the verb, “to be”), only in this instance it implies life; normal English usage in America would not ordinarily call something a “being” unless it were alive. So let’s assert that in this instance, it means “a living thing,” or to be more precise than “thing,” “a living organism.” If anyone thinks “being” in the phrase “human being” denotes something other than “a living thing,” you’ll need to state your reasons very clearly.

So, any object that (a) can properly be called a living organism, and (b) is comprised of cells that contain human DNA, is, by simple definition, a human being.

Now if you go to a site frequented by science-minded atheists, like PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, you will find biologists who are partisans with dogs in the hunt when it comes to the abortion debate. However, even there where they’re inclined to argue that a recently fertilized zygote in a human mother is not truly a human being, the definitions of the individual word “human” and of the phrase “living organism” are not particularly controversial. Granted, the precise point at which a being ceases to be “a sperm cell from one organism, and an egg cell from another organism of similar species” and becomes properly “an organism of particular species” in its own right, is arbitrary within about a 6-hour period; it’s a process, not a singularity. However, I don’t think even the partisans at Pharyngula would dispute that at the end of that process, what remains is, in fact, a living organism; it’s a collection of cells in a single, interactive system, that share common DNA, grow, and produce negative entropy from outside themselves (e.g., they eat). That’s a matter that’s got general agreement among biologists. And of course, since all the cells in that “collection of cells” are provably human cells, and since the collection of cells meets the common biological definition of life, then scientifically and provably it’s a human organism — or, in plain English, a human being.

Immediately, I can hear the howls, but honestly, folks, it really is that simple. The howls all speak of “meaning” which, frankly, is an imposition from whatever philosophical system you’re articulating. If you want to make this into a philosophical question, fine, but please admit that that’s what you’re doing. The scientific and biological question is easily resolved. It’s a “human being” when it can properly be called “human” (denoting species) and “being” (denoting that it’s a living organism.) That’s how language works.

To escape the common moral obligation to refrain from arbitrarily killing human beings, somebody will have to produce a logically valid syllogism proving that to treat a human being brutally who has X characteristic is morally wrong, but to treat a human being brutally who lacks X characteristic is not morally wrong. Then they’d have to show, logically or scientifically, when it is that a human being acquires X characteristic; and at that point, they’d have logically produced an argument that makes abortion defensible before a particular point in time.

I’ve heard that done plausibly with brain waves (though I don’t agree). I’ve heard people try “consciousness,” but that would mean — logically — that it’s morally acceptable to murder an unconscious human, and that’s absurd. I’ve heard people try “intelligence,” but that would mean — logically — that it’s morally acceptable to murder unintelligent people, and that’s heinous; the Nazis went down that road, and the rest of humanity shouted “No!”

I’m asking folks to shed their emotions, and deal with the simple facts. “Human being” is rather easy, if we shed the emotions. The remaining questions are just questions of logical consistency: if we consider a criterion sufficient to change the moral equation, does it work in all cases, or does it produce absurd or objectionable exceptions?

Defenders of abortion rights like to pretend that opponents of those rights stand only on religious grounds, but the truth is that opponents of legal abortion stand mostly on simple, consistent, and generally-accepted definitions of common words. It’s the proponents of legal abortion who insist on inserting problematic theories of “meaning,” which impose their particular philosophy on the rest of us, and especially on some 50 million human beings who will never see the light of day.

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