Defining Life

Photo: lunar caustic/flickr, Planned Parenthood
Photo: lunar caustic/flickr

There is no more contentious debate within politics, it seems, than that of abortion. There are two competing rights at stake – the right to one’s own body and the right to own’s life. Because of this, there is no ground to give by either side, making the debate never-ending and seemingly impossible to resolve. There are good libertarian arguments on both sides, and so the official response of the Libertarian Party is to leave the debate to the individual to decide, which really is another way stating a pro-choice position. There is no room for neutrality on the matter. If a person truly believes that a life exists within the womb, it is impossible for that person to concede that it is alright to end that life. On the other hand, if a person believes that the fetus’ status is one of not yet a human being, then it is impossible to concede that a woman has no right to her own body.

Many libertarian thinkers have argued that whether there is life in the womb is irrelevant, because if there were life, it would represent a parasitic life that is trespassing on the mother’s body. However, it begs the question as to whether it is possible, when two rights conflict, if one right can supersede another. Are there certain rights that are more basic, and therefore, superior to other rights?

I believe the case is arguable that the right to one’s own existence (life) supersedes all other rights. Without a right to exist, no other rights can be applicable. If a person does not have a right to his own existence, then he has no right to his own body, his material possessions, or anything else. If a person is allowed to exist, then it follows that the other rights can only be granted at that time, by virtue of his existence. Without the existence of the person, all other rights are irrelevant.

This, then, would make the question of when life begins absolutely relevant to the debate on abortion. Unfortunately, when life begins is an almost entirely philosophical discussion. It is a discussion of murky definitions with answers that range from physical operations within the human body to spiritual considerations. Empirical answers are very strained, at best, and arbitrary at worst. The absence of an empirical definition means there can still be no ground to give on either side. So, how can the debate on abortion reach some sort of catharsis?

While there is no consensus on the beginning of life, there is consensus on empirical definitions of death, or at least an acceptance of a definition. A person is declared clinically dead when either the heart or the lungs cease to function, or when certain brain activity has ceased. While there are times at which a person can be revived after these occur, we define these circumstances as death.  This does not mean that everyone agrees that death occurs at this point, but it is a consensus on how we define it.

So, it only makes sense to use the same measure for life that we use for death. The converse of the criteria has to, logically, mean a person has begun life. The criteria for death is just one of the three measures, so life would be defined by meeting just one of the criteria. The first of the criteria to be met is the heart beginning to beat at 18 days of a baby’s development. So, a person would have to, by the already consigned definition of death, have received all natural rights at 18 days of gestation.

This definition of life cannot end a debate on when a life actually begins, because the empirical measure does not have any bearing on what people believe philosophically, but it does offer a possible consensus. If there is already en existing consensus on death, then it would be very difficult to present an argument that the converse is not an acceptable definition of life. To do so would be to nullify the existing definition of death. The only way to change the measure for when life begins is to change the measure for when death has occurred. Both should be considered together to define things in an empirical legal sense. It may still seem arbitrary, but it does offer a hope for consensus.

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Danny Chabino

Danny Chabino has a background in operating small businesses. He has been involved in managing and/or owning the operations of multiple retail establishments, a sub-prime lending company, a small insurance company, a small telemarketing venture, and insurance consulting. In addition to these activities, he also has spent many years managing investments in stocks and stock options as a successful trader. He is the married parent of two adult children, living as a proud lifelong Oklahoman and a part-time redneck. Danny writes for the enjoyment and pleasure of sharing ideas and for the love of writing itself. His opinions skew libertarian, but he enjoys hearing open debate and listening to or reading of opposing ideas. As an odd confession, he personally detests politics, but enjoys writing about political ideals and philosophies.

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  1. Fair assessment here but the question of life is not a philosophical question. Human embryology has shown us that a unique human life begins at fertilization. If the zygote wasn’t alive, how could it grow, move, or metabolize?

    Also, using the active heart as a standard for life means that those without a heart aren’t alive, yet there are cases: and I don’t think anyone would say the isn’t alive.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, JSB Morse! For those of us (or me at least) who are pro-life, it feels like we are sometimes begging the pro-choice folks to hear our case. They have, at least philosophically, what they want already. So, they have little motivation to change. Because there really isn’t any common ground between the sides, a consensus definition of life is a necessity, even if it doesn’t fit with my own, or any else’s, definition. I understand and agree with what you are saying, but it is unlikely to gain consensus, and although based in solid logic still has room for plenty to doubt, and that is what makes it, in a slight sense, philosophical, in my humble opinion. Thank you again for your comments.

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