Monday, 1 August 2016

What’s life got to do with it?

One of the things I find hard on this beautiful Island full of beautiful people is the debate which I thought had been won throughout western Europe and the US, a debate hinging on the concept that life begins at conception. 

Many quote the biological fact that at conception new DNA is formed and is thus a new life; yet 50% of that DNA is shared with a Banana so, if all life comes down to is the presence of DNA, is a banana half human? Over 99% of our DNA is shared with primates so biologically are they over 99% human based on their DNA? As we can see from at least these two articles scientific definitions of life are fraught with danger and possibly best avoided
 "There is no broadly accepted definition of 'life.' Suggested definitions face problems, often in the form of robust counter-examples. Here we use insights from philosophical investigations into language to argue that defining 'life' currently poses a dilemma …”

Cleland, Carol E.; Chyba, Christopher F., Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, v. 32, Issue 4, p. 387-393 (2002).

Similarly Wired states that science cannot (alone) state when a baby’s life begins ( although perhaps it can say when the process begins
So if science cannot tell us can we rely on religion or philosophy (and here I will rest on the western approaches).  My approach though is fairly simple both philosophically and in terms of faith

Philosophically humanity is defined and differentiated from the rest of the cosmos not by DNA (after all so little is different from our ape cousins) but rather by sentience – viable awareness and cognition - after all we are Homo Sapiens (wise man) and can we be truly human is we do not have any capacity to be wise (or cognisant) even in a very limited capacity? I would suggest not

Similarly our faith (Jewish, Christian or Muslim) springs from the Adamic story.  Regardless of how we read it, literally or metaphorically, Adam or Humanity was created (its DNA in place?) but not alive until God breathed his breath / spirit / Ruach into Adam – modern Judaism based on ancient rabbinic approaches from before the time of Christ seem to suggest that viability is the key and that this fits in with the Adamic myth i.e. that Adam became viable / alive not at his creation but at the point of sentience or when Ruach entered him

Modern Judiasm takes the approach that “the easiest way to conceptualize a fetus in halacha is to imagine it as a full-fledged human being - but not quite. In most circumstances, the fetus is treated like any other "person." Generally, one may not deliberately harm a fetus, and sanctions are placed upon those that purposefully cause a woman to miscarry. However, when its life comes into direct conflict with an already born person, the autonomous person's life takes precedence.

It follows from this simple approach, that as a general rule, abortion in Judaism is permitted only if there is a direct threat to the life of the mother by carrying the fetus to term or through the act of childbirth. In such a circumstance, the baby is considered tantamount to a rodef, a pursuer after the mother with the intent to kill her. Nevertheless, as explained in the Mishna (Oholos 7:6), if it would be possible to save the mother by maiming the fetus, such as by amputating a limb, abortion would be forbidden. Despite the classification of the fetus as a persuer, once the baby's head has been delivered, the baby's life is considered equal to the mother's, and we may not choose one life over another, because it is considered as though they are both pursuing each other.

Judaism recognizes psychiatric as well as physical factors in evaluating the potential threat that the fetus poses to the mother. However, the danger posed by the fetus (whether physical or emotional) must be both probable and substantial to justify abortion. The degree of mental illness that must be present to justify termination of a pregnancy is not well established and therefore criteria for permitting abortion in such instances remains controversial.


From this I would suggest we find that even abortion, let alone the use of an emergency contraceptive, is permissible in Judaism because life from conception is not confirmed and even if it were is secondary to the autonomous mother and thus perhaps should be so in its daughter faiths
Where then does this leave us? I would say where we expected, without a clear cut answer and for me because of this lack of scientific, philosophical or religious clarity  means that the choice to take contraception, an abortive drug or even a full on abortion is not one that can be made for another even by the state through legislation

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