Problems with an Early Definition of Life

     In an earlier post, I wrote that I favor an early legal definition of life and explained how I logically arrived at that position.  I did not say that I would define life as beginning at conception because, to me, the issue is not entirely clear.  While I believe in an early definition of life, doing so causes problems.  If we hold this position, then we must wrestle with the challenges that it creates.  I don’t have all the answers, and so this blog is not about answers, but questions. 

    Miscarriage – If we define life as early as possible, how will we deal with miscarriages?  On the surface this is easy.  Miscarriages are, obviously, tragic and sad, but also a natural process.  Life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, accidents happen, and all that.  But realistically, when women know that they are pregnant, the “normal” rate of miscarriage is 10-20 percent. Testing has shown that the actual figure, if we include miscarriages that happen before the mother is aware of the pregnancy, is probably a little more than 30 percent.   If life begins at fertilization, or even at implantation in the uterus, then how do we legally define miscarriage?  Is it an accident or a tragic natural process? Or was the mother, somehow at fault?  If life has already begun, must we worry about who, if anyone, is “at fault” for the miscarriage, and is that person therefore guilty of murder?  Our initial reaction is to dismiss the possibility, but given the legal lunacy that happens every day, it is not difficult to imagine that charges could be brought against parents who drank, or smoked, or failed to obtain good prenatal care. 
    If we accept a definition of life that begins at fertilization, this becomes the issue of miscarriage is even more complex.  If a single fertilized cell is a human being, then we must acknowledge that we have no idea how many human beings pass out of the body without ever implanting in the uterus.  The numbers are certainly huge.  And so, how are we to understand God?  Can a good God doom hundreds of millions of children to death, by natural causes, without ever even having the slimmest chance and developing beyond a handful of cells?

    Birth Control – If we accept that a fertilized egg is a human being, then most methods of birth control become a real problem.  To its credit, the view of the Catholic Church is consistent in this regard.  If life begins at fertilization, then any chemical or mechanical method of birth control (pills, injections, IUD’s, etc.) that inhibits the ability of the egg to implant in the uterus and therefore pass out of the body, is, by definition, murder and must be prohibited.  Likewise, any method of birth control that causes an egg, which has already implanted in the uterus to be expelled, is also murder.  How would we even keep track?
    Assault – If a pregnant woman is assaulted, perhaps in the first trimester, and later miscarries, is that murder?  If the “normal” rate of miscarriage is 20 percent (or higher), how could blame be assigned?  Is the assailant at fault, or was it a naturally occurring miscarriage?
    Birth defects – If testing in the first weeks of pregnancy (or even later) indicate that the fetus/baby has genetic defects that are inconsistent with survival, let alone leading a normal life, what options are there?  If we decide that the fetus is entitled to all the rights of a human being, then must the mother be compelled to carry the baby to term?  If this pregnancy ends in miscarriage, how will we decide if it is due to the genetic defect or somehow the fault of the mother?
    Rape/Incest – The same problem arises in cases of rape and incest.  If any and all fertilized and/or implanted embryos are legally defined as human beings and granted rights, then on what basis can we allow an abortion?  Would we require every pregnant victim of rape or incest to carry the child to term?  How do we choose between the life of the child and the mental health of the mother?  What would be the physical and emotional cost to those women?  Are we willing, as a society, to bear that cost?
    While the logic of an early definition of life seems inescapable, I recognize that making such a legal definition would create difficult moral problems.  Certainly, I do not have all the answers but I have to ask the questions because anyone who argues for an early definition of life must be prepared to wrestle with the consequences of doing so.

Earlier posts in this series:

Abortion: Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Both Right? 


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