An ambulance crew brings in a shooting victim; one shot to the chest, one to the head. There was a lot of blood loss from the chest wound, and the victim is in immense cardiopulmonary distress.
The head wound missed the medulla, at the brain stem, the part that controls the heart and breathing and the rest of the body’s automatic functions (and, for most of the Minnesota Progressive Project staff, their writing as well) – so the victim didn’t die instantly. But the victim seems to be non-responsive; there are indications his brain functions are badly damaged; he may be in a coma, or worse.
So the doctors give up and administer a massive overdose of morphine to kill the patient, because it’s all over anyway and why drag it on?
Well, no. They don’t. They stabilize the patient as best they can. They check further to see if the brain is really shut down; if it’s not, they do what they can to restore function.
When in doubt, they err on the side of saving lives .
Now, I don’t write a lot about abortion. I’m opposed to it, of course; I’m personally pro-life. I find most of the arguments in favor of “choice” to be self-indulgent and childish. I’m going to skip most of them – it’s nothing I haven’t written about in some depth, of course.
With that in mind, the argument about the “viability” – the idea that a fetus isn’t really all that terribly human until it’s “viable”, or capable of living on its own – is perhaps less stupid than most. It’s wrong, of course; after three kids, I can say with authority that a “fetus” isn’t “viable” until it can get a job and pay its own rent.
More seriously? I believe that since a fertilized egg, left to its own devices (no medical intervention for or against its existence – just like in our great-great-grandparents’ time) will gestate for nine months 75% of the time, and those who get that far will be born alive two out of three times (those stats are from primitive cultures like 1890-era rural Minnesota), it’s fairly clear that whatever the physics and physiology and metaphysics behind the process, the whole thing is intended to create living, breathing human beings. Beyond that? I think it’s fairly clear that since preemies have been successfully brought along to fairly normal lives as early as 22 weeks into gestation, that the idea that a “fetus” isn’t “human” until a 40-week fetus’ umbilical is cut is a self-indulgent, illogical absurdity.
None of the above, by the way, touches on spirituality at any level. It’s nothing but logic, so far.
But I’m a Christian. I believe that every person (except Ryan Seacrest) has a soul.
We don’t know.
Souls are not measurable. There’s no place in human physiology that’s been identified as a “soul fill valve”, leading to a “soul tank” where the ephemeral concept is kept. It’s not like a brain wave, much less synonymous with it, and if it were, the gunshot victim in the example above would be out of luck. Not everyone agrees that there is such a thing; atheists all bet the “under” on Pascal’s Wager. No matter – if you assume there is no soul, and are motivated by anything other than naked self-interest, it actually makes the question harder to resolve. We’ll come back to that.
So the question – part of it, anyway – is “when does a fetus get a soul?”
Dog Gone at Penigma writes a very long treatise that says, essentially, we don’t know because spirutual authorities have never agreed on the subject:
I have read widely on the subject of our human soul and spirituality, and listened to many different voices pontificating ther dogma on the subject in the course of satisfying my own curiosity…This breadth of recognition might suggest some sort of consensus, some unanimity of understanding, a clarity and agreement on definition, right?
Of course, not. Ecclesiastical bodies have fought long, bloody wars over the subject; when two of the great Christian denominations have been split for almost a thousand years over the Nicene Creed and the job description for saints, when Presbyterian congregations fall into epic near-blood-feuds over applause in church, to say nothing of gay marriage, looking for general consensus on the nature of the Soul is hopelessly optimistic.
There is no consensus across history or across the geography of our planet on any single specific aspect of that essence we name souls. We don’t agree on what it is; we don’t agree on when it is inside of us; we don’t agree on the origins. We don’t even fully agree on whether or not the soul is immortal or eternal; some believe that the soul can die, others that it grows as the body grows, with experience. We don’t agree on how, where, and from whom our souls derive. We don’t agree on who or what possesses a soul.
DG goes on to note that even within Christian tradition, the idea of the genesis of the soul has knocked around a bit:
The Christian tradition is contradictory. The roots of early Judaism posited that animals, at least some animals, had souls, as do other religious and spiritual traditions. In Islam, the belief is that the soul enters the body of a fetus in utero after 40 days. Not 90 or 180 days, not 30 minutes, and not at conception; they are quite definite on the 40 day figure. But then, in the Islamic faith, not only humans have souls either. Djinn and angels also have souls in that faith’s traditions. In the Druidic tradition, and in many other traditions (the many irreverent verses of “Give me that old time religion” are playing in my head) so do some trees and other inanimate objects.
Right. But then, traditional religion from the dawn of time until pretty recently believed all sorts of stuff we find crazy today; insert boilerplate here about burning witches and kosher laws and selling indulgences and human sacrifice and stoning gays (oops; one religion still does that).
Of course, in that era people couldn’t tell with any certainty that the crop they planted in April wouldn’t be eaten to the ground by bugs in July or blown away by a sudden storm in August; people never connected “taking a dump upstream from where you get your drinking water” and the hacking, fever-ridden wave of deaths that would periodically befall the village; in a village where the people had raised vegetables and sheep for uncounted generations, humans were born the same way the animals were; the way nature had left the process. And it was an ugly process; 1/3 of babies (of the 3/4 that weren’t miscarried earlier) were stillborn or died of complications during delivery, as did 10% of the mothers (with each birth); and that was even before infant mortality set in.
So given the exceedingly crude nature of “science” back when years had three digits and the world’s major religious leaders were half a generation removed from raising keff and goats, especially the understanding of human physiology and development at the time, the question “when exactly does the soul inhabit the body” was purely academic; like “what will I wear on my third date with Scarlett Johannson”, it might be fun to think about, but the practical application is pretty minimal.
But today, the vast majority of “fetuses”, barring pseudomedical interference and, of course, miscarriage, survive until birth and beyond. Not only that, but as noted above “fetuses” born just past half-term go on to live normal lives – utterly unthinkable even a generation ago (which, if logic rather than politics reigned, would make most non-health-related third-term abortions murder). We don’t know when life is viable, but the boundaries keep getting pushed back.
The objective boundaries, anyway.
And since, unlike my third date with Scarlett Johannson, the essense of life is actually a valid, testable question these days, the question “when does viable, human life begin” isn’t an academic question.
100 years ago, the gunshot victim in the first paragraph might have been given up for dead without bothering with a trip to a hospital. Today, science can find out if there really is a brain function in there that can be nursed back into control of the body. People what would have been give up for dead fifty years ago walk among us today.
And definitions of “when does a human become human” written a thousand years ago by people for whom it was an utterly academic question are no more informative to us today than surgery textbooks from 1700 are to the Mayo today.
Leaving aside the fact that the concept of “the soul” is ephemeral and unmeasurable in any way; even the fairly objective measurement of “when life begins” is, paradoxically, more difficult than ever, since science has made the instrumentation and criteria so much finer than before.
And so the paradox is, if you care about the intangibles that make humans human, the more we know about how life works, the less meaningful the attempts to put an arbitrary, “objective” limit on them. How do you put a number on something that gets less measurable, the better able to measure it you theoretically are?
Since we don’t know – and, unlike the rabbis of the Old Testament and the druids and popes and mullahs of 1000 years ago, we know what we don’t know – then if you believe that human life has any intangible but real value (call it a “soul” if you want, or “worth as a human life” if you don’t), then the only logical response, as with the gunshot victim above, is to err on the side of life. If we don’t know life to be absent in an organism that is intended to live, then you assume it – he or she – is alive.
And you can tell Pope Pius II I said so.
 Although with Obamacare in place, they’ll have to check with a committee of government accountants and lawyers for medical advice, first.