Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Minds and Hearts

I recently had a discussion with some friends about abortion. All of us are pro-life, but some of my friends weren't too sure about the humanity of the conceptus, i.e. the first cell which is formed when the ovum is fertilized by the sperm cell.

My friends were convinced that the fetus is a human being at the later stage, when the heart beat and brain waves are present. But they weren't so sure about the fetus prior to this point.

Now, this spring I posted on the issue of cloning, going into some depth concerning the moral and ontological status of the fetus in this post in particular. What I want to do here is briefly comment on the issue of a heart and brain as prerequisites for the humanity of the fetus.

I think the problem here is a misunderstanding of the importance and role of these organs for the human being. For the human being at the late stages of gestation (and from there onward), the heart is necessary for the movement of blood throughout the body, this being necessary for the maintenance of each cell's health. The brain is necessary because it is the organ that integrates the human being and gives it direction as a whole. Without the brain, the organism is no longer such: it becomes a mere collection of various organ systems, rather than a unified, integrated organism.

Because of these important roles, we recognize that the heart and brain are necessary for the existence of the human being during most of his/her life, because without them the human being either dies or ceases to exist as a unified, integrated organism (and therefore ceases to be a human being per se). What is important to note, however, is this: it is not the mere presence of these organs that make the human being a living human being, but rather, their function in the human being. Recognizing this crucial fact, the question of the fetus and its lack of brain and heart is easily resolved.

The human being at the early fetal stage is so small that the small number of cells that constitute it can easily replenish their nutrients and evacuate their waste products; the intricate and complex circular system that will soon develop is not necessary at this stage. In other words, the function of the heart is accounted for without the heart at this stage, and therefore the lack of that particular organ has no bearing on the humanity of the fetus.

The same is true of the lack of a brain in the early fetus: the fetus is already an organized, integrated, unified system; at this stage, it is simple enough that it does not require the complex neural network that will later develop. Again, the function of the brain is accounted for at this stage, and so the lack of a brain has no bearing of the fetus' humanity.

We need not be concerned about the lack of a brain or heart in the early fetus; as I've shown here, their importance is in their function, not their mere presence, and that crucial function is found in the early fetus.

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