asking when life begins: a pointless exercise

While tag surfing, I came across a well-written post discussing Obama and McCain’s answers to the question “When do you think life begins?” asked by some (probably famous) religious figure. Apparently McCain’s answer was, predictably, “at conception,” while Obama’s answer was a complex way of saying “I don’t know.”

The author had a problem with this response, which is understandable since we, for some odd reason, expect our politicians to have an answer to every question, regardless of whether or not the question is out of their area of expertise. In her post, she defines life as when a cell divides, and so I felt I had to point out the flaw with this idea. Anyway, my response ended up longer than I expected, but I thought it was interesting enough to repost here. So without further ado:

Oh, and another note: the killing infants reference is to another individual’s response, in which he claimed that Obama refused to vote for a law against infanticide. So now actually without further ado:

I think killing infants is illegal everywhere…

But regardless, I just wanted to mention that multiple definitions of “life” are being used in this situation. You can define life as cellular division as you wish, but then at any given time most of your body (and especially your brain) would have to be considered dead, since they are not dividing.

And both the sperm and the egg came from multiple rounds of division, and each can really be traced backwards in time through divisions of cells in all ancestors of that sperm or egg, up to the original humans.

Whether or not something is “alive” actually does not have anything like a clear-cut answer. It ultimately comes down to an arbitrary cutoff point, where you say “okay, a virus is not alive but most cells are, and any cells that are lacking a lot of parts we’ll decide based on how much metabolism they do on their own.” Or something.

What we’re ultimately talking about, with the question asked of the candidates, is not when life begins but when human life begins, or at what point during development a zygote becomes a person. But then this depends on your definition of what it means to be human, and this definition is also arbitrary (by the way, I don’t mean arbitrary as in pointless or asinine, but as in requiring a decision based on a human-chosen reference point). Each person chooses a different way to define life, and to define what it means to be a human, and whether or not it is okay to destroy something that is alive, a human, or has the potential to be either.

So, what I’m trying to say is that Obama actually gave the right answer here by not answering, because he can’t know the answer. It’s a philosophical question. He’s a politician; it’s not his job to philosophize. The job of the president isn’t to have all the answers (no one can be an expert in everything), but to admit where s/he is weak and to find others who are strong in those places.

The only intellectually honest answer to the question “when does life begin?” is “I don’t know, but since that question can only be answered arbitrarily, here is my arbitrary answer: . . .”.

2 thoughts on “asking when life begins: a pointless exercise

  1. The definition of life is not arbitrary; its application to the abortion debate is however completely arbitrary.

  2. Of course I’m open to being incorrect in my claim that the definition of life is arbitrary, but simply saying that it isn’t doesn’t really help me see your side. Have any supporting arguments?

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