Science, religion, and the question of when life begins
Prof. David Schultz writes:
“When it comes to the issue of abortion, this is not a scientific issue but instead a matter first of theology and then ethics. There is no scientific answer to when life begins. This is a matter of religious faith and I may not choose to agree with the theology that another holds.”
Is there no scientific answer to when life begins? That depends, of course, on what one means by “life.” I and most people (in this context) generally mean biological life, specifically the life of a human organism. That is indeed a scientific question, and the answer is well-established and scientifically uncontested. Presumably Schultz is using “life” to mean a particular moral status (e.g., being a “person,” having a right not to be killed), so “when life begins” is when the human organism acquires (if she does not have it by nature) that moral status, not when the human organism actually comes to be.
Is the moral status of unborn human beings “a matter of religious faith”? Not really — no more so than the moral status of law professor human beings. The question is whether unborn humans, like toddlers, adolescents, grandparents and law professors, deserve full moral respect and ought not be killed for the convenience or benefit of others. Ultimately this question rests on the nature of human value and dignity. It is a moral and philosophical question. (As with any issue — poverty, capital punishment, the environment — many people have religious motivation or grounding for their ethical principles, but that does nothing to disqualify those principles from public consideration.)
“To say life begins at conception is a meaningless and empty statement. Just because something is alive and human does not give it moral rights. My kidney is alive and human, does it have moral rights?”
It’s true that merely being alive and human — like a kidney, or the skin cells on the back of my hand — does not say much. But Schultz misses one more biological fact about the unborn (i.e., the human embryo or fetus), a fact that makes the unborn radically different from a human kidney or skin cells: the unborn is a whole (though immature) organism, not a mere part of another. The unborn, from the beginning of his or her existence at conception, is a member of the species Homo sapiens, the same kind of entity as you and me, only at a very early stage of development.
We know this from the science of human embryology. The moral question, as Schultz notes, is separate, and it is what the debate is really about: How should we treat human beings at their earliest developmental stages? Do all human beings, at all stages and in all conditions, have a fundamental right to life, or only some?