Defining 'Human Being'
I'd like to raise a question that might have a bearing on issues such as abortion and the death penalty. The question concerns the definition of a "human being." This becomes apparent in one of the Christian arguments against abortion in which it is claimed that an embryo is a human being. In this viewpoint the definition is based upon biological as well as religious criteria, i.e., the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, and it seems to me that all definitions of a human being are so based.
Why, however are humans defined biologically and spiritually? Since we seem to be the only species with a complex psychic, ethical and moral life, why couldn't the definition of a human being be expressed in non-physical but non-spiritual terms? I don't really have an answer for this, but I have often thought that since we are so close to animals on most biological criteria, but appear to differ from them vastly in our psychological behaviors that our concept of humanness would have more meaning, especially in the law, by employing less physical standards in our definition. It might also make it easier to discuss killing, whether the unborn or convicted murderers if we were dealing with qualities that were classified as higher mental functions.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "Gil Gaudia"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Sunday, June 03, 2001 11:44 PM
This "higher mental functions" definition for human might sound formidable when arguing against anti-choice forces (since a fetus lacks these things). But it would open the door to slippery-slope charges that you're now suggesting it's okay to euthanize retarded people, people with Alzheimer's, victims of stroke, or people who otherwise lack the full capacity for human thought and behavior (just as the fetus lacks this capacity). It could also open you up to a very bizarre inversion of logic which would say that since we've been executing criminals since the stone age, we've thus been saying all along that a criminal is mentally deficient or not fully human.
The fact that the fetus is not viable, and the fact that the fetus lives inside the body of another human, nudges me over to support allowing abortion as a medical procedure -- unconditionally during certain times (first trimester in the U.S.) and at any time when certain conditions prevail (such as: partial birth when it looks like the newborn won't be viable; when the mother's life is clearly in danger). This argument is not subject to nearly as many problem as the others I've heard, and is, in my opinion, the main ethical reason we must permit abortion. The practical reason, of course, is to keep the practice under control, to keep it from going back underground and needlessly maiming or killing (once again) thousands of women per year.
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