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Having a life versus being alive.

Kushner T. J Med Ethics. 1984.


In an attempt to provide some clarification in the abortion issue it has recently been proposed that since 'brain death' is used to define the end of life, 'brain life' would be a logical demarcation for life's beginning. This paper argues in support of this position, not on empirical grounds, but because of what it reflects of what is valuable about the term 'life'. It is pointed out that 'life' is an ambiguous concept as it is used in English, obscuring the differences between being alive and having a life, a crucial distinction for bioethical questions. The implications of this distinction for the moral debate about abortion are discussed.


The author contends that the development of a functioning fetal brain provides the most reasonable demarcation of the beginning of human life for purposes of determining the moral status of the fetus. She bases her argument first on the connection between brain activity and the possibility of consciousness, and then on the connection between consciousness and the moral value of the lives of persons as distinct from biological life in general. She also applies this distinction to the public policy debate regarding abortion and related issues, such as experimentation on human embryos.


The abortion question is inextricably linked to the notion of life, a concept whose meaning is ambiguous. Physicians interviewed in Senate hearings on "human life" denied any special knowledge and declared themselves unable to provide expert testimony on when life could be said to begin. It has since been suggested that "brain life," the emergence of a functioning brain, would be a logical time to demarcate the beginning of life in the same way that brain death has been accepted as a reasonable point to fix the time of death. A functioning brain emerges at about 8 weeks' gestation, and the fetus could be considered a living human being starting then. The present author argues that no exact point can be indicated as the boundary marker for life because what is involved is a sequence of developing processes. The initiation of brain activity is the most reasonable time at which to fix the start of life because it is among the options available and because of the connection of brain activity with the possibility of consciousness and what is believed valuable about life. The Greek language has 2 terms for life: zoe, which means being alive in a purely biological sense, and bios, which means having a life in the sense of being a subject of a certain life with its accompanying history, personal and social relationships, psychological characteristics, and other biographical facts. The moral rule protecting life is aimed at protecting bios rather than mere zoe. Until it has developed a brain capable of consciousness, the fetus's biography is not yet started, and there is no life (bios) of which fetus is the subject, although there are lives of which it is a part. A moral and legal code could be established which recommends that fetuses, once they have dveloped brains capable of consciousness, should be treated in a special way. Such a code would assume 1) that abortions prior to the development of a brain capable of consciousness are not morally objectionable, 2) that if there is to be an abortion after this stage it should be performed as early as possible, and 3) that reasons of increasing moral strength will be required to justify abortion as the fetus develops.


6708064 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]



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