When does a new human come into existence?

Cross-posted from ProLifeNZ

One popular view is the constructionist view of a human. That is, a human is constructed, sort of like a car in a factory. When does a car come into existence?

No-one would say it’s a car when you have 4 car tyres, or just 3:

Add a frame and an engine – is it a car yet?

What about a body, steering wheel, but no seats – is it a car yet?

Once all parts are in place (or it’s recognisable enough), then most people would say it’s reasonable to say it’s a car.

But is a human anything like that? Well, some people claim this.

I’ve heard some of the following comments that I think fall under the constructionist view:

  • ‘it’s not a human until it has a brain’ (ie a real human needs all its parts in place)
  • ‘it’s just a collection of cells’ (so this thing is just ‘made of’ certain stuff – sort of like ‘it’s just a hunk of metal’ for a car-in-construction)
  • ‘it’s not a human until they’re self-aware’ (so a certain function needs to be in place, sort of like you don’t have a car until the engine is in place).

But let’s say you took a polaroid picture of yourself with a famous star. You were about to flap it about in the air when someone comes from nowhere, grabs the paper out of your hand, and rips it up. Now, you get upset. The person asks: “Why are you upset? I just ripped up a piece of paper.” “What? You’re crazy” you answer, “It was a valuable photo – it just wasn’t developed yet”.

That’s the sort of position a growing foetus is in – and it’s a vulnerable position because we can’t ‘see’ a very developed human yet (although ultrasound may change this more and more).

So, one the one hand, you have the constructionist view which actually turns out to be arbitrary (the same way I can decide a car doesn’t exist until it has a live battery). On the other, you have the developmental view which recognises the DNA of the living, self-directed entity and that a living thing never changes its essential nature (a cat is always a cat and can only make more cats).

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  • Dinah

    Firstly, your analogue of the polaroid has a lot more complexity that you have highlighted. “It was a valuable photo” demonstrates how value is not inherent, rather it is prescribed by other conscious entities. To the person ripping up the photo, it might just be a piece of paper and chemicals with little value, while to you it is a captured moment with someone you admire, and has immense value.

    The same can be said for the developing person, or indeed any adult person. Without a conscious entity – yourself or someone else – there is no inherent value. We allow millions of children and adults to die world wide of curable diseases, malnourishment, and conflict – this has nothing to do with the fact that they are not fully developed; it is that we decide that they are not as valuable as we are, and so the $40 that could feed 20 people for a month goes into buying us a new dress or new book.

    Secondly, while I agree that the constructionist view often arbitrarily places value at different points in development – the heartbeart law in North Dakota is an excellent example – the reality is that medicine takes a constructionist view to what life is. It is accepted in modern medicine that you need brain activity to be alive. When a body is colloquially ‘brain dead’, we agree that body is no longer alive, that there is no human inside it. If this is the standard for life at its end, how do you come to the conclusion that there is a different standard at its origin?

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