Skip to comments.Using The Word LIFE, to be an alive human being
Posted on 06/11/2003 3:26:53 PM PDT by MHGinTN
Since 1973, when the Roe abortion decision was handed down from the Supreme Court of the United States, science has advanced our understanding of prenatal (before birth) life to a depth few could have anticipated. Most of the discoveries are unexplained for the general public, as we wend our way through daily life unaware of the amazing truths being revealed through honest hard science. The entire spectrum of prenatal discovery supports a rejection of abortion on demand and reinforces the correctness of protecting prenatal life. In an attempt to address the many discoveries through a series of easy essays, we will start with the notion of alive.
In a recent article for First Things, Maureen L. Condic, PhD, Assistant professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, presents a convincing argument for meaning of the death protocol--used when organ harvesting is anticipated--to also be used when contemplating prenatal life. She has stated accurately that, the loss of integrated bodily function, not the loss of higher mental ability, is the defining legal characteristic of death.
That is an accurate assessment of the meaning but there is confusion regarding this protocol because it addresses brain death, yet it doesnt refer to loss of thinking ability. It should not be assumed that being alive is solely a function of higher brain functioning, or even dependent upon the organ called brain. [Well address that later.]
To paraphrase Dr. Condics assertion: to be alive as an ORGANISM, the organism is functioning as an integrated whole, rather than life being defined solely from an organ, a form within the organism. The one organ defines alive notion was the perspective decades ago. People focused upon one organ when the heart was believed to be the center of function, before organ harvesting became a reality. When the heart stopped beating, the person was thought to be dead, thought to be no longer an integrated whole organism. Today, doctors routinely stop and start the heart, keeping the patient functioning for survival, viable as an integrated whole via artificial heart and lungs.
A person in an unrecoverable coma or vegetative state has no higher brain function, yet their body continues to function as an integrated whole. As Dr. Condic puts it, Although such patients are clearly in a lamentable medical state, they are also clearly alive, [so] converting such patients into corpses requires some form of euthanasia. Human life is defined by the ability to function as an integrated whole, not by mere presence of living human cells.
Functioning as an integrated whole is far more complex than mere cellular structures, and the older the organism (in the first year from conception of the individual), the more life is spread out into sub-unit forms of the alive yet integrated organism; the younger the human organism is, the less differentiated the sub-units are, the less spread out among forms is the integrated function.
To appreciate the meaning of Dr. Condics argument, to appreciate why the theme of this death protocol can be applied to the beginning of an individuals life, we must be clear in our use of the word life. Let us explore how this notion of integrated function can be applied to a human lifetime. Eventually, we will address how this notion can help in divining the arguments regarding embryonic stem cell exploitation and cloning. In essence, we will seek to understand biologically why we are pro-life we already know why we are morally pro-life, but it cant hurt to underpin moral principles with truths gleaned by science.
When we use the term pro-life are we really being clear as to what we mean by LIFE? That one word can be used to address a variety of realities: cellular life, or an entire organism, or even eternal life. A person may die, yet their fingernails and hair can continue to grow a bit longer, even after burial! A collection of cells making up an organ of an older organism may be alive, but the whole organism is dead. But a much younger organism may appear to be only a ball of cells, yet the cells are functioning as an integrated whole and are thus an alive organism. Lets take a look at what it means to be alive.
Organ donor programs use a death protocol to establish when a person is clinically dead. If the protocol is met, organ harvesting occurs because the assumption is made that the person is no longer occupying their body, yet their parts, their organs, are still alive.
Technically speaking, the organ being harvested from a no longer alive organism is viable when the smallest units of the organ, the cells, are alive and capable of functioning in a coherent fashion. Coherent addresses the cellular capability of functioning as an integrated whole within the organ. [That someone builds the organs is a crucial concept, and we shall return to that, later.]
The cells of an individual organ such as a kidney are very different from the cells of other organs such as skin, liver, spleen, or a brain. Looking at one specific organ will help us to understand the complex notion of alive, so here we go.
Kidney cells are very specialized, to function in a narrow context associated with fluid and molecule regulation of the body, retaining water and specific molecules in the blood stream, or expelling selected molecules and water from the body via the urine stream. An individual kidney organ is a collection of nephrons. Blood arrives to the kidney and is dealt with at the individual sub-units called nephrons. The nephrons act to filter blood based on a complex set of hormonal signals and feedback mechanisms, communicating chemically between the organism and the organ.
Most cells within the kidney are alive, individually, yet each is also acting in conjunction with other cells, forming sub-systems within nephrons, and these systems do different jobs within the kidney. This working in conjunction is what determines the coherence, the viability of the organ in question. If a kidney is removed from one body and taken to another location for implanting in the body of a second individual, the kidney must still be viable as a functioning organ, meaning the cells must be alive to do their individual tasks, the sub-unit nephrons must still be doing their complex filtering task, and the organ must be functioning coherently in order to be a kidney in the second individual.
So far, weve addressed alive at the level of cells acting at the level of sub-unit structures (nephrons) and within the context of a unit organ (the kidney). Regarding the organ removed from one body and transported to use with another body, if enough cells within the transported kidney cease to function, or die, the viability--the coherence--of the organ will fail, the organ will not function as a coherent sub-unit or organ of the organism, and thus will not join in the coherency of the second individual (second ORGANISM) into which it is transplanted. If enough organs fail to operate coherently as specifically tasked to do, the organism will fail to be a coherent entity, will fail at being a viable organism; in other words, if enough organs fail within the organism, the organism will die.
We have addressed alive in the context of cells that are alive and functioning as specialized basic units of viable organs, and we have addressed the notion of an organism (an individual) as alive based on the functioning of the organisms sub-units, called organs. The death protocol establishes the failure of coherency for the organism, failure of the organism to act as an integrated whole, without addressing the specific organs that may or may not be alive. As example, a patient may be deemed brain dead, but specific cells within specific regions of the brain may still be alive and capable of functioning in their most basic role, but not in an integrated role in the brain of their original organism. A patients heart may have stopped and the patient declared dead, yet the sinus node pace-making cells of the atrium chamber in the heart may be capable of functioning in another heart whose muscle is intact but whose sinus node cells have been damaged.
Once coherency is ended, the patient is dead; the organs may be harvested for use with others (other patients). The individual is alive at a cellular level; the individual is alive at an organ level, as in viable heart or kidney; the individual is alive as a coherent whole organism of functioning organs. Not all organs have to be viable for our organism to remain alive; it is also true that not all organs become non-viable immediately when we die. The reason organs may be alive even though the individual organism coherency is lost has to do with the differentiation of the body parts: the more differentiated the parts, the more spread out is the life function of the whole organism.
With the death protocol, medical science rejected the ability to think as sole proof of being alive. Instead, integrated functioning of the most primitive portion of the brain in a coherency with the collection of organs is measured. If it is determined--through a series of stimuli and non-responses--that the organs are not functioning via feedback loop with the most primitive brain, the integrated whole is deemed lost, and organ harvesting is authorized. It is important to note, during the first year from conception, the individual human organism goes from having genetic molecular commands directing function of the integrated organism, to primitive brain processor integrating function of the organism. The program of growth and development is essentially one of tasking more and more function to more and more forms, as a means to survive in the changing environment surrounding the individual human being.
In the next essay, we will return to the above-mentioned notion of who builds the organs of the body. [HINT: it is not the woman in whose body a new individual life is conceived who builds the body of the baby.]
As usual with these pro-life letters and essays, any pro-lifer wishing to pass them along to their Church for use is welcome to do so; the author's only request is that the essay be posted in entirety and any excerpts be quoted fully and accurately.
Thanks for the ping MHG. Medicine can revive people even after the clinical death described above if the blood supply to the brain has not been cut off for too long. This is an moral use of science even if that person is not able to resume a completely normal life. We value human life regardless of physical or mental capabilities.
More food for thought. (bookmarked)
First, it is scientifically impossible to discover a precise point when the individual alive being transitions from 'only' embryonic to 'fully fetal' in nature. Because that topic is deeply dependent on not so easily explained scientific facts, allow me to move to the next objection to such an arbitrary asignment of value.
It is generally because of the organs being present in the embryo that the arbitrary assignment of fetus is made. Prior to the 'fetal age' of the individual life, the organs necessary for survival as a 'fully functional human being' are not present but are being built by the embryo and looped into the primitive brain, the brain stem. If this is what will be chosen to define an alive individual human being (at the earliest fetal age), it is important to note that the first organ built by the newly conceived individual is cast off at birth! The placenta is the first organ necessary for the survival of the human organism. This organ is so important that even at in vitro fertilization clinics, the technician/physician will not seek to implant an embryo conceived in a petri dish until the organ is already surrounding and protecting the embryonic life. It is the organ of placenta that sends the chemical signals to the woman's uterine lining that initiate implantation and thus further life support from the woman's body. That is why the choice of fetal age is so arbitrary in the false assertion that fetuses should be protected while embryos should not (should not, based on the specious notion of an integrated whole organism functioning for survival and growth and development only when the fetal age, with the organ structures for future survival are in situ, is reached).
In science, it is most often the simplest solution that is the most elegant solution to a problem. Since the embryo builds its own survival capsule (the placenta) to allow it to have shelter and nourishment, it is elegantly factual to assert that the embryo is an alive, integrated whole for that age of its lifetime begun at conception. The embryo is no less an individual human being with at least one functioning organ that allows the integrated whole to survive into the future ages of the lifetime already 'up and running'."
Ping... excellent essay written by FR's own MHGinTN.