When Does Life Begin?

Rare indeed is the Sunday on which I find myself able to answer an "eternal question" that "divides us like no other issue," but December 3, 1995 was apparently such a day. The front page of your paper on that propitious date featured an article entitled WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?--a question the author has been encouraged to deem eternally unanswerable, despite the efforts of some (presumably) first-rate minds cited in the piece. (The title, of course, is elliptical for: When does Human Life Begin?) Well, what makes something human rather than, say, canine, is the genetic material in question; and that material is readily observed with routine aids such as microscopes. I can assure your author and your readers that even a conceptus of the sort pictured in the piece, upon such examination, will reveal material sufficient to classify it as a member of homo sapiens rather than an embryonic Lassie. As to the question of life, it may be helpful to note that biology has produced a determinate list of properties the bearers of which are agreed, by consensus, to be alive. The list includes: capacity to self-reproduce, information storage of a self-representation, a metabolism (converting matter and energy into activity for the organism), stability under perturbations, interdependence of parts, etc. Amoeba, by this list, are known to be quite alive; and this list is also one self-evidently instantiated by a conceptus, let alone a fetus. The question in question is, I conclude, a gargantuan red herring (probably touted as profound by those who make at least part of their living supplying quotes to well-meaning journalists).

Selmer Bringsjord