Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Sanctity of Life

So many terms we use have so little ability to communicate. And if we say words that don't communicate clearly what we mean, why are we even talking?

Take the word "life." What is life? Where do we draw the line between something that is living and something that is not living? Humans are in the category we call living. Is a single cell in a human body "alive"? ("Every sperm is sacred..." - Monty Python, The Meaning of Life) Is the mitochondria in that cell alive? How about the DNA inside that mitochondria? How about the base amino acid that make up a base pair of the DNA? How about the simple compounds that make up that amino acid?

By this point, most people have drawn some line of "aliveness", although they'd be damned to tell you what changed between one side of that line and the other. This line is vague no matter what direction you approach it from. Is a cat alive? (sure). Is a rock alive? (no - for most people) How about an amoeba? How about a set of chemicals that make up the amoeba, just arranged differently? Bacteria? Virus?

How about the word "human." What is human? If I replace the parts of a human, piece by piece with working mechanical/cybernetic parts(arms, legs, heart, lungs, etc), does the person remain human throughout? What if only a brain is left? What if I replace the brain with a computer performing the same function?

Or let's stick with "living" parts. What if I replace the cells in a human with equivalent ones from a pig, or monkey? Does the person eventually become a pig? (Assuming he didn't start out one). How about the other way around. Does one human cell in a mouse make it human? How many human cells would I need to put into a mouse to make the mouse into a human? ("Are you a man or a mouse?")

Confusing, I know. So here's the kicker. WTF does the "Sanctity of Human Life" mean? We're not sure what life is, we're not sure what humans are, but we're sure when we're saving the Sancitity of Human Life.

It has to do with intangibles, you say? Concepts like dignity, self-determination, respect? If I'm lying brain dead in a hospital bed, kept "alive" only by machines that keep my heart beating and my lungs breathing, there's no self-determination. There certainly isn't dignity as my drool, piss, and shit leak out of my inert hulk of respirating cells. There's certainly no respect for what I was, or how I'd like to live, to keep me in that state.

And what hypocrisy, anyway. Where is the "sanctity of human life" in the Death penalty? Or better yet, War. "I didn't want to put our young men and women into harms way. But it's God's Will if they die. Shoot a bullet at his head - if God had wanted him to live, the gun would have misfired, or the bullet would miss."

How is it that some of the most important concepts get the least amount of examination or rigor in their use?

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