Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Abortions, Heartbeats, and the End of Life

So, once again, Ohio lawmakers slipped an anti-abortion "heartbeat bill" in among other legislation. Which is a legit tactic...

...but it seems pretty shady and underhanded if it's something you really believe in.

More troubling to me is the whole idea of a "heartbeat" benchmark for life. Like, let's talk about when life begins.

I'm not particularly interested in what your book or your spiritual leader has to say here, for reasons that will become obvious. I'm looking to try to understand where a particular moral reaction comes from.

Keep in mind that this isn't some philosophical hand-wringing. Not only do we literally have scientists trying to really determine if viruses (and prions!) are "alive", but these definitions have a very real world impact on women.

One of the things I sometimes do as part of my day job is a "brain death" study. It's literally one of the (usually three; it varies by state) ways to determine if someone's dead. We literally image whether or not the brain is using resources... or not.

And that's long had me thinking - any criteria for determining when life ends would also be the criteria for when life begins, and vice versa.

And that starts to get really problematic really fast.

For example, brain activity of the kind we associate with life (or its lack being associated with non-life) starts around week 25. Ooops.

Reflex-type movements start kicking in around weeks 14-16, but again, that doesn't necessarily require higher brain function (a surprising amount of your reflexes is handled by the spinal cord and such).

Viability outside the womb? Well, that depends entirely on how much tech you have around you and how good your insurance is. Which also applies at the end of life, so maybe... but that means life is a sliding scale, not an actual critiera.

Conception? What makes that special? That two sets of DNA merge? If so, that raises other problems - that merging is not instantaneous, and it implies by omission that clones are inherently "not alive"... or at least, less alive than a cell that's been infected with the DNA and RNA of a virus from outside the body. Bah.

A heartbeat? Well, let's think back to where I started - a person who we can demonstrate doesn't have blood flow to their brain, but whose heart still beats. Are they alive? Are they non-life? Do we have an oblication to keep their heart beating indefinitely?

The same logic also shows the folly of those who claim the father gets a "right" to choose what a woman does. Why is that? Because of sperm? What about the billions of sperm masturbated into socks or tissues (or night ejaculation if you're going to claim that masturbation is bad for some reason).

You get the idea.

I'm hard pressed to find a concrete demarcation of "life" during gestation and birth that doesn't have massively bad implications for the person (or society at large) on the flip side of thier life.

Especially the heartbeat.

I still stand by my pro-choice and anti-abortion manifesto.  Maybe you should take a peek and see if it works for you, too.


Love Everyone said...

I've never done a brain death study on a person with a heart beating on it's own.

Steven Saus said...

It's a little unclear what you're getting at, "Love Everyone".

If you're making the argument that medical measures (pressors, intubation/ventilation, etc) at the end of life means that someone's heart isn't beating "on it's own", then those arguments also apply to a fetus six weeks after conception, where there's literally no lung or brain tissue that's active, let alone able to survive on its own.

And before we differentiate between the womb as organic life support versus mechanical life support, let's consider the impact of our hypothetical ruling about "life" on preemies who are in NICU right now.