What Makes Us Human?

Are you pro-life or pro-choice?

I always slyly slink away from this question whenever it somehow comes up in casual conversation with people. I just smile, tilt my head to the side and say I don’t know because, well, I quite simply do not know.

I know what I would do if the situation arose where I had to make a decision about taking a life or not (in the abortion, euthanasia and self-defence scenarios) but I don’t know if it will be the right decision or not.

And I don’t know not because I cannot decide what side of the argument I believe in – its not some failure of logical fortitude or another manifestation of my ability to effortlessly sit on many fences at the same time – I don’t know because there is a problem. The problem is that we haven’t accurately defined the problem.

Before we begin, a brief summary of what I mean by ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’

To be “pro-life” is generally taken to mean that one believes that society (as physically manifested by the government) has an obligation to preserve all human life, regardless of intent, viability, or quality-of-life concerns.

A comprehensive pro-life ethic, completely refutes the right of any human or group of humans to kill another by carrying out:

  • Abortion
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide
  • The death penalty

To be “pro-choice” is generally to mean that one believes that individuals have unlimited autonomy with regard to their own bodies/live as and may do whatever they please as long as they do not breach the autonomy of any other persons body/life.

A comprehensive pro-choice position affirms that these are legal and cannot be prohibited by the state:

  • Consentual Sexual activity and Contraception use
  • Euthanasia
  • Abortion

Now, let us, for the purpose of this discussion, preclude the existence of a soul as defined by any religion because that is a bottomless pit of divisive arguments and subjectivity which we do not want to dive into just yet (although, it is the primary reason why many people pick the side that they do in this matter and may, in the end, be the key to the answer if there is an answer at all.)

We will attempt to navigate this field of life versus choice confusion with a logic map and a ‘generalized’ universal moral compass that is not tied to any specific belief but is predicated on the idea that all humans have a fundamental sense of right and wrong.

Let us all agree that murder is wrong. If you don’t agree with this, then there is no need for you to continue this discussion with us.

Now, let us focus on Abortion.

Let us say a girl – Jane – is pregnant and wants to get rid of it. It does not matter how she became pregnant or why she wants to get rid of it (but let us agree that her life is not in mortal danger, its not a medical reason). Let us simply ask ourselves the question:

Does Jane have the right to get rid of this pregnancy?

The pro-lifer says no, because it is murder. She will kill another human being. The pro-choicer says yes, because it is her body and she has every right to do with it as she pleases. I ask, is the ‘thing’ growing inside her human? And even if ‘it’ isn’t yet, when will ‘it’ be? Because if it is human, then surely killing ‘it’ would be murder and by our earlier agreement, wrong. Forget about religion or rights or whatever other philosophy you adhere to. Basic morality tells us that murder (except in self defence) is wrong.

The natural follow up question to that is, what makes us human?

And that, ladies and gentleman is where I run into my problem.

There is no tangible, objective criteria for being human. Nothing measurable that we can point at and say “Aha! it has this! Therefore it is human! Give it human rights!”

Again, think about it this way. Imagine Siamese twins, where one of them is born with a form of total paralysis or paraplegia that causes him to be uncommunicative and completely dependent on his twin to whom he is attached physically and they are attached at the torso so they share the same organs from the chest downward. This is much the same manner in which a foetus is dependent on and attached to a mother. He relies on his able twin for everything including sustenance. Now if this twin decides for some reason, that he wishes to have surgery to have his incapacitated twin removed, do you think that he should be allowed? Think about it.

Some would say what makes us human is our ability to express cognitive attributes and perceive self-awareness. Does that mean that unconscious people, people in comas, people with debilitating physical conditions, people with severe, irreparable brain injuries, suddenly cease to be human? Instinct says no. Instinct says even if someone is unable to move, unable to express thought, unable to react to any stimuli, as long as they are ‘alive’, they are human.

This brings us back to that bottomless black hole that we sidestepped earlier. The soul. What is it? We cannot even define it and yet most of us believe it exists. How do we identify it, detect its presence? We have no idea. I have no idea. And that is why whenever it comes to the pro-life/pro-choice debate as it relates to abortion, I am perfectly content to plead ignorance from atop the fence as I sip on a Harvey Wallbanger and continue to wonder what it is exactly that makes us human.