Grey Matter Episode 2: When Is Life?

“When Is Life?”
by Kaitlin Puccio

The legal question of abortion has recently overshadowed the ethical question of abortion. The ethics are often expressed as stated conclusions and opinions, which are expected to have an effect on the law. Parties on both sides of the argument are dissatisfied when the law is unsettled, overturned, or disparate, but the conversation does not advance toward a nexus between ethics and law. To advance the conversation, there needs to be a reformulation of the way in which arguments are presented.

If we assume that morality is not a man-made concept but a greater universal, absolute Platonistic Form, then morality itself does not change from U.S. state-to-U.S. state. If this morality were driving U.S. abortion law, and we had a way of knowing for certain which decisions met the Platonistic Form standard of morality and which did not, the law would be the same across America, and personal moral views would be in alignment on both sides of the aisle. This is not the case. Whether or not morality is a social construct, man-made U.S. law is not equivalent to ethics or morality. That is, the law does not dictate ethics, and some ethics are not codified as law. A legal argument for or against abortion that is based solely on morality—whether man-made or not—may thus fail.

For example, if we ask why an individual is pro-life, the answer given might be, “because abortion is murder, and therefore it should be banned.” If we ask why an individual is pro-choice, the response is likely to be, “my body, my choice, and thus abortion should be permissible.”

However, these answers—“abortion is murder,” and “my body, my choice”—are conclusions, not reasons. Such answers are relying on the false impression that ethics is reflected in law. An answer that does not fall prey to this fallacy and is more fully responsive to the question must address, for instance, why abortion is murder. Murder must be defined. If murder is defined as taking a life, then how does one define life? Further, how does one determine how to define life?

Once these answers are set forth as premises, a logical conclusion will arise that is incapable of being pierced. If a pro-choicer does not accept one of the premises, then that is the root of the incompatibility of the pro-life and pro-choice arguments that must be addressed. This method is the only way to move beyond the ethical question to the legal question.

In other words, the root cause of the issue is deeper than beliefs. Putting forth beliefs is not equivalent to presenting a valid and sound argument. Easily collapsible arguments are why we have been unable to bridge the gap thus far between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Progress can be made if the incompatible premise of an argument is uncovered as the root cause of individuals holding conflicting opinions regarding the correct legal outcome of an issue.

There are two parts to formulating a strong argument for or against abortion. First, we must determine what questions to answer in order to formulate the premises of the argument. Legal and ethical questions surrounding end of life care and abortion are not often considered in tandem. However, the arguments propounded in discussions of end of life are well-suited to discussions of abortion, and vice versa.

For example, “my body, my choice,” the pro-choice slogan most often associated with abortion, might also ring true for proponents of assisted suicide. Similarly, determining when life ends (is death defined as the cessation of the capacity for circulatory and respiratory function? the permanent cessation of all brain functions? the permanent cessation of the capacity for consciousness?) may help determine when life begins. That is, if death (which can be argued is the antipode of life) is determined by a cardiopulmonary standard, then life might be as well. We might say that life begins with a heartbeat, and after a heartbeat is detected, a fetus is considered to be alive and thus abortion after that time should be prohibited. For this argument to hold up in practice, we would need to further define what is a heartbeat as opposed to electrical activity, and address whether motion indicates life—that is, the motion of a developing fetal heart.

We must also consider whether words in fact matter in our argument. Words are man-made. They are a combination of letters with stipulated definitions used to try to indicate a concept. Should referring to something as a “heartbeat” versus “cardiac activity” change the way in which facts are interpreted? Parsing common language is likely unhelpful in determining an objective point at which life begins and ends, because common language is unreliable in its capacity to be accurately understood. If an argument rests on a word—for example, “heartbeat”—then that word must be defined in the argument as it is meant to be understood in the context of the argument. Language is critical precisely because language is not critical. That is, it is crucial to carefully express ideas using the least ambiguous verbiage, because words themselves are malleable tools used to express non-malleable concepts. I may define “death” as the cessation of all brain functions, and my adversary may define death as the cessation of cardiopulmonary function. We both may use and understand the word “death” in common parlance to describe a state of non-life, but we struggle to find a common definition of death when asked how to determine when it has occurred.

While we can never be sure if there is a pure, Platonistic Form of ethics that would objectively determine the morality of abortion, ensuring that an argument is logical, fact-based, and that the language used is clear will allow us to identify the fundamental differences in our perception of the facts used in support of the argument. Rather than argue over conclusions, we will be able to address the reasons we arrive at opposite outcomes.

A related article entitled “Moving From Emotional Arguments To Logical Arguments” may be found on my Psychology Today column, From Obscurity.

Copyright © 2023 Kaitlin Puccio