What is this "human life"?

I've just spent all day bitching with a bunch of bitchers about the Schiavo case... argh. I so want to get over this and move on but I can't help be pissed off at all the people who have agendas on this.

But maybe there's a silver lining in all this discussion. If it promotes a philosophical discussion about what human life is - from a point of view other than that of people interested in the ins and outs of abortion - then maybe it's worth it. I mean, what I see is a pro-life movement that wants to define human life as a ipso facto good, worth defending no matter, what damn the circumstances. Human cells living in any capacity must be kept alive always. Hard, fast rules that make morality simple and decisions easy.

But what is "human life"? We risk overlooking some disturbing issues if we simply issue blanket definitions that serve to quell introspection and serious contemplative questions rather than encourage them. That's what I see the "right-to-life" people doing: they believe that the individual does not own his or her own life, that it belongs to God. They believe biological life in any form is the domain of the divine. So nobody has the right to end a life but God.

And honestly I respect their belief - I just don't think it's a basis for a legal position that should apply to everybody, regardless of their wishes. If the individual does not own their own life, then that means that somebody else does - most likely, the government. And you know what that means: whoever holds the most political power is the defacto owner of that life. If God could come down from heaven and explain his will to me, I'd buy it. Otherwise, I'm not taking any fundamentalist freak's word for it, especially when they seek to enforce their beliefs through the barrel of a gun. This is not really a question of morals, but rather whom we are going to let define those morals - the state or the individual?

If we therefore proceed under the premise that the individual has sovereignity over his or her own life, and can dispose of it as he or she wishes, then we need to get clear about what that property actually is that the human controls. What makes a life "human", with all the requisite legal protections and rights? I realize that this gets close to a discussion of eugenics, but to avoid it on the basis of it being uncomfortable is not honest. Simple rules about intimate issues get us nowhere, and cause all the problems that our current legal situation is providing.

I would argue that having cells that are clinically alive and genetically human does not make a person alive as a human. What comprises a "human life" is a wierd and mysterious conglomeration of traits such as self-awareness, ability to form relationships, communication, reaction to stimuli, etc. I fully admit that this is an area that is not set and stone and which needs more discussion. I welcome that discussion; I simply reject the idea that we can fashion a one-size-fits-all definition that will provide any consistent solution to the dilemnas which people in these situations experience.

In other words, it HAS to be a personal decision - a decision the individual makes his or herself over the property of his or her own life. And, as property, this authority over one's life can be vested in other people in certain situations where the individual cannot make a life or death decision on his or her own. I hold that the only person in the entire world whom Terri came anywhere close to implicitly entrusting this status is her spouse, Michael Schiavo, for better or for worse. We must recognize and honor that.

Now, one of the better arguments of people who support keeping Terri alive is that we are discounting the possibility of a miracle - through God or medical science - if we allow her to die now. We don't even know whether or not she is conscious right now - she could be hearing everything said about her right now. She could be trapped in her body, pleading in vain for her husband to let her live. However, it works the other way, too - she could be trapped in her body, in pain or rather lonely from no stimulation of any kind, begging for death. We're guessing, and we're tending to come down on very partisan sides of what is an innately private, family issue. Any decision we make is ignorant of the true conscious experience of Terri.

We just don't know for sure. And when we don't know, we don't "err" on the side of anything - we don't make hard and fast rules about the unknown. Instead, we make the best decision we can given the knowledge we have. Doctors are giving us the most advanced factual background we can possibly have. Though there are medical professionals who disagree on her diagnosis, it must be understood that we accept the risk of the medical error anytime we get the opinion of a fallable human being. We don't go out of our way to fashion one-size-fits-all rules in order to encompass an issue we've barely begun to explore as a society.

Is this an historic case? Absolutely - it's one of the first times outside of the abortion debate where we have started to discuss the finer points of the sanctity of human life nationally. Although I'm a little sick of hearing about it, it will be worth it if we start to explore a deeper and more sublime version of the human condition: specifically, death. I would argue that human life as a biological function is not inviolate, because biology alone doesn't make a person a person. And if it has been shown to the best of scientific knowledge that the part of Terri's brain that makes her a human worth protecting is dead, with no reasonable chance of recovery, we should let go. It's time to recognize the dignity of the fragile human life - part of that dignity is in its temporary, fleeting nature. Realizing this puts us that much closer to answering the question, "What is this 'human life'?"

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Written on Thursday, March 24, 2005