By Dr Ryan Corbin
What is a human being? What is a human person? Are the two interchangeable?
In the past few weeks, these ‘concepts’ have been used often on social media and casual discussion, sometimes interchangeably.
The distinction between them as well as their respective importance with regards to human rights is at the core of the abortion debate.
Many argue that the question of when human life begins cannot be easily answered. Many even claim that this is a question that science cannot answer. Regarding human rights, are we overcomplicating the topic?
What is a human being?
A human being is a culture-bearing primate classified in the genus Homo, especially the species Homo sapiens.1 In humans, each cell normally contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46.2 How do human beings develop? According to embryologists (specialists in human development), human beings come into existence as a unique organism at a specific moment in time known as fertilisation: “Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception). Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being.”[Moore, Keith L. Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: B C Decker Inc, 1988, p 2]
In addition to this, Professor Emeritus of Human Embryology of the University of Arizona School of Medicine, Dr C Ward Kischer has affirmed that, “Every human embryologist, worldwide, states that the life of the new individual human being begins at fertilization (conception).”
Even authors who philosophically lean towards not attributing the same value to human life at the one-cell stage as they do to later stages of development admit that, “As far as human ‘life’ per se, it is, for the most part, uncontroversial among the scientific and philosophical community that life begins at the moment when the genetic information contained in the sperm and ovum combine to form a genetically unique cell.” 3
If there is solid consensus on what a “human being” is and when life begins, then why is there such uncertainty when the issue of abortion arises?
Confusion grows with increasing ambiguity. With the push for abortion ‘rights’, there must have developed a simultaneous stripping of ‘rights’ for the unborn.
To achieve this, a push to make personhood the deciding factor on eligibility to human rights protection occurred.
One of the most powerful tools in the human arsenal, i.e., language, was then equipped to rival human ‘being’ with human ‘person’ with the attempt to redefine which entity is truly ‘human’ and therefore morally valued in society and eligible for protection.
While there is consensus on the definition of a human being, the definition of human person/personhood varies quite widely depending on the discipline subscribed to: metaphysical, philosophical, and legal/political to name a few.
The definition of human has expanded to include fluctuating characteristics such as conscious level, degree of functionality and self-sufficiency. These vague inconstant qualities have superseded biology.
What of a comatose patient? What of a physically/mentally disabled individual? What of an infant child? This ambiguity was utilised by politicians/law regarding human rights eligibility.
This has led many to now propose that the beginning of human life is not definitive and, by extension, the developing intrauterine homo sapien (typically called foetus) is no longer protected as one of the valued members of its species.
This social adjustment has occurred over the last 50 years and the foetus is no longer viewed as an individual but in extreme cases a parasite of sorts. This new view of humanity has paved the way to clash a ‘woman’s right’ of bodily autonomy to a foetus’ ‘right to life’ and allowed abortion ‘rights’ to be promoted in most Western societies.
We return to this fundamental question: what are the unborn? Are the unborn human? If the unborn are not human, then abortion is not a moral dilemma.
We know that the unborn are human beings belonging to the species homo sapien. Further to this, we can emphasise that each unborn child (fertilisation to full term) has three main characteristics which provide evidence that they are worthy of basic human protection:
Since the unborn are members of our species, vulnerable and innocent, can there be a ‘right’ to intentionally kill him/her without restrictions?
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” —Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from a Birmingham jail (1963)
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