What is human life? When does life begin and when does it truly end?
By Dr. Peter Chojnowski
It has been some 350 years since Rene Descartes called upon man to change his fundamental orientation towards nature. No longer was the contemplative union of the human mind with the ordered world to be the goal, rather, man was called upon to become "master of nature." This mastership which man was to gain over nature was considered by Descartes, and those who would follow his lead, to be the proper end of all scientific knowing. Science was to be used as a tool and as a weapon in the taming and domination of nature. No longer would scientia be recognized as the mind’s grasping hold of the truth for its own sake.
From the very beginning of this effort to use science to make man the "master of nature" (generally dated from the 17th century), it became clear that nature was not completely amenable to such attempts at absolute domination. The philosophers who sought to render nature docile in this way, understood that in order to gain complete mastery over nature, nature must be "made" into something which can be completely mastered.
In this we glimpse the grudging recognition that to be yoked to the plow of human "progress," nature must become a completely predictable and plodding beast of burden, which it most definitely is not in its "natural" state. The way this act of alchemy was effected was through the "philosopher’s stone" of an idea. From now on nature would be understood to be a great cosmic machine. In this regard, nature did not become a great machine, rather, it was thought of as if it were a great machine. The distinction is essential here.
There was one reason why the machine was used as the paradigm for describing nature. It was thought by the physicists and the rationalist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries that only such a machine-like reality could be comprehensively analyzed through the use of a mathematical method. For Descartes and for many after him, mathematical reasoning became the form of human reasoning and the key by which the secrets of nature could be unlocked. Needless to say, the results of this total reliance upon the idea that nature was a mere mechanism were not totally negative.
In the 18th century, in Protestant Britain, long after the cosmological proofs for the existence of God offered by St. Thomas Aquinas were forgotten, a cosmological proof of a sort, comparing the world to a pocket watch which must have been made by a master watchmaker, still was common intellectual currency. It was this proof that drew the fire of the Scottish "Enlightenment" thinker David Hume. The gist of his incredibly facile counter-argument was that just because we experience an ordered whole (i.e., the watch) that does not mean that we experience the watch as the effect of an intelligent cause.
The only thing which the Mechanists, as those natural philosophers who advanced this new view of nature were called, could not fit into their system was the soul as it had been understood by the great Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical tradition. It wasn’t merely the human intellectual soul which did not "fit" in their system, it was the soul as the principle of animation in all living things. Since neither soul nor animation can be understood mathematically, these "obnoxious" facts of nature simply could not exit. Although Descartes tried to salvage the human soul by reducing it to a "mind" whose purpose it was to manipulate the mechanism of nature, he simply denied the reality of soul and, therefore, animation or life to all nonhuman creatures. All that was below man, even man’s own body, was simply a gear in the cosmic apparatus.
Just because the philosophers of the modern period were able to think of nature in a certain way, this did not mean that nature actually was that way. The machine model was simply a handy way of understanding the whole. An example of the reality not fitting the model appeared when Descartes’ dream of dramatically extending human longevity and bringing the passions of the human heart under the perfect control of reason by properly manipulating the "gears" of the human body, proved to be a dream and nothing more. During most of the 300 years after the death of Descartes, the great technological achievements of man did nothing to alter "life," whether man’s own or the multifarious forms of "life" which constituted Nature.
In the latter half of the 20th century, however, we have witnessed a renewed attempt to dominate and determine the animated mystery which is life. Through genetic engineering, cloning of animals, and through the various ways empirical science has developed for both maintaining and terminating life, that which has eluded human power since the beginning of time is now being "engineered" to fit the desires and whims of contemporary man. Life is subject to a two-pronged attack. The first is theoretical and the second is practical. The theoretical attack involves the attempt to redefine "life" so that that which was formerly shielded by the moral law, now becomes open to manipulation.
The practical attack involves the scientific reduction to its component parts of that which was always understood to be irreducible. In some way, life was always understood to be a whole, either a thing had it or it did not. What the masters of modern science are attempting to do is to alter the components of living things without, except in the case of prenatal and partial birth abortion, endangering the life of the thing being engineered.
Since animated life, specifically human life, has always been protected from assault, at least in theory if not always in fact, by a natural rational recognition of the fact that life is to be fostered rather than destroyed, the New Engineers of Life must circumvent that ancient moral demand by redefining life. Simply changing a definition is all that is necessary to make what was universally considered to be living and, therefore, a legitimate object of moral concern, into that which is non-living and, on that account, not the proper object of moral concern. No one, surely, minds using or disposing of that which is nonliving for the sake of the living! We have heard that ideas have consequences, how much more then do definitions have consequences!
Life: a new definition
When we speak here of "life," of course, we are speaking of biological life. Why this seeming reductionism? Intellectual and personal life is life in its most perfect form. Isn’t that what we ought to be speaking of? No, it isn’t. The reason I say this is that most, if not all, of the bioethical "questions" which we are now confronting in our own time have their origins as "difficulties" in the radical separation of personal and intellectual life from biological life. For man, according to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, conscious life can only be separated from biological life after the death of the body. Rather than viewing man as a whole and unified being, body, soul, intellect, passions, and appetites, the first stage in the modernistic dislocation of man took place when they, Descartes being the first, reduced human life to the life of human consciousness and thereby relegating the body to the alien world of the cosmic "pocket watch."
It is not surprising then that when we try to understand the new "thinking" which justifies such contemporary phenomena as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, we should encounter the same type of dichotomy between human consciousness and the life of the human body. The reason this dichotomy is important to understand is on account of the fact that by reducing human life to intellectual consciousness, the modern ethicists remove from the domain of the living and the domain of ethical relevancy those persons who fail to display certain typical manifestations of human consciousness. By doing this, the "remains" of the "formerly" human subject become commodities to be used, taken, bought, and sold.
In the contemporary ethical scene, specifically the ethical scene as it relates to bioethical questions, we see how new definitions of "life," along with new definitions of "death," are legitimizing actions which were formerly acknowledged as contrary to both the Divine Law and the Natural Law. Both the new definition of life and the new definition of death are based upon a Cartesian reduction of man to his intellectual and conscious activity. It is based upon man’s "forgetting" of the most obvious aspects of his own being.
By redefining "life," the merchants of death attempt to justify abortion, prenatal and partial-birth, along with infanticide. By redefining death, they attempt to justify euthanasia and the "harvesting" of body parts from the comatose and those persons who have permanent or temporary loss of higher brain functions. As an example of the former, we find a pro-abortionist Sissela Bok in her article "Ethical Problems of Abortion," attempting to justify the act by which the abortionist takes the life of an innocent by denying that the unborn child meets the normal criteria by which we judge a being to be both alive and human.
According to Ms. Bok, our concept of what it means to be a living human includes such characteristics as "the ability to experience, to remember the past, and to envisage the future, to communicate, and even to laugh at one’s self." Since the unborn can perform none of these activities in a conscious and intentional way, Ms. Bok would exclude them from the category of living human beings. Here we see the ultimate homicidal consequence of the Cartesian reduction of man to mind. What Ms. Bok forgets or does not know, is that even though the unborn child cannot perform any of the above mentioned activities actually, all living unborn human children have the potential to perform all of these activities by the very fact that they are creatures of the human type.
Of course, as Ms. Bok has shown, those who would justify the taking of an innocent human life, must, in some way, render the being whose elimination they are trying to justify nonhuman. They must, also, in a certain way, remove the unborn child from the category of the living since, as all those with a basic insight into the structure of nature know, and as Aristotle well understood, there is no living being which is not of a specific type, a member of a definite species.
By reducing man to a few of his higher functions, like "the ability to laugh at oneself," the pro-abortionists attempt to obfuscate the fact that a being does not need to manifest all of the potential activities of a species in order to be a true and living member of that species. Moreover, for our purposes, we should consider the fact that the more radical advocates of legalized abortion, Ms. Bok being one of them, attempt to completely disengage the conscious life of man from the biological conditions of that conscious life. Ultimately, the unborn can be eliminated because man is not a body!
If the unborn child, being as yet unable to actualize the higher capacities of a man, is not properly placed within the categories of "living" and "human," it will be the evaluative consciousness of those who do manifest these aspects of human life who will decide on the fate of the nondescript "stuff" to which the unborn child has been reduced. In the decision by which they upheld the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court in the case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania stated that to determine for a woman the meaning and nature of the life in her womb would be to transgress upon her right to "self-definition" (i.e., her ability to determine for herself the meaning and nature of her own life).
Here, again, you have the self-defining, ungrounded human consciousness "forgetting" the obvious fact that the activity of and within the body is not only an activity of the person, but also an active reality which is surrounded and penetrated with moral implications and the claims of justice. It is truly a sign of how unhinged we are in the constitutional and political sphere that the reality of the concrete and the perceptible should be sacrificed for ambiguous and ethereal talk about autonomous, world-determining human intentionality.
It is for such reasons that thousands of unborn children a year are reduced to a commodity by partial birth abortions. What was human and living was always understood to be intrinsically valuable and, hence, irreducible to a monetary sum and incapable of being rendered a mere useful instrument for the advancement of another person’s intrinsic good. This is, of course, one of the reasons why both slavery and human sacrifice are contrary to the Natural Law.
Since the biological status of the pre-born human being plays no role in this evaluation of his or her humanness, it is not surprising that the very same sort of argumentation is presented as a justification for infanticide. In this regard, we see Ms. Bok stating the following:
A set of later distinctions cluster around the process of birth itself. This is the moment when life begins, according to some religious traditions, and the point at which "persons" are fully recognized in law, according to the Supreme Court. The first breaths taken by newborn babies have been invested with immense symbolic meaning since the earliest gropings towards understanding what it means to be alive and human. And the rituals of acceptance of babies and children have often served to define humanity to the point where the baby could be killed if it were not named or declared acceptable by the elders of the community or by the head of the household, either at birth or in infancy."
Being acceptable or being named does not change one’s species nor does it invest a being with membership in a species. Using similar criteria, F. Raymond Marks, an attorney with the Childhood and Government Project at Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California at Berkeley (ironic in a way, since it was the Irish philosopher George Berkeley who attempted to argue that matter does not exist and that all that exists are minds and ideas thought by minds), has gone so far as to advise a social policy which would withhold legal "personhood" (again, note the disincarnate and abstruse terminology used here) from...:
...certain carefully defined categories of high-risk infants until a clear diagnosis and prognosis can be made concerning them and until their parents have made an informed decision whether or not they want to keep and nurture these infants."
Here we see how, the biological reality being denied or rendered "meaningless," the significance of the primarily spatial distinction between being inside or outside the womb ceases to have any philosophical or legal significance.
Death: A New Definition
In order to render the unborn or the "unwanted" infant without essence or legal claim, the merchants of death had to redefine what it means to be a "living human being," in order to justify the medical elimination of the "useless" sick or their commercialization through trafficking in vital organs, they have redefined human "death." In this regard, we are not merely referring to the deprivation of ordinary means of sustenance (i.e., nutrition and hydration) by doctors who decide that a comatose or incapacitated person does not have a sufficiently high "quality of life," not to mention the terminally ill whose regular vital functions have broken down and these are sustained merely through the use of extraordinary technological means.
What technology has provided for in our day is something much more than "mere" euthanasia or the legitimate "unplugging" of artificial and extraordinary means of sustaining a life which, if left on its own, would die a natural death. This new technological innovation allows a patient who, under the old "total death" definition of death, would still be considered alive, to be considered "dead" even while his vital organs are being "harvested" precisely on account of the fact that they are alive.
Under the old definition, a formerly living being was declared "dead" when he exhibited signs of what the ethicists are now calling "total death," or the lack of any spontaneous activity and the complete absence of cerebral, cardiac, and pulmonary activity and of spinal reflex function. This quite accurate definition and readily determinable state, it can be assessed clinically by examination at anyone’s bedside, is being replaced by "irreversible brain damage."
The reason that this new definition is even viable, is on account of the fact that the higher cortical centers of the brain (e.g., those centers essential to purposeful movement, speech, and consciousness), as opposed to the brain stem which is concerned with vegetative functions such as heart regulation, circulation, and respiration, are more sensitive to oxygen lack. It is therefore biologically possible for irreparable damage to occur to the cerebral cortex and other higher centers, while the brain stem structures remain relatively intact and functioning, maintaining heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, and respiration. In addition, the spinal cord and nerves will continue to function in a reflex fashion, in response to incoming stimuli.
It is from such persons in such an "irreversible" state of brain damage that vital organs are being harvested. As Professor Hans Jonas has stated, one of the medical and commercial purposes for changing the definition of death from one of "total death" to one of "irreversible brain damage," is to advance the moment when a patient can be declared "dead." This declaration, and that is all that it is, is the necessary medical and legal condition which needs to be fulfilled before the fully living organs of the brain damaged (e.g., heart, kidney, liver) patient can be "harvested" for the good of one who is "truly alive." Here we find manifested the universal triumph of the commercial mentality, along with the instrumentalization of man. Descartes’ reduction of man to mind and consciousness continues, each and every year, to yield more terrible fruit.
Soul: the Catholic definition
When we hear that "soul" or anima in Latin is the principle distinguishing all living from all nonliving things, we tend to react in a way conditioned by the same reductionism which we find operative in the modernistic thought of Rene Descartes. Whereas, Descartes reduced man to calculating mind, we tend to limit the term "soul" to those beings which possess rational souls, that is, to man (Angels of course are intellectual substances without souls). Such is not the mind of the great Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, however. For Aristotle and, subsequently, for St. Thomas Aquinas, soul, anima in Latin and psyche in Greek, all living beings possess a soul, which can also be termed the principle of animation, that which is the internal source of all of a living being’s activity.
The philosophia perennis is not stating, in this regard, that all souls are of the same nature, even though they all share certain characteristics and serve a somewhat similar function in the existence of all living beings. I would maintain that to understand and affirm the true nature of soul as it has been identified by Aristotle and St. Thomas is to solve most of the bioethical controversies which we are encountering in our own day and will be encountering in the future. It is also to grasp hold of the philosophical component of much of the Catholic Church’s teaching on ethical matters relating to human life.
The first thing which must be done in order for us to gain a better understanding of the reality of soul is to make a distinction. This distinction is one between spiritual souls and material souls. Only human beings, along with the Incarnate Word, have human souls. These souls, even though they are what give life to the body, do not corrupt when the body corrupts, nor are they existentially absolutely dependent on the body (i.e., they can exist without the body). All other living things have souls which are material principles and, hence, corrupt when the bodily organism dies. It is precisely the spirituality of the human soul which gives it the independence it has from the body. Those principles of animation which are not spiritual do not have any type of independence whatsoever.
This being said, it is now important that we consider those characteristics which all souls share, characteristics which they all possess as souls. The first thing which we must say about the soul is that the soul is the substantial form of the body. This is not only a true philosophical principle, it is also a defined doctrine of the Church, even though it is only theologically and doctrinally significant when it refers to the human soul. This doctrine is referred to as hylomorphism, from the Greek words hyle (matter) and morphe (form) or the body as matter enformed by the soul.
What does it mean that the soul is the "substantial form" of the body? It means that the soul gives to a living being its substantial being, it makes a thing be an entity. The soul does not merely give a living being certain accidental qualities, such as brown skin or blue eyes. Rather, it makes the being an existing, living being or a certain type or species. It marks out a being for what it is. Here we see the foundational aspect of soul. It is called by Aristotle the first act of the living organic body. Upon this "first act" all secondary acts of the living being depend (e.g., respiration, hydration, cardiac activity, local motion, and sense perception). The secondary acts of a living being cannot exist, unless they are grounded in the soul as the first vivifying act of the organic body. The soul is the internal source and wellspring of life. It is the soul which enables a living being to move and act on its own, unlike nonliving things which must be moved by another. That living things are self-moved is one of the characteristics which distinguish living from nonliving things.
The soul is also the cause of the unity possessed by living beings. It is the soul which makes a being truly "organic." To be an organic being is essentially different than being a nonorganic being. Both organic beings and nonorganic beings have parts; however, the parts of organic beings, the organs, are not merely grouped together in an aggregate of intrinsically unrelated components as is the case for nonorganic beings. Rather, the parts of an organic being have an intrinsic ordering towards each other and the whole organism.
This intrinsic ordering is on account of the ordering of the activity of each part to the overall maintenance of the whole. A part of an organic being is not truly what it is if it is separated from the dynamic activity of the unified organism. A heart is without purpose if it is not the heart of a living being. We only understand the rationale of the part when we understand the nature of the whole.
Since all the organs or parts of an organism are directed towards the same end, maintaining the organism as a whole, we can therefore speak of them as intrinsically related to each other. This internal ordering of parts to a unified end is complemented by an ordering of the unified organism itself to a single natural end of all of its activity. The soul both orders the parts to the whole and the whole to the goal!
As has been mentioned at the beginning of this essay, modern science attempts to understand and control the natural realities which it studies by delineating a being into its component parts (e.g., chemistry and biology) or by reducing a being to one aspect of itself (e.g., physics). When it comes to living beings, however, we must recognize that contrary to the belief of those who idolize modern empirical science, there is an irreducible aspect of living things which renders them, in a very significant way, beyond the intellectual reach of modern, mathematically oriented science. What is this irreducible aspect? It is the life of the thing itself.
Even though biology may study living creatures, it cannot study the life of those same creatures. As we have seen, life is either there or it isn’t, it is a unity, and it is in act, always. Modern quantitative science can know nothing of the soul, because the soul is not quantifiable, even though it implicitly assumes its existence. It knows that there is a radical difference between what is living and what is nonliving and it knows, again implicitly, that there must be a principle which accounts for the difference. The reason they know to study living things as a category of beings is on account of the fact that they have experienced life, both their own and that of other living things.
The above description of the general nature of soul applies fully to the human soul. For the purposes of bioethical discussion, it is important that the soul’s unification of the being as an individual, living being of a particular type and species be emphasized. What attracted St. Thomas the most to Aristotle’s hylomorphism was its emphasis on the unity which is the human person. "Person" should not be reduced to the intellectual, or spiritual, functions and activities of man.
Since man has an intellectual and, hence, spiritual soul (we know this for certain, since we know he performs intellectual and spiritual acts) which is the source of all the activities of the man, including those activities and functions which are purely physical or at least relate primarily to the life of the body (e.g., sensation and respiration), we can say that the whole man is a rational being. All moral and legal strictures which apply to all actions by which one man relates to another man, would apply in full between men insofar as they are of the human type, that is, insofar as they possess a human soul (i.e., insofar as they possess the "first act" of the body).
This is the case, whether any of those human beings are manifesting certain "secondary acts" (i.e., intellectual acts) or not. There are always some secondary acts which are manifested if the primary act of the soul is still present.
Justice and the claims of the living
The implications for abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide are profound. Insofar as "total death" has not yet occurred, a man is still a man and must be treated as such. The reason is that he still has a human soul which is animating his human body. That he is going through one stage of his dynamic movement towards full development, or even though he has ceased to actualize certain specific functions normally associated with a human being, does not wrest him from the category of "human." If man is still man, those other men who may, for whatever reason, have power over his life must render to that life what is its due. Such is, and always has been, the demand of justice.
By failing to render to all men, born and preborn, infant and adult, healthy and ill, genetically deficient or genetically normal, what is their due, we trample on the sovereignty of God Who has made and Who has rightful possession of the whole man, body and soul. There is no telling how much the sovereign mind and will of God will be challenged or ignored in man’s attempt to gain complete mastery over nature. By our affirming the unity of man, of his body and soul, his mind and will, his emotions and his passions, his life and his consciousness, we prevent the reduction of man to a commodity which can be separated into parts and sold or disposed of for monetary profit. By placing moral and, hopefully, legal restrictions on the merchants of life and death, we acknowledge the gift which is life.
Through the possession of life, we share in an imperfect way, but in a very real way, in an attribute possessed perfectly by God. Just as it is strange that we should "forget" the true nature of life, or mistake it for what it is not, even though we have never known a moment when we have not been living, so too is it strange that those who can hardly determine completely the slightest event in our own lives, should forget that it is in Him that we live and move and have our being. Let us return soon to the wisdom of the ancients, who said that it is in wonder and the fear of the Lord that all knowledge begins and ends.
1 Sissela Bok, "Ethical Problems of Abortion" in Bioethics: Basic Writings on the Key Ethical Questions That Surround the Major Biological Possibilities and Problems, ed. Thomas Shannon (Ramsey, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1976), p. 1.
3 A.R. Jonsen, "Critical Issues in Newborn Intensive Care" in Bioethics, p. 101.
4 Cf. Applied Philosophy: Morals and Metaphysics in Contemporary Debate, eds. Donald Hill and Brenda Almond (New York: Routledge, 1991).
5 Hans Jonas, "Reflections on Experimenting with Human Subjects" in Bioethics, p.257. Cf. Hans Jonas, "A Definition of Irreversible Coma in the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death," Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 205, no. 6 (August 5, 1968), pp. 337-340.
6 David Rutstein, "The Ethical Design of Human Experiments" in Bioethics, p. 265.
7 Cf. George Smith II, The New Biology: Law, Ethics, and Biotechnology (New York: Plenum Press, 1989).