Life: Defining the Beginning by the End

Social Fabric by from First Things, May 2003

As the end of this classic essay highlights, Lincoln’s arguments against slavery work about equally well against abortion—as in each case a deprivation of unalienable rights has been defended on the grounds of form, ability, or choice.

What defines the beginning of human life? This question has been the topic of considerable legal and social debate over the years since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision—debate that has only been intensified by the recent controversies over human embryonic stem cells and human cloning. Answers to this question run the full gamut from those who argue that life begins at conception (the view of more than one major world religion) to those arguing that babies are not to be considered fully human until a month after birth (the position of Princeton Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer).

The range of dissent and disagreement on the question of when human life begins has led many to believe it cannot be reasonably resolved in a pluralistic society. Courts have ruled that the diversity of opinion on the topic precludes a judicial resolution, requiring instead that the matter be addressed in the political arena, where accommodation of divergent views can be wrought through debate and compromise. Many Americans appear equally unwilling to impose a single interpretation on society, preferring instead to allow decisions regarding the beginning of life to be largely a matter of personal choice.

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