My son has been alive all of two weeks now. Alive. It is the wrong word. Let me try again.
My son was born two weeks ago. In a sense he has been alive much longer, and I, as his father, have also been thinking about his existence for many months now. How long has he existed?
On the one hand, there are those who say that a child becomes a person at the moment of conception. On the other end of the spectrum are those who say that a person comes into existence at birth, or even some point weeks or months after birth, when the child is capable of autonomous survival. I’ve discovered that most of these arguments are positioned in order to demarcate when developing offspring have moral and legal rights: arguments put forth are predominantly post hoc edifices constructed by those who have entrenched viewpoints on the morality of abortion.
I will not get drawn into the quicksand of motives. As a father, what interests me most right now, is in knowing just how my little baby boy is developing into an individual.
In my son, the chain of life is still unbroken. In that sense, even the first cellular divisions of his embryonic form were not entirely new: however, by this rigid assertion, there has been no new life after the first forms were developed and we are stuck back in the speculative days of the primordial soup when life might have originated. Hardly helpful if you’re curious how your own baby developed.
Life is a game of probabilities. There will always be a relatively high chance than an embryo will never make it past the first few days: usually even mothers are unaware that these early embryos spontaneously cease to develop further. Even later, throughout the rest of the first trimester of pregnancy, as cells are dividing and the body systems are starting to develop, there is a possibility that the embryo will cease to develop naturally. Every day that the embryo grows, the chance of its survival increases. Still, there is a one in five chance of spontaneous termination of a pregnancy during those early months, and this is often thought to be a natural way to ensure that genetic defects are not passed on to living offspring. A fertilized egg or a developing embryo obviously possesses the possibility of developing into a person, but is it truly a person? If we consider it a person, then we must also come to terms with the fact that it has a 20% of not even passing to the next phase of its development and that this holocaust is predominantly natural and likely unpreventable. If it is incapable of survival on its own, does not have developed systems, and is considered predominantly parasitic on its mother, then it is formally possible to say that it is not a person. But we have to examine these criteria individually.
Just when did my son become a person? His mother felt his movements when his gestational age was approximately sixteen weeks. At the twenty-week ultrasonogram, the technician clearly pointed out attributes which remarkably turned out to be visible when he was born nearly twenty-weeks later. At twenty-weeks we were able to visualize his organs, see the blood pump through his heart, see his face, and notice him move his arms and legs. He responded to stimuli. By twenty-weeks many of his other organs were gearing up for primetime too. Was he a person then?
So much is made of time of birth and independent existence. When my son was born, a whole industrious coterie of hospital staff meticulously entered his vital statistics into the wired machines of society. Biologically, though, time of birth in humans is an evolutionary compromise to allow the large brainbox of the infant to pass through the narrow birth-canal of the mother. A newborn is not capable of taking care of itself. Does that make it not a person?
Only five percent of babies are born on their due dates. If a baby becomes a person when it emerges from the womb, shouldn’t we be better at predicting this event? On a tangential note, I’m curious how the pseudoscience, astrology, deals with “celestial” time-of-birth when it is predetermined by humans via elective or emergency Caesarian section.
Modern medicine has advanced to such a stage that premature babies born even twelve weeks before their due date can survive with a little help from neonatal specialists. In other words, a fetus is often viable at 28 weeks, something which was unheard of one-hundred years ago. With further advances, this early arrival stamp is likely to be pushed back even earlier. Do they become persons when they are delivered surgically by physicians, or when they are hooked up to artificial respirators, or, if and when they survive when they are taken off? Are lungs the organs that define life? And if they are, then are grownups who are temporarily put on respirators dead?
For adults either cessation of function of the heart or the brain is clinically considered death. Conversely, are fetuses whose hearts and brains functioning non-living? My son had not used his lungs yet, but his brain and nervous system were functioning exactly the same way ten minutes before he was born as they were at the time of birth; he was capable of dreaming, and his heart was pumping in the same manner that it will be for the rest of his life.
Even after two weeks of being an independent entity my son’s sense of coordination is very poor; it will take months for his hearing and eyesight to develop. His brain will continue to develop for decades to come.
The various vital organs of a human start to “boot up” many months before birth. Essential development continues unabated on a very long timeframe. Birth is the most important time-point during this process, but I am peeved: why do we take it for granted that existence and non-existence are binary and occur at the time someone looks up at a clock hanging on a wall in a delivery room?