Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When does human life begin?

Aristotle's explanation of the distinction between "being" and "potential" sheds light on the present debate about when a person "is." That is, when does a "person" come into "being"?

Some argue that humans become "persons" at the moment of conception, that is, at the instant a human egg is fertilized. Aristotle would contend that a fertilized human egg is "potentially" a person, but not "actually" a person.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a clear distinction between "actual" and "potential." Referring to humans, he argues "the seed is not yet potentially a human; for it must be deposited in something other than itself and undergo change. But when through its own motive principal it has already got such and such attributes, in this state it is already potentially a man. ..." Note Aristotle's use of the term "potentially."

To put the case more simply, an acorn is obviously not an oak tree, with the roots, trunk, branches and leaves that define an oak tree. Rather, an acorn is "potentially" an oak tree. Likewise, a fertilized human egg is obviously not a "person," with the functioning body and brain and capacity to live independent of the womb that defines "person." Rather, the fertilized egg is "potentially" able to become a human being. So that there is no confusion as to the meaning of "person," we turn to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary that defines "person" as "an individual human being; a human being as distinguished from an animal or thing."

With the wisdom of Aristotle guiding us, we are inevitably led to the following conclusion: The argument that we are "persons," i.e. human beings, at the moment of conception, possessed of all the characteristics and rights pertaining thereto, is patently absurd, as it denies reason, the evidence of our eyes and plain common sense.

Frederic S. Mabbatt

Sun Valley

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