Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The hard cell

We are mostly bacteria.

Does that mean anything (apart from the implications for drug therapy)?

Am I less me than I am them?

Are they separate from me? How? They are cells living among my cells. They're a little more mobile than most of my cells and they don't share their genetic material (but they can, we know they can, they have). They are distinct from me but not completely so -- probably you couldn't consider them a great deal more distinct than mitochondria from the rest of the cell they inhabit.

Religious types look away now. You already know God gave you a spirit you don't share with the bacteria, so you needn't concern yourself with the science of it.

But for those of a more mechanist bent, it's an interesting question for obvious reasons. There are other cells -- or colonies of cells -- that are not us (or can be argued not to be) but are commensal with us. Unlike bacteria, they are not foreign and become part of us, they are part of us and become foreign.

Of course, I mean the entities that go through a lifecycle from ovum to embryo to foetus to child to you and me.

Watching Bush passionately decrying the destruction of "life" in embryonic stem cell research, I asked myself, are embryos "life"? (I'm allowing that he meant "human life", which I agree with him should be preserved, and not just "a form of life", which clearly he doesn't think should be preserved and neither do I -- we would have to be fruitarians if we did).

My view is that each stage of that lifecycle before birth represents life in potentia, with the potential growing as the colony of cells grows.

An unfertilised egg should properly be considered the first part of the lifecycle. It doesn't spring into being at conception, and it does have potential before being fertilised.

Very few people believe unfertilised eggs might not be destroyed but, for a mechanist, the only difference between them and a fertilised egg is the admission of some genetic material that starts off a purely mechanical process. Okay, you might believe God "breathes the spirit" into the fertilised egg or some such nonsense, but I asked you to look away above. I'm talking only to those who are willing to put those considerations aside for a moment.

When does the "potential" life become an "actual" life, which ought to be preserved? I don't know that there is a point. I can understand the appeal of "at conception" or "on first heartbeat" or "at the moment of birth", but I believe all are arbitrary. I usually argue for the last of those to be the absolute bound because I believe that until this time the mother's rights should entirely supersede those of the unborn child, whatever rights the latter is believed to have.

Part of the problem is that we insist on considering a process that is something like a river to resemble a train journey. The development of a foetus is not really like that -- with a series of stations it calls at (the symbolism of the stations of the Cross just pinged into my noggin... interesting). It's a much more dynamic process with, I think, only two absolutes -- conception and birth (the former changes the process, the latter separates two entities definedly so that there are two processes rather than a process and a pseudoprocess -- no, I will not explain what I mean by a "process"! You figure it out from the river/train journey thing.)

The foetus becomes more and more a child, I believe. On day two, it truly isn't much of anything and if it is lost -- as many, many must be without our notice -- it is only that much of a tragedy.

On day 270, it is much more.

(Yes, I know, you cannot have a sliding scale of hurt over a lost baby. It is not exact in any way -- some feel more for a first-trimester loss than others do over an third-trimester termination. But I think the general idea is sound -- it would certainly have hurt me more to lose the twins at their third scan at 22 weeks, when they had begun to seem real to me, than at their first at six, when they appeared to be nothing more than smudges on the photo. In any case, our emotional response to things does not always reasonably weigh up the issue! People feel this is a valid debating point -- if you say you oppose war, they say "but what would you feel if invading soldiers raped your wife and killed your kids" -- but of course it is not: I do not say one must not spray mosquitoes in Africa because I personally get squeamish about squishing them in my back yard. I know they should be sprayed, and I don't mind their being squished, I'm just pussy about it.)

In any case, I think that there is not a dichotomy between alive/not alive, but a spectrum of aliveness (in the same way, a single cell of our bodies is "alive" but not "life", and we do not mind killing it if it becomes cancerous; even a million cells in a bad leg or arm we will excise, when most will still be alive) -- a spectrum, to make things worse, of something more metaphysical than physical.

I realised, of course, in thinking about it, that I do not exactly disagree with Bush (although I do disagree with his reasons for thinking what he thinks about it). You are destroying life in a sense when you do embryonic stem cell research. (Although the "life" you destroy will never be actuated.) But where we don't agree is that I cannot see the "so what" in it. An embryo has life, but so does a tumour cell, and so do the bacteria in my gut. Once you've removed and frozen the embryo, what makes it "life" and not just "alive"? (If you removed and froze your gut bacteria... well, they would survive no longer than the embryo once defrosted! Both embryo and bacteria need a host to parasitise.)

So what if you destroy some life in potentia? Isn't it just like having a period but later in the cycle? On our sliding scale of grief, there is no grief, because there is no connection.

I know why I feel life should be preserved. My feeling that it should leads me to oppose the death penalty. I can't help thinking it's odd that Bush worries so much about "life" that has never been, but will sign the warrant that ends lives that are.

Without the conviction of a religion or a moral structure to guide me, I find my thoughts on this subject rather scattered. I feel, as in so many areas, that how things affect people is so much more important than an abstract principle such as "life must be preserved". Well, yes, but in looking into the why of the principle, you realise that it is not at all absolute. For George Bush, it is more realistically framed as "life must be preserved unless it is a property of a capital felon or Moslem" and for me "life should be preserved if it is real". Mine has much more grey area. I accept that. I cannot know all the answers. I can be wrong and I'm content with that.


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