Abortion and A Flawed Brain-life Theory

Littleone

Tracking Baruch Brody’s view, brain-life theorists claim that being fully human, a being must possess properties “such that their loss would mean the going out of existence (the death) of a human being”(Brody 1975, 102). The property of being human, they argued, is human brain function. J Savulescu, for example, contended:

If we cease to exist when our brain dies, we only begin to exist when our brains start to function. Consciousness does not begin until after 20 weeks’ gestation. Thus we do not begin to exist as persons, as morally relevant entities, until at least 20 weeks of fetal gestation. The question of when and if killing occurs does not even arise until at least 20 weeks’ gestation. (Savulescu 2002, 134).

Brain-life theorist John M. Goldenring¹ concisely put it this way: “Whenever a functioning human brain is present, a human being is alive.”(Goldenring 1985, 200).

Before acquiring this property, a fetus has not yet come into existence. Killing it is not like killing an existing human being. Thus aborting a fetus before it acquires brain function, so argued brain-life theorists, is morally permissible. In this article, I contended that this criteria, which “rests in symmetrical view of the beginning and end of human existence”(ibid. 202), defended by Brody, Goldenring and Savulescu is deeply flawed².

“Brain death” wrote Eelco F.M. Wijdicks,  “is the vernacular expression for irreversible loss of brain function.” He continued,

Brain death is declared when brainstem reflexes, motor responses, and respiratory drive are absent in a normothermic, nondrugged comatose patient with a known irreversible massive brain lesion and no contributing metabolic derangements. (Wijdicks 2002, 20)

The irreversible loss of brain function indicates that a patient is dying, or in a common parlance ‘as good as dead’, but not that the patient is dead. Don Marquis correctly argued that even if “death is, strictly speaking, defined in terms of the irreversible loss of brain function, the mere absence of brain function is not a sufficient condition for the absence of life.”(Marquis 1996, 8)

Moreover it is not simply the absence of brain function that is in play in pronouncing a person dead, but irreversible lost of brain function. If a person was reasonably expected to resume or come to have brain function in the future, then that person cannot be pronounced dead. Pre-brain-function fetus is a being that is reasonably expected to come to have brain function for it “ has the natural capacity to bring on the functioning of the brain.”(Varga 1984, 62)

Though I disagree with Peter Singer’s stance on the issue of abortion, I do share his verdict on this view. He correctly concluded that this view is a “convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognize that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.”(Singer 1994, 105)

Bibliography:

Brody, Baruch (1975) Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: A Philosophical View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldenring, John M. (1985) The brain-life theory: towards a consistent biological definition of humanness. Journal of Medical Ethics Vol. 11:198-204

Marquis, Don (1996) Abortion. Appeared in Donald M. Borchert (2006) ed. Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2nd. Thomson Gale.

Savulescu, J (2002) Abortion, embryo destruction and the future of value argument. Journal of Medical Ethics. Vol. 28: 133-135

Singer, Peter (1994) Rethinking Life & Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional
Ethics.
New York: St. Martin’s Press

Wijdicks, Eelco F.M. (2002) Brain death worldwide: Accepted fact but no global consensus in diagnostic criteria. Neurology Vol. 58:20-25

Varga, Andrew (1984) The Main Issues in Bioethics. 2nd ed. NY: Paulist Press.


[1] Goldenring believed that 8 weeks fetus has an EEG activity. He boldly asserted, “one cannot advance any logical argument to show that that fetus is not a living human being”(199) from a medical point of view after brain activity.

[2] One could also argue brain-life theory, as defended by Brody, Goldenring and Savulescu, mistake the qualitative identity of a developing human being with the numerical identity of being a human being.

NB: I would be thankful for short(<300) and concise comments and critics.

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79 thoughts on “Abortion and A Flawed Brain-life Theory

  1. I like Singer’s conclusion, and yours: “we should recognize that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.” The abortion decision is incredibly complicated. So are many other decisions involving the taking of life: going to war, the death penalty, euthanasia, eating meat. And so are many decisions related to quality of life, for that matter (too many to list!). In some cases, in certain situations, abortion may be the best choice. In other cases, not. The real question is, who is best qualified to assess the situation and make the decision?

    Thank you for a thoughtful post on this issue.

  2. It seems to me that the whole argument about when it’s permissible to terminate an unborn child – I refuse to use the term “fetus,” for it simply obfuscates the issue – depends on a false premise: that said child before a certain “age” is not really “alive” and therefore isn’t really being “killed.”

    As far as when “life” begins: if the union of a living sperm and a living ova isn’t “life,” or “living,” then what is it?

    • You’re asking the wrong question. “Life” began (on this planet) 3.8 billion years ago and hasn’t been interrupted since. What you’re looking for is a definition for when a fetus may be considered a human being…. and that is ONLY when it exhibits sustained EEG activity, which occurs regularly around week 25.

        • It’s a clump of cells otherwise known as a zygote. What, do you think people just make up these defining names for fun?

          As discussed with Prayson, unless you can present evidence for the human soul then the natural explanation of a fetus’s development stands and will override all religious gibberish. What that phased development tells us is that before week 25 there is NO sustained EEG activity. That means the machine is not turned “on.” Only when it’s turned on can it be turned off. For something to be considered “alive” it must be able to “die.” Life, therefore, begins at the moment its twin, death, also springs into existence. Without death there is no life, and the definition of death is not in dispute. Death is when electroencephalography (EEG) activity ceases. The onset of life, therefore, is when foetal brain activity begins to exhibit regular and sustained wave patterns, and that occurs consistently around week 25 of pregnancy. Only after something can die can it be considered alive

          So, to advance your argument of “murder,” do you have evidence for the human soul: yes or no?

          • So is “this clump of cells” alive and functioning as it’s supposed to? If it’s not alive, then it can’t develop to the stage where an electroencephelograph can pick up brain activity.

            I’m not going to bite on your scientism question about the soul.

            As far as the Jewish Talmud is concerned, it has no authority as far as I’m concerned, just as the New Testament has no authority as far those who follow the Talmud are concerned.

        • By the way, are you Christian? I’m assuming you are and therefore guessing that you believe wholeheartedly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Correct? “Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition…” (Mitt Romney during 2012 Presidential Campaign).

          Well, sorry to break this to you, but your forced-birth position contradicts the very tradition you support. The Jewish Talmud resolutely asserts that life begins at birth: “[When the] greater part is already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.”

          In Jewish lore, therefore, the act of birth changes the status of the foetus from a nonperson to a person (nefesh).

          Just thought you should know that, because I’m assuming you didn’t.

      • John, you said this in one of your posts, “For something to be considered “alive” it must be able to “die.” Life, therefore, begins at the moment its twin, death, also springs into existence.”

        From the moment that the egg and sperm meet, a baby is beginning the developmental process. It’s is growing and very much alive. Life starts at conception.

        How a brain works, and what makes it tick, has always intrigued and mesmerized researchers. All progress and regression in our life can be easily attributed to the way our brain works, thinks, deduces, reasons, concludes, etc. Brain development involves the formation of the brain, nervous system and spinal cord, and begins at the embryonic stage itself. The brain development stages start from the first week and go up to the 40th week. It would be most absurd for any medical doctor to take the opinion that because a fetus does not have a fully functioning brain that it is then not alive.

        Generally from 6 ½ -7 weeks is the time when a heartbeat can be detected and viability can be assessed. A normal heartbeat at 6-7 weeks would be 90-110 beats per minute. A beating heart also means life.

      • John, you ask about our soul as if you have proof we don’t have one but the evidence is we most likely do.

        In the June 2007 issue of Discover magazine there is an article entitled “Soul Search” with the subtitle “Can science ever decipher the secrets of the human soul?”
        discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/soul-search

        The article spends most of its time discussing research into near-death experiences (NDEs) and Out of Body Experiences (OBEs).

        The article seems to support my belief that consciousness is a phenomenon that arises out of the reflection of a wave of energy folding back upon itself which creates an interference pattern. This interference pattern takes the form of images of thought and what we think of as perception. This idea is supported in Greek mythology in the story of Narcissus and in the Bible in the book of Genesis chapter 1, where God sees his reflection in the waters, which awakens and inspires the words “Let there be Light”…

        Most people think of the “Big Bang” as a one-time event. And most religious people think of Gods creation of the universe as a one-time event. But the Hebrew text of Genesis uses a peculiar form of the verbage, which is better translated as “In the beginning of God creating…” as is rendered by the Artscroll Stone Edition of the Chumash. The sages expound on this wordage by stating that the events of Genesis chapter 1 are a continual, on-going process that never cease, they have no beginning and no end. It is a fountainhead of creation, the universe is forever emanating from a singular source. And from that source the energy flows, striking wave-forms that are slower in frequency, thus reflecting some of that energy back to the source like ripples in a pond bouncing back from the shore. When that reflected energy returns to its source, an interference pattern emerges, pictures form, and “God sees”, then out of the darkness “there is light”. Self-awareness is the result of our reflections… that self-awareness we call “ego” and “consciousness” (“ego” is simply that Latin word for “I”)… We have a unique ability to see ourselves…

        …but it is in our delusion of seeing that reflection ourselves, that we, like Narcissus, mistake the reflection for another… when in reality the image we are seeing is God itself.

  3. You’re thread thing is very weird. you should change it. There is no reply option to your last comment so this conversation is going to end as its impossible to continue.

    I asked you a question, Prayson: Do you have evidence for the human soul?

    Yes or no?

    • The reply option is on the first comment you made and my first response to you. To continue in the same thread you need to simply reply to my first response to you. 🙂

      How is that question relevant to the current discussion John?

          • “More than you can image”? I did not know I sent it. I thought you wrote “Is it that very complicate?”

            I do not know what you are after with yes or no. If it is the point that if I want to advance my argument to some pre-25 weeks, I think it is irrelevant. Atheists philosophers like Marquis and Singer, who do not believe in soul judge this argument as false.

            It is irrelevant whether one believe in souls or not, in this particular issue, John.

          • Come on, Prayson… No dancing around the subject. For once, commit yourself to something without any philosophical gibberish or escape clauses. Give me a real answer free of any and all ambiguity:

            Yes or No.

          • No, “for argument sake,” is NOT a definitive answer. It is evasive and non-committal, aloof and open-ended.

            Yes or No… Do you have evidence for the human soul?

          • Thank you.

            Your answer is No: there is no human soul. It is a fantasy invented by men, no more unique than fairies and unicorns, and holds no bearing on human life or law. It is a fabrication, a falsehood sold by liars masquerading as “religious men” peddling smoke to gullible children.

            Therefore, to answer the question (When does life begin?) we must use ONLY the natural (empirical, adult) consensus, which follows:

            Life begins at the moment its twin, death, also springs into existence. One cannot have a defined ‘life’ without that life being able to ‘die.’ Without death there is no life. The former begets the latter. The latter assigns meaning to the former. One delineates the other, and fortunately the definition of death is not in dispute. Death is when electroencephalography (EEG) activity ceases. That’s it. That’s death. It follows quite naturally therefore that the onset of life is when foetal brain activity begins to exhibit regular and sustained wave patterns, and that occurs consistently around week 25 of pregnancy. Only after something can die can it be considered alive, and to argue anything to the contrary is patently absurd.

          • To be honest, as I stated earlier, I don’t see any argument being forwarded here. You are using examples of human patients (presumably adults) whose brain activity has dropped from sustained activity (alive) to zero (dead). A fetus (before week 25) has neither sustained brain activity or indeed has ever exhibited sustained brain activity, so the comparison is ridiculous, and that’s putting it mildly.

          • Which ‘doctors,’ where, in what countries. If not EEG activity (which is the legal definition of death) then what are they using?

            Citations required.

          • See Eelco F.M. Wijdicks, MD, PhD, Panayiotis N. Varelas,
            MD, PD , Gary S. Gronseth, MD and David M. Greer, MD,
            MA in Evidence-based guideline update:Determining brain death in adults. Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology in Neurology 2010;74:1911–1918.

          • Correct me if ‘m wrong, but it seems to say “Determining brain death in adults”… ie. Not infants.

            Thanks, though, for the list, but this seems to be a series of papers, not practice. Still, the question remains: if not EEG activity then what are they using?

          • John, lets take a step back. Do you agree with me that it is absurdity of your view in my counterexample of year 3013 where scientists discover a way John can live forever and never can die?

          • I’m not going into philosophical drivel and hypothetical’s with you. I prefer dealing with the “real world”… and i think you should, too. Honestly, you waste so much time on useless mental meanderings that achieve absolutely nothing its quite scary.

          • Oh dear, you’re using crazy AIG creationist speak: critical thinking.

            Tell me you’re not a creationist? Please tell me you’re not that insane…

        • Our perception that we have free will is evidence for the human soul. In order for the will to be free, it must be able to originate thought and action wholly independent of material cause and effect, which rule the interactions of all objects extended in space and time.

          The freedom of the will can be seen to rest in a pretermaterial soul, which is properly simple and eternal (because not subject to decay, unlike 3d objects). In much the same way that modern quantum theory postulates that deterministic 3d matter has its head, ultimately, in non-deterministic ‘point particles’ with no observable mass, spatial extension &c.

          The alternative is to believe that the will is not free. I believe that has devastating consequences for all philosophical enquiry in general and for ethics in particular, so I believe we have a moral obligation to prefer – in the absence of any proof to the contrary, and in the light of our innate experience in the affirmative – that the will truly is free.

          • Are you implying that perceptions can’t furnish us with evidence?

            I perceive that there is a very bright light in the sky. That is evidence that there is a very bright light in the sky. If you reject that as evidence, you need your head examined, and I can’t help you.

            If you don’t, then I’d ask you to address my argument, rather than resort to sarcasm.

          • So you don’t accept that perceptions can furnish us with evidence? If you don’t I really don’t know how to advance this discussion.

            I perceive the sun in the sky. That is evidence that the sun exists. Other people also perceive the sun; that is stronger evidence that the sun exists.

          • You don’t accept that perceptions can count as evidence?

            I perceive the sun. That is evidence that it exists. Other people also perceive the sun. That is strong evidence that it exists. Before the invention of precision instruments, human perception was all that science had to go on. Even now, we really on our perception to interpret data from our instruments.

      • Having no cientific evidence of the existence of human soul doesn´t mean there is no human soul.
        Comparing humans to animals eveyone can see that there is a difference beasides inteligence and impulses.
        This dialogue is absurd…

        The objections of EEG and death used by John is not as he says.

      • Thank you for that observation. John is doing all he can to save this absurd view. I agreed for argument sake that there is no evidence, what ever he meant with that, to see what he was after. He presented the same case, even though I showed him that its false. 😉

      • @Rodrigo…. Do unicorns exist? There’s no scientific evidence for them, either. I guess they must, by your reckoning.

        Now, do please enlighten me as to any other definition of life/death. I’m assuming you know of something or else you wouldn’t have made such a bold assertion.

          • Human life, sir… we’re talking about human life. If you want to talk about life in general then that began 3.8 billion years ago on this planet and hasn’t been interrupted since.

          • John, what classification would you give to the human before 25 weeks of gestation? Keep in mind that it is developing constantly, growing new structures, organs, and cells. Non-existent, alive, or dead?

      • Prayson, sorry to rain on your parade, but you haven’t demonstrated anything. The only things you’ve done is admit here is no human soul.

        • Yes I did, for argument sake and for your sake I simply said, not that there is no human soul, but no evidence for human soul.

          I know you chose to be blind to the way I argued that the theorist view mistake the qualitative identity of a developing human being with the numerical identity of being a human being and that brain-death does not indicate a person is dead, but that a person is dying.

          I cannot unblind you John, but I at-least show to those, like Robert Nielsen, that your view is, borrowing Singer, a convenient fiction.

          • Trollop. You haven’t demonstrated anything. You copy and pasted one man’s opinion. If you think that is convincing then you’re more deluded and lost in your fantasy world than i first thought.

          • John, you’re suppose to deal with the case presented, namely brain death, lack of brain function, shows that a person is dying not that a person is dead and that a person who is expected to resume or come to have brain function in the future is not pronounced dead, medically, and not attack my person character.

            I agree with Singer because I presented two reasons of my own and think his opinion is true. Brain-life theory is a convenient fiction.

          • Prayson, again, your example is ridiculous. You are using adults who have exhibited sustained brain function. A fetus HAS NOT. There is NO comparison. Is that seriously so hard for you to understand?

            Please, play in the real world.

          • You miss the point John. EEG is used to show that X is dying and not that X is dead. This method is used to determine the ending, not the end, of life.

            It is not only flat EEG reading that is in play in pronouncing X died, but also irreversibility of brain function. If X is reasonably expected to come to have brain function in the future, even with flat EEG, X is neither dying nor dead.

            Which part of these two reason, John, you find hard understanding? I would love to help you, not to agree, but to understand. 😉

        • Serious? Prayson did not admit to anything, but only offered the response you wanted in order to see whether you actually had anything relevant to add to the discussion, which turns out you didn’t. It is all documented in the thread.

      • @John
        I don’t think the implicit scientism here is going to work any better than it has in the past.
        Simply demanding that there is no other support for any idea other than the scientific evidence has been shown to be both self-contradictory, and completely out of touch with the facts.

        Not to mention the fact that there is no scientific support for it.

        Personally, I’d completely agree that materialism is correct if we’re starting from the arbitrary assumption that scientific evidence is the only possible support for a claim. The problems with this position are legion.

    • You don’t accept that perceptions can count as evidence?

      I perceive the sun. That is evidence that it exists. Other people also perceive the sun. That is strong evidence that it exists. Before the invention of precision instruments, human perception was all that science had to go on. Even now, we really on our perception to interpret data from our instruments.

      • Yes, we can measure the sun and through those measurements predict even its lifespan. Did you see that all-important word: ‘predict.’

        Please, don’t play with metaphysical gibberish.

        • From the Christian belief that the soul is immortal, we can predict that man will have free will. So it appears.

          • A positive claim (unicorns exist) requires evidence. A negative claim (unicorns do not exist) requires a complete lack of evidence. As no evidence exists for unicorns the positive claim (unicorns exist) must be considered false until proven true. This is only rational. You’ve made a positive claim: immortal soul… and as no evidence exists for the soul this claim must be considered false until proven true.

            So, prove it true.

          • I gave you the evidence, viz. that we perceive that we have free will, and explained why that was evidence.

            “as no evidence exists for the soul this claim must be considered false until proven true.”

            No amount of evidence will ‘prove’ it true, as you should know; empirical evidence can only be suggestive. There are proofs, but since you do not like metaphysics, we can leave those to one side for the moment if you prefer.

          • How many times? We perceive that we have free will. Free will is incompatible with strict materialism, and can only be explained by invoking an immortal (because immaterial) soul.

            That’s the evidence.

          • Assertion, not argument. No facts, neither.

            Since you appear to have your head squarely lodged up your own posterior, I’m going to leave this here unless you can do me the courtesy of addressing my arguments, rather than casting aspersions on my character / sanity &c.

        • It’s not ‘metaphysical gibberish’; it’s common sense. You and I perceive that we have free will and are responsible for our actions.

          I have an explanation for that. What’s yours?

        • If you believe that man’s soul doesn’t exist, or, in other words, that man is a purely material being, that has consequences. One consequence is that it precludes our having free will.

          But we perceive that we do have free will. The onus is on you to explain why that is.

          • Ok – so you don’t believe in free will. Irrelevant. My point rests on the fact that we perceive that we do have it.

            Presumably, if you don’t believe in free will, you will have some nifty explanation for why we perceive that we do. That doesn’t detract from the fact that we do perceive it, and that is evidence.

  4. The criteria of the begginig of life is different of it’s end.
    Why people want that the brain is the issue?
    For declaring death there are different protocols. In protocol X one can be dead, but the same person alive in protocol Y.
    The begginig of live is in conception, every book of embriology, biology, etc, says that.
    There are children that born without brain and they are alive.
    As long as the tissues and organs of an individual work as a whole the person is alive.
    Rodrigo

      • No argument is presented. Nothing. Of course a fetus has the “natural capacity to bring on the functioning of the brain.” So what? Stating the obvious advances no cause. A automotive frame has the capacity to bring on a functioning car.

        You have not even scratched my original argument: until something can “die” it cannot be considered “alive.” The standard here is “continuous” EEG activity…. That is to say, when the machine turns on.

        As I’ve said, if you want to advance your argument to some pre-25 week date you’ll have to present evidence for the human soul.

        Can you?

      • Ow! If there was no argument presented, nothing, then how could you claim something( “nothing”[argument?!] ) is extremely weak.

        Your argument is pretty false. Image it is year 3013 and scientists have found a way for John to live forever and never die. John is place in the environment where John cannot die. According to your view, John is not alive, which is simply absurd.

        Do I have to repeat the two reasons I offered above John?

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