Elissa Strauss tackles the alleged mystery of “when life begins” for Slate. She finds out that various religious traditions disagree on this question and concludes that it’s therefore unanswerable. We should embrace the “fullness and complexity” that this mystery entails, which is to say, we should continue to allow abortion on demand.
It should not need saying that the fact of disagreement does not prove that truth is unknowable—a proposition that nobody at Slate has any trouble affirming in other contexts. (President Trump says there were more than 3 million illegal votes, other people disagree; who’s to say?) It doesn’t help when the question that occasions the disagreement is stated imprecisely.
What would help is separating (1) the question of when the life of a human organism begins from (2) the question of what follows from the answer to the first question. And we don’t need any religious tradition to answer that first question. A human embryo is a living human organism once conceived. It’s not a “potential life,” as a theologian tells Strauss: It’s not an inanimate object that is somehow going to start living. It’s not a functional part of a different organism, like a skin cell, that somehow becomes an organism in its own right. It’s not a potential human, either: It’s not going to switch species. We would have no difficulty reaching the right answer to the first question if we did not have powerful motives for getting it wrong.
We don’t need to know anything more than we already know about the embryo to answer that first question. Science has long since dissolved any mystery about it. Science cannot, of course, tell us whether we should protect living human organisms or license the killing of them. But it can’t possibly be a sound procedure for thinking through that question to start with the premise that “whether these admittedly living human organisms deserve to be protected from being killed is a deep mystery” and end with “so let’s just let assume the answer is no.”
If that’s how we’re thinking, then interviewing a lot of people, even wise ones, about doctrines of ensoulment will only make matters worse. It turns out that a lot of really smart people don’t believe that 40-year-olds have souls, or that anyone has a soul! It’s a pretty well-known point of disagreement. You could even say it’s a mystery. We don’t need to resolve that mystery to agree that Gen Xers deserve the protection of the law.