I liked Martin's idea that there is no beginning only an seemingly endless continuation of life. When I became aware of the feelings of the unborn fetus, the actual pain that they feel, my on feelings about abortion changed a lot.
I'm not sure independence is an adequate prerequisite for life. Should we feel ethically justified to terminate a person who cannot survive independently of an artificial kidney machine? They are surely still living, albeit dependently.
A foetus is part of its mother's body, of course. But I would have to think of a damn good reason to cut off a healthy and fuctioning part of my own body - even though my right to do so is unassailable.
A person with failed kidneys is still independent of his/her mother's body. A fetus that is old enough to live independent of its mother's body would probably still require external supports comparable to dialysis.
I qualified that independence by including the mother's body and I think that makes a big difference. The discussion, after all, is about the beginning of life.
On your second point, I tend to grow small skin tags that are healthy and functioning, but I consider them unsightly and useless. So I whack them off with a pair of cuticle cutters and I don't think I have a 'damn good reason' to cut them off but I do anyway--without guilt or second thoughts.
From a strictly scientific point of view one must admit that life begins at conception. Or to be more precise a NEW life begins at conception. Martin is scientifically accurate (although his response may have been meant in a more metaphysical sense) when he states that life is a continuation. Both the ovum and the sperm cells are technically "alive". When a scientist refers to the "search for life" in the universe, they define "life" as inclusive of single cell organisms.
But I suspect, April, that your question may include a more metaphysical aspect. Why do we get more uneasy about the question the closer the unborn entity gets to birth? There is a remarkable world-wide consensus about this unease. As an unborn entity moves from conception to birth, we are less likely to refer to it as a "fetus", and more likely to call him/her a "child". "When do we become an individual?" might be another way of phrasing the question, or even more personal: "When did I become an individual?"
Even among people who do not believe in the existence of a soul per se, there is a point at which a "fetus" becomes a "child". What gets tricky is that there is no conclusive material evidence to pinpoint that moment. Or even to suggest that there is an individual moment when we become more than just a collection of tissue. Is your mother "more pregnant" at 9 months than at 6 weeks? Are you "more alive" at 9 months than at 6 weeks? The best we can say is that you are "more obviously alive", just as your mother is "more obviously pregnant".
Whether religiously motivated, or simply motivated by secular ethics of individuality this question is important when determining your own opinion about it. And that's just it. It is our own opinion. Likely the actual truth about this question exists, but as yet we don't have the ability as a species to prove it one way or another. It really comes down to faith. And I don't mean Faith, as in the existence of God, or the soul or an afterlife (although that will definitely shape your belief about the question of life's beginning). I mean the faith in the value of the individual. And it gets even trickier when you remember that even though we exist in the "present", our lives are really on a continuum. My "life" in that sense is a much bigger thing than "me, today". This holistic view of life will likely sit more comfortably with people from eastern or aboriginal traditions, and will feel very familiar to those of us with a strong personal faith in God.
Why is looking at life in such a bigger way important? Well, it means that to define life as "independent survival" is a slippery ethical slope. At various points in our lives, none of us have been able to survive independent of assistance. All of us at the beginning, all of us at the end, and many of us at times in between have needed help. It would be harsh to condemn us as less valuable at those times we cannot survive independently.
Perhaps, at the beginning, a more scientifically accurate description of the mother/child relationship might be "host/guest", rather than "body/body part". Perhaps you find that a pretty controversial statement. At nine months, the guest "moves out" into a more mutually aware relationship, with a little more independence on the part of the child, but still great responsibility on the part of the mother (who now begins to share this responsibility more obviously with the father in a traditional nuclear family, or with society as a whole in the single-parent family). Hopefully, if all goes well, before a couple dozen years pass the individual will again "move out" to even greater independence – taking on more responsibility to their family and society as a whole.
And, at some time in their life it is statistically likely that individual will be involved in the creation of a NEW life, and "pay it forward", taking on responsibility for the survival of another individual until such time as that individual is independent.
I signed up to this site simply to say that your response is extremely well thought, sensitive, open and articulate. You have avoided the obvious dogmatic positional arguments that we have heard for decades and opted for honest examination of the fundamental human condition that causes us to even ask that question.
Thank you, indeed, April. And thank you, Darrell.
The day we begin responding to this question with the brevity of detached scientific statements is the day we are one step closer to not even asking the question. That, I believe is the day we ourselves will become less human and less alive.
Thank you for your kind words. I spent a couple days thinking, and researching the topic on the net to see what was the prevalent ideology "out in the cloud". Maybe it's the time we're living in, (or my rose coloured glasses?) but I sense a move away from "survival of the fittest" to a kinder "you are blessed to bless others" mentality. I think that is one of the things that sets the human species apart from others – the ability to choose to be counter to nature (for good or for ill!) We can choose to help the helpless and the needy – and I believe that makes us stronger as a species.