The Circle of Life

I wish to make a few comments about the views expressed by Dr. Ramon F. Abarquez in his letter to the Inquirer that appeared in the August 22, 2013 issue.

The aim of the letter was to establish “from a scientific and medical perspective” that the zygote or the fertilized egg is not a human life, at least not yet. There is a difficulty in this claim: is the scientific and medical perspective the ultimate judge that can determine or say whether there is human life? My sense is that science and medicine can give parameters to make such a judgment. But ultimately it seems to me that the judgment of the existence of human life is a philosophical one.

If we consider Dr. Abarquez’s arguments carefully we can discern that he is really making philosophical assessments and not scientific ones. For example he wrote: “Real human life starts when such existence and its progression to slowly take human form, as God naturally planned it,  has been initiated—and that point is at the time of implantation on the womb of the mother. As a physician, this is what I would describe as a self-sustaining life due to organized, synergistic, self-regulatory functions that define a ‘human being.’” This is really a philosophical judgment.

From the scientific point of view, the only thing that a scientist can conclude as the difference between a zygote that implants and a zygote that fails to implant is that the former will survive and the latter will die. But concluding that a zygote that implants is human and a zygote that fails to implant is not human is not an honest scientific conclusion. He is really setting up his own criteria (philosophical ones) for determining who is human or not. So according to his criteria, to be human, one must have a self-sustaining life. What if your life and mine ceases to be self-sustaining for whatever reason, like sickness? Will we cease to be human at that point?

With all due respect, I would also like to point out that his observations do not make good science. He affirmed: “At fertilization by a sperm cell, the fertilized egg becomes a zygote.  Without uterine implantation, the zygote and all unfertilized eggs or ova, as well as the millions of unsuccessful sperm cells undergo natural self-destruction or programmed death called apoptosis. This is as natural as skin cells dying and shedding, or locks of hair falling. There is nothing ‘murderous’ about this.”

I have noticed that one of the qualities of good science is attention to precision and details. The history of science is full of examples. But such qualities are lacking in Dr. Abarquez’s statement just quoted: he put on the same level the fertilized egg or zygote, the ova, the sperm cell and the skin cells. This is not commendable science because any precise and careful scientist will note the tremendous difference between the zygote and all the other cells he mentioned: the zygote has a unique genetic identity compared to the sperm and ovum, and if its life continues, it will develop into a unique individual person. All the other cells he mentioned will not develop naturally into a unique individual person but will just go on as parts of a human body.

Speaking philosophically, some people believe that life is a cycle or a circle; the “circle of life” so they say. But the term “life” in that expression means life in general. In a circle we cannot determine where the beginning or the end is found. But when we are talking about an individual human life or the life of a person, the adequate paradigm or image is a line: it has a beginning and an end. And it is human from the very beginning up to the very end because it would not become human in the middle or the end if it were not so from the beginning.

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