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Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 5 months ago

Emily McCathran

February 13, 2006

English 15


Definition: Human Life


In an effort to overthrow the British reign, our Founding Fathers constructed one of the most famous documents in American history: The United States’ Declaration of Independence. Our democracy is based on the “unalienable Rights” the Declaration sets forth: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. The document, however, does not conduct further exploration of the meaning of each of these terms. What exactly constitutes a human life? Since in 1776 the questions of abortion and euthanasia did not exist, “Life” seemed nothing more than a human with a pulse. However, the definition of a “Life” is extremely prevalent in today’s politics. Pro-life activists claim an unborn fetus constitutes as being alive, while the pro-choice view states that it is not yet a human being. In the Terri Schiavo case, her husband no longer saw her as living, while her parents and the U.S. government did. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a life is defined as the condition of being alive. But human life is more than that; it is having the ability to make conscience responses to the surroundings and to have an animate, growing existence.


Everyday a living person grows and learns to respond to the constantly changing environment. When it’s raining outside, a child has learned to put on a raincoat before going out, since last time he acquired a cold after not doing so. Each individual is responding to his surroundings based on past experiences and new knowledge he has gained in the course of growing. A plant, while it does grow and can adapt to certain environments, does not do so in a conscience effort. Evolution proves that entire species can adapt to harsh living conditions over time, but it does not do so in a conscience manner. The ability to have a conscience state is what separates human beings from the rest of other forms of life; humans are the only known species to have a universal language and one of the few to have any form of self-awareness (Abortion). The definition of a life and a human life are therefore slightly different: a human must still retain its consciousness to be considered alive. A human fetus is not synonymous with a human life. A fetus is defined as “the young of viviparous animals in the womb, and of oviparous animals in the egg, when fully developed” (Fetus). Pro-life activists claim a fetus is the beginning of a human life, and thus should be treated as such from the point of conception: given all rights and liberties. While a fetus has the potential to become a human being, it is not one yet; it is still in the stages of development inside the womb. A zygote is most certainly alive as an organism; It grows and develops inside the womb. The heart starts beating after 18 days, brain waves can be detected after 42 days, and after eight weeks it can respond to pain stimuli (Fetal). However, it lacks the knowledge of self-awareness held by a human being. This comprehension of oneself begins to develop only after birth. Even the definition states the fetus becomes the young only “when fully developed.” A fetus is continually growing and developing prior to its birth, but it has not yet in a conscience state of being. The fetus is thus alive, but it does not yet constitute as a human life. Once the fetus has developed to the point that it can survive outside the womb, which is usually 24 weeks, it gains its status as a conscience human being. It is upon birth that it becomes a citizen, and thus gains its right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


The case of Terri Schiavo brought the issue of euthanasia, also known as assisted dying, to the media’s attention. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, saw that she was no longer alive, and thus supported the removal of her feeding tube. Terri’s parents, along with the government of Florida and the U.S. Congress, fought Michael and argued that Terri was still living. Terri was in a condition called a persistent vegetative state, which is the result of severe brain damage that causes a state of wakefulness without detectable awareness (Persistent). The patient is “unresponsive to external stimuli” despite their state of “chronic wakefulness” in which their eyes remain open, as opposed to closed when in a coma. A person in this state is not living: she has lost their state of being conscience and fails to have an animate existence. The definition of “life” Terri’s parents upholds uphold is the old fashion and outdated definition of simply having a pulse. Had this event occurred at the time this philosophy was accurate, their daughter would most certainly have been dead by anyone’s standards. Now, one may question does a person who is in a persistent vegetative state immediately cease to be living? Yes. They immediately lose their ability to be conscience and their growing, animate existence. Does that mean they then forfeit their right to life? Not necessarily. The possibility of recovery from PVS steadily decreases with time. Within the first six months, adults have a 50% chance of recovery (Persistent). After a year, recovery is extremely rare, and even when accomplish is done so with significant disabilities. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the final removal of her feeding tube occurred fifteen years after the initial cardiac arrest. At the point of the euthanasia, she was in a state of irreversible unawareness; while not being legally dead she was also no longer alive. Since each case is different, finding a standard period of time when any individual in a PVS has no hope of recovery back to life is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Each situation requires an independent evaluation, usually after a year in a persistent vegetative state.


While defining “Life” assists in the arguments of abortion and euthanasia, it also addresses other current political debates such as stem cell research and human cloning. At a speech given in Baltimore, Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele linked the study of stem cell research to the work of the Nazi’s: “Look, you, of all folks, know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool," he declared while addressing Jewish leaders (Mosk). He deemed an embryonic cell as alive, and thus said the research on such a specimen is as horrible as crime as the torture and mass genocide of the Holocaust. The Jewish leaders were appalled: "We absolutely reject any comparisons between ethical and lifesaving medical research and the horrors committed by the Nazis in their evil drive to create a master race," the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council Arthur C. Abramson commented. Steele’s leading opponent in the race for the Senate, Benjamin L. Cardin, stated that stem cell research is not experimenting on humans, but is saving lives. An embryo is alive, but is not a human being until it has reached the point in development where the fetus can survive on its own to have the ability to make conscience adaptations to its environment and have a growing, animate existence.




Works Cited


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with permission, from "Why Abortion Is Moral," by Brian Elroy McKinley, 2000,

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Lee Parmley. The Ethics of Euthanasia . Nancy Harris, Ed. At Issue Series.

Greenhaven Press, 2004. C. Lee Parmley, "Ethical Consideration in End-of-Life

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Reproduced by permission. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 06

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Oxford English Dictionary. 2005. Oxford University Press. 5 Feb. 200 <http://dictionary.oed.com>.


Mosk, Matthew, and Ann E Marimow. "Steele Is Criticized For Citing Holocaust." The Washington Post 10 Feb. 2006: B04. 10 Feb. 2006 <http://washingtonpost.com>. Path: Steele; Steele is Critized for Citing the Holocaust.


"Persistent Vegetative State." Wikipedia. 31 Jan. 2006. Wikimedia

Foundation, Inc. 5 Feb. 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistent_vegetative_state>.


"Terri Schiavo." Wikipedia. 6 Feb. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 5 Feb. 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terri_Schiavo>.

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