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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

photo by Robert Aichinger
Here in the USA, the issues surrounding the start of human life can seem so fraught with ambiguity that coming to any conclusion at all seems exactly the wrong thing to do: Too many people will be hurt, too many lives are at stake, too much offense will be taken -- in short, too much effort yields too much pain.

Wondering what the rest of the world might be up to regarding it all (and hindered by my classically American-Philistine inability to read any language other than English) led me to a number of sites in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. One publication I found quite readable, and useful, was a "Debate Outline" from the Danish Council on Ethics, called The beginning of human life and the moral status of the embryo [367KB PDF]. If you are looking for a decisive conclusion, presented in stone, that will clear things up for you with no ambiguity at all, this is not the text for you. It is, after all, a "debate outline." If, however, you would like to read something to stimulate reasonable discussion -- in your own head if not in actual debate -- you could choose many worse starting points.

The entire thing is 39 A4-sized pages in length but will reward the patient reader. And if your stereotype about Scandinavian thinking on morality and ethics is that their collective mind is already made up -- those free-thinkers! those socialists! those makers of seductive '60s-era Noxzema-shaving-cream TV commercials! -- I urge you to think again.

The "outline" begins by presenting four points of view on the central questions. Here's a particularly enchanting excerpt, this one from the "3rd viewpoint" in a section headed, "When Is There Human Life, and What Moral Status Should It Be Ascribed?":
When does the new human life really come about?, we ask, in order to enable us to distinguish.

...the answer to this question has been rendered impossible -- because, logically speaking, a further fundamental condition is that any precise indication of time is always arbitrary. From experience and from a biological point of view, we simply have no way of knowing when exactly life begins -- an aspect that comes clearly to the fore in the 1st background chapter of this debate outline, where it is stated that the time of fertilization is located within a window of twenty hours. The conclusion is obvious, of course: We have no way of knowing when it takes place. At most we can experience it retrospectively, i.e. see in the rear-view mirror that something new has happened at some point in time.

But that also means that the entire time -- from fertilization to conception -- becomes one borderland.

People have always had a hesitant and cautious approach to such frontier zones. Frontier zones cannot be travelled without falling under their sway. The point, after all, is that we do not know what will happen, or when it will happen. So frontier zones are always brimming with ambiguities, i.e. things that can be interpreted in one of two ways.

In the olden days, for example, such frontier zones lay in the transition between cultivated and uncultivated land; or in the twilight zone between day and night. This is also why the Ancients thought they were precisely the regions or time zones where trolls and elf-maidens got up to their antics. It was here that people were spellbound and enchanted, here that children turned into changelings and here that youthful swains were seduced. So popular experience also had it that special care and vigilance were called for at that particular hour or there on the edge of the moors. We are still travelling frontier zones today, and here too experience is needed. Rationality is simply too narrow a basis on which to act. Quite simply, a natural-science approach is not enough to be able to grasp this multiplicity of meaning, because the urge of natural science is precisely to reduce such complexity.

The brief initial spell between fertilization (the rapturous instant) and conception (embedding in the womb) is one such frontier region. The point here, then, is for all of us to exercise extra attentiveness, reducing our speed and laying down rigid rules as to what is and is not allowed as well as displaying the necessary deference in such matters.
"Deference" certainly seems a concept alien to American discussions of complex political, social, and ethical issues. Our concept of frontier exploration is perhaps shaped too much by pop-culture references -- "How the West Was Won" -- and too little by fables and fairy tales, in which the protagonists tread lightly when setting forth on a journey whose outcome cannot be known in advance.

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