Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Conservative MP wants to create false dichotomy

CBC News reports that the Member of Parliament for the Kitchener Centre riding, Stephen Woodworth, wants to know when life begins.

It's probably no surprise that Woodworth is in the Conservative party, noted for their anti-abortion stance.

Woodworth brings up a good point... that we already have a 400 year old definition of when someone becomes a human. From his press release, "The important question is whether this 400 year old Canadian law is supported by 21st century medical science and principles of human rights." I agree. The definition should be looked at, and then tossed away.

So, what's wrong with trying to determine the instance when life begins?

The problem is that it's a false dichotomy. The terms "life" or "alive" are used to label categories of things that usually exhibit certain properties: reproduce, consume resources. But there isn't any scientifically defensible definition for life. After all, we're all just bundles of atoms moving around. For example, if a person is blown to bits by a bomb, their cells will continue to live for a time in clumps strewn on the ground. Is that person dead or alive? Neither... it's a false dichotomy.

This definition (or lack thereof) for life might strike you as shocking. But it's the same for the term "species"; we have no bullet-proof definition. The widely used "population of organisms that can interbreed" seems okay, until you find two populations that CAN interbreed, but don't because they're too far apart. So, many define a species as a geographically localized population of organisms that can interbreed. In the end, though, the word "species" is just a label to help us categorized what we see. Just a word. It does not carry the fundamental cleaving of reality that most people think.
Life is the same way. It's not an all-or-none phenomenon.

The logical snags of the question even show up in Woodworth's own words, "Is it a correct principle for a Canadian law to designate anyone who actually is a human being as a non-human?" Huh?!

In the end, trying to paste a starting-line on when life begins is - at best - a value judgement, and - more probably - an attempt to make an end-run around science and install good'ol religious fundamentalist values into Canadian's lives, whether they like it or not.

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