Applied Bioethics Magazine

Issue No. 01: The Human Person

A Longitudinal Life

Discourse in the modern era is on life support. Most of us only experience debates in the context of a political election cycle. Those aren't debates; they're 90-minute campaign ads mixed with quibbles and shouting. Insecure positions and weak logic cause positions to collapse at even a cursory challenge. It's a sad commentary on modern thought.

Ancient Greek philosophical texts often take the form of recorded debates. Known as dialogues, the great thinkers of the ancient world gathered in the public squares and schools to debate a single idea. (My favorite is On the Nicomachean Ethics.) What stands out most to the readers of these dialogues is the willingness of all parties to have their positions challenged and examined. Going through inquiry and debate invites everyone to consider their position and rationale. They gather new information and strengthen their arguments and logic. The result is a more thorough understanding of an idea.

A common thread in today's debate over the human person relies on assigning their worth using a standard of independence. This subjective standard misses the point. The nature of humanity is interdependence. We rely on one another to help meet our own needs. I want to illustrate and explore the life of a person. At each stage, we'll see how, despite varying levels of independence, we all rely on others to help us meet our needs.

His life begins at the moment of conception, the fertilization of an egg resulting in a single cell. At that moment, there's the release of a bright flash of light, a poetic beginning to a new life. We know that this is a new life because we can observe a DNA structure that is both human and totally unique from his mother’s DNA. If given adequate shelter and nutrition, he has within him all the biological plans necessary to grow, develop, and mature.

He relies on his mother in his first moments and months of growth and development. A mother's body changes to provide sanctuary, nutrition, and proper temperature. In the first hours after birth, he reinforces the connection to his mother through skin-to-skin contact. This experience confers tangible medical benefits as he transitions from womb to world. His body temperature regulates, his heart rate stabilizes, blood oxygenation increases, and digestion improves.

He grows by large percentages at home over the following weeks and months. Yet, despite this impressive trajectory, he's still unable to do much for himself. His mother monitors his schedule, checks his weight, changes his clothing, provides nutrition, and watches his safety.

Over the next several years, he gains more independence. This fantastic process plays out before his parents' eyes. Slowly, communication evolves from stares to smiles to babbles. He rolls over, sits up, and pulls to stand. He first rakes items towards himself, then pinches and picks them up. Soon, he opens cabinets and empties their contents. One day, he stands on his own two legs and takes those first steps, a uniquely human attribute in the world of mammals. Yet, despite this mind-blowing process, he still requires the whole care of his parents. He needs their help achieving adequate nutrition, maintaining shelter, learning, and staying safe.

The teenage years bring on more independence and still more parental care. The adolescent brain is dangerous, believing itself invincible in a world of perils. In this period of life, he experiences new and complex events. Struggling to understand them, his parents help him process and understand these novel experiences. He makes plenty of mistakes which lead to correction and learning. Unable to maintain a household of his own, he continues to rely on his parents to meet most of his material needs.

Early adulthood is the time in which his independence peaks. Despite living on his own after college, he's still dependent on others. From time to time, he'll call home for advice and help. Alone in the world, he'll feel that pull towards community and connection, and he'll stay involved in family life. He might even use his vacation time to go home for holidays and celebrations.

Marriage is his next milestone, the point at which he entrusts his well-being to his wife. The newlyweds begin their journey with one another, meeting each spouse's needs. As they welcome children of their own, the crowning glory of their marriage, they'll work together to care for their children.

Thanks to advances in medicine, his parents live longer than his grandparents. Soon his parents will come to depend more on him. They need his help with small things like errands or coordinating doctor's appointments. He may need to help them with their blind spots, like identifying when they need higher care.

One day, many years later, he'll grow old, and his children will care for him. One day, after a long and prosperous life, his body will fail under the weight of its frailty, and he will die a natural death. This sorrowful moment comes for us all, but out of sorrow comes beauty. He lived, shared, and enjoyed his life with his family and friends. He touched many who came into contact with him, and his life was uninterrupted. He had the dignity of natural birth and natural death.

When we chart out the life of a human person, from the moment of conception until their natural death, we see a confluence of independence and dependence. We're always in need of the love and tender care of others. So we're never independent, and that's a beautiful thing. True independence can slide into isolation, one of the most dangerous conditions for the human mind and spirit.

Throughout his life, his body took on many forms. It started as a single totipotent cell. Totipotent is a name assigned to a cell that can form into many different types of specialized cells. Cell division occurred time and time again as his body grew. We could see his physical form take a familiar shape at his birth. He developed over the months and years, rapidly outgrowing clothing all along the way.

At each cell division, his body followed those same blueprints present in his first moment of life. The instructions encoded in his DNA guided his development as old cells died and new cells developed. At his death, the blueprints remained essentially unchanged. At every stage, he maintained adequate nutrition and shelter, and his life continued.

His life ran along a horizontal line, always progressing forward through time. Yet, no matter where he fell on the spectrum, he remained, at his core, a human person. He was a young man and an old man, a new dad and an old grandfather. He was an avid athlete and a homebound senior citizen, but he remained, in all seasons, a human person.

What this life illustrates is an expansive definition of a human. It's a definition that's unpopular in political and academic circles. It's a definition that precludes abortion, euthanasia, racism, sexism, hatred, bigotry, and violence of any kind. Life is complicated and grey. In contrast, the reality of the human person is as simple as it gets.

We shouldn’t let biology and science be the final authority on what makes a human person. After all, a physical body is only part of what makes a human person. Some human persons are tall and some are short, we all have different body builds, and have different complexions. An Iraqi War Veteran who suffered injuries in battle and had an arm amputated is no less a human person than their neighbor with all four limbs. The human body lacks uniformity in these examples, yet the essence of the human person remains the common thread.

If we were to let science be the final authority on what constitutes the human person, we'd miss out on some of the best aspects of humanity. For example, there's no biological way to check for or identify virtue. You can't test positive for kindness, humility, and selflessness. Virtues are essential to a life well-lived, yet science is blind to them. Biology can help us organize our world's facts, understand the things that we see, and make sense of life. However, we should remember that it only confers part of the knowledge we need.

The human person is more than the sum of their parts. It's a mistake to define the human person or define their worth on a physical basis. The essence of a human person confers their personhood. They possess a unique and unrepeatable DNA and personality, a physical body, and a soul. The human person is like a rare painting. You can see and observe a painting, but it's hard to pinpoint or grasp the beauty that it possesses. You can see the colors and feel the texture of the canvas, but you can't touch its beauty. It's intangible while remaining genuine. It's the same way that we should approach each human person. We should appreciate them for who they are, their beauty, and their inherent worth. Their existence, the result of the remarkable process of human development, is something beautiful.

Our society endures turmoil today, with much of it revolving around the many -ism's from throughout history. Defining the human person based on their bodily features is the intellectual foundation of many of these -isms.

If we refuse to accept that all human persons are worthy of dignity and respect, from the moment of conception until natural death, we give injustice an opening to exploit. If one class of people, such as those in the womb, can have their humanity reduced and injured, why not people with a particular disability or skin tone? Why not people who think in a specific way or worship a god that we don't recognize? This toxic worldview will ensure that misery and human suffering endures until it's defeated.

The bulwark against injustice, grave offenses against people, and crimes against humanity is the expansive view of the human person that accepts, appreciates, and celebrates the worth of every human life.

It's regrettable to see our society fall into the trap of utilitarianism in our legal code. Abortion and euthanasia enjoy legal protections while their victims endure dreadful outcomes. Although it may be disheartening to experience this shift, remaining hopeful and engaged is essential. We may not be able to change the world, but we can impact the corner that we occupy. We can first live exemplary lives of service that respect the dignity and worth of all people. We can teach our children about this simple truth of life through our words and actions. We can advocate through our legislatures and our vote for the universal respect of the dignity of the human person.

The simplest of things can be the hardest to understand, especially when they require us to experience discomfort. Accepting that all people are worthy of dignity and respect requires us to live with the virtue of the saints and the unconditional love of Jesus. That's the work of a lifetime but work worth undertaking.

Human life is precious and delicate. No matter their place on the longitudinal line of life, every human person has inherent worth. This worth is separate from their physical being, intellectual or economic value. They have worth because of who they are and what they are. No law, no government, no culture can take that worth away.

The growth and development of a child through the various stages of pregnancy is challenging and precarious. Not only do many parents struggle to achieve pregnancy, maintaining a pregnancy can be just as difficult.

Our duty as human persons is to protect the most vulnerable among us, especially new life in its earliest stages. Vulnerability continues after reaching viability, the point at which a child can survive outside of the womb, albeit with intensive medical intervention.