Volume 5  Number 6  September 21, 2008
Second Opinions

When Does Human Life Begin? and Other Questions

Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.
André Gide

Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels
Lillian Hellman

Europeans are baffled by Americans who constantly proclaim the "separation of church and state" yet remain so stubbornly religious they increasingly conflate religious belief with politics. This was made undeniably clear when the very first general-election meeting between Barack Obama and John McCain took place not in a newsroom with network moderators, but in the sanctuary of Saddleback Church, an Evangelical megachurch with its senior pastor, Rick Warren, a Southern evangelical, as interrogator.

One of the questions Pastor Warren asked the candidates was "When-do-human-rights-begin? This is another way of asking "When does human life begin?" The disguised question, of course, was:" Are you for or against abortion?" Senator McCain, immediately answered, "the moment of conception" to great applause. Senator Obama posed it as a scientific vs. a theological question then said it was "above my pay grade." Was that too intellectual or simply honest?

Religion, Faith, and Belief

People often say they "believe" in something, such as their favorite college basketball team or the stock market (pace!), meaning they predict that it will prove useful or successful in some sense. This is not the kind of belief under discussion here, since "to believe something" whether it be in the political, religious, dietary, etc., is the equivalent of having faith that a particular belief is true. The word bias, as defined by Webster, might well apply as an "inclination of temperament or outlook", but in the case of "unreasoned judgment," this is prejudice. We enter here a confusing semantic jungle where belief equals faith, which further becomes judgment, opinion, and on into prejudice. In the words of Parkinson, "Where you sit usually depends on where you stand."

For the purposes of this discussion, I will again define religious, political or any other opinions or belief as faith or conviction by the believer that they are true.

What is "Truth"?

Since the 17th Century, thinkers have continued to develop a systematic and powerful approach to the problem of truth, called the scientific method. It is based on observable, measurable evidence, and subject to laws of reasoning. The "truth" of scientific knowledge is always "tentative, or provisional, constantly yielding to new experiments and information." Science is based on the premise that the process must be objective, and not subject to bias, opinion, belief, or outright lying.

The reader should understand that the scientific method can only be used to study questions susceptible to experiment or rational verification. This excludes most common beliefs and opinions, whether they deal with politics, religion, astrology, or animal rights. Although claiming validity for the scientific method is itself a form of belief; its special claim to superiority lies, among other things, in its practical success and the widespread acceptance of its approach to rationality. The founder of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, once wrote, "Truth is what the community of observers ultimately comes to believe."

So Who Was "Right," McCain or Obama?

We return to the question of belief vs. truth. Whose truth is it anyway? Is there a convincing answer to Pastor Warren's question? Senator McCain answered honestly by stating his belief that human life begins at conception. In my opinion, Senator Obama also answered honestly, though more accurately, when he refused to equate belief with truth.

According to medical science, human life is defined by whether the fetus (a Latin word derived from the Indo-European meaning "suckling infant") is capable of surviving outside the uterus, approximately 25-26 weeks of gestation.

Here, in my opinion, science offers the most rational and verifiable basis to the Truth of this particular question. Generally acknowledged, it is the best formula we have. To the believer who holds other views of when life begins, the definition above is heretical, proving that his answer is usually a form of religious or other faith and implies opposition to abortion. In the end, we are left only with that slippery word, Truth, and its fashionable disguises of faith, opinion, and belief. Ultimately, we are left to deal with reason, and the actual basis of knowledge.

I continue to stress, however, that an opinion about abortion is a separate belief, and does not require one to hold a particular opinion about when life begins.

This is a perfect example of how logic gets overturned when it comes to particular views or opinions. Rationality is slaughtered at the gates when certain beliefs, usually for obscure reasons, excite violent passions. As someone once remarked, "Zeal results when warped spirits try to handle strong feelings."

Thoughts about Truth in the Coming Presidential Election

We are all drowning in "information," whether it is belief disguised as medical truth or opinion parading as received wisdom. This is the unavoidable subtext of politics, be it the abortion question, the tax question, or when-we-should-get-out-of Iraq. It is astounding to the scientific community and others, with me included, that a consistent 85% of Americans tell pollsters at the Pew Research Center that religion is an important part of their life. In those same polls, 70% of Americans say they want their President to be a person of faith. The latest polls show a shocking number of voters now regard questions of faith, i.e., family values, gay rights, and especially attitudes toward abortion, taking precedence over such critical issues as the financial crisis and the war in Iraq. How tragic that we are so intoxicated by our beliefs we ignore the reality of our national peril. As Pericles remarked in 430 B.C. "Just because you don't take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

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Martin F. Sturman, MD, FACP

Copyright 2008, Mathemedics, Inc.

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