August 6, 1993

Does Life Begin?

Each morn a thousand Roses brings, you say;

Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

It strikes me as strange that people believe that life has a beginning and an end. Sure, a person or a cat or a mouse is born and then dies. But a person or a cat or a mouse isn't life any more than a skin cell or a blood cell, an egg or a sperm cell is life.

No one knows how life on earth got started, nor will we ever know. It happened long before there were animals or plants. We can make some guesses, but they are virtually impossible to prove.

If you think that your being born and dying represents the beginning and end of life, think again. The life, of which I am a small element, began a very very long time ago. It will continue in my children. When I die, it doesn't mean that life ends; it merely means that I will cease to exist. It is as essential that I cease to exist as it is that a head of lettuce ceases to exist. Just as skin cells and blood cells have to die, every living thing has to die to make room for the next generation. Without death there could be no life.

If people asked, "When does a life begin?" it might make more sense, but life, as such continues; we don't know when it began, nor do we know if, when, or how it will end. It might end in ice or fire; in an atomic holocaust or a perpetual frozen winter; or it may continue forever.

When does a human life begin? It may begin when a man and woman meet and feel that sexual attraction that eventually leads them to the sex act. Usually the sex act ends in nothing. Sometimes a sperm cell meets a receptive egg. If everything is OK, the fertilized egg develops and, in about 9 months, leaves the uterus as a fully formed child. Fourteen or more years later, the reproductive part of the life cycle is ready to start again; and on and on and on.

Throughout history, that cycle has been aborted for many many people: the couple separates, the girl dies or the boy dies, the embryo dies and so on. Many more people are started than the earth could ever support. If this didn't happen... no, that's impossible. Death of individuals, be they cells, bacteria, plants, animals or people is inevitable and necessary to the whole scheme of things.

To say that life begins at conception, or birth, or somewhere in between is as meaningless as saying that life begins at that first kiss. When a life begins can be defined anywhere that one cares to define it. Catholic doctrine defines it as happening at fertilization. U.S. law defines a person as that stage of development when an infant can survive outside the womb. Even that can be iffy because modern technology can keep a baby alive outside the womb at a much earlier embryonic age than ever before.

A child, on finding out that he was initially unwanted, may ask "If you hadn't had me, how would you feel about me?" He essentially asks whether, if he hadn't been born, would he have been missed? A TV commercial has a woman saying that she can't imagine what life would be like without her child. Can anyone imagine what life would be like if it had been different from what it was? Can you imagine what your life would be like without the presence of someone you care about? Of course you can; but it would be a very different life. We know that the egg that doesn't end up being fertilized, or the sperm cell, or the embryo that dies in the uterus is not missed because no one gets to know them as people. People who long to have children and can't have any, miss something, but I don't believe that the family that has children misses the ones they didn't have.

If there is one thing that characterizes old people who have acquired some wisdom, it is a full acceptance of life as it is, with a minimum of "if only..." Life is as it is and as it has to be.

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