Prerogative of Life
A right to life, from conception to natural death.
The Beginning of LifeHuman development is a spectrum. At any point along the spectrum a human person is a complete person. For this reason, life begins at the moment of conception when the first unique strand of DNA is formed. Within this structure is the blueprint of development that will be followed through the process of maturation so long as adequate nutrition, protection, and permission are maintained.
There are myriad disagreements as to when life begins, but any attempt to define the beginning of life as any point beyond the moment of conception is structurally flawed. The structural integrity of these arguments are compromised because they attempt to define a human person by its features instead of its nature. As Dr. Patrick Lee writes, each human person is a “distinct, whole, and unique individual.” The human person, from its first moment as a totipotent cell through the moment before natural death, has the blueprints for development permeating every cell. If we were to extract that totipotent cell and examine its DNA structure, we’d see that it is wholly unique, though similar, to the DNA structure of the mother who has the honor of carrying and nurturing this human at the earliest stage of development.
An Inalienable RightThe human person has an inalienable right to life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. This right cannot be abridged, amended, or cancelled for any reason. Additionally, this right cannot be revoked or forfeited based on a choice or action of the patient. That is to say, a patient cannot give up their right to life. Any attempt to do so, such as by physician-assisted suicide, represents, at the very least, incompetent medical judgement.
On DeathThe Catholic Church holds, as do I, that the human person has a prerogative of life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
Traditionally, the medical community has relied on a cardio-respiratory model for determining death. That is to say, when a patient’s heart stops beating for a prolonged period of time, in combination with a cessation of breathing, it can be reasonably determined that death has occurred. In recent years, some have moved to a more neurological method for determining death. This method chooses to identify death as the cessation of all neurological activity in the brain stem, cerebrum, and cerebellum.
Pope St. John Paul II, in his address to the International Congress of the Transplantation Society in the year 2000, outlined the Church’s position on how to define death.
In his remarks, he noted that,
the death of the person is a single event, consisting in the total disintegration of that unitary and integrated whole that is the personal self. It results from the separation of the life-principle (or soul) from the corporal reality of the person. The death of the person, understood in this primary sense, is an event which no scientific technique or empirical method can identify directly.
Further, he noted that, “once death occurs certain biological signs inevitably follow.” (Transplantation society address, point #4.) This is how healthcare professionals can make a reasonable and ethical determination that death has occurred.
What John Paul has done here is truly remarkable. In the midst of a technical scientific reality, he turns the scientific definition of death on its head. He moves the focus from the event of death back to the nature and dignity of the person. He reminds us that in every encounter with the patient is an encounter with a person who has intrinsic value. After all, he notes in the same address, “the Church has no other aim but the integral good of the human person.” (Transplantation society address, point #1.)
Within the medical community, there is room for debate and a multitude of valid disagreements on all types of ethical and technical issues. Without equivocation, the medical community must respect the prerogative of life that each human person possesses from the moment of conception until the event of natural death can be certified with valid medical criteria. To act in any other other manner would truly be unethical.