If Embryos were Extraterrestrials, would we call them “life”?

Michael B Dougherty had this profound thought:

If a small, multi-cellular organism was in a woman’s womb rather than (outer) space, scientists wouldn’t call it “life”.

What’s the backstory? A scientist’s claim to have discovered extraterrestrial, microscopic life:


Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center […] says he has found conclusive evidence of alien life — fossils of bacteria found in an extremely rare class of meteorite called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites. (There are only nine such meteorites on planet Earth.) Hoover’s findings were published late Friday night in the Journal of Cosmology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

… needless to say, if Hoover’s conclusions are found to be accurate, the implications for human life will be staggering. Here’s hoping that he’s right. (Yahoo! News)

As much as it is fascinating to speculate on the possibility of alien life, humanity’s greatest challenge at the moment is “discovering” the life that exists in the womb.

Ph/t: William Upton



  • Scott W.

    Excellent point TP. Find a rock on Mars with holes in it and people scream “LIFE!!1!”. Show a video of a fetus with functioning organs and there are still people who say, “clump of tissue.”

  • Kevin

    This discussion reminds me of something I saw recently…


    The link above contains this quote:

    “It was a rare night out for the rock star, who has a 3-week-old baby at home. “We have a baby that’s becoming human,” the first-time father said. “It’s amazing stuff.”

    “…A baby that’s BECOMING human…”

    I don’t claim to know anything about Trent Reznor’s views on when life begins(or ends, for that matter.) But that sentence struck me as odd.

    • Bruce

      “We have a rock star that’s becoming a moron” is how that should have read. Of course, to be a rock star, one does not have to be familiar with grade school biology.

  • Jeremy

    I think the confusion here is about the word “life,” which is often used interchangeably with “person.” The abortion debate typically centers around whether an unborn child is a person. Obviously, it is a human life; that’s a clear fact and it isn’t really up for debate. Personhood, however is much harder to nail down, so it isn’t nearly as clear whether unborn children are persons and thus have the moral rights of personhood. This whole story is an excellent example of how not precisely defining the words we use makes everything much murkier.

    • Bruce

      Read Germain Grisez’ “When Do People Begin”, which will clearly show, without doubt, that embryonic human persons are indeed persons from the point of conception.

      • Jeremy

        Grisez’ argument is very interesting – thank you for bringing it to my attention, Bruce, because it is absolutely worth reading – but I’m not sure that Grisez proves “without doubt” that personhood begins at conception. First, his replies to accounts of personhood IV. (when the brain develops) and V. (two weeks after fertilization) seem rushed and a little sketchy; he presents some evidence indicating that these accounts are a bit flawed, and then dismisses them entirely as simply based on “appearances.” I don’t think he presents a strong enough case against these accounts of personhood to dismiss them entirely. The second issue I have is that his defense of personhood account VI. (from conception) is, again, rushed. He asserts that a human zygote is not just a potential person but an actual person, but he doesn’t give compelling evidence to believe that. He provides plenty of reasons why some of the other personhood accounts aren’t perfect, but he doesn’t give much reason to believe that his account is any better. In short, I don’t think that his argument is nearly as airtight as you seem to.

        For anyone who is interested, here’s the link to his essay: http://www.twotlj.org/OW-When%20do%20people%20begin.pdf
        (And I think everyone should take some time to read through this, because it is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece.)

        • AuthenticBioethics

          Jeremy, implicit in your line of query is that personhood is a stage of development. Perhaps you can help things along by explaining why that is a sound premise. Personhood goes hand in hand with life: Either it is there, or it is not. It is not attained by a living thing that doesn’t have it yet.

          An old definition of person (Boethius, I think)goes, “an individual substance of a rational nature.” These terms are to be understood in an Aristotelian sense. An indivdiual substance is a thing that has its own life, such as a whole organism rather than a severed part. For such a thing to be a person, the kind of thing it is has to have the property of being rational. Now, not all individuals of a rational nature are in fact rational – a sleeping or anesthetized or comatose human being is not rational. Nonetheless, as a human individual, he is an individual of a kind of thing that is rational.

          By this definition, whenever there is a living human individual, there is a person. If a new human life occurs, a new human person occurs. From conception there is a new human individual.

          Personhood as a stage of development lacks any scientific basis. If one buys it, one must also agree that personhood can be lost. If there is no clear event at which personhood is attained or lost, then society is free to define “person” however it wants. However, definitions are just words and they cannot create reality. Valid definitions must match the objective reality of things. We can define “dog” to include things that meow but we can’t expect the meow-dogs to bark and catch frisbees. Same thing with the word “person.” We must know what a person is before we put it into words.

          • Jeremy

            Before I answer, this disclaimer: personhood is an issue I’m still struggling to fully understand. The opinion I’m about to give is what makes the most sense to me, but I’m not 100% confident about it.

            You’re right, of course, that an individual who is not currently rational, such as someone in a coma, is still a person. I would say that personhood is determined not by being an individual of a kind of thing that is rational, but being an individual that is itself capable of being rational. Presumably, the comatose individual is still capable of being rational because the individual’s brain is still capable of controlling the body and of having thoughts (if, though, the brain is so damaged that it could not possibly be capable of doing these things, I have a hard time seeing how the individual is a person; the person has died, or never existed in the first place if the brain was always so damaged.) But at the point of conception, the embryo has no brain at all, and therefore is not even capable of rational thought. Once the brain forms, then we say that the embryo (or fetus, at this point) is capable of being rational and is therefore a person. How highly developed does the brain need to be in order to allow for rational thought? We just don’t know. But we still have to draw the line somewhere. Our lack of knowledge may make that line somewhat arbitrary, but I would say that to be safe, we draw the line at the point when the brain begins to form. Then, we can say that, at the very least, any human that has no trace of a brain cannot be a person.

    • Matthew A. Siekierski

      The question of “personhood” is the same as the old question of “ensoulment”. Neither is important when looking at the matter of killing an unborn baby.

      • Bruce

        Not so. The concept of “person” is very important, and one has nothing to fear since it is abundantly clear that “person” applies to life from the point of conception. Instead, it can and should be used to defend that point.

  • whart

    The pro-aborts aren’t listening.

  • Paula HC

    Although Mr. Dougherty is on the right track, his statement ‘points the finger’ in the wrong direction. As the Report of the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session 1981″ states:
    “Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being – a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings.”

    No, the problem isn’t what the scientists are or are not claiming. The scientists have it right, we’re just not listening.

    “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” ~Walt Kelly “Pogo”

  • Bruce

    Most of the hardest-headed among the pro-death crowd admit that it is a life, and even human at that. But what they do not admit is that it is a person. They use “embryo” while those who know better use “embryonic human person” to describe the human being at that stage. Some of the dimmest among the pro-death crowd fail to give even infants the term “person” (most especially Peter Singer and Paul Myers). It goes to show their incredible ignorance of truth, philosophy, and basic human reason. The more some study and gain degrees, the dumber they become.



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