Commentary | Consciousness is not the prerequisite to life

Hyde Park

It’s interesting to see history repeating itself, each time in a different context. Before women’s voices were recognized under the law, they were nothing more than the property of their husbands. Prior to the war against slavery, dark- skinned humans were not any more valuable than beasts. And before the formation of organizations defending animal rights, they were nothing more than creations at human disposal. However, humans have come to reverse these faulty conceptions, and now the debate turns around the question of whether a blastula is alive or not.

Like many other readers, I have been observing the debate concerning Choose Life with increasing confusion and bewilderment. In the last issue, David Sean Paterson attempted to base his argument on biology. Certainly, Paterson is knowledgeable enough to talk about embryology in considering whether a baby in the second trimester is conscious or not – the answer is obvious.

But why does Paterson assume that consciousness defines valuable human life? Can we say that a newborn is conscious even though its nervous system is not yet fully developed? What about an individual in a deep coma, are they considered conscious? Maybe we’re all conscious when we sleep!

In all these cases, are we not talking about human beings? Perhaps Paterson can enlighten us where biology makes consciousness the prerequisite for life. Surely, the lowly yeast is considered living by biology, as it is the subject of intense studies that lead to the understanding of various diseases and allow their treatment.

If Paterson sees the blastula to be no more than a bunch of cells with potential, each of us is no better than “it.” Isn’t the nervous system, the basis of consciousness, itself a bunch of specialized cells? What makes it more special than the bunch of cells making a sponge in the floor of an ocean? Ah! It must be because the nervous system has the “potential” for receiving, processing, and sending information.

Surely biology has all of the answers that one needs, and it is not to be questioned – as the King’s decisions were once not to be discussed. The blastula has not and will never have a tongue to speak for itself.

I don’t understand why the discussion regarding abortion should be stopped. Are people afraid of other opinions? I thought we lived in a free country! If my argument does not make sense to you, just shake your head. You may even laugh at me, but you cannot prevent my voice from being heard. Otherwise, we will go back in time to when women, people of colour, and non-human animals were nothing.

Finally, I think freedom of speech is an important part of human rights. It is contradictory to say that allowing one group to voice their opinions publicly would lead to the disrespect of human rights; duct taping that group’s mouth would supersede human rights. If others disagree, exposing them to an unpopular argument would not influence their position. Also, according to Paterson, Choose Life has an “aggressive mandate.” I cannot understand what makes a pro-life group inherently violent. Perhaps someone could explain it to me because clearly I am lost.

Mostafa El-Diwany is a U2 Physiology student. He can be reached at mostafa.el-diwany@mail.mcgill.ca.


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