Friday, February 20, 2009

Leo and the fetus

Every morning, I read the day's entries from Leo Tolstoy's 'Calendar of Wisdom.' This is a book that Tolstoy assembled in his old age, intended for the edification and stimulation of generations to come. It is made up of thoughts and quotes taken from Tolstoy's reading, and from his own writings, including his diaries. In it, he cites passages that have struck him as important or particularly poignant. Not surprisingly, he includes 'quotes from himself.' He was an egoist, if nothing else.

One among the citations for today, October 15, struck me with special force. I have included it among my Collected Quotes, and I reproduce it here, since it ties in so intimately with my own recent thinking, as laid out in my essay on Religion and Spirituality, and in others of my musings. This is it:

Only one step lies between a five-year-old child and a man of my age. Between a newborn baby and a five-year-old child lies a huge distance. Between a fetus and a newborn baby lies an abyss; and between non- existence and a fetus lies not only an abyss, but a gulf that surpasses comprehension.

Now, I must say that I had not really considered the first point; namely, that the difference between a five-year-old and a man in his seventies is only ‘one step.’ But as I ponder this, I am inclined to agree. I have a four-year-old, and, I suppose, in contradistinction to the difference between him now and him at his birth, the difference between him and, say, me at my age, is relatively small. All his limbs and organs, his brain and personality, are pretty much formed. Whereas, as a newborn, he was raw potential, a nearly blank slate which could have developed in any of a million ways; the ways in which he can develop now, while manifold, are not so great as before. It is, thus, a huge difference, as opposed to a small step.

The difference between a fetus and a newborn, likewise, is enormous. The journey from a single cell to sustainable life charts a course that, in effect, mirrors the evolution of the entire race, including our emergence from the simplest forms of life on Earth. This, Tolstoy aptly calls an abyss.

It is his point about the incomprehensible gulf that separates a fetus from non-existence that so startled me, since, as anyone who has taken the trouble to read my postings knows, I have been wrestling with this very question of the relationship between existence and non-existence. Now, while I cannot agree that a fetus emerges from non-existence – existence has to precede its generation, since being cannot be created from non-being – I would agree that the difference between non-life and life represents an unfathomable gulf. And while the manner in which that gulf is bridged may be a mystery or a topic of debate, the fact that it is done remains indisputable. The fetus does emerge from a condition of non-life, if you will; that is, where there was only the potential for life, the fetus appears, and moves inexorably, and quite prolifically, towards life and consciousness.

My point here is that the fetus is life. It is alive. At no point can it be said not to be life, since there is absolutely nothing about its existence that does not comprehend or tend toward or produce life. Life is its very essence. It does not come into being for any other purpose; it does not exist toward any other end. Life is its nature, purpose and reason for being. The potential for life which preceded it has become life in its being. It is life, even if one wishes to argue that it is not alive.

And, indeed, with this argument, I would not take great exception. If you wish to argue that the fetus is not alive, but that it is life itself in its purest actual form, I might be inclined to agree. But if you wish to argue that the fetus is not alive and is not life, then I must demur. If the fetus is not life, then what is it? What is the nature of its being?

How do we define the nature of any being? We do so in terms of its origin, its reason for being, the intent of its existence, its purpose and function. We examine where it came from and what it does, in order to determine what it is. And in all these terms, the fetus is, by nature, life.

This is so because it does not emerge, as Tolstoy implies, from non-existence; but, rather, from precedent life, and the source of life itself. This animating force, which is present in everything that lives, is life in its purest potential form. Call it a soul, call it a life principle, call it what you will, it is that, the presence of which enables us to declare that something is alive, and the absence of which makes it unmistakable that something has died. It is, in short, the difference between life and death, and it is present in the fetus in its purest actual form. It must be, since the fetus emerges from it, and, in a lyrical symphony of development, proliferates and promulgates it, and sings praises of its presence.

That this life force is growing in strength and expressiveness within the fetus, even as it enables the fetus to grow in strength and form, is what makes the fetus a fetus. What is it a fetus of if not the animating force realizing and expressing itself through cells and nerves and tissue and organs, and, ultimately, through conscious reflection and creativity? For anyone to insist that the fetus, at any stage of its development, is not human life (and what other life form would it be) is to blind him- or herself to the fact that a fetus does not emerge from nothing – it emerges from life.

But why would anyone so blind him- or herself? The answer is all too painfully obvious: In order to be able to destroy that life without guilt. This is the only reason I have ever encountered for such an argument. No one who does not wish to destroy a fetus, or support others in so doing, ever insists, or even considers, that it is not human life. Only those who argue for its destruction do so. It is fear that drives the argument – fear of guilt. This fear of guilt forces them to attempt to deny intellectually that which they cannot in their hearts and souls deny: that a fetus is alive; indeed, is the purest, most innocent form of human life. Yet we cannot deny this because we too are living, and possessed of that identical life force. We know life when we see it, because we know ourselves.

To be able to destroy the fetus, and rationalize it, and, for example, parade what they have done in the streets of the nation’s capital, they must tell themselves an enormous lie indeed: That the fetus is not alive, is not life, and did not emerge from life, but that it is some other kind of thing which can somehow produce life, though it, itself, is not living. The object here is to cancel out life, to pretend that life is not life, so that the death they wish to impose upon it is not death. Life is not life and death is not death – such is the essence of their argument. Such is the lie. And that lie violates the very essence of what we are.

And so, to Tolstoy’s formulation, I would add: Between non-existence and a fetus lies not only an abyss, but a gulf that surpasses comprehension. And between a fetus and the adults who conspire to destroy it is a lie all too easy to comprehend.