There is broad medical consensus on the definition of death, and those standards have been incorporated into law in nearly every US state.
There is no such medical consensus on the answer to another big question: When does human life begin? including its reversal Roe v. WadeThis question has major implications for healthcare.
“There hasn’t been the same effort to really define what constitutes the beginning of life,” said KHN senior correspondent Sarah Varney.
Varney shared his reporting with “Science Friday” host Ira Flato after interviewing experts, including David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.
“Biological events are processes, not events,” Magnus said. “That means deciding where you want to draw the line is a decision to be made, not something to be discovered. So we have to decide which lines make the most sense.”
This can be a difficult decision.
“When people talk about the onset of conception, do they mean when the sperm first contacts the zona pellucida of the egg cell? When does that actual nucleic material, that DNA, actually start to play a role, which isn’t until some cell division? Somewhere in that process we call that concept,” Magnus said.
People on all sides of the abortion debate want answers, but some biologists say the science suggests that conception may be a point too early to consider the onset of personhood.
Ultimately, doctors ask “What is life?” or “What is death?” May be missing the point, Magnus said.
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