• Maureen Condic – first half of the article on what the end of lie can tell us about when life begins, i.e. a group of cells that function together in a coordinated way as an organism
  • Fetal origins (Annie Murphy Paul): TED Talk or article
  • FIXME (placement??) Berkeley and Brains blog from Stephanie Gray
    • Q: “f you consider an embryo to have human rights no matter the status of its brain development, what do you think about the ethics of taking someone off life support after they become brain dead? An embryo with no brain development is fundamentally in the same state as a human that is brain dead, so do you think it is ethical to keep someone who is essentially a shell of a human “alive” on life support?

In other words, where do you draw the line between when it is humane to “pull the plug” on an embryo versus a brain dead patient? If they have the same mental capacities (none), then why would one be okay to kill over another?”

  • A: “What makes the first link so insightful as regards to your question, is that Dr. Condic points out that brain death criteria is what should cause us to conclude that we should protect the pre-born, rather than not protect them. She writes,

“Embryos are in full possession of the very characteristic that distinguishes a living human being from a dead one: the ability of all cells in the body to function together as an organism, with all parts acting in an integrated manner for the continued life and health of the body as a whole.

Dr. Condic further explains the nature of the living embryo, as follows:

“Organisms are living beings composed of parts that have separate but mutually dependent functions. While organisms are made of living cells, living cells themselves do not necessarily constitute an organism. The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner. We can take living organs and cells from dead people for transplant to patients without a breach of ethics precisely because corpses are no longer living human beings. Human life is defined by the ability to function as an integrated whole”not by the mere presence of living human cells.

“What does the nature of death tell us about the beginning of human life? From the earliest stages of development, human embryos clearly function as organisms. Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”

What I like to point out to people is this: A brain dead person is dead because they have complete and total, irreversible cessation of the entire brain. In short, we could say their brains are “no more.” In contrast with the early embryo, their brains are “not yet.” Consider this simple analogy: A green banana will become a yellow one, but a brown banana will never become a yellow one. The brain dead person will never again have a functioning brain, whereas the early embryo will, in fact, develop a functioning brain. In a sense, this means embryos are more impressive than you and me; here's what I mean by that: You and I have developed to the point that we need our brains, so that if our brains are “no more” we ourselves are no more too (hence, “irreversible” cessation). You and I cannot live without our brains. The early embryo, however, has an incredible ability you and I do not have: the early embryo can in fact live without her brain (otherwise, if the early embryo, without a brain, were actually dead then the embryo would never develop into the fetus, infant, toddler, teenager, and adult like she does). She can move through some stages of human development without the very thing you and I need to continue moving through our stages of human development.

One final point I'd make is this: In the case of a truly brain dead person, there is no ethical dilemma about “unplugging” them because they are dead. There may be other cases, however, where someone's brain is not dead, but rather is damaged, which raises questions about how we determine what medical interventions to use or not use on such individuals.”