Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

March 7, 2007

What is Life? (A Call From Governor Cuomo)

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 12:12 pm

If you’re interested I have an account in today’s New York Observer of a debate between Mario Cuomo and Newt Gingrich at New York City’s historic Cooper Union.

I’ll let you judge for yourself my opinion on who won the debate but I wanted to mention the aftermath, because I got a call from Governor Cuomo this morning in which he wanted to discuss the meaning of life.

I’m always up for a good discussion on this question, in this case prompted by Cuomo’s response to my response to Cuomo’s remarks at the debate on the stem cell research controversy.

He’d made what I think was an important. neglected point. That there wasn’t only one religious position on the stem cell matter. The key argument over using embryonic stem cells was whether they were “alive”. And the “religious position” has always been characterized as “life begins at conception”.

But Cuomo, who is well versed in the theology of this question, pointed out at Cooper Union that St. Thomas Aquinas believed that “life” didn’t begin until 30 days after conception, and St. Augustine put the number at 15 days.

Which to Cuomo means that the definition of “life” for the purposes of stem cell and abortion debates is based on varying religious definitions of life. He believes that in the case of abortions the approach should depend not on life” but on viability outside the womb and that such viability is a scientific matter and that the period after conception for viability is shrinking as the recent birth of a 22 week old baby demonstrated.

But what then do we consider an aggregate of cells less than 30 days or 15 days after conception. Not life? I asked Cuomo.

“Potential life” Cuomo said. He wants to uphold Roe v. Wade but make abortions less frequent by defining viability upward and spending money to convince women to bring the unborn to term and funding their viable adoptions.

I got the feeling that he knows that there are no easy answers to this problem and that defining the difference between something is that is alive only potentially, but alive viably is still a challenge.

We went on to discuss the question of how Chief Justice Roberts would approach Roe v. Wade. As a precedent he would not challenge even if his religious beliefs differed because it would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee against an establishment of religion.

Or would he reason his way to strike it down on grounds other than religious. Or would he regard it as a kind of “super-precedent” that shouldn’t be challenged at all because it has been so firmly established within our legal and political culture.

We ended the conversation agreeing here are no easy solutions to any of these questions which is why they remain unresolved. But the process of thinking things through with Cuomo is an exhilarating intellectual experience, and reminds you that it’s still possible that he should be, if not President, then the next Democratic President’s Supreme Court nominee.

He still has a lot to contribute.



  1. Or more accurately, “What is *human* life?” because animal life is not, for lack of a better word, sacred in the same way. The problem though, with defining viable life “scientifically” is that, scientifically, many non-human animals probably have a greater capacity for thought and suffering than a 3 month old fetus.

    More refinement: “What is human life to *Christians*?. Religious Jews have no problem with abortion, according to Jewish law. Different religions have different perspectives on this question.

    Comment by Shmuel — March 8, 2007 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

  2. Hear! Hear! Hentoff’s work as both a civil rights advocate/activist and as a jazz critic, for which he has recently been accorded the title of jazz master (the first non-musician with such a standing), certainly add up to Pulitzer prize material in my book. Nat is a national treasure who is not nearly well enough known.

    Comment by Jeffrey A. Wilcox — March 8, 2007 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

  3. I believe there’s two questions. In a constitutional state, which implies rule of law and limited government, the most fundamental question is first of all *who* decides what should be protected, how and by whom. Then you get to the question of defining what should be protected.

    The SCOTUS has said that the interest of the pregnant woman in deciding is, at least in the early stages of pregnancy, paramount. Others advocate that the state be allowed to decide, either at the state level, as before Roe, or the federal, perhaps by way of Constitutional amendment.

    For me, the deepest legal-philosophical problem with the Roe decision is the lack of a principled reason for determining who makes the decision.

    At Roman law, the basic rule allowed no state interference in creating or rearing children at any stage, whether unborn or born or even adult. The head of the family had absolute power over the family, though later laws put limitations on his power to kill adult children. But the principle is clear: if you made it, you get to decide what to do with it.

    Gov. Cuomo’s argument seems to spring from the Roman law notion, but modernizes it in recognition of the notion of individual autonomy in the tradition of the Enlightenment upon which our country was founded. No longer does the head of the household have absolute say. Rather, individuals make decisions for themselves. Thus, a woman, exercising autonomy over her body, would have the right to remove her child from it but not to kill it. If it dies in the process, it was legal abortion. If it lives (and I take it he’s saying that all (practical?) measures should be taken to save it), then it is entitled to the same autonomy and legal protections as other children (living outside their mothers’ wombs).

    I’m not sure how one reconciles that position, however, with one that grants the state the right to force parents to care for their children, which I think Gov. Cuomo endorses. Wouldn’t the same principle allow parents to neglect (though not affirmatively harm) their children? This is, in fact, how the Romans, when they actually did it, customarily took care of the problem of an unwanted baby, by leaving it on a hillside to die.

    Perhaps one can reconcile it by saying parents have the right to put their children up for adoption or turn them over to the state for care, but if they do not do so by a certain point, they’re obligated. That has implications for forcing men to pay child support for children they do not wish to have. Should the state step in to provide paternal support in cases in which a mother wants to keep a child but a father does not? But why should the state take responsibility for paying for unwanted or half wanted children? That interferes with the autonomy of the taxpaying public. The decision to have children, or at least to risk having children, is a personal one that occurs when one decides to engage in reproductive activity.

    These considerations lead me to reject Roman position and its modern extension, the notion that responsibility for child welfare be determined as a matter of absolute personal autonomy. It seems to me, that the state has either to respect personal autonomy and accept the fact of neglected children (which also means cutting-off all social welfare programs, because if the state doesn’t take care of abandoned or partially abandoned children as a matter of autonomy, then it makes little sense to do so when they become dysfunctional adults), or, if there is a general societal good in healthy children well-adjusted adults, demand that those who use their autonomy to engage in reproductive activity take responsibility for the results.

    On the other hand, and this gets to the second question, Gov. Cuomo may have meant that children have no autonomy of their own before viability (and can thus be killed at will). Then he would need to explain why not. If autonomy means ability to survive on your own, then it doesn’t start till children are at least four or five years old. If it means something like “personhood,” then the genetic make-up that makes one what one is comes into being when the sperm cell fertilizes the ovum. At that point, one exists genetically, and the rest is merely a matter of development – following the genetic map, as modified by life experience, until one dies. I do not see how viability equates to personhood.

    Therefore, as a matter of logicial consistency, it is my opinion that either the state should allow absolute autonomy, including the right to neglect one’s children and the right of taxpayers not to have to support them when they do, or it should insist that vulnerable humans be protected by those responsible for creating them. In return, the state should assist in providing reasonable care when the ability of the parents fails to reach a socially acceptable minimum.

    Believing in the societal good of healthy children and well-adjusted adults (call it religion if you must), I support the latter option.

    Comment by ricg — March 9, 2007 @ 5:27 am | Reply

  4. Ron – somewhat off topic, but since you’ve written about the life of spies – what do you make of the new book that deals with Philby. Written by his first wife’s daughter. Maybe you’ve written about it or not – It’s not in English yet, but thought you may have read it anyway.

    Not familiar. What does it allege? English pub. to come?

    Comment by Comment — March 11, 2007 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

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