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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Are viruses "alive?"

The fetus is a living human organism.

When I state this long-standing and (at least in the field of biology) undisputed fact, pro-choicers usually have one of three reactions:

Reaction 1: They argue the point based on ignorance of basic biology. “A single cell is not an organism.” “A zygote is no different than your skin cells—they’re both human.” "Human life doesn’t begin at fertilization; it began millions of years ago." (Here is our summary post dispelling these and other common pro-choice misconceptions.)

Reaction 2: They concede the point and get philosophical. “Sure, biologically the fetus is a ‘human being,’ but philosophically, morally, the fetus is not a person, i.e. a human of value who merits protection.” (Here are a few of our past posts about different concepts of personhood, and I highly recommend the Equal Rights Institute's Zoo Shooting analogy testing people’s intuitions regarding personhood.)

Reaction 3: They argue the point by getting philosophical. “There’s no consensus on what it means to be ‘alive.’ By some definitions advanced artificial intelligence is alive. Is the Earth ‘alive?’ What about viruses? Are viruses ‘alive’?”

In my opinion this third type of response is actually pretty interesting, in a way. It’s true that we don’t have one universal definition of “life” that applies to all fields of inquiry and accounts for all of our intuitions about what might be considered alive and what probably isn’t. Here is a great video by “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell” exploring these questions:


The video explicitly addresses the conundrum of whether viruses are alive:
This is where viruses make everything more complicated. They are basically strings of RNA or DNA in a small hull and need cells to do something. We’re not sure if they count as living or dead, and still there are 225M cubic meters of viruses on Earth. They don’t seem to care what we think of them.
The video doesn’t offer a definitive answer, only (fascinating) questions to ponder. But in terms of the abortion debate, this response is hardly the “gotcha!” argument some pro-choice people seem to think it is.

The fetus is a living human organism just as you and I are living human organisms. If we can’t know whether living human organisms are “really” alive because of deeply philosophical questions about viruses and the earth and aliens and AI, then we can’t know if you and I are “really” alive. Just like the fetus, we too are organisms made up of living cells that are made up of non-living microscopic machines.

So, at least as far as I can see, the pro-choice person making this argument has two options:

A. Assert that because we have no universal philosophical definition for “life,” we can’t really know if any human anywhere is truly “alive.” This strange premise leads to two implications that undermine the pro-choice argument:
  1. We don’t have to know if a human is “alive” in order to assert that human’s rights. The pro-choice person is asserting the right to an abortion even though the same person doesn’t seem sure whether the women seeking abortion are “alive” (since the pro-choice person isn’t sure what “alive” means in the first place).
  2. Uncertainty about whether a human is “alive” is not justification for killing that human. The pro-choice person is not (we hope) arguing that it’s okay to kill anyone at any time since we don’t really know what “alive” means.
B. Explain why these questions about “life” are profound only when it comes to the fetus and irrelevant when it comes to born humans. I strongly suspect this route will just lead us back to Reaction 2 above, but if anyone knows of a different response, I’d be curious to hear it.


In any case, when I say that the fetus is a living human organism, I am not implying that biology has answered all of life’s mysteries. I’m explaining that—to the extent you and I are biologically “alive”—so is the fetus. This statement is not a pro-life belief; it’s a long-standing well-established biological fact, and in stating it pro-lifers aren’t “twisting science” any more than are the countless biology and embryology texts which have explained for decades that, as organisms, we humans begin as zygotes.

The pro-choice people who are firm in their stance don’t tend to have a problem with this concept, because they believe merely being a living biological human is not enough to merit human rights. That’s fine—that’s a worthy discussion which we’ve tackled before (see above links). But I’ve long suspected that many pro-choice people are not nearly so confident in their position. How fragile does your view have to be if it only works as long as we can't really know if anything at all is "alive"?

"Viruses may or may not be 'alive,' so abortion is probably fine I guess."

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