Berkeley & Brains, by Stephanie Gray

That's me with some of the Students for Life at Berkeley before the big event.

That's me with some of the Students for Life at Berkeley before the big event.

On November 23, I gave a pro-life presentation alongside Dr. Malcolm Potts, the first medical director for International Planned Parenthood who gave a pro-abortion presentation; together, we spoke to over 400 students in a Public Health 116 class at the University of California, Berkeley.  Although the Q & A which followed our presentations allowed for a small opportunity to rebut each other's views, unfortunately the format of the evening didn't give time for a formal rebuttal of each other's lengthy presentations themselves.  

As it should happen, one of his students e-mailed me a question that came from a point Dr. Potts made, giving me a chance to provide a rebuttal.  Here is the student's e-mail and my response as a teaching tool:

Question from a Berkeley Student:

I am a second-year student at UC Berkeley, and I just returned home after listening to yours and Dr. Potts' presentations tonight. First of all, I would like to thank you for coming and starting the conversation here; Berkeley is a tough place to bring up pro-life arguments but you were incredibly interesting to listen to. 

I am very curious to hear your thoughts regarding the issue of life support. If 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?

Hope my question(s) makes sense. Again, thanks so much for bringing this discussion up. It was the most engaging lecture I have experienced in this class all semester. My friends and I were discussing it the entire walk home, and I must applaud you on your bravery when faced with an auditorium full of liberal Berkeley students!

My reply:

Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful e-mail.  Although the topic is a sensitive and touchy one, you and your classmates were respectful and welcoming and I appreciate that--thank you!

I think you've asked a fantastic question!  There is an article called "Life: Defining the Beginning by the End" that I'd like to recommend to you here and would love your feedback on.  That article is authored by the same professor of neurobiology, Dr. Maureen Condic, whose paper, "When Does Human Life Begin?" I mentioned in my presentation last night.  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.  Fascinating, eh?! [And the Canadian in me slips out ;)].

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.  I've developed an FAQ here, which gives perspective on end-of-life matters.

I hope that was helpful.  Thank you again for your thoughtful message, and please know that I'd be happy to hear from you again should you have more questions or feedback. 

All the best, and happy American thanksgiving!
Stephanie :)