Human Life/Human Being

[old post from January 2016]

My philosophy professor once reprimanded our class for using "human life" and "human being" interchangeably. "Never use 'human life' when you mean 'human being,'" she said.

It was during her notes of what not to do on our upcoming term papers. I thought this was one of those nit-picky thing teachers sometimes have about the papers they read. A high school English teacher of mine once made it a rule to not use the word "moist" in any speaking or writing in her class. To be fair, it is a terrible sounding word.  The "oi" is not the most beautiful sound in the English language.

But for this professor, it seemed that this was not a personal pet-peeve but a major faux pas.

I, along with what seemed like many of my peers in the seminar, were confused by her distinction but brushed it of as a quirk that would be easy enough to follow and moved on to worrying about the 10-page paper's approaching deadline.

Months later and several books in the “masterpieces of Western philosophy" I was confronted with Kant's system of ethics.  The 18th-century German philosopher's proposed moral system states that humans should not be used as mere utilities to advance some ulterior goal, but rather should be treated as ends in themselves. In addition to this, his formula for moral decision making is predicated on setting moral precedents.

For example, if you tell a lie are you suggesting that everyone ever alive in the past present and future should tell lies? If the answer is no, then Kant would say, don't tell a lie. But Kant rarely uses the term "human", instead often discussing a "rational being".  

...

As Kant discusses a "rational being", my professor preferred the term "human being".  There had to be something more than semantics going on here.  Human lives, and human beings, one in the same as far as I was concerned.  But I had to think more about this. How could there be a difference between a "human life" and a "human being"? Does not being human and alive or being human and alive make one a "human being"?

The distinction, I believe that my professor may have been making.

A fetus, or even just a fertilized human egg, can only be a human life by definition. By it being a living cell, it is alive, and its species is human (ie, it's not going to become a tree). But not all recognize every human life as human beings.  The assumption that only human beings have rights, whereas human life is unrecognized as having rights, makes disposable for preference/convenience/burden-reduction of human beings. Perhaps Kant would not afford rights to non-rational beings: the mentally handicapped or children.  These distinctions are ones that I cannot help but find incredibly problematic and ones that marginalize the most vulnerable in our society.

I thought of my grandfather, whose reason is impaired by Alzheimer’s; of my cousin, an excited new mom; of a relative with Down syndrome; of a family friend who mourned the loss of her child after a miscarriage; and of my close friend, herself the product of a crisis pregnancy. I thought of my childhood babysitter’s husband who has been a ward of the state for years now after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.  

All people–unborn, mentally impaired, or born into underprivileged circumstances or mothers in crisis situations–are human beings because they are human lives. The two terms are interchangeable. To be human and alive is all it should take for someone to care deeply about protecting and preserving life. I see no circumstance (age, religion, financial status, gender/sexual identity, ability, race/ethnicity) as enough to detract from the innate value that every human brings into this world.

I feel a deep responsibility to support these people in my community regardless of their position in life. To strip human lives of rights, especially life, is a problematic act.  It assumes that arbitrary criteria can remove value to a human life—not being conceived in the most planned or privileged circumstances, not being able to care for oneself due to mental impairment, or needing extra financial and educational support.

Panel Discussion: Transcending Partisan Politics

            Thanks to the Human Life Review, members of the Columbia community were able to listen to a panel of experts discuss nonpartisan approaches to talking about pro life issues, mainly that of abortion. The panel which included Charles Camosy (professor at Fordham University), Carol Crossed (activist,founder of Feminists for Nonviolent Choices, and president of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum), Molly Hemingway (journalist and senior editor for The Federalist),Maria Mafucci (director of the Human Life Review), and moderator Christopher White (director of Catholic Voices),  highlighted how pro lifers exist on both sides of the party line though conservatives are often able to be more vocal about their views than their liberal counterparts who are frequently silenced and ostracized by the rest of their party. From speaking about the way in which movies can surprisingly reveal how connected the American subconscious is to pro life values to how principles espoused by many pro lifers today are in line with important core values of the early feminist movement, the panelists strove to tear down the politically motivated misconceptions which often limit pro life v. pro choice debates. It was clear that all of the experts push the boundaries of the narrow, stereotypical image of pro lifers with their everyday commitment to the cause, and possibly the greatest takeaway from the event was that, though possessing different political ideologies, they were able to show how boxing people in with pro life and pro choice labels does not do justice to the complex concerns people have about issues of life or to what is really at stake for those affected by these issues.

-Aurora C. CC'20

 

Standing on My Own Two Feet (For the Millions Who Can't)

People always talk about how college will be the best four years of your life, but everyone seems to forget to mention what a challenge it is. You are dropped in a brand new place and all of a sudden are expected to stand on your own two feet. Making friends isn’t the piece of cake those long-graduated will tell you it is.  Coming to Columbia was very challenging for me, and made even more challenging by the fact that I am not the type of person to admit when things are difficult. The one group I found my place here with, though, is Columbia Right to Life.

Being a member of Right to Life is not easy. On a good day, there are ten members, and I am not going to lie – it is not easy to stand firm in your convictions at a place where your convictions are by far the minority opinion. But of all I have experienced at college thus far, Right to Life has been the most gratifying.

I turned 19 years old on January 22nd of this year – the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that constitutionalized abortion in the United States. Since that decision, around 1 million babies haven’t been able to celebrate a birthday in the United States every year. 2,500 other 19 year olds did not celebrate their birthdays with me because they were never born. That is why I spent my birthday with Columbia Right to Life in Washington, D.C. marching through one of the top five largest snow storms the city has ever seen at the March For Life. We got snowed in and stuck in DC for two extra days, but we marched with thousands of others for the millions who couldn’t.

Words cannot describe the atmosphere of the March For Life. All that can be said is that everyone is overflowing with love—love for all human life, in all forms.

Columbia Right to Life has given me some of my best and closest friends at Columbia, something vitally important to a new college student. But even more importantly, Columbia Right to Life gives me a place where I can stand up for what I believe. Regardless of your beliefs, this is a feeling to which many of you Columbia students can relate. You know that there are few feelings better than taking a stand for what is important to you. And I believe in life.

Caroline H. CC'19