‘ATouchy Problem of Definition’


S.Q. Lapius was never to be disturbed  during the chorale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, so I waited patiently.  As the last chord was struck I turned off the record player and showed him the front page of the newspaper.  The headline that had caught my eye concerned the indictment of Boston physicians for manslaughter, because they had performed an experiment on the fetus extracted during a therapeutic abortion.


Lapius scanned the page quickly and chuckled, “What the deuce are you so happy about?”  I asked.  “That isn’t funny.  It has fantastic implications.  Those doctors could go to jail.  They have already been suspended from the hospital.  They were performing a research project on antibiotics on the fetuses of therapeutic abortions.  Otherwise the fetuses would have been sent to the morgue, the information on the rate of passage of certain antibiotics through the placenta wasted.”


“Oh that,” Lapius said, still chuckling, “I saw that.  But that wasn’t what I was laughing at.  It was the adjacent headline.  That aggression was finally defined at the United Nations after 24 years of debate.”


“Don’t you think it should be defined?” I asked, a bit miffed that he had contrived to divert the conversation to an irrelevant subject.


“Probably not, Harry.  Anything that takes 24 years to define is probably indefinable.  A definition of aggression figures in the text of the Congress of Vienna held in 1815, and nibbled at during the Hague peace conference in 1907.  So it really has taken 150 years to come to a definitive conclusion concerning aggression.”


“Well, I was talking about the doctors, and indictments and abortions, not aggression,” I said sulkily.


“So was I, Harry, so was I.  Anti-abortionists believe that removing a fetus from its mother is aggression; and particularly in this case when the fetus was 24 weeks old and had a remote chance of making it on its own.”


“But if doctors aren’t permitted to perform experiments on these fetuses, research in this field, any field, may come to a stand-still.  After all, the abortion was legal, and why waste the fetus?”


Lapius waved impatiently.  “I’d rather listen to the Beethoven chorale again than have you prattling about this nonsense.  These arguments aren’t new.  Science has always forged ahead in the face of impediments based on moral considerations, theological law, legalisms and so forth.  The early great anatomists were grave robbers, and paid for the bodies.  Who knows how many murders were committed to sell an anatomical specimen to a scientist?”


“What has that got to do with the United Nations finally consummating a definition of aggression?”


“The point I was going to make, was that our generation has assumed a fearful burden by trying to define things like aggression, or questions such as what is life, and when does life begin.  Not all qualities of life can be rigidly defined.”


“Well how do you develop guidelines, then?”


“I don’t know,” Lapius said.  That was the last thing I expected.  For Lapius to admit defeat so readily was confounding.


“Do you think that science should stop?  After all, if they keep indicting researchers, or placing them in jeopardy, science will slow to a crawl.”


“Maybe it will simply be deinstitutionalized,” Lapius answered thoughtfully.  “The problem is that we have learned from science that some things are subject to definition.  We can define a chemical reaction or a mathematical problem.  But what we have not learned, is that we cannot define the philosophical problems of the humanities quite as easily.  Nor, perhaps, is it necessary.  We know for certain that a 12 week old fetus is not viable outside the body of the mother.  We do not know for certain that a 24 week old fetus is not viable.  Perhaps therefore the doctors should take cognizance of the fact that abortion is opprobrious to some people and cater to their sensitivities by confining their projects to fetuses in the 12 week range.”


“This work was done on a government grant.  In a sense the government should be a defendant in the case.  They approved it.”


“The government might well have to share the blame.  The Supreme Court may also bear moral responsibility.  Certainly this court action pinpoints the matter.  At what point is abortion murder?  You know, Harry, for several millennia western society has decided it wiser to leave questions such as the definition of life and death to the law of God.  The fact that it took the United Nations 24 years to define aggression makes me think that our forbears weren’t so stupid after all.  The problem with trying to define everything is that the definition institutionalizes the subject.  It perhaps prevents unreasonable people from doing unreasonable things, but it also deprives others the freedom to make reasonable decisions in the light of their own moral code, public opinion, theology, legality and whatnot.” 


This subject always made Lapius very sad. 


He continued.  “By institutionalization, I mean that in this case, although of course I do not know the facts, a therapeutic abortion was performed.  That means that the mother’s life should have been threatened by carrying the baby to term.  With the new abortion law, combined with the science of genetics, pregnancies are terminated at 24 weeks if it has been determined that the baby will be genetically deformed.  But if that were not the case and the doctor felt he had some freedom of choice, not being locked in by the determinates of a research project, he might have been able to look at the fetus and said, ‘Hey, this baby looks viable.  I’ll bet there is a chance here.  Let’s put him in an incubator and see.’  The thought might have entered his mind that the mother had her dates wrong, and that the baby really was 28 weeks instead of 24.  But perhaps the doctor had become automated by the directive of the project so that his free choice was eliminated, and he mechanically did what he had to do.  Kill a baby.  We can’t define everything, Harry.  To remain civilized we must continue to pay homage to the mystery of life.”