Definitions matter

Sometimes ethicists and philosophers seem to be overly concerned about the definitions of the words we use, but how we define words can make a significant difference in ethics. This has recently been illustrated by a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (as reported in Nature News Blog) which struck down the prohibition of IVF by the Costa Rican constitutional court. It is interesting that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was created by the American Convention on Human Rights which was adopted in 1969 in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Article 4.1 of that document states “Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” The Costa Rican court had based its prohibition of IVF on the fact that IVF denies that right to life of many fertilized eggs that are not implanted. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights struck down Costa Rica’s prohibition of IVF by redefining the term conception in its foundational document to mean the time after implantation and not the time after fertilization.

This serves as a reminder that we live in a time when people in power not only believe in ethical relativism, but in post-modern relativism of language as well in which words can be redefined to fit their purpose. We must remember that our stand for truth involves not just the truth of objective moral values, but also the truth of the meaning of the words we use to express those values.

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John Kilner
John Kilner
8 years ago

Yes, this changing of definitions from the common-sense meaning of terms undermines open and honest discussion of the issue at hand. A similar change occurred in some state debates over measures designed to legalize human cloning for research purposes by forbidding it for reproductive purposes. That was done by defining cloning itself as only occurring if an embryo implants in a uterus at the end of the process. Needless to say, “conception” refers to the “beginning,” not to a location. The beginning of an embryo (produced by cloning, IVF, etc.) is connected with the fertilization process. Implantation simply involves a change in location for the embryo, much as putting an adult in a diving suit under the ocean with an air hose connected to a boat above involves a change in location for the adult. But a location change does not change the personhood status of the adult any more than it changes the personhood status of the embryo. Defining personhood status in terms of location is a category mistake. Thanks for alerting us to this illustration of that.