What is Life? (A Call From Governor Cuomo)

If you’re interested I have an account in today’s New York Observer of a debate between Mario Cuomo and Newt Gingrich at New York City’s historic Cooper Union.


I’ll let you judge for yourself my opinion on who won the debate but I wanted to mention the aftermath, because I got a call from Governor Cuomo this morning in which he wanted to discuss the meaning of life.

I’m always up for a good discussion on this question, in this case prompted by Cuomo’s response to my response to Cuomo’s remarks at the debate on the stem cell research controversy.

He’d made what I think was an important. neglected point. That there wasn’t only one religious position on the stem cell matter. The key argument over using embryonic stem cells was whether they were “alive”. And the “religious position” has always been characterized as “life begins at conception”.

But Cuomo, who is well versed in the theology of this question, pointed out at Cooper Union that St. Thomas Aquinas believed that “life” didn’t begin until 30 days after conception, and St. Augustine put the number at 15 days.

Which to Cuomo means that the definition of “life” for the purposes of stem cell and abortion debates is based on varying religious definitions of life. He believes that in the case of abortions the approach should depend not on life” but on viability outside the womb and that such viability is a scientific matter and that the period after conception for viability is shrinking as the recent birth of a 22 week old baby demonstrated.


But what then do we consider an aggregate of cells less than 30 days or 15 days after conception. Not life? I asked Cuomo.

“Potential life” Cuomo said. He wants to uphold Roe v. Wade but make abortions less frequent by defining viability upward and spending money to convince women to bring the unborn to term and funding their viable adoptions.

I got the feeling that he knows that there are no easy answers to this problem and that defining the difference between something is that is alive only potentially, but alive viably is still a challenge.

We went on to discuss the question of how Chief Justice Roberts would approach Roe v. Wade. As a precedent he would not challenge even if his religious beliefs differed because it would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee against an establishment of religion.

Or would he reason his way to strike it down on grounds other than religious. Or would he regard it as a kind of “super-precedent” that shouldn’t be challenged at all because it has been so firmly established within our legal and political culture.


We ended the conversation agreeing here are no easy solutions to any of these questions which is why they remain unresolved. But the process of thinking things through with Cuomo is an exhilarating intellectual experience, and reminds you that it’s still possible that he should be, if not President, then the next Democratic President’s Supreme Court nominee.

He still has a lot to contribute.


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