The human condition has two and only two absolutes. Born we are, and die we must. Everything between is a crap shoot; we control or not, influence or not, prevent or not - except birth and death.
From primitive times birth has been haphazard at best. For reasons that are, themselves, the subject for discourse, the morality of birth has been the jealously guarded demesne of the shaman and his modern scion. Men and women, and ultimately women acting on their own, have risen to the dubious challenge proclaimed by these morality harbingers. Once they figured out why, even very primitive folk quickly learned how, so that humans from early on developed some measure of control over birth. And when that control failed, simple expediency resulted in destruction of the fetus - after birth in less advanced societies (infanticide), and before birth in advanced societies (abortion).
So humans have gained a modicum of control over human conception. One can argue (and many do) about the inception of the human individual. We actually do control the fact of birth by whether or not we abort (leaping forward to the advanced condition, of course), but the only apparent control over inception still lies with the shaman. Ironically, when we choose to terminate a conception, we acknowledge the first absolute and effect the second.
The hue and cry surrounding this whole subject results in large measure from the confusing conflict between competing religion-based moralities and ethics, which is derived from first principles. This confusion is compounded by the mistaken belief of the "choicers" that their position is ethical. In actuality, their position is a moral consequence of their peculiar set of beliefs, which is, itself, functionally equivalent to the belief set of their most ardent opponents.
Ethics does not address the point of conception since it is a factual occurrence. The only way ethics can address the point of inception is by definition, since there is no demonstrable mechanism, point, element, or anything else upon which to focus. By consent as a group, or quite arbitrarily as an individual, we can define an inceptive point, or we can even choose to ignore the concept entirely. Within a group with an established ethical system, once that point is defined, the internal ethics take over with a consequential effect on how that group deals with terminating a conception.
Conflict and confusion arise with the clash of moral judgments which are based on religion (or the equivalent). Emotion rules - sometimes disguised as reason, but emotion nonetheless.
The opposite end of the spectrum has always been more clearly defined. Without regard to moral or ethical considerations, as an individual I can end my life, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it - after the fact. The moral considerations of this act, of course, are as multitudinous as the world's religions and their many sects. Once again, conflict and confusion are the norm. As before, most of the arguments are based upon a clash of moral judgments. "True Believers" are enjoined not to kill; their moral judgment is clear and simple. "Secular Humanists" enjoin themselves to prevent suffering; their moral judgment is equally clear and simple. So is the clash.
Ethics enters the equation in two distinctly different ways. On one hand, any system of ethics genuinely derived from first principles will hold an individual strictly accountable for the consequences of his or her acts. Thus, even after I am no longer living, my act of suicide carries ethical consequences. The nature of these consequences will determine whether or not my suicide is ethical. On the other hand, there are profound ethical considerations when my death is facilitated by another individual or other individuals. These considerations still hinge in large measure on the accountability issue already raised, but they also address the ethical issues surrounding the value of life and justifications for terminating life. More often than not, however, the ethical voice of reason will be drowned out by the sycophants of morality.
With a growing level of sophistication, the human race has gained increasing control over both birth and death. The advent of genetic engineering has brought us to the threshold of a revolution that will cause the moral clashes over birth and death to pale by comparison.
Human organ transplants are relatively routine procedures in hospitals today. Most of the problems relating to rejection of transplanted organs by the host body have been overcome. Recently, patients have become recipients of multiple organs. We have come a long way from the experimental heart transplants originally conducted in South Africa.
This entire subject raises a perplexing ethical issue. In order for a patient to live, an appropriate donor-organ must be available. Under most circumstances, however, the only way for such an organ to become available is for the donor to die. This is a tough problem even for clear-sighted "True Believers." Society has taken the approach that a person can choose to make his or her organs available for transplant upon death. In rare circumstances, society has even mandated the use of certain available organs. It is not a great leap from here to a situation where a wealthy individual pays a large sum of money to the estate of another individual who agrees to commit suicide, making his or her organs available to the "purchaser." So long as the individuals involved in this transaction strictly observe the ethical considerations surrounding accountability for consequences of acts, there is no reason why such a transaction cannot be ethical.
Now put this transaction into the framework of an entrepreneurial society. One can easily envision a clearing house for human organs, a sort of centralized brokerage through which human organs are made available to the medical community. Now one step further. Individuals acting as brokers, and noting that demand for organs always outstrips supply, take actions that ensure a steady supply of needed body parts. In other words, they either kill or arrange the killing of individuals who have the right parts and are located in the right place. It probably is not moral within the framework of any religion; it certainly is not ethical. But also, certainly it will come to be.
As a consequence of genetic engineering, there is an intriguing solution to this nasty potential problem. Recently, human fetuses were cloned in a laboratory. What this means is that living human cells were genetically manipulated so that they became human zygotes, with the capacity for growing, and, if placed in the appropriate environment, of coming to term. The scientists who performed this experiment carefully pointed out that the specific zygotes they created were genetically damaged, so that they never could have developed into actual fetuses. This seemed to quell all but the most fanatic moral outrage over their experiment.
Had the zygotes been normal, could the resulting fetuses have been implanted in a womb and brought to term as normal, healthy human beings? Yes, absolutely! (Moral outrage!) With due consideration for consequences, however, there is no ethical reason for not completing such an experiment.
There is another exciting possibility. A zygote appropriately manipulated so that the resulting fetus could be brought to term, but with all higher brain function disabled, would be a living, entirely non-sentient "bag of spare parts" for the individual who originally donated the cells. The implications are staggering. Upon a human birth, cells would be removed and engineered to produce one or more "spare parts" ("SPARTS") systems. These SPARTS would develop at the same rate as the developing human. At any time, appropriate organs of just the right size and biochemical character would be available for transplanting into the developing human - right up to and through adulthood into old age. In fact, by storing cells and initiating the cloning process at appropriate intervals during the human's lifetime, young, healthy spare parts would always be available. Based upon current knowledge, there is no reason why a human with this kind of SPART support could not live for 150 years or more.
The religion-based moral outrage at this concept will be horrific. But there is no ethical reason why it cannot be done. In fact, there are good ethical arguments for making it happen, since harm is not done to living human beings (SPARTS could not possibly be called human since they would possess no sentience whatever), and since the consequential life of human beings can thereby be lengthened.
One of the interesting consequences of this concept is the creation of an entire industry designed to store, clone, grow, and otherwise deal with SPARTS. Thus, by applying the SPART concept to society in a general way, we can extend meaningful human life, and enhance the overall economic well-being of society. For the first time in human history, we will have taken the fullest possible control of both the beginning and the end of the human experience.