MELISSA’S LETTERS: A D- on the sophomore project turns out to be an intellectually stimulating experience

Dear Sophomores,

So I’ve been working at Shriner’s Hospital this summer volunteering in the research department. The lab I work in uses frog embryos to study spinal chord development, so Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the embryos are taken from the frogs for injections that morning or the next day. Last Monday some of the embryos didn’t look so good, so Patricio took them to the sink and poured some bleach into the petri dish.

“Did you sedate them?” asked Oleysa.

“No, they’re just embryos; they’re not tadpoles yet,” Patricio replied.

Oleysa hesitated, “But . . .” and then finally sighed an “Okay.”

Tadpoles are sedated before bleaching so that they will not feel any pain. However, it is not required to sedate the embryos because they supposedly have not developed the capacity to feel pain yet. However, Oleysa still hesitated.

The tense exchange reminded me of my sophomore project—“When Does Life begin?” (one of the theories being that life begins when the fetus can feel pain)—in which my little sophomore self attempted to talk about tense questions such as what defines life, when does it begin, and how does this relate to one of the most controversial issues of our generation: abortion.

Thinking about this, I sat down to my computer and opened up the senior self-evaluation to start on while I was waiting for a gel I was running. One of the questions was “What has been your most stimulating intellectual experience in recent years?” and, as much as I hate to admit it, I realized researching and writing my sophomore project has definitely been one of my most stimulating intellectual experiences.

Now, Ms.Melinson really advised me not to do my sophomore project on this topic. Abortion is a tricky subject, there are no concrete answers and it’s terrible to research because instead of facts all you find is propaganda. But I did it anyway. All of this I found to be more than true; I got a D- on my paper. I used unreliable sources, and I really just ran out of time. It seemed like no matter how long I worked on that paper, when I read it, it was still just really, really bad, and didn’t make much sense.

But besides the frustration and unfortunate grade, I would not go back and change my topic. It truly was one of my most stimulating intellectual experiences—it completely changed my view on abortion and on life (sounds cheesy, but it’s true).

Through my sophomore-project research I learned why I originally felt the way I did about abortion before my sophomore project. My first-semester sophomore self was pro-choice. I would never have forced it upon anyone else, but I would have a hard time getting an abortion myself because abortion seemed pretty similar to murder in concept.

After doing some research and actually putting some thought into it, I laughed at my old naïve self. Obviously a fetus is not a person. You can tell just by looking at it. I realized I felt the way I did because I put a lot of value in “potential life,” which is the idea that a fetus’s life has value in its potential to become a human life in the future. In my project I explained this by asking: Would you rather kill an 80 year-old person or a 15 year-old person? Most would answer the 80 year-old because they have already lived. The 15 year-old still has a lot of life ahead of them.

However, the trickle-back theory shows a flaw in this way of thinking. The trickle back-theory points out that if you’re protecting a fetus’s life using the idea of potential life, then technically it would also be wrong to use contraception to prevent pregnancy because you are preventing potential life.

But I didn’t feel that using contraception was wrong. I came to the conclusion that a fetus must have different amounts of potential life throughout its development.

I found my thesis question—When Does Life Begin?—soon after beginning my research on abortion. I realized that the reason the issue is so controversial is because there are so many different views on when a fetus becomes one of us.

A while after narrowing my research to my thesis question, I realized that the reason we don’t know when life begins is because there is no concrete definition for life.

At this point sophomore me was quite confused. Sophomore me knew what life was. There are living, breathing people and then there are not-breathing, cold, lifeless, dead people. Dead, Alive, Black, White. Easy. But my research was proving this very fundamental fact false.

The Internet spewed out different definitions for life. All of them seemed inadequate, incomplete, and not quite right. I can’t really explain why it’s so hard to define life, but it just seems that any definition I find has exceptions or stuff included that I wouldn’t consider alive. But I think Wikipedia kind of gets it: “It is a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life in unequivocal terms.This is difficult partly because life is a process, not a pure substance. Any definition must be sufficiently broad to encompass all life with which we are familiar, and must be sufficiently general to include life that may be fundamentally different from life on Earth. Some may even consider that life is not real at all, but a concept instead.”

Even the biological definition of life is shaky: “Since there is no unequivocal definition of life, the current understanding is descriptive. Life is considered a characteristic of something that exhibits all or most of the following traits: homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli and reproduction.”

So, quiz time:

A clone: Person or not a person?

A robot capable of homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation,  and response to stimuli and reproduction: Dead or alive?

A person in a coma: Dead or alive? Would you consider it a person or not a person?

A fetus: Dead or alive? Person or not a person?

Well, it all comes down to the definition of life, and the definition of personhood. Shaky definitions lead to shaky answers.

Not only this, but I realized throughout my sophomore project that these questions are so hard because it’s not dead or alive, black or white, person or not a person. There is a lot of grey area, and although it may sound weird to say, “This is more alive than that” or “This is more of a person than that,” it seems that is the easiest way to answer these questions.

My sophomore project challenged some very fundamental beliefs of mine and made me much more open-minded. It taught me that there is always grey area in everything. I may not have found any concrete answers, but being able to appreciate how truly complex the abortion debate is is just as rewarding. My sophomore project was an amazing experience and a huge eye-opener. I would never again say that I am pro-life, and it was truly one of my most intellectual experiences of recent years.

You might all be dreading your sophomore project a lot as I was way back when, but it’s really a great opportunity to learn about something important to you and close to your heart. Please don’t pick a topic that you think will be easy. Pick a topic that is important, a topic that you want to learn about.

Because in the end if you can look back and write a five-page blog about how glad you are you did your sophomore project on that topic, it was so worth it.

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