Defining life from death: Problems with the somatic integration definition of life

Bruce P. Blackshaw, Daniel Rodger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To determine when the life of a human organism begins, Mark T. Brown has developed the somatic integration definition of life. Derived from diagnostic criteria for human death, Brown’s account requires the presence of a life-regulation internal control system for an entity to be considered a living organism. According to Brown, the earliest point at which a developing human could satisfy this requirement is at the beginning of the fetal stage, and so the embryo is not regarded as a living human organism. This, Brown claims, has significant bioethical implications for both abortion and embryo experimentation. Here, we dispute the cogency of Brown’s derivation. Diagnostic criteria for death are used to determine when an organism irreversibly ceases functioning as an integrated whole, and may vary significantly depending on how developed the organism is. Brown’s definition is derived from a specific definition of death applicable to postnatal human beings, which is insufficient for generating a general definition for human organismal life. We have also examined the bioethical implications of Brown’s view, and have concluded that they are not as significant as he believes. Whether the embryo is classified as a human organism is of peripheral interest—a far more morally relevant question is whether the embryo is a biological individual with an identity that is capable of persisting during development.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)549-554
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2020


Dive into the research topics of 'Defining life from death: Problems with the somatic integration definition of life'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this