Is there life on Mars? And, if there is, will we know it when we see it?
One might suggest we put the cart before the horse by not definitively determining what qualifies as an indicator of “life” before landing the first U.S. exploratory spacecraft on the Red Planet in 1976. Modern science may now have resolved this issue after a very much needed and focused survey was completed by those in the science community. The survey sought to standardize the complexities of identifying life to ensure there would be agreement should evidence on Mars be found of its existence.
This debate actually began after the 1984 discovery of a meteorite in Antarctica that had crashed there some 13,000 years earlier after being formed reportedly over 4 billion years ago. In 1996, some researchers claimed it contained fossils of ancient Martian microbial life; others discounted the claim.
In 2011, the U.S. landed the rover “Curiosity” on Mars. Its mission was to determine whether the hostile environment of Mars ever sustained life. Again, however, with no agreed standard for life, apparently the approach taken was “we can’t define it, but we will know what it is when we see it.”
A 2019 survey sought to provide a scientific answer. It created a list of things qualifying as living organisms, such as humans, animals, plants, etc. and then listed terms commonly used in discussing them, such as order, DNA and metabolism. This led to a statistical technique called “cluster analysis” – separating into individual clusters groupings of living and nonliving things based on family resemblances.
The first large cluster included humans, chickens, mice, frogs, etc. – all things having brains. The next large group was a cluster of live but brainless things, such as plants and free-living bacteria. Third was cell-like things, incapable of living on their own, followed by things commonly not considered alive, such as viruses.
The bottom line was, all things could be sorted fairly well into the living and the nonliving without getting tied down debating what a perfect definition for life was. But there was a consensus that a thing can be called alive if it possesses a number of properties associated with being so. It need not possess all of them nor even have exactly the same properties found in any other living thing as family resemblances for identifying life are sufficient.
On Feb. 18, 2021, NASA’s “Perseverance” rover landed on the Red Planet. This raises an interesting scenario. What if a fetus-like object were discovered on Mars, growing within some kind of alien hatchery, having a clearly discernible heartbeat and brain? Applying cluster analysis, it would qualify as “life” and NASA would do everything it could to preserve it as a miracle of life from an alien world.
Why then, if we would celebrate this as evidence of alien life on Mars, preserving it, do we fail to recognize the same miracle of life here on Earth? After all, cluster analysis would recognize both as such. Yet, while a fetus on Mars would be preserved for its uniqueness, that same uniqueness is ignored on Earth. It is not the happenstance of the interplanetary location of a fetus that would make it a unique miracle of life; it is the fetus itself. And, sadly, that miracle of life on Earth can, under current U.S. law, be ripped apart and discarded.
During much of America’s early years, abortions were legal prior to the mother experiencing “quickening” – the point at which she could first feel movements of her unborn baby, typically around the fourth month. Regulations were enacted in the 1820s and ’30s, primarily addressing the sale of dangerous drugs used to induce abortions. By the 1850s, the newly formed American Medical Association called for the criminalization of abortions, probably motivated more by eliminating midwife competition than ethical concerns. Support for this also came from those concerned about America’s growing immigrant population. Accordingly, in the late 19th century, abortion became illegal throughout most of the country.
But in 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) took on the landmark case of Roe vs Wade to decide whether a Texas statute banning abortion was constitutional. It ruled against the Texas law, holding a woman’s right to abortion implicitly existed within the right of privacy protected by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. In other words, the Constitution protects a woman’s right to have an abortion before a fetus becomes viable outside the womb – normally until 24-28 weeks. Sadly, because the woman failed to take prior precautions not to become pregnant, she has the right to snuff out the life she “accidentally” created and does not want. That has remained the law of the land ever since. As a result, estimates are that 62 million abortions have taken place in the aftermath of this decision. Today, a slight majority of Americans favor making abortions rare or illegal.
A 2018 law passed in Mississippi banning abortion after only 15 weeks has created a court case that will result in SCOTUS deciding whether to overturn Roe vs Wade or continue its almost half century reign. SCOTUS will hear the case this fall and probably render a decision in early 2022.
It will be interesting to see if the high court will consider at all the science community’s determination of what qualifies as life on Mars. If so, how ironic it would be that a trip to another planet to identify life there was needed to finally be able to identify life here.
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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.