Should Zygotes be Considered People?

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In the United States certain Republicans have been proposing legislation that would define a zygote as a legal person. The most recent instance occurred in Mississippi when voters were given the chance to approve or reject the following: “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The voters rejected this, but there are other similar attempts planned or actually in the works. There are, as far as I know, no serious attempts to push person hood back before fertilization (that is, to establish eggs and sperm as being persons).

Since this is a matter of law, whether or not a zygote is a legal person or not depends on whether such a law is passed and then passes legal muster. Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people. Or whales. Or forests. There is, after all, no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.

From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.

But, as I noted, the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-after all, zygotes (or anything) could become legal persons with the appropriate legislation. This leads to a point well worth considering, namely the consequences of such a law.

The most obvious would be that abortion and certain forms of birth control (such as IUDs and the “morning after” pill) would certainly seem to be legally murder. After all, they would involve the intentional (and possibly pre-meditated) murder of a legal person. This is, of course, one of the main intended consequences of such attempts. However, there would seem to be other consequences as well.

One rather odd consequence would be in regards to occupancy laws and regulations. These tend to be set by the number of persons present and unless laws are written to allow exemptions for zygotes, etc. then this would be a point of legal concern. This seems absurd, which is, of course, the point.

Another potential consequence is the matter of deductions for dependents. If a zygote is a person, then a frozen zygote is still a person and presumably the child of the parent(s). This would, unless specific laws are written to prevent this, seem to allow people to claim frozen zygotes as dependent children and thus take a tax deduction for each one. While the cost of creating and freezing zygotes would be a factor, the tax deductions would seem to be well worth it. Perhaps this is the secret agenda behind such legislation: people could avoid taxes by having enough zygotes in the freezer.

Of course a “zygotes are people” law might also entail that it would be illegal to freeze zygotes on the grounds that they would be confined or imprisoned without consent or due process. Naturally, laws would need to be written for this and they would also need to be worded so as to avoid making “imprisoning” a zygote in the womb a crime. There is also the matter of in vitro fertilization and whether or not certain processes would thus be outlawed by the “zygotes are people” law.  After all, some of the zygotes created do not survive. If these zygotes are people, IVF could be regarded as involving, if not murder, at least some sort  homicide or zygoteslaughter. Of course, outlawing such practices seems to be one of the intended consequences of these proposed laws.

Another point of concern is the matter of death certificates. After all, the death of a person requires a certificate and the usual legal proceedings. If a zygote were to be a legal person, then it would seem to follow that if a zygote died, then the death would need to be properly recorded and perhaps investigated to determine if a crime were committed. Naturally, specific laws could be written regarding various circumstances (for example, should women have to report every zygote that fails to implant-thus resulting in the death of a person). Perhaps the state would need to set up womb cameras or some other detector to monitor the creation of these new people so as to ensure that no death of a person goes unreported.

One rather interesting consequence is that such a law might set the precedent that any cell that could be cloned would count as a person (after all, as argued above, it would seem to share the relevant qualities of a zygote and the law in question mentioned cloning or any functional equivalent). This would have some rather bizarre consequences.

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41 Comments.

  1. A person in the psychological and, in my view, relevant philosophical sense is a being that is able to be self-conscious and to conceive of and think about itself as itself and as the same being in different times and places (by means of a language).
    In this sense, neither zygotes, embryos, fetuses, neonates, nor young infants are persons.

  2. a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being

    That’s incorrect. A zygote is, biologically speaking, a human being in an early stage of development. This is similar to an infant being in an early stage of development. The zygote is not part of a causal chain that leads to a human being, but is a human being in a causal chain of development that leads to later stages of development (e.g., adulthood).

    (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning)

    What you are saying is that any cell in your body has the potential to . . . be turned into a zygote. The fact that any cell can be turned into a human being, though, does not change the fact that individual cells are categorically distinct from zygotes.

  3. I would have to say that a person who has a birth-date is not at all like a person who does not. To me it seems rather bizarre to be grouping them together. Therefore laws governing them have a need to be tailored to each separately.

  4. “Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people.”
    I would simply point out that while for some legal matters corporations are persons for many others they are not. Corporations may not marry, may not adopt and cannot be murdered. Modern law tends to shy away from universal rules and as a result, corporations are persons only for limited purposes involving commercial transactions, standing in court and most recently, First Amendment rights.

  5. “…no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.” Yes, I agree. Philosophers have examined the basis for determining personhood for centuries, and have really not identified any single factor, whether cognition, volition, or DNA that would make a person.

    “…the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-” This I cannot understand. If the philosophical argument fails, then on what basis can the law define a person? Perhaps it should be the task of philosophy, at this point in history, to convince the law that it has no basis for determining personhood. Some might argue (weakly) that if philosophy fails, then it become the task of law to make arbitrary definitions.

    The matter can be sorted out more clearly by pointing out that the law is in the business of defining what people ought to be, and not what people are. There is no obvious effort to legally define what a zygote out to be. Rather, there is the hidden agenda that the law is trying to control how people ought to use zygote material; for example, as tax deductions, as pointed out above.

  6. A definition such as Myron’s – which resembles John Locke’s – seems to me the most useful approach to what we mean by “a person”. In any event, it captures something that seems morally important – status as a self-conscious being with certain kinds of desires and vulnerabilities that go beyond those of most beings which possess sentience (in the sense of an ability to experience sensation).

    What the law does is another matter, true. In the law, we regard as “persons” those things that can, for example, be parties to litigation, have legal rights attributed to them, and so on. Thus, trees, corporations, etc., can be regarded as legal persons. But I think most of us understand that this is something of a convenient fiction.

    Providing legal protections to certain classes of entities, for reasons to do with their cognitive capacities, vulnerabilities, etc., etc., but then rationalising this on the basis that they are “persons”, and then applying the word “persons” to things that don’t actually have those capacities, vulnerabilities, etc., is clearly a fallacious approach to developing the law. Pretty obviously it creates a likelihood that we’ll end up attributing certain legal rights to things, or providing when we would not have done so if we’d looked directly at the characteristics of those things.

  7. Ugh. Last sentence should read: “Pretty obviously it creates a likelihood that we’ll end up attributing certain legal rights to things, or providing them with legal protections, when we would not have done so if we’d looked directly at the characteristics of those things.”

    Now, who can I blame for getting distracted and making such a hash of the sentence?

  8. Re: Posted by Russell Blackford | November 19, 2011, 5:29 am
    What is the reference to Myron? Do you mean the Greek sculptor, a novel, or an obscure philosopher? In any event the definition of a person status, as a self-conscious being, is reminiscent of Descartes “cogito” – that is, a person is person because they believe they are a person. The cogitio is flawed in many instances, and one of my favourites is:

    “…the cogito already pre-supposes the existence of “I”, and therefore concluding with existence is logically trivial. (Posted by Don Bird | September 3, 2010, 11:04 am)”

  9. Might I say ‘welcome back Dennis’? Your absence had been noted. And although we often disagreed, I always thought you brought something interesting to the comments forum.

    (Myron is the first commentator btw)

  10. “A definition such as Myron’s – which resembles John Locke’s -…” (R. Blackford)

    Yes, indeed.

    “[T]o find wherein personal Identity consists, we must consider what Person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places[.]”

    (Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1690. Book II, Ch. XXVII, §9)

  11. From the point of view of animalism (which is mine), “person” is a phase sortal, which implies that a human animal isn’t essentially a person, i.e. it can exist as a nonperson (as a fetus, a comatose “human vegetable”, a dead animal). So, animalism’s concept of personality is, like Locke’s, a psychological one: the possession of certain higher-order mental properties/abilities is sufficient for being a person.

  12. Myron does have an interesting point; that is, the psychological definition of a person is relevant to philosophy. Psychology focuses on the definition of persona (from the Latin “mask”) as a personality profile.

    There is a danger here. If a person is to be defined by social psychology, then is a person is defined as a component in a recognizable class. This becomes closer to the Greek definition of citizenship, whereupon non-citizens (or non-persons) have no recognition. The law has made efforts in recent times to recognize stateless persons as persons. There is still no clear definition of a person.

  13. “A zygote is, biologically speaking, a human being in an early stage of development.” (J. Carter)

    If a zygote were a human being, then a human being would have ceased to exist after the first cell division. For a one-cell zygote to become a two-cell (proto-)embryo is not for a one-cell organism to become a two-cell organism and to continue to exist as one and the same organism. A zygote as a “one-cell organism” is only one cell, and one cell’s becoming two cells is not identity-preserving. If cell A divides into cells B and C, then A doesn’t continue to exist as either B or C, or as the fusion B+C but ceases to exist. That is, a zygote doesn’t survive its becoming a (proto-)embryo, which means that I if had been a zygote, I would have already ceased to exist when the zygote I was became a (proto-)embryo.

  14. “It does seem true that a new human life begins to exist when a human sperm fuses with a human egg; for the resulting entity—the zygote—does not seem to be identical with either the sperm or the egg, it is indisputably alive (rather than being inanimate or dead), and it is genetically human. … But from the fact that something living and human begins to exist around the time of conception it does not follow that you or I began to exist at conception.”

    (MacMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 4)

    “Prior to this stage [= primitive streak formation] we do not have a living individual human body, but a mass of pre-programmed loosely organized developing cells and heterogeneous tissues until their ‘clock’ mechanisms become synchronized and triggered to harmoniously organize, differentiate and grow as heterogeneous parts of a single whole human organism. In this way the cells lose their own ontological individuality to form a new ontological individual. This change enables many actual individual cells and tissues to realize their potential to become a new multicellular developing human individual with a human nature. I think the sort of individuation and multicellular unity displayed with the appearance of the primitive streak justifies the claim that this is the beginning of an individual being that is a human person with the potential to develop to the age of reason.”

    (Ford, Norman M. When Did I Begin? Conception of the Human Individual in History, Philosophy and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 175)

    “If we are talking not about the origin of life…but about the origin of an individual life, one can trace back directly from the newborn baby to the foetus, and back further to the origin of the individual embryo at the primitive streak stage in the embryonic plate at sixteen or seventeen days. If one tries to trace back further than that there is no longer a coherent entity. Instead there is a larger collection of cells, some of which are going to take part in the subsequent development of the embryo and some of which aren’t.”

    (McLaren, Anne. Discussion of “Prelude to Embryogenesis,” by Anne McLaren. In Human Embryo Research: Yes or No?, edited by Gregory Bock and Maeve O´Connor, 17-23/5-16 [Prelude]. London: Tavistock, 1986. p. 22)

    In my opinion, an individual human animal begins to exist as an embryo proper, roughly, some days later at the beginning of the 4th week after fertilization when the folding of the embryonic disc has started.

    “During the brief span of the fourth week, the embryo undergoes a complex process of embryonic folding that converts it from a flat germ disc into a three-dimensional structure that is recognizable as a vertebrate. … Folding commences in the cephalic and lateral regions of the embryo on day 22 and in the caudal region on day 23. As a result of folding, the cephalic, lateral, and caudal edges of the germ disc are brought together along the ventral midline. The endodermal, mesodermal, and ectodermal layers of the embryonic disc each fuse to the corresponding layer on the opposite side, thus creating a fish-like three-dimensional body form.”

    (Larsen, William J. Human Embryology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone, 2001. p. 133)

  15. I’m assuming all of you who agree with Myron have a living will stating that your body should be destroyed when it is determined that you are no longer “a being that is able to be self-conscious and to conceive of and think about itself as itself and as the same being in different times and places (by means of a language).”

    And that would apply whether or not your body may at some time in the future bcome such a being. Right?

  16. If a zygote were a human being, then a human being would have ceased to exist after the first cell division.
    -Myron

    Cells continually divide and die in adult humans. Over time, a human being no longer is composed of the original constituent parts that it once possessed at the time it ‘became’ a human. However, we do not recognise a person as having ceased existence due to this natural process. Similarly, the elemental structure of our bodies alter over time so as to be constructed of entirely different atoms by the time of our death. (This may not necessarily occur due to the complexity of the affair, but it is certainly plausible and feasible)

    Hence, it is not sufficient to claim that a distinct physical difference or division causes something to cease existence. If we had a wooden ship and replaced a specific plank, it still remains the same ship. If we continue this process until every plank is replaced, the ship is still the same, as removing single planks cannot change it’s identity, just as replacing or dividing single cells cannot change a human or zygote’s status of existence

    Self consciousness acts as a more preferable method for determining humanity, yet I feel it is also insufficient: it excludes infants from the status of personhood. A common moral obligation is the prohibition against wanton murder of human persons. If a infant is not within this category, then we could theoretically justify this atrocity.

    The most common point where humans ‘begin’ is at birth, however this is also insufficient. What magical process occurs as a baby travels down the birth canal that suddenly makes it human? I don’t see any biological reason to support this assertion.

    In fact, I don’t see any reason that a definite ‘beginning’ point actually exists. I intuit that humans develop as part of a process — this continues long after birth — however, I offer no answers for where this process can be cut off. In fact, I’m not even sure it can be cut off. A zygote is too early to suit legal obligations but immediately prior to birth is too late for moral obligations. In essence, if we want to resolve moral dispute over abortion, IVF etc. we would have to find a compromise between practicalities and morality.

    Unfortunately, such pragmatism likely leaves a bad taste in the mouths of all involved.

  17. My idea has always been that when a being can become independently viable (currently for a human foetus / neonate it is around 24 weeks with medical assistance) it can be considered ‘human’. I do not understand why people are so insistent on trying to control what happens to another persons body prior to this time (ie the ‘parent’)….. I have felt the loss of (wanted) pregnancies many times so no disrespect intended but surely the idea of heaven being overrun with zygotes is quite absurd.

  18. “If a zygote were a human being, then a human being would have ceased to exist after the first cell division. For a one-cell zygote to become a two-cell (proto-)embryo is not for a one-cell organism to become a two-cell organism and to continue to exist as one and the same organism.” -Myron

    The same argument would imply we all need new identities every seven or so years to accompany our complete cell replacement.

  19. One other philosophical nightmare is chimerism: A human chimera is a pair of embryos that merge together, blending the cells of both seamlessly. Where there was two embryos, now there is one: should we charge the survivor with manslaughter for having consumed and annihilated its sibling?

  20. “‘If a zygote were a human being, then a human being would have ceased to exist after the first cell division. For a one-cell zygote to become a two-cell (proto-)embryo is not for a one-cell organism to become a two-cell organism and to continue to exist as one and the same organism.’ (Myron)
    The same argument would imply we all need new identities every seven or so years to accompany our complete cell replacement.” (Josh)

    I reject this argument from analogy.
    There is an essential difference between identity-preserving compositional change and identity-destroying substantial change. Substantial change occurs when an object begins or ceases to exist. I know that mereological essentialists will object that any compositional change entails substantial change, so that there is no diachronic identity of multicellular organisms in the strict sense but at best in a loose sense.
    (The four-dimensionalist can argue against the mereological essentialist that compositional change is identity-preserving in the strict sense because even though the pre-change organism and the post-change organism are numerically different, they are temporal parts of one and the same spatiotemporally extended organism.)
    When a fetus or infant or adult undergoes gradual compositional change on the microscopic cellular level, this—pace the mereological essentialists—doesn’t entail absolute substantial change. But when a one-cell zygote divides into two cells, this is a case of substantial change which is neither strictly nor loosely identity-preserving. Again, a zygote is just one cell, and so to replace that one cell with two new cells is to replace the zygote as a whole with something else that is neither strictly nor loosely diachronically identical with it. (This is true irrespective of there being a physico-spatiotemporal continuity between the one-cell zygote and the two-cell proto-embryo.)
    Moreover, a zygote is human (in the sense of containing human DNA) but it isn’t a human (an individual human animal), and so there is another relevant difference between human zygotes and human fetuses/infants/adults.

  21. “Self consciousness acts as a more preferable method for determining humanity, yet I feel it is also insufficient: it excludes infants from the status of personhood. A common moral obligation is the prohibition against wanton murder of human persons. If a infant is not within this category, then we could theoretically justify this atrocity.” (Marcus)

    First of all, reflective self-consciousness is the mark of personhood rather than of humanhood.
    Secondly, whether or not infants are persons doesn’t also answer the question whether or not killing infants is wrong, because moral principles aren’t deducible from facts.
    Thirdly, to deny that infants are reflectively self-conscious is not to deny that they are conscious and even pre-reflectively self-conscious. Infants are doubtless conscious, sentient beings, who can feel pain and suffer.

    “In fact, I don’t see any reason that a definite ‘beginning’ point actually exists. I intuit that humans develop as part of a process — this continues long after birth — however, I offer no answers for where this process can be cut off. In fact, I’m not even sure it can be cut off.” (Marcus)

    The biological development from the zygote to the adult is doubtless a physico-spatiotemporally continuous process. But from this it doesn’t follow that the subject of this process is one diachronically identical organism. I deny that I was ever a zygote or a 1-3-weeks-old proto-embryo.

    But you’re right insofar as the mereological question of the exact existence beginning of a complex material object is fraught with vagueness, which I think isn’t ontic but semantic vagueness. So, owing to the semantic vagueness of the concept of a human animal, it will arguably be impossible to determine the existence beginning of a human animal in terms of temporal intervals with the length of, say, a nanosecond.
    Nevertheless, the argument from vagueness doesn’t compel one to accept the view that zygotes are already human animals or beings, especially as zygotes aren’t exempt from the problem of vagueness: when exactly does a zygote begin to exist?

  22. There might not be a clearly identifiable line past which the entity becomes a person. This might be an epistemic problem (there is a point, but we don’t know what it is) or perhaps a metaphysical problem (perhaps, as Hume mused, personal identity cannot be resolved and is purely a matter of grammar).

  23. Nat,

    That is an interesting point-if zygotes are people and have souls (and there is a heaven), then there would be quite a few zygotes flitting about. It would be interesting to see an account of what sort of being a heavenly zygote might be…Hmm, “Heavenly Zygote” could be a good name for an alternative band.

  24. Josh,

    That is one reason Locke decided to distinguish between the material substance and the person.

  25. Nick,

    Interesting point. If both are persons and one eliminates the other, then that would seem to be some sort of manslaughter. A case could probably be made for a lack of ability to discern right from wrong at that point.

  26. Embryonic cells are totipotent until about the 16-cell stage. If a unicellular zygote is a person, then how many persons are constituted by, say, an 8-cell morula?

  27. Actually, the philosophical problem of vagueness with regard to the existence beginnings of complex objects such as human animals is much graver than it appears at first sight:

    “Vagueness essentially involves boundarylessness—namely, status transitions among successive items in a sorites sequence, but no fact of the matter about such transitions. Such boundarylessness essentially involves the governance of mutually unsatisfiable status-principles, which can be briefly summarized this way: (i) sufficiently small differences don’t make a difference; (ii) sufficiently large differences do make a difference; and (iii) sufficiently many iterations of sufficiently small differences result in a sufficiently large difference.

    (Horgan, Terence E., and Matjaž Potrč. Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics meets Minimal Ontology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. p. 76)

    For example, it is indubitably and determinately true that David Hume hadn’t begun to exist in 1709 and it is also indubitably and determinately true that he had begun to exist in 1712. So he must have begun to exist somewhen between 00.00/December 31/1708 and 00.00/December 31/1711. Let’s divide this interval into, say, nanoseconds and start with 00.00/December 31/1708+1ns. Did Hume begin to exist at this time? No! Okay, add one nanosecond: 00.00/December 31/1708+2ns. Did Hume begin to exist at this time? No! …and so on and so forth. It turns out that there are no two determinable times 00.00/December 31/1708+xns and 00.00/December 31/1708+(x+1)ns such that the transition between nonexistence and existence took place in this interval and Hume_at_00.00/December 31/1708+(x+1)ns became Hume’s earliest, first temporal part, four-dimensionalistically speaking.
    But if there is no such transition interval, how can he ever have begun to exist?
    It seems that the vagueness of the concept of an existence beginning renders it self-contradictory and thus inapplicable to the real world:
    On the one hand, Hume cannot have begun to exist, because there is no determinable 2ns-long transition interval between 1709 and 1712 during which he began to exist; and on the other hand, he must have begun to exist between 1709 and 1712, since we know that he did exist in 1712.
    The statements i-iii (see above!) cannot possibly be jointly true! And this appears to mean either that the one object—in this case Hume—said to begin or to have begun to exist didn’t really exist at all, or that there were many different but very similar, “Hume-like” objects rather than only one which begin or have begun to exist at different 2ns-long intervals neighbouring each other.
    As far as the question of the existence beginnings of complex objects is concerned, one’s meta-mereological viewpoint is crucial:
    i. Simple objects never compose any complex object (= mereological nihilism).
    ii. Simple objects sometimes compose some complex object, and sometimes they don’t (= mereological brutalism/relativism).
    iii. Simple objects always compose some complex object(s) (= mereological universalism).

    i. This means that if the complex object called David Hume never existed, it never began to exist. So, mereological nihilists solve the problem by denying the existential premise that David Hume existed as one complex object.
    ii. This means that there are numerous brute, i.e. inexplicably contingent, and theoretically unconnected compositional facts that cannot be subsumed under any general mereological principles of composition. But this isn’t satisfying:
    “It seems objectionable, in some not easy to pin down way, to rely on brute facts in just this way. Here is how Terrence Horgan puts the objection:
    ‘In particular, a good metaphysical theory or scientific theory should avoid positing a plethora of quite specific, disconnected, sui generis, compositional facts. Such facts would be ontological danglers; they would be metaphysically queer. Even though explanation presumably must bottom out somewhere, it is just not credible—or even intelligible—that it should bottom out with specific compositional facts which themselves are utterly unexplainable and which do not conform to any systematic general principles.'”

    (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/problem-of-many/#4)
    iii. This means that there have been many different yet partially identical David-Hume-like 4D objects which shared some but not all of their temporal parts. It’s then up to us to decide which one is the “real” referent of the name “David Hume”. As David Lewis says, vagueness is semantic indecision.

  28. I wrote: “…ii. Simple objects sometimes compose some complex object, and sometimes they don’t (= mereological brutalism/relativism). …”

    This means that there are numerous brute, i.e. inexplicably contingent, and theoretically unconnected, and perhaps unknowable compositional facts that cannot be subsumed under any general mereological principles of composition.

  29. Mike,

    They’d have a hard time working the voting machine…plus there is that age requirement.

    On a somewhat related note, if personhood begins at conception, then that would seem to change a person’s legal age. We would all be about 9 months older. I recall a case in which a lawyer used that argument.

  30. Eee,

    In theory 8. Assuming that they could be split apart and could develop into viable fetuses.

  31. As I suspected-there is no David Hume. :)

  32. Articles. « Loftier Musings - pingback on December 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm
  33. Hate to say it, but this philosophical consideration has turned into a real reality in Oklahoma:

    Today Oklahoma passed the Personhood Act.

    Scary, yes?

  34. If the zygotes were frozen, wouldn’t that be child abuse?

  35. Birthdays are cultural, not scientific.

  36. up to five days a zygote can be frozen without harm. any living thing cannot be frozen without harm. therefore a zygote cannot be alive.

  37. Some living creatures freeze quite well.

  38. Freezing a zygot does not kill it, therefore, a zygot cannot be alive.

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