The Sanctity of Life: Rethinking Eternal Truths in a New Political Era


This past weekend a passionate but relatively small percentage of Americans marked "Sanctity of Life Sunday" and lament the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand. Understood as a single-issue movement focused on abortion, or perhaps a bioethics movement focused on abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell destruction, the "sanctity of life" cause is not exactly flourishing in election-year America, circa 2008. However, the eternal truths underlying that cause remain unchanged, and close examination of them might provide us a better way forward.

That is the purpose of my next book, tentatively called The Sanctity of Life: A Christian Exploration (Eerdmans, 2009). A small number of hardy readers may recall that I began a (promised) series of essays on the themes addressed in this book back in 2006 for the CBHD website. However, an intrepid editor for Baylor Press stole my attentions over the intervening year for a different book, and then I made a career move that took some time and attention, and so the "sanctity" project was interrupted. But now that The Future of Faith in American Politics is done and about to hit the bookstores, I am back at work on the CBHD/Eerdmans project and am grateful for the opportunity to resume these articles. I will contribute commentary with every chapter that I complete! I will welcome your feedback on my articles and therefore on the book in progress.

The basic historical claim of Sanctity of Life is that this moral norm evolved over time in western culture, with contributions from Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian sources, and make a long, slow pilgrimage through western history. The audacious claim that every single human life is sacred in God’s sight and therefore must be treated accordingly by human beings changed the course of history, even though (sadly) it was sometimes honored more in the breach than in reality.

This exalted moral norm came forward into the modern world both in religious and "secular" forms. Jews and Christians continued to ground it theologically, while rationalists attempted to offer secularized natural rights claims. (Today both religious and secular groups often find common cause around the language of human rights, which I support.) Much of the history of the past two centuries has involved the expansion and enriching of the concept of life’s sacredness in various forms. It has expanded in that the logic of every human life has demanded universal application—to religious minorities, women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and property-less, the disabled, and so on. And the concept has been enriched by deeper reflection on what exactly it means to treat a human life as sacred; for example, it requires not just the survival of that life but also every reasonable effort to ensure its flourishing. Probably nobody did a better job of articulating this enriched concept of life’s sanctity than Pope John Paul II.

My book will also document a wave of attacks on the sanctity of human life as these emerged both in political ideologies such as Marxism and Nazism and in rarefied but deeply dangerous forms of intellectual discourse such as Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism. In their own ways, each represented a direct rejection of the sanctity of every human life and, indeed, of the theological convictions that ultimately undergird this belief.

Where does abortion fit into all this? At one level, the Roe v. Wade decision represented an attempt to value the sanctity of women’s lives by providing a legal freedom that some believed was necessary to protect it. Thus the most charitable reading of that decision was that it was an effort to stand in continuity with the trend toward the expansion of human dignity, in this case on behalf of women.

For those of us who believe that decision was wrong, we still face the task of showing not just that Roe opened the door to the mass destruction of developing human lives in utero, and that this assaults life’s sanctity. We must also show why Roe does not succeed in advancing the sanctity of women’s lives, and must offer both on-the-ground and legal alternatives that can do better.

One of the most common criticisms of the pro-life or anti-abortion cause is that it offers only the most selective commitment to life’s sanctity. It is very clear to me that to the extent that a person votes solely on the basis of whether Roe is overturned, and pays no attention to a) laws relevant to the well-being of women and men facing crisis pregnancies and the babies they might bring into the world, and b) the full panoply of other moral issues that raise the sanctity of life issue, they are guilty as charged—and undermine the anti-abortion cause quite profoundly.

We need a sanctity-of-life ethic that consistently addresses poverty, racial injustice, domestic violence, war, genocide, and unjust global trade policies, among other concerns, and not just abortion. We need to show with our lives and with our votes that we really do care deeply, we really do weep, over children dying of malaria in Congo as well as children being aborted in U.S. abortion centers. The fact that many serious Christians do in fact engage both kinds of concerns enhances our credibility, but we must do better.

Sanctity of Life Sunday is placed around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and usually focuses on abortion. In one sense, this is inarguable. But in some ways it perpetuates the problem, implicitly communicating that this is the world’s one sanctity of life issue. Here’s a radical proposal. Make one Sunday per month "sanctity of life" Sunday. Pick a different assault on human well-being each time, study it carefully, and decide on some form of appropriate moral response. Sadly, there are plenty of issues to go around. 


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