On Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Life: Part 2

As promised, here is the research paper I wrote last semester on the sanctity of life. It addresses mostly the abortion debate, but also physician-assisted suicide. If you are just joining us, I encourage you to scroll down to yesterday’s post for clarification and context. I also want to add one more clarification. My last post focused exclusively on abortion as that is the issue dominating news and politics right now, but I believe there should be legislation banning physician-assisted suicide because as my paper explains, there are so many ethical problems with this practice unrelated to religion.

Introduction

The biblical perspective of human dignity is a subject of personal significance for me. When my mother was pregnant with me in 1989, a routine blood test revealed abnormal protein levels which she was told indicated an increased risk that I would be born with Down syndrome. Her doctor offered the option of undergoing an amniocentesis, the results of which would be more conclusive. She declined this test because it is a very delicate procedure that carries the small, but in my mother’s view unnecessary risk of causing miscarriage. My parents were both raised with a Christian worldview, so they were going to bring me into the world and love me either way. It turned out that I did not have Down syndrome, but seven months later, I would be diagnosed with a brain tumor which would damage my optic nerve rendering me totally blind.

In the ancient pre-Christian Greek and Roman empires, it was common practice to kill or abandon infants born with deformities, but unfortunately, failure to recognize the sanctity of every human life cannot be dismissed as ancient history. In the early decades of the 20th century, a eugenics movement inspired passage of compulsory sterilization laws in 32 states targeting people deemed “inferior or dangerous” including the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, criminals, even people of color.1 These laws resulted in the compulsory sterilization of 60,000 people and persisted in some states until the 1970s. The eugenics laws in the United States inspired Hitler to implement the National Socialist compulsory sterilization program in Germany where between 1934 and 1945, 350,000 people were sterilized, and this program would prove to be a “stepping stone to the Holocaust.”2

In 2004, Denmark became one of the first countries in the world to offer all pregnant women prenatal screening for Down syndrome. Since then, 95 percent of women who test positive choose to terminate the pregnancy, and in 2019, only 18 babies were born with Down syndrome in Denmark.3 And of course, the abortion debate is center stage once again in this country following the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion last week signaling the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade. The sanctity of every human life is not universally recognized at the end of life either. Physician-assisted suicide (which ironically, proponents prefer to be called “death with dignity”) is currently legal in 10 states as well as the District of Columbia.4

Admittedly, secular criticism of the biblical worldview is not entirely unfounded. Some pro-life advocates that garner media attention may speak the truth, but they fail to do so with love and humility and in some cases, I think their motives center more on a desire for power or political influence than a genuine concern for the sanctity of life. But in this paper, I will argue that we cannot let the lack of love and humility, or disingenuous motives on the part of some overshadow the truth, which is that a biblical worldview is essential for a healthy society, and the drift of society away from the biblical worldview will ultimately have devastating implications for everyone. I will first briefly examine personhood theory, and the related philosophy of materialism, emphasizing how these ideas fall short. Then I will zoom in and closely examine the biblical perspective regarding human dignity. I will conclude with an examination of the devastating implications of abandoning the biblical worldview.

Western Philosophy

In her book Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey explains that most ancient civilizations believed that reality was based on a “unified system of truth” with an overall unity between the natural order and the moral order.5 But modern Western thought gave rise to a split system of truth. American theologian Francis Schaeffer illustrates this split system with the analogy of a two-story building. The lower story consists of objective, empirically testable facts that everyone must accept regardless of their personal beliefs. The upper story consists of morality and theology which are considered subjective and relative. Therefore, the prevailing view for modern enlightenment philosophy was that reliable knowledge of reality could only be found in the lower story, that which could be empirically tested. Personhood theory is an outworking of this dualistic understanding of reality, and it is the theory often used to justify abortion. Personhood theory argues that human dignity requires “the ability to exercise conscious, deliberate control over our lives,” the equivalent of the upper story.6 Since it is thought that fetuses have not yet acquired this capacity, they are not considered a person, but merely a lower story biological organism.

Robert Wennberg’s even starker explanation of the actuality principle shows it is synonymous with personhood theory. According to the actuality principle, “only beings with a developed capacity for conscious self-reflective intelligence have a right to life.”7 Proponents of this theory argue that rights, by definition are a means for protecting interests. They are invoked by their possessor to “avoid sacrifice of those interests.”8 But anything that lacks a capacity for conscious self-reflective intelligence has no interests to protect, and therefore no rights. By this definition, a fetus, even a newborn infant is no different than a rock. The actuality principle also denies personhood to the irreversibly comatose and the severely retarded. Some animal rights activists even invoke personhood theory arguing that “not all people are persons, but some animals are persons.”9 In other words, some animal rights activists would prefer that medical experiments be done with fetuses, infants, severely retarded or irreversibly comatose people rather than dogs because dogs have a higher cognitive capacity than these people.

Animal rights activists are not wrong in their belief that we should treat animals with respect. Indeed, Proverbs 12:10 says that “a righteous man cares for the needs of his animals.” But the secular perspective is misguided in its reasoning. The biblical perspective is superior to the secular perspective in revealing that respect isn’t contingent on cognitive capacity. All living beings should be treated with respect because they were created by God and have intrinsic value. At the same time, as Kevin Vanhoozer points out, while all other creatures were created according to a generic pattern (after their kind), humans were made according to a divine pattern (in our likeness).10 So although God provides for the birds, Jesus affirms in Matthew 6:26 that humans are more valuable in God’s view than birds simply by virtue of being created according to a divine pattern. Furthermore, Jesus’s example of compassion for women, children, the sick, and people with disabilities, groups deemed inferior in Roman society clearly demonstrates that all people are valuable to God.

Admittedly, Scripture does not comment explicitly on whether fetuses are fully human, but there is enough evidence from Scripture to argue it is highly likely they are. For example, in Exodus 21:22-25, God says that if two men get into a fight and hit a pregnant woman causing her to give birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must only pay the husband a fine. But if there is serious injury, the community must “take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (lex talionis). What is noteworthy about this passage is that it does not specify who must be harmed for lex talionis to be applied, leaving open the possibility that it would apply if either the woman or the premature baby were harmed. In the New Testament, Hebrews 7:10 states that “when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.” This verse offers compelling evidence that the soul is not infused into a child after birth. The entire human nature (both body and soul) of the child is transmitted directly by the parents. While these verses do not conclusively prove that a fetus is fully human, I agree with Millard Erickson that given how severely Scripture condemns the destruction of human life, “prudence dictates that a conservative course be followed.”11

Another influential worldview in society that derives from personhood theory is the philosophy of materialism which grew out of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The basic premise of materialism is that humans are nothing more than biological organisms motivated only by physical pain and pleasure. This philosophy relies on the same Western split system of truth to argue that since morality is not something that can be seen or empirically tested, it is an illusion, “window dressing to disguise what is really nothing but the human organism’s drive to avoid pain and enhance pleasure.”12 Even from a secular perspective, this view is problematic because even ardent materialists are logically forced to acknowledge the necessity of drawing a line beyond which a person is no longer a lower story biologically human organism, but an upper story person with rights. Without such a line, it would be justifiable to kill anyone. The problem is, apart from the Christian worldview, there is no objective criteria for determining personhood. Some bioethicist like Peter Singer argue that even toddlers are a “gray case” since their cognitive capacity is still quite limited.13

At the end of life, the materialist philosophy is used to justify assisted suicide. The logic of this argument rests on what Ulla Schmidt calls “the general appeal of consequentialism” which argues that an agent ought to have the freedom to choose the action that would yield “the maximum net positive result.”14 For a patient with a terminal illness facing severe pain with no hope of recovery (enhancing pleasure), the maximum net positive result for the patient might mean at least allowing the patient to end her suffering. Even from a secular perspective this theory is problematic because it depends on the ideal situation in which the patient is of sound mind, and is not being coerced by family or healthcare personnel, and documentation has proven that this is not always the reality.15 But even in an ideal situation, assisted suicide is problematic from the biblical perspective. In Genesis 9:6, God explicitly forbids murder because the fact that humans were created in the image of God makes all human life inviolable, so I believe it is safe to presume from this verse that the physician who assists a patient in ending her life would be complicit in committing murder, even if it is what the patient claims to want. In a systematic rejection of suicide, Augustine also argues that Genesis 9:6 forbids the killing of oneself because patience is a fundamental Christian virtue, and therefore the evil and suffering of this world must be patiently endured.16

Another problem with the materialism philosophy’s justification of assisted suicide to end suffering is that a 2014 study found that most people choose assisted suicide not because they are experiencing physical pain or even because they fear such pain in the future, but because they have indirectly absorbed personhood theory and don’t want to be a burden to others when they are no longer a “person” in the upper story sense of the word.17 This is an inconvenient truth for proponents of assisted suicide who portray the practice as a compassionate choice. But even if proponents acknowledged this inconvenient truth and framed assisted suicide as an act of compassion to spare the patient’s family the burden of caring for them, this argument would be a flagrant misuse of the word compassion because Scripture teaches that “true compassion means being willing to suffer on behalf of others, loving them enough to bear the burden of caring for them.”18

Materialism can also reduce human life to a cost-benefit analysis. While proponents of physician-assisted suicide claim there are safeguards against coercion, some cancer patients in states where this practice is legal have reported being pressured by their insurance provider to choose this option because medication to end life is a whole lot cheaper than cancer treatment.19 From a utilitarian perspective, euthanasia of cancer patients might promote the greatest good for the greatest number in terms of sparing the patient’s family enormous medical bills, and lowering healthcare costs for everyone. But the biblical perspective recognizes that “it is God who has called the individual into existence for his purposes and ends, and those purposes cannot be set aside in the name of the collective interests of society.”20

The Biblical Perspective

Kevin Vanhoozer acknowledges that the analysis of our material dimension by the natural sciences is not, in and of itself problematic. After all, Genesis 3:19 states that from dust we were created, and to dust we will return. But Kevin Vanhoozer considers the natural sciences to be “provisional versions of human reality that need to be deepened, or perhaps disciplined by explicitly Christian beliefs” because the natural sciences cannot adequately account for human behavior.21 While philosophical anthropology attempts to explain human behavior, it has difficulty reconciling the simultaneous optimism of human creativity and pessimism of humanity’s destructive potential.22 The proper understanding of human behavior, and by extension the concept of human dignity, can only be understood through the lens of theological anthropology.

The biblical perspective of human dignity centers on the theological statement that humanity was created in God’s image. Scripture does not offer much in the way of an explicit definition of what this means, but there is enough evidence from Scripture to affirm three crucial truths based on this statement. First, the name Adam refers not just to one man, but to humanity as a whole. John Kilner points out that this fact often goes unnoticed by Christians living in individualistic societies such as the United States.23 But the consequences of this oversight have been devastating, as it has led to a flawed understanding of the concepts of freedom and autonomy in these societies. While the secular concept of freedom centers on self-determination, the biblical perspective is what Ulla Schmidt describes as a “paradoxical freedom.”24 We are free in the sense that regardless of our circumstances in this world, this world is not our true home. But we are also bound in relationship to God and to one another, which implies that we are not free to end human life–even a life that is still inside a mother’s womb–or even to kill ourselves, thereby breaking this relationship. Second, the creation-cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 is a consequence of being created in God’s image, but it is not the image itself. According to John Kilner, misunderstanding of this truth has led many to define the concept of being in God’s image as currently possessing attributes of God such as the capacity for reasoning.25 It should be obvious how this misinterpretation opens the door to acceptance of personhood theory, leading even supposed Christians to justify the exploitation or murder of fetuses, infants, or the irreversibly comatose on grounds that since these people lack attributes of God, they are not in God’s image. Finally, although sin has severely damaged people, it has not destroyed, damaged or even twisted the image itself because the true image of God is Christ. Paul states in Ephesians 4:24 that we are “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” While John Kilner acknowledges the honest intentions of theologians who use the metaphorical language of God’s image being damaged to drive home the devastating consequences of human sin, he argues that this idea has robbed people of their dignity by implying a sense of hopelessness, causing people to abandon any sense of accountability to God for their actions. Christ is currently the only true image of God, but we are all called to become this image of righteousness and holiness, which in practical terms entails a re-framing of the concept of our dominion over creation. There is no human dignity in Western philosophies whose valuing of human life is based on subjective criteria, and whose idea of dominion is a “strategy for acquiring, increasing and securing power over others.”26 True human dignity is only achieved when we conform to Christ’s idea of dominion, a dominion of peace based on the objective premise that all human life has intrinsic value.

Conclusion

Some opponents of Christianity can respect a Christian’s personal conviction that practices like abortion and euthanasia are wrong, but resent having the Christian view imposed on them. On the surface, this is a fair argument. But the problem according to Nancy Pearcey is that “when society accepts the practice, it absorbs the worldview that justifies it.”27 Currently, abortion and prenatal screening for conditions like Down syndrome are framed as a choice. But if such practices become widely accepted, it may only be a matter of time before insurance companies and taxpayers resent the cost of medical care, special education services and accommodations for these children, and view parents who bring these children into the world as irresponsible. At worst, this could mean that genetic screening and abortion of children with Down syndrome (or any other disability for which a prenatal test is developed in the future) may no longer be optional. At the very least, it would result in a much more hostile world for all people with disabilities, with public accommodations and technological innovation becoming a lower priority, especially for “preventable” disabilities. Society could also come to view abortion as the best option for poor families, which would lead to disinvestment in social welfare services. If assisted suicide is widely accepted, the suffering for people who choose to live would also increase as innovation related to palliative care would also become a low priority. As already mentioned, the coercion of cancer patients in states where assisted suicide is legal proves that if assisted suicide becomes a widely accepted practice, it may only be a matter of time before euthanasia is no longer optional for people with conditions that incur high medical costs.

Perhaps these stark implications could be driven home for opponents of Christianity by co-opting the utilitarian philosophy. Sometimes, it is necessary to forfeit individual rights to promote the greatest good for the greatest number, especially since we are all–regardless of race,education or socio-economic status–potentially just one unexpected illness or horrific accident away from this discussion no longer being hypothetical. The Christian with righteous motives does not impose their views on others out of a selfish desire for power or political influence. We do so because individual choices eventually add up to a society’s worldview, and out of love for our neighbor, we wish to protect society from becoming a more technologically advanced, but no less brutal version of societies like ancient Rome whose pre-Christian worldview ultimately had devastating consequences for everyone.

In addition to the practical reasons for promoting the God-given dignity of all human life, even Laura Hercher, a genetic counselor at Sarah Lawrence College raised the rhetorical question, “if the world didn’t have people with special needs and these vulnerabilities, would we be missing a part of our humanity?”28 From a theological perspective, my answer is that we absolutely would. When Jesus and his disciples encounter the man blind from birth, Jesus said “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). Personally, I believe this passage indicates that people with disabilities are a part of God’s plan and he has a purpose for them which could not be accomplished any other way. Even though I have a disability myself, I have become so accustomed to living with it that even I take my blessings for granted and can easily become self-absorbed. But when I visit my grandma in the nursing home who is confined to a wheelchair and can barely speak now due to Parkinsons disease, my capacity for compassion and empathy is renewed. Whenever I meet new people, I love witnessing their amazement when I show them how I read and write using braille. Perhaps God allowed a world with vulnerable people and people with disabilities to teach us how to be compassionate and open-minded to other ways of living, making the tapestry of humanity infinitely more beautiful.

Notes

  1. Lisa Ko, “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States,” Independent Lens: Beyond the Films, January 29, 2016, https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-United-states.html.
  2. Ko, “Unwanted.”
  3. Sarah Zhang, “Prenatal Testing and the Future of Down Syndrome,” The Atlantic, December 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/the-last-children-of-down-syndrome/616928.
  4. “States Where Medical aid in Dying is Authorized,” Compassion and Choices, Accessed May 9, 2022, https://compassionandchoices.org/resources/states-where-medical-aid-in-dying-is-authorized.
  5. Nancy Pearcey, Love thy Body, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 12.
  6. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 86.
  7. Robert Wennberg, “The Right to Life: Three Theories,” Christian Scholar’s Review 13, no. 4 (1984): 317.
  8. Wennberg, ”The Right to Life,” 318.
  9. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 103.
  10. Kevin Vanhoozer, “Human Being, Individual and Social,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 163.
  11. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 508.
  12. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 89.
  13. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 54.
  14. Ulla Schmidt, “Euthanasia, Autonomy and Beneficence,” Studia Theologica 56, no. 2 (2002), 316.
  15. Schmidt, “Euthanasia,” 137.
  16. Schmidt, “Euthanasia,” 315.
  17. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 90.
  18. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 91.
  19. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 91.
  20. Wennberg, “The Right to Life,” 317.
  21. Vanhoozer, “Human Being,” 160.
  22. Vanhoozer, “Human Being,” 162.
  23. John Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Company, 2015), 196.
  24. Schmidt, “Euthanasia,” 142.
  25. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny, 22.
  26. Vanhoozer, “Human Being,” 162.
  27. Pearcey, Love thy Body, 93.
  28. Zhang, “Prenatal Testing.”

Bibliography

Erickson, Millard J.
Christian Theology. Third edition.
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013.

Kaelber, Lutz. “Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States
University of Vermont
Updated 2011
https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/

Kilner, John Frederic.
Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Company, 2015.

Ko, Lisa. “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States.”
Independent Lens: Beyond the Films.
January 29, 2016
https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/unwanted-sterilization-and-eugenics-programs-in-the-united-states/

Pearcey, Nancy.
Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality.
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018.

Schmidt, Ulla. “Euthanasia, Autonomy and Beneficence.”
Studia Theologica 56, no. 2 (2002): 132-51.

“States Where Medical aid in Dying is Authorized,” Compassion and Choices, accessed May 9, 2022, https://compassionandchoices.org/resources/states-or-territories-where-medical-aid-in-dying-is-authorized

Wennberg Robert N. “The Right to Life: Three Theories.”
Christian Scholar’s Review 13, no. 4 (1984): 315-32.

Vanhoozer, Kevin. “Human Being, Individual and Social.” In The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 158–188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Zhang, Sarah. “Prenatal Testing and the Future of Down Syndrome.”
The Atlantic
December 2020
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/the-last-children-of-down-syndrome/616928/

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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