The Sanctity of Life


Different concepts of the sanctity of life applied to the embryo and the unborn child

The sanctity of life is the Christian key moral principle that life is sacred. This means it was created by God for a religious purpose. There are different views about the sanctity of life, the implications for whether it can ever be acceptable to end life and its applicability to the embryo and unborn child.

The conservative or ‘strong’ Sanctity of life principle

The conservative, sometimes also called the ‘strong’ sanctity of life view, claims that because God created human life, only God has the right to end it. Humans were created in God’s image, further suggesting that human life is especially valuable.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” – Jeremiah 1:5.

The sixth of the ten commandments is “thou shalt not murder”.

“Your body is a temple of the holy spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God. You do not belong to yourself” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” Genesis 9:6

The conservative or ‘strong’ Sanctity of life view: the embryo and the unborn child

The conservative view of the sanctity of life suggest that abortion is almost always wrong, perhaps excepting cases where the mother’s life is in danger due to a medical problem with the pregnancy.

Some Catholics argue that abortion could be justified by the doctrine of the double effect if the mother’s life is in danger due to a medical problem with her pregnancy. In such cases, the intention behind the abortion is to save the life of the mother, which is in accordance with the primary precepts. Killing the foetus is against that precept but so long as it is not the intended effect then it can be morally acceptable.

The conservative or ‘strong’ sanctity of life view is most typically criticised as allowing unnecessary suffering and thus being uncompassionate. There are people with terminal illnesses at the end of life who are suffering greatly and want to die. They are in a state of indignity, and it seems uncompassionate to force them to continue living in their state of suffering and indignity. Similarly, if someone becomes pregnant through rape then it seems uncompassionate to prevent them from having an abortion if that’s what they want.

Liberal views of the Bible would disagree with the strong sanctity of life view because they don’t think that these Bible verses are the perfect word of God.

The weak sanctity of life principle

This is typically a liberal view. Liberal Christians do not believe that the Bible is the perfect word of God and so do not regard its claim that killing human life is wrong to be an absolutist strict rule that must always be followed. They would regard sanctity of life as an important principle but only one of many themes found in the Bible. So, although sanctity of life is an important principle in judging the value of a life, there are other principles that should also be included, such as quality of life. Quality of life refers to how much happiness or suffering a life has. If low, then the life has low quality. Jesus’ emphasis on compassion is also an important principle that should be considered. In some cases, therefore, considerations about the quality of life and compassion might outweigh the sanctity of life.

The weak sanctity of life principle: the embryo and the unborn child

The Church of England is an example of this view, though they weigh the sanctity of life consideration very highly compared to many liberal Christians and only allow abortion in cases where the mother or foetus is going to die soon without abortion.

‘The Church of England combines strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be – strictly limited – conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative.’

‘In the rare occasions when abortion is carried out beyond 24 weeks, ‘Serious foetal handicap’ should be interpreted strictly as applying to those conditions where survival is possible only for a very short period’

Some conservatives argue that the problem with the liberal weak sanctity of life view is that it ignores the fact that suffering can actually be a good thing. Suffering has spiritual value because it helps us better understand the suffering Jesus went through on the cross and so better appreciate the sacrifice he made for us which strengthens our faith in it.

What about the suffering of babies born with terrible conditions that will kill them soon after birth, before they have any possibility of the understanding required to grow spiritually from their experience?

Sanctity of life as required for social order. This Catholic argument is based on Aquinas’ natural law, which is the idea that God designed all things, including humans, to have the potential to live in harmony if they follow God’s natural laws, which involves preserving human life. If we go against that natural harmony then then our society will break down because living contrary to God’s design is unnatural and leads to immorality and social disorder. It is dangerous for human beings to give themselves the right to decide who gets to live and who doesn’t because we are unworthy of that power and would be corrupted by it. We need to believe that life is sacred otherwise we will treat it as less valuable. Mother Theresa summed up this kind of argument well during her speech upon receiving the noble peace prize. She claimed “the greatest threat to world peace is abortion. If a mother can kill her own child in her own womb, what is left to stop us from killing one another?”

The social order argument doesn’t seem to be true. Northern Europe has the most atheistic countries where quality of life is acted on instead of sanctity of life, but those countries are nonetheless some of the most stable and happy in the world. So, it just doesn’t look like it’s true that sanctity of life is a requirement for social order.

Fletcher’s situation ethics on the sanctity of life, the embryo and the unborn child

Fletcher argued that traditional views of Biblical inspiration face a dilemma of two possible approaches, each with serious downsides. Option one is to view the Bible as needing interpretation, from which rises the issue of the perhaps impossibility of deciding whose interpretation is correct. Fletcher illustrates this with the competing interpretations different theologians have made of the Sermon on the mount.

Option two is to take the Bible literally, but Fletcher argued that is an even worse solution, because the “headache” of interpreting what the bible meant is far less trouble compared to trying to live as a literalist. Fletcher gives the example of ‘do not resist one who is evil’ as an example.

Fletcher concludes that the Bible should not be thought of as a legalistic ‘rules book’ and that ethical teachings like even those of the sermon on the mount at most offer us ‘some paradigms or suggestions’. This makes Fletcher’s approach to the Bible an example of the liberal view of inspiration; that the Bible is not the perfect word of God. So, although the Bible states that many things (e.g. killing, homosexuality and adultery) are wrong, Fletcher doesn’t think a Christian should view those as unbreakable rules. Whatever maximises agape is allowed, no matter the action.

Fletcher would claim that abortion, like everything else, can only be judged on a situational basis. If abortion maximises agape, then it is good. If it does not, then it is bad. Depending on the situation, Fletcher might accept abortion in cases where:

  • The mother’s life is threatened
  • The fetus has a terminal medical condition
  • The pregnancy was the result of rape

Standard criticisms of Fletcher’s situation ethics apply:

      • Love is subjective
      • Situation ethics grants people a dangerous amount of freedom (Barclay)
      • Situation ethics ignores most of the commands in the Bible.

Just war theory

Jesus himself seemed to recommend pacifism:

“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone slaps your right cheek, turn for them the other cheek also”

Jesus himself never did violence. The closest he came was flipping some tables of money lenders in the temple and throwing them out. Early Christians were often pacifists like Jesus, often willing to die (be martyred) for their faith rather than do violence. The 10 commandments also contain a command against killing.

However, in 313AD Christianity become the official religion of the roman empire. The roman empire was not pacifist (to say the least..) – so when Christianity became its official religion, pressure mounted on it to form a theology which would not conflict with roman territorial ambitions.

Augustine was instrumental in formulating just war theory during the next century. He argued that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence applied only to individuals – who should indeed follow them and not immediately report to violence.

However, Romans 13:4 seems to suggest that the ruling authorities have the right to use the ‘sword’ to carry out ‘God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’. So Augustine concluded that the state can be justified, if against wrongdoers.

“They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

Just war theory is the Christian theory about the conditions required for a war being morally acceptable. Augustine and Aquinas developed the Just war theory.

Jus ad bellum

This refers to the conditions required for starting a just war.

  • A legitimate authority must start the war – one which has the duty of upholding the common good. In the past this would be a religious authority like the Pope. Today it could be the united nations.
  • Just cause. The purpose of a war must be just. It cannot be for the purposes of destroying a people, or gaining land/resources.

“A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.” – Augustine.

  • Right intention

“An evil intention, such as to destroy a race or to absorb another nation, can turn a legitimately declared war waged for just cause into a wrongful act” – Augustine.

  • Last resort. All other non-violent means of addressing the issue must have been attempted before war can be justified.
  • Reasonable chance of victory. If a war is likely to fail in achieving its good purpose, then it is a pointless harm which should not be risked.
  • Proportionality.A war must cause more good than harm.

Jus in bello

This refers to the conditions required for just conduct in war.

  • The force used during the war must not be greater than is required.
  • Humanity/discrimination. Violence must not be used against civilians or prisoners of war.

Jus post bellum

  • If a defeated nation deserves punishment
  • Those who have been wronged might deserve compensation.
  • Punishment and compensation must be proportionate.

Just war theory and weapons of mass destruction

Proportionality in bello (during the war) seems to require that nuclear weapons can only be used if another nation uses them first.

Nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

Nuclear weapons are argued to have legitimate use as a deterrent. If you have nuclear weapons, no country will attack or nuke you because you could easily destroy them in return if they did.

The UK has a nuclear deterrent called trident – submarines armed with nuclear weapons. At least one is always on patrol somewhere in the sea. If another country were to use nuclear weapons against the UK, that submarine would be able to fire back at them.

This is called mutually assured destruction. (MAD).

However, nuclear weapons seem to inevitably target innocent civilians. So, they cannot be used with discrimination/humanity even if used in retaliation.

Nonetheless, the idea of having them as a deterrent is the hope that they will not be used.

Arguably that worked well so far. Nuclear weapons have only been used in war once.

However, what about groups that want world destruction. E.g. adherents to apocalyptic theology. Those who think that the world ending is a good thing because it will bring on the apocalypse would not be deterred by mutually assured destruction – because they want that destruction.

Mistakes. There were many instances during the cold war between the USA and Russia – where each country had nuclear weapons aimed at each other – where reconnaissance instruments were faulty or information was flawed which led those in command to mistakenly believe that the other country had just fired nuclear weapons. Avoiding nuclear Armageddon was just down to pure luck and rational thinking of those in charge who realised a mistake had been made.

Nuclear weapons will only get cheaper and easier to produce as technology improves. The difficulty at controlling their spread

The Hiroshima & Nagasaki nuclear bombings.

The only nuclear weapons used in war was during world war 2, when America dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, resulting in around 130,000 to 225,000 deaths. The justification for this was that it would help the war end faster because it would force Japan to surrender, potentially saving millions of lives in total.

If it helped the war end faster, does that justify it? It seems disproportionate, and targets civilians (is indiscriminate) – which go against just war principles… but if it helped the war end faster and saved more lives, does that justify it?