A Person’s a Person No Matter How…Foreign

Posted on January 22, 2012 at 9.38 pm

Q. Since you’re someone who is both pro-life and pro-peace, I was wondering what you thought of the idea of the “consistent life ethic” which is a political philosophy that opposes all forms of legalized homicide such as abortion, war, capital punishment, euthanasia, etc.?– nrneal, from tumblr.

A. It is perhaps appropriate that I should be delayed in answering this until today, as I understand from church this morning that today is  Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.  It is especially fitting, I suppose, as my answer to your query is essentially positive.

One of the most puzzling and grievous aspects, to me, of modern American Christianity is its partial love of life and little love for peace.  (I am, of course, speaking generally — and honestly without an intent to disparage.  Not only are there many American Christians who strongly pursue peace in every level of their lives, but even those in whose valuations of life I see the greatest incongruities typically hold those values in ignorance of the inconsistency rather than malice.)*

Nonetheless, it is at best a state of extreme misinformation which can lead someone to claim the pro-life title and yet “refuse to extend their pro-life sentiments to foreigners already out of the womb.”  Laurence Vance puts the dilemma this way:

Why is it that foreigners don’t have the same right to life as unborn American babies? There should be no difference between being for abortion and for war. Both result in the death of innocents. Both are unnecessary. Both cause psychological harm to the one who signs a consent form or fires a weapon. Why is it that to many Christians an American doctor in a white coat is considered a murderer if he kills an unborn baby, but an American soldier in a uniform is considered a hero if he kills an adult [not to mention a foreign child]? In January of every year, many churches observe Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Fine, but we need ministers who are as concerned about killing on the battlefield as they are about killing in the womb.

Vance is using his characteristically strong language, but don’t let that cause you to miss the point:  If we claim to care about life as inherently valuable — no matter how young…or old, or rich, or poor, or of any skin color, ethnicity, or nationality — if we claim to care about life at all, we must care about all of it.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously told CBS that it was “worth it” for 500,000 Iraqi children — all civilians, all innocent by the standards of “civilized” warfare and pro-life arguments against abortion — to die as a result of American sanctions against their nation in the 1990s.  Since then, the War in Iraq has resulted in as many as one million civilian deaths in Iraq, many of them by violent causes.  Keep in mind this is just one country of the many now at war.

Yes, abortion is horrible.  But so is being mowed down by gunfire while making dinner or watching your five-year old slowly starve to death.  To be consistently pro-life, we must oppose both of these terrible occurrences.

Now, let me briefly move on to the death penalty and euthanasia, on which my arguments may not be quite so bold.

As I’ve written before, I have serious trouble with the idea that the government should be able to legally kill people, especially in light of the difficulty in establishing absolute proof of guilt and the institutional racism which repeated studies have observed in the sentencing system.  Furthermore, the allowance of the death penalty doesn’t seem to improve the society which allows it.  That’s not to say that on hearing that someone had been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt guilty for a heinous crime that I wouldn’t instinctively want him executed.  But it is to say with Blackstone and Genesis, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Should opposition to capital punishment be added to a consistent pro-life ethic?  I lean toward yes, but wouldn’t say it is as required as is the grouping of opposition to abortion and war.  The difference, I think, is in the fact that the pro-life and anti-war argument is concerned with protecting innocent life — i.e. life being taken without just cause.  If it were possible to entirely prove guilt and satisfy the consciences of all involved that death was a fit punishment for a crime, then perhaps it would not go against pro-life principles to proceed.  But I know that I could not execute someone, so I would never ask the state to do it on my behalf.

Finally, euthanasia.  Here I am most conflicted.  For instance, voluntary (as opposed to involuntary or non-voluntary, the former of which is the most obviously immoral of the three) euthanasia doesn’t strike me — on the face of it — as criminal and thus deserving of illegality.  Wrong, yes.  But not criminal.  Yet a little more thought easily raises concerns about how one would verify if the choice were really made without coercion — and also the question of what we would conceivably do to stop those who wanted to end their lives.  Do we propose to station guards in hospice facilities?  As with the death penalty, here too I do not see as mandatory an addition to a consistent pro-life philosophy, though I am likewise personally against euthanasia.

Let me end by quickly addressing the most common counter-argument against the points I’ve made here about war (see an example here):  Unborn babies are innocent; enemy soldiers are not.  Also, abortion kills far more people than war does.

These objections are inadequate for multiple reasons.  On the first count, as I’ve shown amply above, modern warfare results in huge losses of civilian life — usually more than combatant deaths, in fact.  Even if we could so glibly wave away the inherent value of those fighting on both sides, the loss of innocent life is an enormous consideration which prevents us from dismissing war as something incomparable to abortion.  Moreover, it’s important to recall that, depending on our enemy, the other side’s soldiers are very possibly fighting not voluntarily but under coercion — even in response to threats to their own families.  In this case, they may almost be considered innocents themselves.

On the second count, this utilitarian, numerical argument is utterly antithetical to the pro-life ethic.  Isn’t the whole point of opposing abortion the idea that every single person is of infinite worth?  Certainly there is a sense in which 10 million deaths are worse than 10,000, but the horror of 10,000 violent deaths through war is by no means diminished in the comparison.


* I am speaking primarily in a Christian context because of my own background and the strong Christian presence in the American pro-life movement.  However, these arguments could be equally applied in a secular context.

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