The Sanctity of Life Debate Matters
- Dave Burchett Contributor
- 2008 5 Sep
Sarah Palin had a lot of lines that brought huge applause in her speech to the RNC. One of my favorite moments did not make a lot of the post speech highlights on the news. Her remarks about Trig and about advocacy for special needs children touched my heart. My wife devotes her career to helping special needs kids. An email from our youngest son Brett generated this article a few months ago. Repeating the post seems very timely as the Presidential election nears.
Brett had a big sister that he never knew. Katie was born with a terminal birth defect and died when Brett was just a baby. Yet he is aware of the amazing impact of Katie's short life. She would have been twenty-three in March. Her story is detailed in When Bad Christians Happen to Good People . Here is Brett's note.
P.S. Katie's life affected a lot of people tonight when I shared her story after a guy was struggling with seeing God's purpose for everything. It also made me realize how valuable her life has been in sharing God's word. Think about the speeches you have given about her and the amount of people that have read about her in your books. God works in amazing ways.
As I reflected on Brett's note I remembered an article I had written about a man who has a very different view of lives like Katie's and lives like Trig Palin. A couple of years ago the Dallas Morning News ran an op-ed feature called ‘10 ideas on the way out’. Here are excerpts from that post.
The subtitle of '10 ideas on the way out' confidently proclaimed that by 2040 many of the things we take for granted will no longer exist. I quickly scanned the list to see if major league baseball’s designated hitter would be an idea that would not endure. Sadly, that did not make the list. The list was a mixture of intriguing and frightening. According to these experts monogamy will be a quaint ideal from a less enlightened era and it will no longer be the norm. I am glad I will be dead before my wife finds that out. Another predicts the demise of the British Monarchy. But the one that rocked my world was seeing the number one item on the list was an article on the sanctity of life penned by a man named Peter Singer. I believe he is one of the most dangerous people on the planet. That seems like a pretty bold statement because he is a rather average looking academician at Princeton University. He is ironically the Chairman of the Ethics Department at Princeton and his ideas are widely accepted by those with bigger brains than you and me.
Let me quote some of Mr. Singer’s predictions for the future about the sanctity of life. My thoughts are italicized.
“During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments. By 2040, (here comes a good part) it may be may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.”
Since there is a good chance I will have checked out by 2040 I am considering forming a secret organization to maintain the “rump” of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists. Let me know if you would like to be a charter member of the “Rumps of the Know-Nothings”. For Monty Python fans we will be the knights who say no, not ni. But in all seriousness, it is dismaying for Mr.Singer to dismiss all who believe in the sanctity of life as know nothings. I believe that Peter Singer knows a lot. He is a very smart man. I just believe he is wrong. Could he not extend at least that much courtesy to me and the other rumps? Continuing with Mr. Singer’s piece…
“When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proved indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life.”
Who determines “personhood”? If it is always in the hands of the family you can get very different views. If it is in the hands of the government I shudder. Does a doctor determine “personhood”? I have had a very personal stake in this debate. Surprisingly, so does Peter Singer. More on that in a moment. Singer makes an interesting concession that may be the future argument about the beginning of life.
“We will understand that even if the life of a human organism (note the terminology) begins at conception, the life of a person – that is, at minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness – does not begin so early.”
My cynical side reacts that if we took out everyone without a level of self-awareness we would thin the herd significantly. But the tacit admission (sort of) that there is no other logical point except conception for the beginning of life is interesting. The argument now becomes the elusive point at which the “organism” achieves “personhood”. And that is a frightening judgment to make apart from some standard and the standard of personhood cannot be a shifting standard. (Know noting religious rump warning) I believe that personhood is not tied to utilitarian value to the culture. I believe personhood is a divinely ordained. Paul wrote this to the Galatians.
But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote these words.
I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb.
Twenty three years ago a daughter was born into our family. We did not know that anything was wrong with her before the delivery. Katie was born with a birth defect that caused an absence of brain development. By Mr.Singer’s standards she was not a “person” because she could not achieve any level of self-awareness. According to Mr.Singer, Katie would have been a candidate to be aborted or euthanized after birth (yes, he has advocated that) because she had no potential for personhood. But the fourteen month life of Katie was an amazing blessing for our family. In retrospect I shudder at the prospect of aborting her life. Yet it might have seemed the right thing to do in the emotion of the moment. But my reaction to Katie’s life is just the emotional response of a religious rump…right? Let’s see what happens when Mr.Singer had to apply his theories to real life.
Peter Singer’s mother suffered from Alzeiheimers. By his own definition she did not have the measure of self-awareness that defines personhood. So how did Mr.Singer respond? Like a person who deep in his being believes in the dignity of life. He poured thousands of dollars into her care when there could be no return for the greater good of society. That money would be far better spent on those who have societal value and not just, as Mr. Singer described, possessing species membership. That is money wasted in Singer’s ultilitarian worldview.
Peter Singer addressed the dilemma. “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult. Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it’s different when it’s your mother.” When it became personal Singer’s ideas didn’t work so cleanly. Peter Singer’s mother had value and deserved to be cared for until her last natural breath. Our daughter had value and deserved the same. She was precious in our sight and in God’s sight. It is the same with Trig Palin. That is my worldview. I can live with mine consistently.
Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com.