Sanctity of Life – a discussion

Strong Sanctity of Life

Source: Samuel Whitbread Academy Student Resources, used with permission.

The Bible is often cited as the basis of strong sanctity of life stance and proponents of this stance are referred to as ‘pro-life’. According to these thinkers, God is the giver and creator of life and people have no right to destroy what he has given. People are seen as created in the ‘image of God’ (imago dei) so humans are set apart from other animals and have a ‘spark’ of divinity in them.

“So God created humankind in his image” (Genesis 1) The Incarnation according to Christian teaching, reaffirms the sanctity of human life as God himself became human.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14)
If God is the creator of life, it is down to him to say when it should start and end. A person does not have the freedom to decide to end his own or anyone else’s life.
“He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord'” (Job 1)
Throughout the Bible there is also the command not to take life, and the biblical writers saw this as part of the covenant with God and his people: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20.13)
The idea of the sanctity of life is also part of the teaching of Natural Law – which underlies the ethical teaching of the Catholic Church. Taking life is seen as intrinsically evil and unborn life must be protected. Natural Law states that preserving the innocent is a primary precept and there are no exceptions which make it right. The only way that advocates of natural law theory can allow abortion is if it is the unwanted consequence of an attempt to save the life of the mother. This is allowed due to the doctrine of double effect.

Thinking point: Does the theory of evolution challenge the biblical image of imago dei? Does a strong sanctity of life position presuppose religious belief?

Weak Sanctity of Life

Proponents of a weak sanctity of life stance realise that the advances of medical science have meant that the boundaries between life and death are far more flexible than previously thought and so would allow exceptions to the general sanctity of life position. If it is not clear what constitutes independent ‘life’ or when independent life begins then there may be certain situations in which abortion is morally justified.

Christian proponents of a weak sanctity of life stance tend to balance the Bible’s pro-life teachings with Jesus’ emphasis on love and compassion as a justification for abortion in certain cases. A weak sanctity of life position underlies the Church of England’s report of 1965: Abortion: An Ethical Discussion. This report expresses overriding compassion for the needs of the mother, especially where there is a threat to her mental or physical health. This view was reinforced in a more recent document, Abortion and the Church, in 1993.

“We do not believe that the right to life, as a right pertaining to persons, admits of no exceptions whatever; but the right of the innocent to life admits surely of few exceptions indeed. Circumstances exist where the character or location of the pregnancy renders the foetus a serious threat to the life and health of the mother, in such circumstances the foetus could be regarded as an ‘aggressor’ on the mother. The mother would be entitled to seek protection against the threat to her life and health which the foetal life represented”.

Thinking point: Is there any difference between weak sanctity of life and quality of life arguments?

Quality of Life

The quality of life view allows the value of life to vary with its quality and may factor in the immanence of death, constancy of pain, an ability to think, an ability to enjoy life and make rational choices. Proponents of a quality of life view argue that decisions about abortion must take into account quality of life. Therefore, decisions must be made on a case by case basis.

Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse both argue that it would be better to drop the sanctity of life teaching and work out a quality of life ethic instead. In his work, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics (1995), Singer argues that developments in law and medicine necessitate a movement towards an ethic where ‘quality of life’ distinctions trump the traditional ‘sanctity of life’ positions. Singer argues for consideration that all life is not equal, and should not have equal footing in determining their right to live. For example, he applauds those cultures that choose infanticide to control rising birth rates. While he argues that all precautions should be taken not to have unwanted or disabled children, he sees no harm in choosing to cause the death of an infant at birth should its disability or presence not be wanted. He favours a 28- day period post birth for parents to decide whether their child should be allowed to live or die. Singer says that he is not inhumane. He does not feel it is acceptable to cause suffering. All who chose or are chosen to die, should be allowed to do so in the least painful way as possible. His argument is that we must embrace a new ethos in terms of life and death, as the old one is no longer viable.

In her work, The Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in Medicine: A Critique (1987), Helga Kuhse examines the ideas and assumptions behind the sanctity-of-life view on ethical issues such as abortion. Kuhse argues against the traditional view that allowing someone to die is morally different from killing and shows that quality-of-life judgments are ubiquitous. Refuting the sanctity-of-life view, she provides a sketch of a quality-of-life ethics based on the belief that there is a profound difference between merely being alive and life being in the patient’s interest.

Thinking point: when using quality of life to make a decision about abortion, whose benefits and whose quality of life is being judged: that of the foetus, the parents or society as a whole? Is there a danger of ‘playing God’? Could an emphasis on ‘quality of life’ considerations lead down a slippery slope to the Holocaust?


One central argument against abortion may be put like this:

  •  It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
  • A human foetus is an innocent human being.
  • Therefore it is wrong to kill a human foetus.

Notice the emphasis on the foetus as a human being. Those who hold that abortion is morally defensible often deny the second premise that the foetus is a human being. Peter Singer holds that the right to life is grounded in personhood and that a person is someone who has the ability to plan and anticipate one’s future. Since the unborn foetus lacks this, he states that abortion can be ‘justified’ in certain special circumstances. The problem with this is that definition of ‘personhood’ is that it excludes many of those whom we would wish to call ‘persons’ eg infants and the severely disabled. How then is personhood determined?
Mary Anne Warren suggests the following criteria for ‘personhood’:

  • Sentience – the ability to have conscious experiences
  • Emotionality – the ability to feel happy, sad, loving
  • Reason – the ability to solve new and complex problems
  • The capacity to communicate
  • Self-awareness – awareness of oneself as an individual and as a member of a social group
  • Moral agency – the ability to regulate one’s actions through moral principles

Warren explains that it is not necessary to have all of these attributes – many people do not meet all the criteria for personhood and are still considered persons. However, a foetus does not have any of these attributes and is not a person (though some do develop in later foetuses (eg the ability to feel pain). One solution is to regard the foetus as a potential person. Looking at the foetus as a potential person removes some of the difficult speculations about when the foetus has a soul or develops consciousness. Nevertheless, Warren rejects ‘potential personhood’ as a basis for giving the foetus a right to life.

Thinking point: how would you define personhood? If a foetus is a potential person, how do we determine when it becomes a potential person? Is it right to judge a foetus by what it might be?

Abortion Law – Men’s Rights

  • Surveys suggest that most decisions to abort are reached by both partners together – in as many as 90% of cases according to some estimates. In their study, published in 1984 (‘Men and Abortion, Lessons, Losses and Love’), Shostak and McLouth found that only 5%  of the 1000 men they surveyed felt they had been forced into the decision. A massive 84%  felt the decision was “a joint resolution of the matter.” This suggests that most of the time couples can reach joint decisions that they are both happy to live with. Disagreement between couples about the decision whether or not to have an abortion is therefore rare and few cases, in the UK at any rate, reach the law courts.
  • The law is very clear on the matter of men’s rights. A man has no legal right to prevent his partner, even if they are married, from having an abortion nor may he force her to have an abortion. The decision rests solely with the woman, provided she can convince two doctors that she meets the criteria laid out under the 1967 Abortion Act as amended by the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.
  • Richard Carver, 24 and a student at Magdalen College, Oxford attempted to prevent his former girlfriend, a 21-year-old woman also studying at Oxford, from having an abortion. He argued that the abortion was unlawful in that the foetus was, in the words of the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act, “capable of being born alive.” At the time of the case, the woman was 21 weeks pregnant. The father, known throughout the case as ‘C’, brought the action in his own right and in the right of the child. The case became known as the ‘C v S’ case. It was one of the quickest in British legal history. It made its way from first hearing in the High Court to an appeal and dismissal by the law lords in about 36 hours. Under normal circumstances, such actions may take years. The result however, was that the woman was deeply affected by the case and had the baby and gave it over to Carver to look after.

Thinking point: Whose rights need to be considered in relation to abortion? Is there a difference between legal rights and moral rights?







Past Questions

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