I was in my teens when the move to legalize abortion in New York State stirred private and public debates on the topic and precipitated my own interest in defending the unborn’s right to life. Over time assisted suicide joined the list of pro-life issues, as state legislatures began voting on right-to-die laws. So for me as for many of our readers, the right to life, “from conception to natural death,” has not been a recent or marginal concern, but a decades-long struggle on many fronts. Despite the pro-life movement’s increasingly comprehensive crisis pregnancy activities to support women in need of help, much of pro-life energy and attention has naturally been directed at the courts and legislatures who chose to endanger the unborn in the first place. In our American historical and political context, with its rights-based justification for our nation’s existence expressed in the Declaration of Independence and its guarantee of personal liberties in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the rights-based approach to defending innocent human life has always seemed, as our Founders would have phrased it, “self-evident.”
And yet, however useful, legitimate, and, well, American it is to focus on our inherent right to life in debate and in legislative and judicial pro-life undertakings, there is something less than satisfying, something incomplete, in a purely rights-based defense of the human person. Limiting ourselves to that seems, however pragmatic and necessary in many contexts, to reduce the pro-life message to “the truth, but not the whole truth.”
That “whole truth” has become more apparent over the years with the growth of political and social movements for euthanasia and assisted suicide. For assisted suicide—perhaps more than any other life issue—demonstrates the insufficiency of leaning too exclusively on rights-based argument.
Because we know that there are people at life’s end who no longer value that right for themselves. They do not wish to stand upon that right, which in painful or very difficult circumstances feels more like a burden. They would rather sell that right, as a 17th century indentured servant would sell his freedom for paid passage to America. Instead of traveling to the New World, however, those pursuing the right to assisted suicide seek passage out of this world.
It’s useful to consider Socrates’ take on this question. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, a friend asks Socrates why suicide should not be permitted, since true philosophers (like Socrates himself) would prefer to pass sooner rather than later from the obscurities, passions, and constraints of our mortal existence into the presumed philosophical clarity of the hereafter. He replies:
There is a doctrine uttered in secret that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door of his prison and run away; this is a great mystery which I don’t understand. Yet I, too, believe that the gods are our guardians and that we are a possession of theirs . . . . And if one of your own possessions, an ox or an ass, for example, took the liberty of putting himself out of the way when you had given no intimation of your wish that he should die, would you not be angry with him, and would you not punish him if you could? . . . Then there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is summoning me [through the death penalty that had already been pronounced on him].
Socrates’ argument against suicide is essentially the reverse of the “right to die” argument—we are in fact not our own, we are in the service of the one who made us, and the gods would be rightly angry with anyone who withdrew from this service for personal reasons.
And this has been the traditional argument against suicide: that we are not free, autonomous, self-defining people with the authority to decide our own term of life, but are subjects of our Creator, placed here for purposes we imperfectly apprehend. In fact, it is precisely because we cannot see clearly here that we cannot be sure it would be better for us to die. Regardless, however, to withdraw before (as Socrates puts it) we are “called” is equivalent to desertion.
Now, many of those who are elderly or in chronic mental or emotional pain or severely handicapped may find it hard to think of assisted suicide as a cowardly, selfish, or disobedient act. For the very infirm, situated in nursing homes or struggling with health conditions and running out of money to support themselves, assisted suicide can wear the disguise of the unselfish act, the act of a generous person giving up a seat in a resource-limited lifeboat. “I don’t want to be a burden,” we have all heard older or dependent people say. This is not the language of rights.
A purely rights-based pro-life approach does not comfortably accommodate these kinds of situations, though it does a better job of addressing those whose deaths are being hastened against their will, and those whose legal right to life is being challenged because others deem their quality of life to be too poor. The problem is that the rights we are defending, though acknowledged in our Declaration as deriving from God, are increasingly untethered in people’s minds from their divine origins. And it is only by acknowledging these divine origins that we can also recognize when we are impinging on the rights—or prerogatives—of God.
And these divine prerogatives also govern life’s almost invisible beginnings. In the legal and legislative arenas, of course rights talk will always predominate as the means by which we seek to protect the unborn. But after a half century of legalized abortion, we can see that even the overturning of Roe v. Wade will advance the cause of the unborn only so far unless we also succeed in overturning pro-choice minds and hearts. And it is hard to convert the hearts of pro-choicers who view abortion in terms of competing rights, because in their view we are valuing the unborn’s rights over theirs. Viewed from that lens, “rights” conflicts appear to be a zero-sum game.
In short, rights-based arguments reach natural limits, because (as we see on all kinds of fronts) rights collide. A prominent and contentious example of this over the past two years has been the rights-based battles during the Covid-19 pandemic over shutdowns, mask-wearing, and vaccine mandates. But battles over whose rights should have priority are hardly restricted to Covid.
Perhaps the greater weakness of rights talk for our defense of the unborn, the aged, and the disabled is the limited ability of rights-framed conversations to convey the meaning and significance of the human person. We often use the phrase “sanctity of human life” to capture this transcendent significance, but the foundation for that sacred status is unclear unless we consider the obvious questions, “sanctified by whom? sanctified how? sanctified for what?”
Any intimation of sacredness in the human person, from the moment it is a zygote, emanates not from our human gifts and abilities or from any sentimental species-specific self-love, but from how, in our individual and human history, we are viewed and valued by our Creator.
Unbelievers who are pro-life can focus their defense of the unborn on aspects of human exceptionalism—those things that set us apart from other units of the cosmos, including other living things. These include self-consciousness, intelligence, and the like. Or they may concede the power of our tribal identification with members of our own species and our common instinct to privilege our own above members of other species. But though they can be persuasive to some fellow unbelievers, these seem to me to be limited and ultimately self-refuting approaches.
Socrates spent only a small amount of time in the Phaedo delving into the morality of suicide, perhaps because he had that quickly exhausted his knowledge of what the gods might have to say on the subject. In our Western Christian tradition, on the other hand, we have reason to regard the unborn, the young, the disabled, the powerless, and the very old with a kind of awed contemplation. We know that they are extreme examples—living parables—of our own relative powerlessness, despite the accomplishments of human history. Hence they wring from us the admission that we do not “earn” the right to life, just as we do not earn God’s love, since it was God who first made us capable of loving and doing, and since (as 1 John 4:7 reminds us), “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us.”
The developing child revealed in the sonogram photo, the toddler taking his first steps, the adolescent seeking answers to life’s questions, the elderly awaiting life’s end—all share in this mysterious sanctity of life because they all share in life as something given to us (whether or not we always feel it to be a comfortable gift). In our interactions with one another we can legitimately lay claim to life as a right, along with all the other fundamental human rights we defend. But a solely horizontal and earth-bound view of our rights as human beings living among other humans will never suffice to explain us to ourselves—or to each other. To pretend otherwise, to ignore the vertical dimension of the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” is to succumb to a self-administered amnesia that deprives us of knowing where we came from and where we are going.