Bioethics News

Is “sanctity of life” a useful concept?

In increasingly heated debates over abortion and euthanasia, pro-lifers cling doggedly to the concept of “the sanctity of life”. This has been under attack for years by utilitarian philosophers, notably Princeton’s Peter Singer. In a 2005 article Singer went so far as to contend that “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, it 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.”

You might think that Singer’s withering prediction would be countered with a robust defence by Catholic bioethicists. However, in a controversial article in The New Bioethics, David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, in the UK, suggests that the term “sanctity of life” is so woolly that it should be scrapped. He says that Singer and others are attacking a straw man created by his buddies. “The connotations of this language are part of a deliberate attempt to distract from fundamental issues of justice, solidarity and human rights and falsely to imply that the legal protection which is due to vulnerable human beings is based only on religious sentiment.”

In a very interesting analysis of the term, Jones points out that Christian philosophers and theologians almost never used the term until the 1970s. It was only with the publication in 1957 of a book by Welsh legal scholar Glanville Williams, The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law, that it gained currency.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.