The Sanctity of Life

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. In retrospect, 2005 ...

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.

In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position became untenable. American conservatives have for several years been in the awkward position of defending a federal funding ban on creating new embryos for research that prevents U.S. scientists from leading an area of biomedical research that could revolutionize the treatment of many common diseases. When they are honest, conservatives acknowledge that giving up some medical advances is simply the price to be paid for doing the right thing.

This year, however, that view became much more uncomfortable. South Korean researchers showed that human stem cells can be cloned by replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of an ordinary cell. The South Korean breakthrough poses a stark challenge to the conservative position. The possibility of cloning from the nucleus of an ordinary cell undermines the idea that embryos are precious because they have the potential to become human beings. Once it becomes clear that every human cell contains the genetic information to create a new human being, the old arguments for preserving "unique" human embryos fade away.

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.

In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position became untenable. American conservatives have for several years been in the awkward position of defending a federal funding ban on creating new embryos for research that prevents U.S. scientists from leading an area of biomedical research that could revolutionize the treatment of many common diseases. When they are honest, conservatives acknowledge that giving up some medical advances is simply the price to be paid for doing the right thing.

This year, however, that view became much more uncomfortable. South Korean researchers showed that human stem cells can be cloned by replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of an ordinary cell. The South Korean breakthrough poses a stark challenge to the conservative position. The possibility of cloning from the nucleus of an ordinary cell undermines the idea that embryos are precious because they have the potential to become human beings. Once it becomes clear that every human cell contains the genetic information to create a new human being, the old arguments for preserving "unique" human embryos fade away.

The year 2005 is also significant, at least in the United States, for ratcheting up the debate about the care of patients in a persistent vegetative state. The long legal battle over the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube led President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress to intervene, both seeking to keep her alive. Yet the American public surprised many pundits by refusing to support this intervention, and the case produced a surge in the number of people declaring they did not wish to be kept alive in a situation such as Schiavo’s.

Technology will drive this debate. As the sophistication of techniques for producing images of soft tissue increases, we will be able to determine with a high degree of certainty that some living, breathing human beings have suffered such severe brain damage that they will never regain consciousness. In these cases, with the hope of recovery gone, families and loved ones will usually understand that even if the human organism is still alive, the person they loved has ceased to exist. Hence, a decision to remove the feeding tube will be less controversial, for it will be a decision to end the life of a human body, but not of a person.

As we approach 2040, the Netherlands and Belgium will have had decades of experience with legalized euthanasia, and other jurisdictions will also have permitted either voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide for varying lengths of time. This experience will puncture exaggerated fears that the legalization of these practices would be a first step toward a new holocaust. By then, an increasing proportion of the population in developed countries will be more than 75 years old and thinking about how their lives will end. The political pressure for allowing terminally or chronically ill patients to choose when to die will be irresistible.

When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven 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. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person — that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness — does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die.

Peter Singer is professor at Princeton University and the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

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