Mistaking the Part for the Whole: Human Value and the Pro-Life Ethic

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What does it mean to be pro-life?

The term “pro-life” has a narrow meaning in our current context and political discourse. Typically, when we say someone is pro-life we mean that they stand up for the rights of the unborn and oppose abortion.

While being a voice for the unborn is a significant part, that issue alone does not encompass the whole of being pro-life. We must be careful not to mistake the whole for the part.

The scriptures open up our narrowly focused definition, reminding us that all life is precious and should be defended. This is true of the unborn child at the earliest stages of development, a child with special needs, a wayward teenager bent on ruining her life, orphans, the homeless, refugees, immigrants, minorities, the elderly.

What do all of these examples of life have in common? What is the common thread of value that runs between them? The theologically correct answer is that they are each made in the image of God and are the crowning work of his creation. Our society, however, has proposed other bases for the value of human life.

The scriptures remind us that all life is precious and should be defended.

Even though Christians may cognitively believe that humans have life because of the imago Dei, I believe if we dusted for the fingerprints of these alternative bases of value we would be shocked by how scattered they are throughout the Church and within our hearts.

Here are three such models:

1. The Darwinian Model

The Darwinian model says people have value based on what they can and cannot offer to society. Those who have much to offer should be defended and protected, and those who will be a drain must be eliminated so they would not be an undue burden on others.

This model disguises itself under a false mask of compassion. For example, it argues for “quality of life” as a justification for terminating pregnancies of children with disabilities or ending the life of the elderly. It denies any intrinsic value of human life and claims that a person’s worth can be affected by a disability or a lack of functionality as determined by society. The meaning of life is centered on the survival of the fittest.

2. The Humanitarian Model

Those who operate under this model value certain people based on their ability to evoke compassion or pull on heartstrings. One person’s value is based on someone else’s pity.

The problem with this subjective basis is that it extends compassion to some types of people but not others. For example, it’s easy to feel a flood of compassion for an infant starving from hunger or lack of human affection. It’s harder to feel that same sense of compassion for a 15-year-old with disabilities throwing a fit in the back of the movie theater. Some people may have a “heart” for certain groups of people such as refugees or the homeless, while others don’t feel that same sense of compassion for them.

If we base our awareness or affirmation of the value of life on our own sense of pity for them, we are saying that worth is in the eye of the beholder, not intrinsic to the person.

3. The Pharisaical Model

The Pharisaical model bases a person’s worth on their own choices and actions. If they have been responsible, hard-working, good people, they deserve our affirmation of their dignity and worth. If, however, they have messed up their lives through poor decisions and bad habits, they will reap what they have sown and will suffer Karma’s justice. This model generates excuses and justification for overlooking certain people, placing them beneath our care and love.

All of life, from the womb to the tomb, is precious.

What about the Church?

How much have these models actually seeped into our own hearts? Take the Darwinian model. Perhaps we wouldn’t advocate for euthanasia or terminating the pregnancy of an unborn child diagnosed with disabilities, but we do tend to value people based on what he or she has to offer.

James calls out this tendency in our own hearts manifesting itself in the Church. He writes:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘you sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)

What about the Humanitarian model? Though the Lord in his grace does give us compassion for the weak, it is all too easy for the Church to allocate more resources, time and pleading for the rights of those for whom it is easier to feel compassion. We must keep guard over our own hearts lest we begin to root our belief and conviction of others’ worth based on our feelings toward them. Instead, we must affirm a person’s intrinsic value and pray the Lord grants us hearts of compassion for them.

What about the Pharisaical model? Determining a person’s worth based on the choices he or she has made in life is a huge pitfall for American Christians operating under a stronger allegiance to the American Dream than the gospel. We look with pharisaical disdain at the homeless people on the side of the road, certain that they brought their condition on themselves and are therefore beneath our care and respect. We do the same for the high school girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock or the middle-aged man suffering from aids. We position ourselves to aid in the reaping of what we presume they have sown.

Could it be that we are more influenced by alternative models of human value than by the gospel?

Clearly, then, we are tempted in all three areas. When it comes to being pro-life, why is it so easy for us to joyfully and passionately uphold the part and forget about the whole? Could it be that we are actually more heavily influenced by these alternative models of human value than we are by the gospel? We may not realize the traces of these models in our hearts and throughout our Churches, but they are most certainly there.

We must allow the scriptures to shed light on those traces and remind us that all of life, from the womb to the tomb, is precious. The fall corrupted many things, but even it did not take away the imago Dei from us. Our value is not based on what we have to offer, on our ability to evoke pity or on our aptitude to lead a perfect life. This is very good news for all of us.

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Amber Bowen

Amber Bowen holds a PhD in Philosophy (University of Aberdeen) and is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Core Studies at Redeemer University.

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